“Bachgen bach o Ferthyr, erioed, erioed.” Joseph Parry
Loosely translated, Parry’s famous words say “A little boy of Merthyr, forever, forever.” Joseph Parry is one of Merthyr Tydfil’s most famous sons and similar to me and my brother he was a Lost Boyo. Parry moved to Pennsylvania with his family at the age of 13 and he would go on to to become the greatest ever Welsh composer. Despite his travels around America and Wales on his return to these shores, Parry always remembered his roots. The same as the Welsh composer, I am and always will be a Merthyr boy, loud and proud, having been born in Merthyr General Hospital in 1988. The town certainly has it flaws and regularly has slander thrown its way, but despite me having the odd pop at the place, home is home, and I love the place really. I have noticed that when ‘outsiders’ have a go at the town I can become ultra-defensive of the place. Merthyr is regularly in the top 5 of the ‘Worst Places to Live in the UK’ and it even featured on a 30 minute recession special on Sky News entitled a ‘Town Called Merthyr’ – the anti-Merthyr brigade clearly haven’t had a good night out in Koolers followed by a combo meal in Chicken Land!
Merthyr is actually quite a scenic town, embedded into the valleys with the Brecon Beacons as a wonderful backdrop and the town housing some of the friendliest people you could possibly wish to meet. However, the town, once the home of the largest iron industry on the planet and the hub of Wales, has seen a massive fall from grace during the 20th century, thanks largely to the mass unemployment that has swept the area. After the coal mines were closed by Thatcher in the 80s, Merthyr has often been described as a forgotten town of the government, hence the Sky News documentary.
As I entered the final years of being a teenager and I began to go watch a lot more football, I began to lament the fact that I had not shown my face enough at the home ground of my hometown club. Shamefully, I had only ever visited Penydarren Park once in my life to watch Merthyr take on a Cardiff XI. Cardiff won 2-0 with both goals coming from Michael Chopra in his last game before moving to Sunderland. The game also featured a highly rated 16-year-old kid called Aaron Ramsey.
I moved to Swansea to begin m studies at University when I was 18 and I’ve never really lived back home since (apart from one year after University); I decided every time I’d come home, I’d go watch Merthyr and help out the club that have been in some real financial scrapes over the past two decades. However, every time I came home I couldn’t make a game at Penydarren Park for a number of different reasons and through being double-booked (usually Swansea City were playing the same time as them). That was until this week; after arriving home from Manchester a week ago, I was determined that I was going to attend a Merthyr game, especially after enjoying my non-league conquests around Manchester over the past few weeks. A quick look at the fixture list and I realised I could make a Tuesday night fixture, coincidentally against my team Swansea (well, a Swansea youth team really).
Pre-University I lived all my life in a village towards the bottom of the Merthyr valley called Quakers Yard, a 10-15 minute drive away from the town of Merthyr itself. In fact, this whole blog was born in the village. Whilst my brother was home from South Korea with his wife for Christmas, we had our annual Christmas Eve night out down the Glan Taff Inn (a great pub, where I worked and drank for many years and still go back on my returns home) with our friends – one of my favourite nights out of the year; Marc presented me with the idea and concept of the blog after a few drinks and I could not wait to get started. Our first post was in January and here we still are 8 months down the line.
Anyway, my journey to Merthry Tydfil FC began as I caught the afternoon bus that winds up the valley from Quakers Yard, through Treharris, Edwardsville, Aberfan, Merthyr Vale, Troedyrhiw and eventually into Merthyr Tydfil’s testicle-shaped bus station. Having not visited the town centre in months, I had to have a nose around to see what was different. Who was I kidding, Merthyr town centre has barely changed since I was a little kid. The one great change to Merthyr town centre during my lifetime has been the building of Tesco in the heart of the town centre. Our Tesco is immense and I genuinely believe it is the best Tesco around (especially for one in a town centre) – a sad claim I know. After a mull around town which only took about 10 minutes, I headed up to my nan’s where I was greeted with cans of Carling, beef sandwiches and an episode of Pointless: living the dream! My Nan, Mona Shankland, is a bit of a legend in these parts from her days as Mayor of Merthyr in the early 80s. Whilst in Greggs in Manchester once, the manager even asked me if I was from Merthyr after hearing my accent; it turned out he was also a Merthyr boy so he naturally asked who my family were; all I had to do was utter the two words ‘Mona Shankland’ and his arms were flapping in excitement – the Shankland gospel even lives on in Deansgate, Manchester. Anyway, no trip to my Nan’s would be complete without a lecture on how much I spend on alcohol, but today’s lecture also had a sidenote questioning the amount of money I’ve spent on football over past year (I did work out a rough estimate the other day, but the figure haunts me and I dare not write it here – if I don’t write it, I never spent it).
