By Ashley Cox
CLINICAL Caernarfon Town rose to the occasion in Saturday's play-off semi-final, as Michael Hayes slammed the door on Barry Town's European dream – and Jake Bickerstaff bolted it.

Hayes' brace either side of half-time inspired the Canaries to a landmark triumph, in spite of Barry's hopes being reignited when visiting skipper Gareth Edwards headed into his own net.

Forced to chase the game for much of the second half, Barry ultimately fell victim to a killer counter attack, with late substitute Bickerstaff sealing the win at 3-1, deep in stoppage time.

Caernarfon's first victory at Jenner Park since 2004 sets up an all-or-nothing shoot-out with Newtown at The Oval this Saturday (live coverage from 11.45am on S4C, Facebook and YouTube platforms), after the Robins saw off Penybont in Sunday's second semi-final.

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A spot in the new UEFA Europa Conference League is the prize that awaits the winners, with Huw Griffiths' Canaries looking to qualify for Europe for the first time in their 84-year history.

Meanwhile, a bruised Barry are left to ponder what might have been and what went wrong.

After recording a 3-2 win against Caernarfon just seven days earlier to wrap up the regular Cymru Premier season, there was a cautious optimism at Jenner Park on Saturday that the hosts could repeat the feat when it mattered.

Instead, Gavin Chesterfield's side were simply beaten by the better team that day, with the visitors creating more chances and finishing three to book their place in this Saturday's final.

It had been a week of frustration for Barry already, after the Welsh Government and its new Sports Minister Dawn Bowden refused to acquiesce and allow supporters to attend the game.

In contrast, some 3,000 spectators were permitted to attend Swansea City's EFL Championship play-off on Saturday and another 900 saw Newport County stage their own play-off on Tuesday.

At Jenner Park, fans were left with the bizarre scenario of being able to watch the Caernarfon tie on television in the 130-capacity clubhouse, but not outdoors in the 2,500-capacity stadium.

As a result, some watched from behind glass, a resourceful minority were seen peering over the Gladstone Road walls and others, including the ubiquitous drummer, took their vantage point in the car park, itself converted into a makeshift beer garden to comply with Covid-19 regulations.

With a break in the recent bad weather sparing them from an unseasonal deluge, Saturday's drama played out in bright but chilly conditions, with a certain degree of tension in the air, in light of the stakes at hand.

After a high-tempo start and 30 evenly-matched minutes, it was Chesterfield's Barry team, in vintage Linnets green, who came closest to opening the scoring; defender Kyle Patten heading nail-bitingly wide from the far post, after getting himself on the end of a David Cotterill corner.

Upping the ante, Caernarfon flirted with their own breakthrough, inspiring Barry goalkeeper Mike Lewis to leave his goal line and make an unorthodox, but successful, headed clearance.

However, Lewis' relief would be temporary, as long-time Canaries dangerman Darren Thomas bolted forward after 40 minutes and forced the goalkeeper to save with an outstretched leg, before Hayes powered the follow-up into the Barry net.

Caernarfon's lead would last a mere three minutes, as Evan Press climbed to connect with Cotterill's latest corner and his powerful header struck Canaries captain Edwards, bypassing goalkeeper Tyler French for a 44th-minute own goal.

Sprinting to his dugout in the shadow of the New Stand, ecstatic Press slapped hands with manager Chesterfield, before running into the arms of Barry first team coach Mike Cosslett.

It was a crushing setback for Edwards though, on his 200th appearance for the Gwynedd club.

While the half-time whistle would disrupt the momentum of the Barry cause, Caernarfon started the second period strong and would soon set about restoring their goal advantage.

Running onto a brilliant ball over the top from Jack Kenny, Hayes took a touch or two to juggle and evade the attention of Barry's Chris Hugh, before deftly lobbing Lewis in the 49th minute.
It could then have been three for Caernarfon, were it not for a vital, spectacular Lewis save, the Barry shot stopper pushing Noah Edwards' powerful, long-range strike onto and off the crossbar.

With the clock increasingly against his men, Chesterfield played a handful of his remaining cards at once, making a trademark triple substitution on 67 minutes which saw Josh Graham, Callum Sainty and Robbie Patten replace Nathaniel Jarvis, Luke Cummings and Clayton Green.

Barry though remained ineffective in the final third, despite the efforts of midfielder Cotterill, whose polished composure made him the man most likely to unlock the Caernarfon defence.

It was nearly curtains for Barry after 74 minutes when hitman Hayes spurned his chance at a play-off hat-trick; the 33-year-old running onto another well-worked long ball, this time from the impressive Paulo Mendes, but drifting into a tight angle and firing high over the woodwork.

Chesterfield then brought Kayne McLaggon into the fray on 76 minutes, Barry's leading goalscorer of several seasons having missed a host of matches due to persistent injuries.

A final roll of the dice, McLaggon's introduction came at a potentially-pivotal moment; would the psychological setback of missing that last chance on goal come back to haunt Caernarfon?

With less than ten minutes to play, two of Barry's prior substitutes almost found the equaliser, with Sainty controlling well before threading the ball into the Caernarfon box, where forward Graham skimmed the far post with a right-footed shot that sailed beyond McLaggon's reach.

Taking the ball to the corners, Caernarfon's players likely shared the feelings of their exasperated directors as the fourth official's board signaled for five added minutes.
However, there would soon be scenes of great celebration for the travelling party, as the Canaries did enough to hold on to their lead, before breaking to convert that decisive third.

As a final Barry attack fell flat, Mendes collected, exchanged a one-two and carried the ball forward, pulling off a defence-splitting pass and freeing substitute Bickerstaff to run on goal. 

The former Liverpool youth then fended off a last-gasp tackle to slot into the bottom corner, before being mobbed by his teammates, as the visiting officials erupted with utter jubilation.

With Barry players collapsing to the ground, the unforgiving reality appeared to set in; that a season which began in the far-flung, foggy Faroe Islands and saw thousands of miles of travel across Wales had come to its bitter end, with no European date of destiny to show for it.

While public favour continues to push for fans at the play-off final, it remains to be seen if Caernarfon Town's fervent supporters will be able to attend Saturday's match at The Oval.
For Barry followers, meanwhile, memories of their own 2020-21 campaign will be sadly few.

While many of England's non-league grounds were opened for fans in the autumn and all of Wales' EFL grounds got the nod for spectator events this spring, Barry have fulfilled all 34 of their fixtures behind-closed-doors, without an end date.

With supporters returning to the stands at Wembley, Old Trafford and elsewhere, the Welsh Government's resistance to engaging with small but significant clubs like Barry is a continued mystery, especially for the club's few hundred hardcores, who could surely have sat safely in spacious Jenner Park by now had Wales' own policymakers given their cause the time of day.

Though Barry's campaign would end in the disappointment of defeat, it is this shut-out of supporters that remains most disheartening and the factor for which the Town's 2020-21 season will possibly best be remembered; at least by the many who could not be there.