Not many grounds need retractable floodlights so as not to interfere with flights at the airfield next door. Not many stands find themselves buzzed by light aircraft during the game. But then, not many clubs were set up as the works team for an aircraft manufacturer.
Airbus UK Broughton (known as AUK in European competition to get around UEFA sponsorship rules) have become one of the modern-day high-flyers of Welsh football. The Wingmakers made it into the top flight in 2004, prompting a raft of ground improvements and the installation of those floodlights. At first glance, they don’t seem so unusual; it’s the nuts and bolts at regular intervals up the side the indicate how they can telescope into their poles when not needed.
Properly illuminated and cleared for take-off, Airbus consolidated in the Welsh Premier League before heading for the stratosphere under the guidance of manager Andy Preece. The former Blackpool striker led the team to the Europa League three times and got them into the 2016 Welsh Cup Final. Only the unstoppable might of TNS, the overwhelming leader in Welsh football at this level, denied the team some silverware. In Europe, Airbus battled bravely: the first campaign ended in an agonising away goals defeat to Ventspills of Latvia, Haugesund of Norway were held to a draw in Wales the following year and in 2015 the team got a 2-2 draw at Lokomotiva Zagreb, only to go out 5-3 on aggregate.
But hopes for another trophy-chasing campaign in 2016-17 took a huge blow just days before the season opener. Preece stepped down from his position for personal reasons, plunging the club into a measure of turmoil. With newly-promoted Cardiff Metropolitan University heading to the team from the Airbus factory, there was a real danger of an upset.
In the circumstances, a hard-fought 1-0 win was a decent return. Airbus looked a little disjointed at times; Cardiff Met enjoyed plenty of possession in midfield but seldom carved out clear opportunities to cancel out Tony Gray’s 35th-minute goal.
Visiting Airbus just 24 hours after seeing Barry Town in action offered a glimpse of the current state of play in Welsh football. The country may still be on a high after the national team reached the European Championship semi-finals in the summer, but the league system still has some way to go if it is to form an attraction that could lure fans away from the big clubs playing the English pyramid. Broughton, just a 10-minute drive from Chester, also has the rival attractions of Manchester and Merseyside within easy reach, making it harder still for Airbus to attract fans.
So it’s good to see a club steadily building a nice, compact ground and establishing itself as part of the local sporting community. From the well-stocked programme shop – where I picked up an edition from Wales vs USSR in 1981 as a tribute to a very Soviet spot of aviation at my favourite Moscow stadium – to the thriving academy and women’s section, Airbus has that happy bustling feeling of a club moving in the right direction. Now it’s time to see whether Preece’s abrupt departure can be overcome, rather than bringing the team back down to Earth.
The Airfield, Broughton, Wales
Welsh Premier League, Aug. 14, 2016
Airbus UK Broughton 1 (Gray) Cardiff Metropolitan University 0