I then made my way back down the hill, over the Taff and back towards the town centre. I was going to head to the ground, but couldn’t resist a cheeky pint in the local Wetherspoons, Y Dic Penderyn. Then to Penydarren Park.
Despite being on top of a small hill and being quite a large ground, Penydarren Park is quite a well hidden ground, tucked away by the side of a housing estate, about a 5 minute walk away from the town centre. Penydarren Park has been the home of Merthyr football since the start of the 20th century. There has always been a constant Merthyr football presence at the ground, but the club has come in different guises. First off, the ground housed Merthyr Town FC in the early decades of the 20th century. Merthyr Town played their football in the Football League alongside the other Welsh exiles Swansea, Cardiff and Newport, but after a series of poor league finishes, Merthyr Town were voted out of the Football League to be replaced by Thames. Shortly after their 1930 demotion from the Football League, Merthyr Town folded in 1935. The post war phoenix rising from the ashes of Merthyr Town would be Merthyr Tydfil FC. Merthyr Tydfil FC would have some glorious times at Penydarren Park, perhaps most famously in 1987, when the Martyrs defeated Italian Serie A side Atalanta 2-1 in the first leg of a first round European Cup Winners’ Cup game (as mentioned in our Cup Winners’ Cup series) at the old ground.The Martyrs even found themselves playing in the fifth tier of English football during the early 90s after making the Conference, before a turn in the club’s fortunes saw them plummet down the leagues. With financial turmoil punctuating most of Merthyr’s 21st century existence, in 2010 the club folded – 65 years after their formation. Once again, a new club was formed and once again under the name Merthyr Town. After the previous club’s liquidation, the new club was required to drop down three divisions and was forced to leave Penydarren Park and play at Rhiw Dda’r in Taffs Well. In their first season in the Western Football League Division One, Merthyr achieved promotion to play in the Premier Division for the 2011/12 season and they were once again allowed to call Penydarren Park home.
I’ve been to a few non-league grounds over the past few months and I must say Merthyr’s home is probably my favourite (no, I’m not being biased). Penydarren Park is brilliant. It does have the rusting roofs and the dilapidated stands that are synonymous with non-league football, but the ground is actually quite impressive. As soon as you enter through the gates into the stands, the ground actually looks quite big. The internet tells me that the ground can hold around 10,000 (1,500 seated) but I think the ground could possibly hold more. The ground is entered through the main stand where the majority of seating is (I’d estimate around 1,000 plus of the 1,500 seats) with the club’s food cabin and club shop residing around the back of it. Opposite the main stand is a large standing terrace with the majority of it being sheltered. Behind the goal to the left of the main stand is a smaller stand with the rest of the ground’s seating areas and opposite, behind the other goal, is another smaller standing terrace that is open to the South Wales elements.
I was well aware of Strikers, the small club attached to Penydarren Park, but it appeared to be closed down – I’m unsure if this is a permanent closure. I knew the club had a bar somewhere, but I just couldn’t find it. I was eventually directed to the bar area, which stood at the top of the main stand, by a friendly steward. The bar area was excellent and it looked like it had had a tidy up or a refurbishment, as well as it being huge. The bar area was complete with plenty of tables, pool tables, Sky Sports on the TVs showing the night’s league cup fixture between Brighton and Swindon and the beer was a reasonably priced £2.70; it was poured into plastic cups, but this also meant I could take my pint onto the stand.
As I wandered back down the stand in search of a good spot to watch the game from, I spotted a Swansea City legend: Alan Curtis! With a photo taken with the great man, I told him about Lost Boyos and the concept behind it and to take a read; I doubt he did but here’s your photo anyway Alan.
Also, in Swansea’s Laudrup-less dugout this evening was another Jack legend in Kristian O’Leary. O’Leary played for Swansea for almost the whole of career and despite not being the most technically gifted of footballers, he was loved by the club for the sheer passion he had for his local team – a trait I’m sure he still has now he is on the backroom staff. I attended his testimonial in 2008 against WBA, where he received an excellent reception. O’Leary always spoke of wanting to come back to the club in some capacity and after the appointment of Laudrup, the Dane made him the first arrival of his regime by making him reserve team coach (a team now consisting largely of U21s in its new format). Much of the Swans squad on this Tuesday evening were made up of reserve team players, but I was looking forward to seeing some of the potential first teamers in action. Much has been made of Curtis Obeng, supposedly the quickest player at Swansea, who some have tipped to challenge Rangel for his right back spot in the upcoming season, so I was excited to see if he was as fast they say. Young Rory Donnelly was also starting up front, the young Irishman that Swansea battled Liverpool and Everton to sign from Cliftonville last January. Finally, the other player that I had my eye on was Henry Jones; anyone that knows me, knows of my love for Ferrie Bodde, so anyone dubbed the ‘new Ferrie Bodde’ will always excite me.
