If you told Declan McManus in May he’d be preparing for Partick Thistle this weekend, there wouldn’t have been much shock in his response. Telling him Viktoria Plzen awaited tonight is something he’d have chuckled at.
McManus is in Wales after leaving the Scottish Championship and Dunfermline for The New Saints this summer. The inaugural Europa Conference League has been great for the Cymru Premier side, beating Northern Irish club Glentoran in the first qualifying round before thrashing Lithuanians FK Kauno Žalgiris 10-1 on aggregate in the second.
TNS have competed in the Champions League and Europa League in recent seasons, but few of their previous opponents can match the quality of Viktoria Plzen. It was only three seasons ago that the Czech outfit finished third in a Champions League group with Real Madrid, Roma and CSKA Moscow involved, beating the latter two.
They ran Real close at the Bernabeu as well. Now it’s McManus’ turn to take on Plzen and the former Aberdeen and Dunfermline forward tells NTOF it’s an exciting prospect after success in Lithuania: “Žalgiris were comfortable on the ball and you could tell they had good players. We only had 35% possession in the first leg and won 5-0!
“Over the two legs we were really clinical and really good on the counter-attack. They never cut us open and anytime we did that to them, we scored. It was weird as they were a good side. We were too strong. It was a strange game but we’ve got Viktoria Plzen now. They beat Roma not too long ago – I dare say their defenders will be scared of me!
“It’s amazing. I’ve scored in my last three European games and playing against a team used to playing Champions League is great. I’ve heard their fans and their stadium is pretty good as well. It will be a great experience over there for the second leg and hopefully in the first leg at home, we can sneak a win or keep ourselves in the tie at least.”
McManus fully expected to be a Dunfermline player this season after they missed out on promotion to the Scottish Premiership from the Championship via the promotion play-offs. TNS interest took him by surprised.
He explained: “It came out of nowhere really. I was still contracted to Dunfermline but then the interest came along. I didn’t think it would happen but when the first official bid came in, it became real. I didn’t know much about Welsh football before coming here. I knew TNS and Connah’s Quay Nomads.
“I played against Nomads for Ross County in the Irn Bru Cup final. But that was as far as my knowledge stretched. I never really had a chance to talk with anybody about it. I just spoke to my agent about it and he saw the positives that can come from being here.
“Playing European football and being an out-and-out number nine again can help me get the goals. It’s a completely fresh start and it’s somewhere where people don’t really know me – and I don’t know them.”
It’s something new for McManus and the former Aberdeen man knows how big Europe is for the Welsh club. He experienced European football at Pittodrie, but this is different – he’s scored in his last three games on the continent and is leading TNS’ charge. This is his biggest challenge yet.
McManus says it’s one he’ll rise to: “I have always been one to push myself out of my comfort zone if and when I can. If you get too comfortable somewhere, you get complacent. Football’s a short career and it’s something I wanted to come and try. It’s a chance to play in Europe and win trophies.
“I think TNS have earned over £500k over the last two ties and there’s an even bigger pot if we manage to beat Plzen. For the club it’s massive that we have won the ties as comfortably as we did. It’s probably surprised a few people but there have been bigger shocks in European football than TNS beating Viktoria Plzen.
“Dundalk got to the group stages of the Europa League group stages a few seasons ago. It’s an experience they will have forever and that is the ultimate aim for us. It’s close to impossible for us but it’s not fully impossible. We are optimistic, anything can happen.”
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