BARRY Town United will on Thursday night play UEFA Europa League football, realising a dream many will have considered beyond the realm of possibility, even a few short seasons ago, writes Ashley Cox.

Opponents Cliftonville will pose a stern test in the evening's first leg at Leckwith Stadium; the NIFL Premiership play-off winners coming to Wales with full intent of taking a result across the Irish Sea.

Kick-off is at 6.30pm with tickets available online from the FAW ticket site until 11am on Thursday. Supporters can then collect between 11am and 5pm from the Cardiff City Stadium Ticket Office, which will also be selling tickets on the day between those hours for what is a ticket-only fixture.

Meanwhile, Barry have been given 300 tickets for the second leg at Solitude, Belfast on July 4th, with members and season ticket holders able to purchase two each on Friday at Jenner Park (4pm-8pm) and the remainder on general sale on Saturday (12pm-6pm) to those with proof of booked travel.

In the build-up to Thursday’s match, various tales of European nights of yesteryear have been shared, from Mike Cosslett driving a fire engine to Jenner Park for the famous encounter with Aberdeen, to six-year old Kayne McLaggon scaling the walls for a glimpse of the Euro action.

This Thursday and next, McLaggon and his Town teammates have their inaugural opportunity to etch their names in the club’s European history books; a place where Richard Jones’ sumptuous strike at Pittodrie, Eifion Williams’ headed equaliser against Dynamo Kiev and Lee Phillips’ historic winner in Baku, Azerbaijan continue to resonate with a host of Town supporters, old and young.

Including their wins over Dinaburg, Budapest Vasutas and, notoriously, FC Porto, Thursday’s fixture will be Barry’s 25th European matchday in the space of 25 years, yet few statistics could be more misleading, given the club’s long and arduous struggle to return to this eminent stage.

In July 2003, Adebayo Akinfenwa and his Town teammates left Europe with their heads held high, winning 2-1 against Vardar Skopje at Jenner Park, albeit after a decisive 3-0 defeat in Macedonia.

By the end of August, any European dreams seemed a million miles away. Indeed, only the intervention of Vale of Glamorgan Premier winners N and M Construction and a handful of local league colleagues ensured plummeting Town could continue on with their domestic campaign.

Like an ailing, punch-drunk heavyweight boxer, Barry would endure blow after blow, reluctantly surrendering their Welsh Premier League crown and ambling on to relegation, with the loss of multiple managers and fan favourite players hindering any chances of a highly-unlikely return.

Meanwhile, matters behind the scenes had taken the relationship between club and supporters to a near-irreparable degree, with a controversial rebranding preceding an 18-month stint at Treforest’s White Tips Stadium, an attempt at a fan-run breakaway side and an absolute litany of further chaos.

It was Chinese philosopher and renowned Welsh football enthusiast Sun Tzu, in his seminal work ‘The Art of War’, who famously noted, “In the midst of chaos, there is opportunity”.

For a young Gavin Chesterfield, Barry’s seemingly-annual nadir provided a golden opportunity to seize the helm at this once-proud football club; a club he perceived to still have much potential.

Assistant Cosslett recently confided that on meeting this “spotty, youth” at Jenner Park in the summer of 2007, he thought that his plans for a European return were nothing short of mad.

Picking up the pieces in Division Two of the Welsh League, Chesterfield’s task was a sizeable one; not only to restore Barry’s battered confidence, not only to change the destiny of a team that appeared in freefall, but to negotiate the intricately-complex circumstances that dictated the club’s situation.

Promotion in Chesterfield’s first season was an ideal start, bringing welcome respite to the few weary souls there to see it. Few though would have anticipated the momentum built from here.

By 2013, Barry were a force in Welsh League Division One and having slowly re-built and re-engaged its fanbase, the team came a handful of goals from European qualification, losing 2-1 to Prestatyn in the Welsh Cup semi-final, when victory and another for TNS would have secured a European berth.

However, instead of being a platform for future successes, Barry’s flirtation with a European return looked set to be one of the club’s final fixtures of any kind, with the club’s then-owner moving to pull the plug, in spite of the team being funded and run by the supporters and their own company.

Make no mistake; Barry’s 100-year existence was in the gravest jeopardy it had ever encountered.

Ultimately, a legal wrangle with the Football Association of Wales secured a reprieve for Barry under fan-ownership, albeit at a level now two divisions lower than where the team had previously played.

Undeterred, this setback was used as a catalyst, with fresh support attracted to the club through all its well-publicised struggles and a handful of trophies quickly bagged in Divisions Three and Two.

It took two further seasons for Barry to make the biggest leap, to the Welsh Premier League itself, with supporters and sponsors taking up the roles to strengthen the club’s structure off the field.

Chesterfield had set the club five years to achieve this feat, an achievement now realised in four.

Quickly, the targets would shift, from survival, to a top six spot, to a tilt at Europe via the play-offs.

Though their first season back in Wales’ top flight failed to reap these rewards, Barry hit the ground running in their second campaign, leading the league at Christmas and securing third place in April.

Now, Town prepare for Europe again, with so many players integral to this emotional journey back.

With local lads like McLaggon, Curtis Watkins and Drew Fahiya handed a precious chance to emulate Barry’s European heroes of yesterday, the likes of Paul Morgan, Lewis Cosslett and Troy Greening have all been part of Barry’s team when it looked like there might not be a team at all.

Joining them for the next chapter are the returning Callum Sainty and promising goalkeeper George Radcliffe, a loan acquisition from neighbours Cardiff City, with Wales U21 international experience.

The club’s confirmation of these signings brings their summer recruitment to four, with defender Luke Cummings and winger Jack Compton each set to contend for their first competitive starts.

For Barry, the hour indeed is nigh.

It’s been a long road to get here. But where it goes from here is limitless.