The New Saints gear up for their latest Euro adventure
The New Saints will return to training next week as preparation for Europa League actions begins – as boss Scott Ruscoe targets the bright lights of the group stage.
The Saints have been apart since the coronavirus shut down football in March and Ruscoe's side since discovered their run of eight straight Welsh titles had come to an end, as a points-per-game average had them second to Connah's Quay.
That runners-up slot means Europa League and not Champions League football for TNS next season. Ruscoe's side will enter the second-tier European competition at the first qualifying round stage on August 27.
The tie – much later that usual due to the global health pandemic – will also be a one-legged affair rather than the normal two legs. Whichever team comes out the hat first in the draw, which will take place in August, will enjoy home advantage.
The New Saints have fallen at the hands of established European outfits like FC Copenhagen, Rijeka and Apoel Nicosia in Champions League qualification action in recent years. They tumbled out of the Europa League's third qualifying round to Bulgarian side Ludogorets 9-0 on aggregate last season, two rounds before the group stages.
"In the last two years we've done quite well. We've progressed against the teams in and around us," said Ruscoe.
"Our coefficient will be quite good. We'll come up against teams of a similar ilk.
"We've played the majority of them in the past, the likes of Gibraltar and the Irish teams, in Kosova last season and the Faroe Islands.
"We're on a similar budget and we've seen enough of those teams."
"That's our ambition and our aim," Ruscoe added of reaching the group stage. "That's the target we look at. We look at the teams in and around us that have done it, the Irish teams that have done it and had a very good run.
"Dundalk had it, did very well reaching the group stages, that's where you want to be, where you want to play.
"It would be magnificent if we could get to the Europa League play-off and then the group stage, it sets you up for the season, not just financially, but with momentum and being on the crest of a wave.
"It would be really good for the club and the local community as well."
Ruscoe is not particularly fussed by the new one-legged rule, given his side's previous on their travels. He said: "If you get a home draw then you look at it as favourable but we've got our best results away from home funnily enough, we've gone abroad, to Gibraltar twice and Kosovo and got away wins."
After ramping up individuals' fitness regimes at home, Ruscoe has organised a staggered return to training next week, which will take place in groups over a few days, where players will be required to use numerous changing rooms at the club's training base, to maintain social distancing.
The club will be visited by bosses at FA Wales, who will ensure all protocols are adhered to, before training begins.
Individual Covid-19 testing is not required, but players and staff will have their temperature tested every morning to ensure no symptoms in those present.
The Saints chief admitted his team face a 'unique' and 'novel' form as pre-season, with roughly six weeks of training before the big continental kick-off. Ruscoe says the plan is to organise friendlies with teams who have also made their return.
"We will plan accordingly and get the boys up to speed. It's a unique situation," added the boss of the Oswestry-based outfit.
"We've never had 12 or 13 weeks off before without seeing them, so we will have to tread carefully as you've seen with lots of injuries in other games.
"It will be difficult but we're looking forward to it, while also being a bit apprehensive.
"We've got to find teams to play in August, I'm sure there'll be teams back to play then. Our pre-season will be a novel one."
TNS have so far made two new summer signings, Louis Robles and Leo Smith, and Ruscoe plans one more to complete business before the end of teh week.
Welsh clubs are still waiting for FA Wales and league bosses to outline plans for next season's Cymru Premier restart. It is likely that domestic action could return around the same date as the September 12 option mooted for the English Football League.
Should TNS progress to the second qualifying round of the Europa League, that tie will go ahead on September 17.