CARDIFF MET FC: The student team taking on Europe

By road, it is 496 miles from Cardiff to Niederkorn. Christian Edwards has done the calculations. He also knows that, should he decide to, it would take him just under a nine-hour drive to complete the journey.

A plane ticket has already been booked in his name, but a fear of flying means the Cardiff Metropolitan University FC manager is giving serious consideration to travelling to southwest Luxembourg on his own, not with his team.

"I’d be much happier throwing a mattress in the back of my van and driving over," Edwards tells JOE. 

"As much as I want to be going over there with the boys, it’s fear. I'll make a final decision at the start of the week, but I'd prefer to take the longer journey and avoid being on a plane."

Cardiff Met clinched a place in the Europa League first qualifying round in May by defeating fellow Welsh Premier League side Bala Town on penalties in a play-off. In doing so, they became the first male British university side to ever qualify for European football. 

Their reward is a two-legged tie with Progrès Niederkorn, by no means continental heavyweights, but a team that famously bloodied the nose of Rangers in the same preliminary round stage two years ago.

While Edwards has yet to decide his mode of transport ahead of Thursday's first leg, seeing his team take to the field at the Stade Jos Haupert will mark the end of another journey - one that began a decade ago.

Having played professionally for Swansea City, Nottingham Forest and Bristol Rovers, Edwards has spent the majority of his coaching career at Cardiff Met University, where he is also a senior lecturer in Coaching Science. 

The 2019/20 season will be his eleventh in charge of the football team, which has changed beyond recognition since his arrival.

“Football wasn’t considered to be one of our strengths back then,” he recalls. “Traditionally, Cardiff Met is a rugby university and I took over a group of players who had a diluted message. 

“Some of them had an idea of what football was about, but it wasn’t the way I saw football. 

“I came from an era where players wore black boots and worked hard and I believe in that. Instilling those principles of hard work - as players and coaches - has helped us reach the position we find ourselves in.”

With the players embracing Edwards’ ethos, Cardiff Met began their steady rise up the Welsh footballing pyramid. From languishing in mid-table in the fourth tier, they reached the Premier League inside seven years. 

“My greatest achievement here is to get the players I currently have, and those that have come before them, to buy into the project that I really believe in. We play here, I believe, for all the right reasons.”

With a squad made up of undergraduate, Masters and PhD students, Cardiff Met have been able to maintain a nucleus of players for longer than would typically be expected of a university side. 

Captain Bradley Woolridge, a 26-year-old PhD student, is one of this core group. Having joined the team aged 18, the two-legged tie against Progrès will mark the start of his ninth season.

"From the outside, people might expect the team to keep turning over every three years or so,” he tells JOE before a training session at the Cyncoed campus. 

“It happens to an extent, but there’s a group - probably seven or eight of us - who are in our mid-twenties now. Over the years, it’s helped us grow as a team.”

Dr Charlie Corsby, sitting beside Woolridge, agrees. Having made his debut a year before his teammate, he is also one of the senior members of the squad. Now 27, and with his studies completed, he continues to play through his role as a lecturer in sports coaching.

“Having that consistency has definitely benefited the team,” he adds. 

Along with Edwards, Woolridge and Corsby’s long association with Cardiff Met FC means they appreciate the team’s progress more than most.

“We’ve played since the days we were in Welsh division three all the way through,” says Corsby. 

“The level has changed, but there are other things, too. I can remember having to wheel dugouts and goal frames out just to play games back when I started playing. 

“We have a fantastic 3G pitch now. There’s an academy affiliated to us where children from the age of five upwards are coached. 

“We’ve come a long way, especially from the days when we had to raise money just to keep the club running every year.”

Each Cardiff Met player pays a yearly membership fee of £150. This levy was originally introduced as a means of affording kit and equipment, transport to away games, and supporting the student union.

“It’s a physical gesture that gives us a bit of ownership,” Corsby explains.

Despite the reported £193,000 in prize money that Cardiff Met will receive from their tie with Progrès, each player will still be required to chip in their membership fee for the 2019/2020 season. 

None of the players will receive a cut of the money as a reward for reaching European football - nor do they expect to.

“That’s not why we play here,” says Woolridge. 

“Education is the main reason we’re here and we play football for this club because we want to. I imagine some of the teams in our league that pay out £300 to £500 a game to some of their players don’t easily accept that we do it for free, but we do.

“We won’t be getting paid for this, but what’s left of the money will be invested into making this club even stronger for the future.”

Some of the prize money will cover accommodation and flights to Luxembourg. A sizeable chunk - believed to be as much as £20,000 - will also be needed to hire Leckwith Stadium for the ‘home’ leg as the Cyncoed campus pitch does not meet UEFA competition standards.

Though talk of prize money is understandable given that this is a team of students playing for free, Edwards stresses the focus should be on his players’ achievements.

“Don’t get me wrong, the money will be fantastic for us, but it should be the players’ achievements that are the main thing.

“In the modern day where football players are making in excess of £300,000 a week, money seems to become the objective. But it’s never been the objective for us. 

“I don’t want to talk about the money. I’d rather talk about my players and their ambitions and successes.”

While it is easy to appreciate the journey of Corsby, Woolridge and the more experienced squad members, the stories of some of the younger players are equally compelling.

Take 19-year-old Guto Williams, for example. He finished his first year as a student by helping Cardiff Met clinch a place in Europe, sitting an exam the day after the crucial win over Bala.

“It’s definitely not how I expected to be spending my first summer as a university student,” he laughs.

“Before coming to university I’d played against Cardiff Met with Bangor so I knew they were a good team. I really couldn’t have imagined I’d be playing European football in my first summer here though.”

Though Williams is eagerly looking ahead to the meeting with Progrès, he knows that a win will force him to re-arrange his summer plans. 

“I’ve actually got holidays after the Progrès game. I’m supposed to be staying with my family in Spain. I’ll have to cancel it if we get through!”

A year older than Williams is Rhydian Morgan. The 20-year-old is currently on work placement with the university’s Performance Analysis department, using the opportunity to prepare for the challenge of facing European opposition.

“I’ve had a look at (the Progrès) team. It’s not technically uni work as it’s not term time but I’ve taken an interest in it,” he says.

“They’ve got a new manager recently so it’s difficult to look too much at it in case they’ve changed shape from last season, but we’ve got a rough idea of what to expect.

“We know it will be tough. They beat Rangers a couple of years back but also got to the third round last year. They’re top seeds and we know we’ll have to be at our best.”

The odds of advancing to the second qualifying round may be against them, but Cardiff Met’s first ever continental tie is the real achievement for Edwards, and the product of a decade’s hard work.

“It’s been a huge part of my life,” he says. 

“My three children have grown up around the football club and the university and it’s been a really enjoyable journey so far, one that I have no ambitions of letting go of any time soon.

“All I ask is that we can look back at where we were a year ago and see if we’re in a better position. This year, we definitely are, but the challenge now is having this every year. I want that development. 

“We’ll savour this opportunity, but I want to see how good this group of players can be.”