The game kicked off and there was very little to report in the opening exchanges except the fact that the Swansea youth could not string a sequence of passes together. After 15 minutes, I began to actually get quite irritated at how bad Swansea were playing despite it only being a youth team’s preseason friendly. Their early half performance was perhaps summed up by the opening goal for Merthyr about 20 minutes in; a cross was hit across the Swansea box and with no Merthyr forwards near him, young centre back Scott Tancock swung at the ball, sliced it and sent it flying past David Cornell in the Swansea goal behind him. Midway through the first half, I was joined by a fellow Merthyr Jack, also called Matt. One of the joys I’ve had with Twitter over the past couple of years of Twitter has been the sheer amount of Swansea fans I have got to know through it, who I’ve then met at games; after posting my photo with Alan Curtis on Twitter, Matt saw the photo and recognised me in the stand because of my stripey hoody. We watched the end of the first half bemoaning Swansea’s poor display and agreeing on how disappointing the trio that I had pinpointed had been. Then from nothing, Rory Donnelly got the ball from just over 20 yards out and slotted the ball into the bottom corner left footed. The goal came a couple of minutes before half-time and the teams went in at half-time 1 a piece.
During the interval, I headed back up to the clubhouse for a pint and to watch a bit of Sky Sports News and check the League Cup scores. I then decided to do a lap of the stands to take some photos and get further acquainted with the place. The walk around did really make me appreciate how big the place actually is.
After my circuit, I joined Matt in the main stand with his Dad and mate ready to watch the second half. Swansea came out and began the half much better, but 5 minutes later they were back to the sloppy play which punctuated the first half. I appreciated that this was only Swansea’s youth team, but it did dawn on me that they were now the youth team of a Premier League club and some of these players were supposed to be challenging the first team next season. The performance was not up to scratch, but I kept telling myself that it was still preseason. Eventually Merthyr grabbed their second goal through Gary Colborne and they looked comfortable to seal a victory. Then, as football has a habit of doing, a moment of brilliance turned the game. The youth players suddenly mimicked the passing football of their Swansea senior counterparts and a lovely, flowing passing move began down the left-wing; when a cross was hit across to the edge of the box, the young Gwion Edwards hit a first time volley into the bottom corner leaving the Merthyr goalie no chance. 2-2.
After the goal, Swansea improved dramatically, although Merthyr were also still playing well – we suddenly had a great contest on our hands. I now began to notice the sheer pace of the highly rated Obeng; when he turns on the afterburners, he is truly rapid, but his speed led to a series of miscontrolled balls. It’s hard to judge him on a preseason friendly in the valleys, but I was very disappointed with him, although that pace could terrify any opposition team. I was equally disappointed with the ‘new Bodde’ who was eventually substituted, although, admittedly, he was given very little of the ball.
After the entertaining closing stages of the game, and with five minutes left on the clock, Swansea youngster Alex Bray played a cross from the right for 16-year-old striker Alex Samuel, signed from Aberystwyth Town during the summer, to finish. The clock ticked down to the final whistle and Swansea secured a 3-2 victory. Over the course of the ninety minutes, Swansea didn’t deserve the win and Merthyr could take a lot from the performance ready for their opening league fixture against Swindon Supermarine on Saturday; I’m sure O’Leary would have had words with his lads about the performance of his team.
For anyone that lives in Merthyr Tydfil or the valley, I highly recommend popping up to Penydarren Park to watch some local football. It is one of my favourite grounds around and there is a really nice atmosphere around the club following Merthyr Town’s rebirth and their successive promotions (I heard many talking about how they were going to or thinking about buying season tickets for Merthyr’s impending league campaign). Good luck to the Martyrs in the coming season.
Highlights: Big ground for non-league, only 5 minutes from town centre, bar area in main stand is impressive, ground is full of character, good atmosphere around the club following promotion, Merthyr play good football, met Alan Curtis – Swansea legend, hometown club!
Low Point: Areas of the ground are very run down.