By Ashley Cox

BARRY Town United are out of the UEFA Europa League, after falling 4-0 to Cliftonville in north Belfast last Thursday.

By air and sea, scores of enthusiastic Town supporters made the journey to Ireland’s oldest football club, hoping to see their team build on an encouraging first leg stalemate and secure progress in a European competition for the first time since 2001.

However, Barry’s road to Norway would hit an abrupt red light, as the Reds of Cliftonville outclassed a travelling Town side wearing classic green in Europe for the first time.

Undoubtedly aware of the opponents’ formidable home record, manager Gavin Chesterfield made two changes to his starting line-up from the first leg in Wales, switching in the defensive duo of Paul Morgan and Troy Greening for Jenner Park newcomers Luke Cummings and Jack Compton.

Morgan and Greening had both been part of Chesterfield’s squad that was briefly and unceremoniously yanked from the Welsh pyramid in 2013, with European starts a fitting prize for years of loyalty and toil.

Sadly though, there would be no fairytale Europa League chapter for the long-serving pair on Thursday night, as Paddy McLaughlin’s team lived up to their promise that a warm welcome off the field would not necessarily translate to one on it.

From the outset at historic Solitude, site of international football’s first-ever penalty and the original home of Ireland’s national team, Northern Ireland’s European play-off winners appeared to have the edge on their JD Welsh Premier League opponents.

It was Cliftonville striker Joe Gormley who helped set the tone with an adventurous effort from the right flank, forcing Barry goalkeeper Mike Lewis to tip over his crossbar.

Though openings for the visitors came at a premium, there was an encouraging early moment as Kayne McLaggon showed strength to overpower Ronan Doherty, but his subsequent right-footed rocket failed to threaten goalkeeper Richard Brush.

It was a set piece that saw Barry’s evening begin to unravel, Doherty’s left-footed corner gliding its way to the back post, where Conor McMenamin was on hand to connect with a textbook header; the dangerman of the first match squeezing between a handful of Town defenders and rising highest to score.

With a score draw still though enough to see the visitors through, all was not lost for Barry; yet the Town’s task became all the more tricky in the 41st minute, when clinical Cliftonville doubled their advantage.

Captain Chris Curran would this time be the catalyst, pressuring namesake Chris Hugh with some confident attacking footwork, before squaring across the area for an unmarked Gormley to smash home a deflating second.

With 57 goals in 73 outings since returning to the Reds in 2017, the two-time NIFL Premiership winner had once again lived up to his ‘Joe the Goal’ moniker; leaving Barry’s European campaign hanging by a thread.

Now needing at least two goals, Barry attempted to negotiate the sea of Red shirts, yet were thwarted at every turn by classy Cliftonville outfit, who barely put a foot wrong across the 90 minutes.

Attacking the end that housed Town’s colourful travelling supporters, it was Jonathan Hood who finally forced Brush into action, trying his luck with a low drive at the near post, only for the former Coventry City goalkeeper to save with relative comfort.

Regrettably though for Barry, it was counterpart Lewis who found himself the busier of the shotstoppers, parrying Rory Donnelly’s attempt from distance, before seeing Doherty’s left-footed slice slip past his post.

Lewis would be left a spectator on another occasion when Gormley looked to tap in his second, but Town were mercifully spared this time, as the prolific marksman managed to somehow lift the ball over the crossbar from no more than two yards out.

Into the closing stages, Barry’s fate was sealed on 82 minutes when some exciting build-up play allowed Conor McDermott to control in the box; the loanee opting to shoot, rather than square to Donnelly, and give his team with an unassailable 3-0 lead.

Nevertheless, former Swansea City fringe player Donnelly would make his own mark with six minutes remaining, finding plentiful space after Gormley had stretched the Town defence and delivering a deft finish to wrap up the tie at a clear-cut 4-0.

It was difficult to fault the Barry players for effort, yet Cliftonville were a cut-above for the length of this second leg, playing out the largest European victory in their lengthy history.

Applauded for a relentless display, the Red Army now march on to play FK Haugesund of Norway in the First Qualifying Round, with the winners to face Austria’s Sturm Graz in the following stage before the end of July.

While Thursday’s result would be disappointing for Barry, few travelling supporters will soon forget their visit to Belfast, where friendships were born and lasting impressions made.

As a number of supporters embarked on a defiant conga around the Bowling Green End, it was clear the appetite remains to make European matches a fixture of the club’s calendar.

With no Norwegian adventure though to organise for next week, Barry’s officials and players will now look to learn the lessons of their landmark Europa League experience, before the bread and butter business of a brand-new JD Welsh Premier League season begins in earnest in August.