Haverfordwest County are back in Europe for the first time since 2004, after a 4-3 penalty shoot-out victory over Newtown at Latham Park in the JD Cymru Premier European play-off final on Saturday.
Corey Shephard netted the decisive spot-kick to spark jubilant scenes from the travelling Bluebirds supporters, who arrived in mid Wales in huge numbers to witness history being made.
In front of an impressive crowd of 1,826 – the highest in the JD Cymru Premier this season – the game had ended 1-1 after 90 minutes, with Jordan Davies’ goal cancelled out by Aaron Williams. Clear-cut opportunities were few and far between, but on the whole the Town played the better football on the day and were worthy winners.
Following his heroics in the semi-final – which saw him save a penalty in normal time, and two more in the shoot-out – goalkeeper Zac Jones came to the fore once again with another save, before midfielder Shephard booked County’s place in next season’s UEFA Europa Conference League qualifiers.
Manager Tony Pennock named the same starting 11 that overcame Cardiff Metropolitan in the semi-final, with the only change coming on the substitutes bench, where Fawcett came in for Elliott Dugan.
The Bluebirds settled into the game well, seeing most of the ball in the early stages, and they were almost presented with a good opportunity when goalkeeper Dave Jones took too long to clear his lines from a back pass, and Dan Hawkins managed to blocked his attempted clearance, but the ball rolled kindly to the feet of defender Shane Sutton.
Pennock’s side were looking the more composed in what were challenging conditions in sunny Powys, and seven minutes later they took the lead when Robins captain Craig Williams failed to deal with a ball into the area from Town skipper Dylan Rees, and it looped up kindly for Davies, who was in the right place to direct it past Jones and send the away fans into raptures.
Chris Hughes’ side knew they needed to respond if they were to avoid the game being taken out of their grasp, and they did just that seven minutes before half-time when Craig Williams’ cross from the right flank picked out namesake Aaron, who rose highest to head home at the far post and draw the home team level.
County were keen to start the second-half in similar fashion to how they came out of the traps in the first, however it was the hosts who had the first opportunity after the restart when Jake Walker’s through ball played Zeli Ismail in, and the winger cut onto his right foot before seeing his shot from inside the area pushed to safety by Jones. From the same attack, Nick Rushton put his effort from similar range just over the crossbar.
With the hour mark approaching, Shephard saw his well-struck effort from 25 yards out – which looked to be heading on target – cleared to safety by the head of Sutton.
While the Bluebirds were content to keep hold of the ball when they could, they were also more than happy to play on the counter at times, and this method very nearly brought them a second goal as a defence-splitting pass from Shephard played Jack Wilson in, and the wing-back’s inviting ball across the face of goal just evaded the arriving Davies – with any contact likely to have resulted in a goal.
With neither team wanting to make a mistake late on in the contest, clear-cut opportunities from this point on were unsurprisingly few and far between. However, there was to be one more, and it fell the way of the Bluebirds as an exquisite reverse pass from Henry Jones played Wilson through one-on-one, but his first-time effort went over the bar.
The tension was understandably high during extra time, and in truth there was very little to write home about as both teams were clearly feeling the effects of over 100 minutes of action in the sweltering heat.
That said, there was a brief moment where the Town might have thought they had retaken the lead when, on the 100-minute mark, substitute Ioan Evans’ left-footed curling effort from the right edge of the area was heading for the top left corner, however Jones got across in time to gather.
There were no further chances for either team in the final 15 minutes of their respective seasons, although substitute George Hughes’ last-ditch sliding tackle did prevent Shephard from getting a shot away from the edge of the area.
And so, for the second time in as many weeks, Pennock’s men headed to a penalty shoot-out. Skipper Rees was successful in the coin toss, ensuring his side would be shooting at the end of the ground where the Bluebirds supporters had gathered throughout the game.
Having landed a psychological blow before the spot-kicks began, County got off to the dream start when Aaron Williams sent the opening penalty straight at Zac Jones, before Rees converted to make it 1-0.
Craig Williams was second for the Robins, and his effort found the left corner to get his team on the board, before Jack Leahy sent Jones the wrong way to make it 2-1.
Callum Roberts drew the Robins level with the third spot-kick, but the Town’s lead was restored when Davies sent the ball the same way as Leahy.
With the end of the shoot-out drawing ever nearer, both teams knew that a mistake could prove costly, and, crucially, it was Chris Hughes’ side who fluffed their lines for a second time when Henry Cowans dragged his effort wide of the left post.
This error gave Fawcett – who was playing for the first time since returning from illness – the chance to clinch victory. However, Jones guessed correctly and denied the striker.
Despite this, Nigel Aris still needed to score with his side’s fifth penalty to keep their hopes alive, and he did just that to prolong the drama.
The responsibility now fell to Shephard, who had the opportunity to create history, and just as Dugan had done a week prior, he kept his composure to find the left corner and spark wild scenes, ending the Bluebirds’ 19-year wait for a return to European competition.
Newtown: D. Jones, Sears, Sutton, C. Williams (C), M. Jones (Roberts 85′), Cowans, Rushton (Hughes 71′), Walker, Ismail (Aris 91′), Robles (Torry 116′), A. Williams
Substitutes not used: M. Williams, Mills-Evans, Taylor
Yellow card: Sears 120+2′
Haverfordwest County: Z. Jones, Wilson (Fawcett 105′), Rees (C), Jenkins, Borg (Watts 54′), Abbruzzese, Shephard, Veale (Leahy 78′), H. Jones (Evans 86′), J. Davies, Hawkins
Substitutes not used: Idzi, Humphreys, H. John