In October, Connah’s Quay propped up the Welsh Premier League. Fast-forward nine months and they’ve won their first ever European tie – and with it a windfall worth 400,000 Euros.
Last Thursday, the part-time Nomads knocked Norwegian side FK Staebek out of the Europa League 1-0 on aggregate after a famous performance led to slender victory in Scandinavia.
The little-known club – average attendance 197 – became only the ninth Welsh team to win over two legs in Europe. They are now quietly fancied by some to topple TNS, the Welsh Premier’s only professional outfit, who last year won their ninth title in 12 years and fifth consecutive crown.
While Connah’s Quay are bankrolled by businessman Gary Dewhurst, whose company Gap Personnel sponsors the club, the mastermind of the meteoric rise from relegation candidates to European conquerors is former Manchester City defender Andy Morrison, who took the managerial reins in the autumn with the simple remit of keeping the Nomads afloat.
“That was the first task, to keep the club in the division. The two teams who were down with us on the same points were both relegated, but for us things just seem to have gone right from there,” the 45-year-old told Planet Football.
“I’m just about coming back down to Earth, but we have to get back to reality because we’ve got the next round this week. It’s been bedlam, but it’s been incredible.
“My name’s down as the manager, so I get the credit, but none of this would’ve been possible if it wasn’t for my staff and players around me. I can’t speak highly enough of them. Everyone has bought into what I’m about and I’m just so proud of what we’ve achieved.”
Morrison, a fearsome leader and take-no-prisoners centre-back in his playing days, is revered by City fans for dragging his side “kicking and screaming” – to quote manager Joe Royle – out of England’s third tier in 1999. After three and a half years with Andy Preece at Connah’s Quay’s local rivals Airbus UK Broughton, culminating in an acrimonious exit last summer, Morrison is flying solo for the first time.
Tom Norris is deputy sports editor at the Wrexham Leader newspaper and has covered both sides in the Welsh Premier League for nearly 10 years.
“Jock was almost the man in the shadows at Airbus, but it was a trip to Latvia for their Europa League game with Ventpsils in 2013 that I realised the impact he had.
“People often see him shouting on a touchline and perhaps think he rules with fear, but the players respect him because he absolutely knows his stuff and they know the type of player he was.
“Danny Harrison (current Nomads’ midfielder, ex-Tranmere Rovers), said just this week that he provides as detailed a plan as he has had in his whole career, and this is with a part-time team.
“The players see the plan and follow him 100% – they would run through brick walls for him.”
Three hours of the kind of defensive discipline and desire that so embodied Morrison the player saw his part-time side keep two clean sheets against Staebek, who finished third in the Norwegian Tippeligaen last season. The defeat against the Nomads, who were 25/1 with the bookmakers, cost Morrison’s fellow Scot – former Blackburn midfielder Billy McKinlay – the manager’s job.
“Possession-wise, they dominated the two games, but they barely had a shot on goal. Tactically, we dominated the tie – we completely stifled them,” said Morrison. “They were high-fiving each other when they got us in the draw in Geneva, they were elated because everybody wants a Welsh team.
“I’m still baffled that we were 25/1, but I used it to tell the lads: ‘They think you’re a pub team, let’s go and ram those odds down their throats.’ They definitely underestimated us, but they were very gracious afterwards and congratulated the lads. There were a lot of nice comments.”
Andrew Lincoln, of independent website welsh-premier.com, said: “The Nomads’ performance ranks as one of the best – if not the best – by a Welsh Premier club in Europe. Not only did they beat a team with a much higher club and country coefficient, and who are also in mid-season, but they became the first WPL side to keep a clean sheet in both legs of a European tie.
“It’s good for the profile of the league and every positive result helps raise the coefficient for Welsh clubs participating in the Champions League and Europa League. Andy Morrison’s impact in such a short time has been sensational, considering the club were rock bottom when he arrived.”
Dewhurst is proud “to play a small part in putting Connah’s Quay on the European football map”, and believes there’s more to come for gap Connah’s Quay Nomads, to give the club its full title, while ‘Jock’ is at the helm.
“One of the qualities we looked for when we started the recruitment process for a new manager was a winning mentality and European football experience. Andy stood out in both respects,” he said.
“To continue our progress, our primary aim is to qualify for Europe again and we have invested accordingly. It’s more than possible with the squad we’ve assembled.”
The Nomads now face FK Vojvodina of Serbia in the Europa League second qualifying round, with the first leg away on Thursday night (July 14), and Morrison isn’t ready to stop dreaming yet.
“We know how difficult it will be, but we’ll be ready, and if we come up short it won’t be for lack of desire,” he said. “Nothing is impossible – we’ve shown that already.”
By David Goodban