Cardiff Met: Students ready for European adventure after play-off win

By Aled WilliamsBBC Sport Wales
Cardiff Met players celebrate their win over Bala Town
Cardiff Metropolitan were promoted to the Welsh Premier League at the start of the 2016-17 season

They are mostly studying for PhDs and Masters and some of the players had exams to worry about, but that did not stop Cardiff Met from qualifying for the Europa League.

After losing a play-off in successive seasons, the students sealed a dramatic penalty shoot-out win over Bala Town in the Welsh Premier League play-off final.

It means they will play in the Europa League preliminary round at the end of June, and could face Premier League sides Wolves or Manchester United if they progress in the competition.

They will receive £193,000 for qualifying, but their players will not be rewarded with a generous bonus for reaching Europe for the first time in the club's history.

Instead they will still have to pay £150 in membership fees if they want to play their part and that is on top of worrying about course work and assignments.

It is the same case for Cardiff Met Women, whose success this season has ensured them a place in the Champions League qualifiers.

"For a lot of people out there they can't comprehend the players paying to play," Cardiff Met men's manager Christian Edwards said.

Edwards must be the only manager in the Europa League who has the mantra of "study comes first, football is secondary".

"No one is pushed into signing for us - they sign for us because they know the implicit rules," he continued.

"They know before they come to the football club what it takes to be part of us.

"They see an added value of that dual career athlete where they can have an education and still play sport at a high level and that fits in with what they do.

"We develop them as young men to have good career prospects and that they play football at as high a standard that they want.

"We won't be able to pay the players, but what we offer them then is an opportunity to play European football and that will be our unique selling point."

Indeed, not many teams can offer a potential showdown with Wolverhampton Wanderers or Manchester United as a cherry on top.

Christian Edwards
Christian Edwards won his only senior Wales cap against Switzerland in 1996

The Archers' seventh spot in the Welsh Premier League secured a place in the end of season play-off and they won 3-2 at Caernarfon Town in the semi-finals to secure their place in the final.

The climax to the Welsh Premier League season coincided with the final weeks of the academic year, with players having to balance their studies with the pursuit of European football.

"Most of the team is made up of postgraduate students, who don't have exams, but they still have assignments that needed to be submitted," added Dr Edwards, a senior lecturer in sports coaching at the university and a former Wales international footballer.

"A couple of the younger lads did have exams, but they've time managed that well and that's credit to them because it would be easy just to focus on the football.

"But they've got a good balance in what to do and what comes first and ultimately it's to study and football is secondary.

"But in the last few days you can't help but think that the football has come first because of the nature of the game and what's happened."

Elliott Evans scored the winning penalty at Bala to secure Met's European spot and conclude a successful season in which they had already won the Nathaniel MG Cup earlier in the campaign.

"As soon as that ball hit the back of the net it was pandemonium," said Edwards.

"There was excitement, relief and brilliant for everyone concerned. It's been madness since and the phone and emails haven't stopped."

Twelve months earlier Edwards had cut a dejected figure following Met's 1-0 defeat by Cefn Druids, which had come a year after another 1-0 loss against Bangor City.

Former Swansea City, Nottingham Forest and Bristol Rovers defender Edwards admits defeat against Druids had "hit them hard".

"I know some of the boys struggled over the summer months last year," Edwards said.

"Some of the staff also struggled to comprehend and could they give the same effort that they did for that season again this year.

"For myself it was probably two days that I thought we have to do it again and can't give it all up."

"Within the first couple of days of pre-season I could see the hunger and desire was there and it's turned out to be a really successful season with the Nathaniel MG Cup and winning the play-off.

"It's brilliant for the boys and brilliant for the football club and university as well."

One million goal views

Cardiff Met will be the first British university men's side to play in European competition and Edwards says play-off final success has attracted interest from further afield.

"The exposure for the university and the football club is massive," Edwards said.

"I noticed Elliott Evans' winning penalty has been viewed over one million times so that in itself is a marketing strategy for the university.

"My emails have been hot over the last couple of days. I've had emails from the Czech Republic, the Far East and seen headlines in newspapers in Germany, Spain and France.

Bala Town v Cardiff Met
Cardiff Met had lost in the previous two Welsh Premier Europa League play-off finals

"We're wide and far at the moment in where the University is touching and that's the beauty of sport."

Edwards' side are the second team from the University to qualify for Europe next season with the women's team also heading for a European adventure.

Kerry Harris' side did not lose a single game as they won the treble.

"Kerry and the girls beat everyone put before them and it's testimony to the hard work they put in," Edwards said.

"It's brilliant for a university that has traditionally been a rugby university, to have two football teams playing in Europe is not only unprecedented here in Wales, but the UK and probably Europe.

"It's a great summer of football for the men's and women's teams and it just goes to showcase Cardiff Met as a football institution that's firmly on the map."