Manager Tony Pennock has urged his Haverfordwest County players to harness their collective abilities and give the best they can ahead of tomorrow’s European play-off final against Newtown.
The Bluebirds will do battle with the Robins for the JD Cymru Premier’s fourth and final European place, with the winner entering next season’s UEFA Europa Conference League qualifying at the first round stage.
Following their dramatic penalty shoot-out win over Cardiff Metropolitan last Saturday, the Town have given themselves a chance of reaching Europe for the first time in two decades. Newtown, meanwhile, overcame Bala Town 4-2 at Maes Tegid.
Speaking ahead of the game, Pennock reflected on last week’s victory, as well as summing up his first season in charge at the Ogi Bridge Meadow and outlining what a win tomorrow would mean for the club.
“Obviously Saturday was a big result for us,” he began. “It was a really tough game, but we showed good character and determination, especially later on when Met got strong in fairness to them, but we managed to get through.”
Zac Jones was the hero for County as he saved Eliot Evans’ penalty in normal time, before making a vital save late in extra time and saving a further two spot-kicks in a tense shoot-out.
The New Zealander’s display of course pleased Pennock, but it was made extra special by the fact that the manager was a goalkeeper himself in his playing days.
“Zac was on a high from the first penalty save,” he continued. “And I said to the boys before the shoot-out that he’s going to save at least one, so just make your decision, be positive and whatever happens, happens. Obviously Zac went on and saved the first two, which put us in a great position, and we were able to see it through.”
The manager was quick to praise the efforts of Cardiff Met, who made it very tough for the Bluebirds and have had a very impressive campaign.
“Met have been excellent this season. It’s a long old season, and you don’t finish fourth by luck. It’s a 32-game season, and in the last game they were in the mix to finish third.
“Obviously Penybont ended up beating Newtown, but halfway through that game Met were third and Penybont were fourth.
“I know Met will be disappointed, but they’ve had a fantastic season and Ryan, his staff and the players shouldn’t be too disappointed – they should realise they’ve had a fantastic year and they should be proud of their achievement.”
Saturday’s game will mark the end of a rollercoaster season for County, one which Pennock has been right at the heart of, and he admits it hasn’t always been plain sailing.
“It’s been tough at times, I’m not going to lie,” he explained. “Pre-season was a bit disjointed really, as things were already in place when I got here, but the boys worked hard and started brightly.
“But after we lost that game away at Penybont, we went on a bit of a negative run then. Other teams have had it as well, but we’ve had a lot of injuries this year. We need to look at why, as we haven’t had many injuries during games, they’ve been sort of historic injuries, and that hasn’t helped us.
“But as the boys have got fitter, as the season has gone on and people have got back to playing more regularly, it’s no shock that we’ve had the run that we’ve had in the last 11 games of the season, winning seven, drawing two and then obviously beating Met on the weekend.
“Momentum’s been good, confidence has been good and the competition for places is tough now, whereas for a lot of the season the team picked itself really, which isn’t a position we always wanted to be in.”
“I think sometimes the lads don’t realise how well we can play… All we want the boys to do is play with freedom.”
Asked if he is able to highlight a significant turning point in the season, he is quick to pinpoint the pair of away victories over Flint Town United, which helped the Bluebirds push on into the position we ultimately find ourselves in today.
“When we kicked off at Flint earlier in the season, we were in the bottom two, but we went and beat Flint and then went on a good run, picked up points and ended up finishing seventh in Phase One.
“But, even then, when we played Flint away in Phase Two, if we hadn’t come away from there with three points, or even a draw, then we would have been right in the mix of the bottom two again. But the lads showed great determination, and we had a good win up there that day.
“I thought we were excellent that day to win two nil, and then we finished the phase seven games unbeaten, showing that consistency we’ve been aiming for all season. We found it towards the back end of the season, which was extremely pleasing for all of us.”
While the wins over the Silkmen were crucial, the hard-fought victory away at Aberystwyth Town in March was also a moment Pennock was keen to mention.
“Having lost away at Pontypridd in Phase Two, we went away to Aberystwyth in the next game and knew how tough it was going to be.
“We’d lost there earlier in the season, but to go there that day and – I thought – deserve the 1-0 win and to keep a clean sheet, we looked strong.
“We limited them to two chances that day, and I thought that was a big turning point as, from then on, we were unbeaten, and that’s continued into the play-offs so far.
“Hopefully it can continue on Saturday, but we know it’s going to be tough against a Newtown team who have beaten us twice this season. They’re a very good side, good manager, good coaches, and they’ve got a lot of experience in their side.”
As performances began to improve and the results started to come with them, the confidence in the group was also clearly on the up, and Pennock thinks it’s important for the players to remember just how capable they are.
“I think sometimes the lads don’t realise how well we can play.
“We see it in training, myself, Gary [Richards], Devs [James Devonald] and Mickey [Ellis], that’s all we want the boys to do is play with freedom.
“We all have moments, football is an emotional game, but when the boys do the things they’re good at, they’re a very good side, and we’ll be looking to do that on Saturday.
“Irrespective of the outcome, we’re going to give the best we can.
“We’ve got nothing to fear. We know they’re a very good side, so we’ll go there and hopefully we can perform to the level that we know the boys can, and if that’s the case then it’ll be a close game I think.”
With a fantastic uptake on tickets for the match, which are free for everyone following a mutual agreement between both clubs, the Bluebirds know they will be backed by a sizeable away following, and Pennock was keen to thank everyone who has turned out to cheer the team throughout the season.
“The fans have been fantastic all season, home and away, and for us to be taking over 300 people up to Newtown on the weekend is fantastic.
“It just shows the backing that we’ve had and the support the boys have been given, and we all appreciate it, myself, the staff, the board, it’s a massive team effort.
“Everybody connected to the club plays their part and, hopefully, we can do the job on Saturday.”