The New Saints begin their latest UEFA Champions League adventure today (10 July) when they head to Macedonia to take on KF Shkendija in the 1st qualifying round, and manager Scott Ruscoe is in confident mood following five weeks of intense preparation.
“Preparation is key,” Ruscoe explained to FAW.cymru. “Friendlies are important, and this time of the year it's difficult to get high-profile friendly games, but we've played Glasgow Rangers again this year and Falkirk. We've also played against the Jamie Vardy Academy for the second year, as well as against Bala Town and Cefn Druids, and they have been an important five games for us.
"Entering the 1st round instead of the preliminary round has given us a bit more time, which is better than we've had in previous years. It also means that I've been able to go out and watch them, which was a positive and worthwhile experience.”
Ruscoe featured in 30 European games during his own playing career, and has a wealth of experience to pass onto his new-look squad as he enters into his second season in management.
Despite lifting the JD Welsh Premier League title and the League Cup title last season, a number of new additions have arrived at Park Hall, and Ruscoe is delighted with the strength in depth he now has at his disposal.
“We landed all of our main transfer targets, and to have this squad of 22 players is very pleasing,” he added. “Every single player has a competitive edge to them, and it means nobody is guaranteed a game this year. You can see it in the way the players have been training. Everybody knows we've got depth, quality, youth and experience in this squad.
"The Chairman has backed us, we had a week in Portugal, and it was important to have that time together in terms of building the camaraderie and team spirit in the squad.”
KF Shkendija reached the play-offs of the UEFA Europa League last season, but suffered a heavy 7-0 aggregate defeat against Italian giants AC Milan. Now returning to the Champions League for the first time since 2011/12, manager Qatip Osmani will be looking to for his side to make a positive start at the Philip II Stadium in Skopje.
Meanwhile, a change introduced this season means that elimination in the qualifying rounds of the Champions League will offer a second chance in the Europa League, but Ruscoe is only focused on the immediate challenge ahead.
It's going to be a test, but we're the seeded team, and the best team will win over two-legs. We're going to give it 100%, no doubt about that. It's very exciting and we're really looking forward to it.
“It's a tougher draw than we've had in recent years,” Ruscoe explained. “It's going to be a test, but we're the seeded team, and the best team will win over two-legs. We're going to give it 100%, no doubt about that.
"It's very exciting and we're really looking forward to it. Each year we're trying to get better. Each year we're trying to close the gap. We want to do what Dundalk and Shamrock Rovers did (in qualifying for the group stages of the Europa League). These Irish teams are our benchmark, so why can't we emulate what they did?”
Ruscoe is a veteran of The New Saints' European campaigns, playing against the likes of Manchester City and Liverpool during his time as a player with the club. However, he has quickly discovered that management requires a very different mindset.
“As a player you have some nerves, and you do worry more about your own performance than the team performance. But as a manager, you can't leave any stone unturned. Every spare moment is spent concentrating on the team, the opposition, how we're going to play, the line-up. During the game it's about the substitutions, how can we affect the opposition, where are they're weaknesses, where can we get in? As a manager, you never stop thinking.”