Anthony Limbrick had a sharp introduction to the domestic game in Wales as The New Saints finished second to Connah's Quay Nomads in the JD Cymru Premier just weeks after his appointment as head coach.
But while Andy Morrison and his Nomads side prepare for another crack at the UEFA Champions League after the manager reiterated his commitment to continuing his story with the champions, Limbrick is already planning for his first taste of competitive action on the continent as The New Saints enter the new UEFA Conference League.
Over the last three seasons, The New Saints have progressed through the opening round of the UEFA Champions League qualifiers once, and have repeated the feat twice in the UEFA Europa League. Eliminating teams from Gibraltar, Kosovo and Slovakia, Limbrick has a squad used to tasting relative European success, and the disappointment of losing out on the title for a second time will fuel a need to make a big impression on the new competition this summer.
Continuity had been a cornerstone to The New Saints success prior to the pandemic, but having once again finished second to the Nomads a bigger turnover of players than usual at Park Hall is expected to start in the coming weeks. Limbrick has had a number of games since his appointment at the start of April to assess his squad, and he will be keen to make his mark on his team moving forward.
Conceding goals in the final moments resulted in The New Saints and Connah's Quay Nomads being knocked-out of the Europa League in cruel circumstances last season. An injury-time equaliser in extra-time from Stefan Radosavljevic for B36 Torshavn snatched victory from the Saints hands and turned it into a penalty shoot-out defeat, while the Nomads' defence failed to stop Dinamo Tbilisi seven minutes into stoppage time after holding the side from the Georgian capital to lose 1-0 seconds before the final whistle.
The memories of those defeats will quickly return as the two teams turn their attentions back to European football after one of the most competitive seasons in the history of the domestic top-flight. Both sides will be stronger mentally for the experience, and both sides will be keen to use the coming weeks to strengthen things on the field. Like any new campaign, a fresh start brings with it a positivity and optimism over what could be achieved, but this summer brings more reason to believe than ever before.
At some point, Connah's Quay Nomads are also likely to find themselves in new Conference League next season once their Champions League journey comes to an end, and the opportunity to compete on a more level playing field than in the later qualifying rounds of the Europa League is an opportunity they will be desperate to make the most of. Like The New Saints, it offers a chance to take a another significant step forward in terms of European results.
Of course, there is no guarantee that either club will achieve more success in the new competition, and their opponents will also see the opportunity that it presents in the same way. The two clubs will be joined by Bala Town and the winners of the JD Cymru Premier play-offs, and there is a real belief that this addition to the calendar of European competition will mark the start of a new era for our clubs in Europe.
European results have traditionally dictated the general public perception of the national league, and the profile of the domestic game remains in desperate need of a results-based boost on the continent to engage a positive reaction in the national media. Respect is building slowly but surely, but the stigma of the past requires a significant summer of European performances to finally exorcise the heavy defeats that haunt the progress that has been made on and off the field.
The pandemic has hit our clubs hard, and the measures that were taken to ensure every fixture was completed despite no fans being able to attend a single match is testament to the volunteers involved with each club. Implementing the strict safety protocols would not have been possible without them. Hopefully, it will be possible for fans to watch the start of the 2021/22 season in person, and that it starts with some positive results on the Europe stage.
Connah's Quay Nomads will discover their opponents in the opening qualifying round of the UEFA Champions League when the draw is made on 15 June. The draw for the 1st qualifying round of the UEFA Conference League involving The New Saints, Bala Town and the winners of the play-offs will take place on the same day.