As a Swansea City fan, I have lost count of the amount of times I have had to endure “What are a Welsh club doing in the English league anyway?” This tiresome phrase is uttered (or typed) in distain towards the Swansea faithful far more frequently these days, usually after the club has mesmerised one of the Premier League’s aristocrats with one of their Barcelona-esque passing game. The Anglohiles’ Welsh-a-phobia also spawns to the other Celtic invaders in the English game, such as Cardiff City, Newport County, Wrexham, Colwyn Bay and my hometown club, Merthyr Tydfil. There could well have been another club’s fanbase enduring similar questioning of their nationality in regards to league eligiblty: if history had been kinder, the fans of Aberdare Atheltic could maybe touring England right now being subjected to the hilarious and original chants of “Sheep shaggers” from our English club supporting pals if fate had been kinder to the club. History could have been a hell of a lot kinder actually – the club is extinct. The history books now narrate the tale of how Aberdare Athletic would achieve a first in Football League history: the first club to exit the Football League pyramid after not being re-elected to the league.
Aberdare is a small town in the Cynon Valley of South Wales and is home to just over 30,000 inhabitants these days, but during the early part of the 20th century the town had a population around half of what it is today. To put that into perspective, the whole town of Aberdare would not fit in Swansea’s Liberty Stadium home, a stadium which is hardly one of the great, colossal ampitheatres of Premier League football. It is incredible to think that this once small community, very much part of the once thriving coal mining industry prevalent in the South Wales Valleys, was once home to a fully certified Football League club.
Aberdare Athletic entered the footballing world in 1893, but like most South Wales clubs during the latter stages of the 19th century and nascent years 20th century, the club had to battle against the South Wales Valleys’ most powerful entity – rugby. In the south, football was still very much a supplementary sport to rugby, whilst the game was flourishing and becoming more and more popular in North Wales where the FAW presided in Wrexham.
Like much of the nation’s history, the rise of Aberdare Athletic could be put down to the rise of the coal mining industry in South Wales. Aberdare was one of the towns at the heart of the South Wales coal mining industry and soon people from around Wales and the UK were flocking to the town. The surge in the coal industry began midway through the 19th century and by the 1860s Aberdare’s population had increased by 5 times its original population. Aberdare’s coal became renowned for its quality so much so that the Royal Navy chose the coal from the Cynon Valley as the coal to power their fleet of ships. The town was becoming the definition of a ‘boom’ town and became a place full of life with the building of more shops, pubs and churches and chapels to keep up with the ever-increasing population. The first modern National Eistedfodd was even held in Aberdare in 1861 during its prospering era.
With more and more people coming into the town from places less accustomed to the local sport of rugby, football began to seep into the community with local kickabouts amongst workers and eventually Aberdare Athletic came into fruition, a focal point for the new look society of Aberdare. Football would go on to become very much a sport of the miners in South Wales in the first half of the 20th century.
Aberadare Athletic would come close to clinching the Welsh Cup on three occasions in their history: 1903-04, 1904-05 and 1922-23, but would ultimately finish as runners-up on all three occasions. The fact that they made it to the final in 1904 and 1905 was impressive in itself as the more football-loving north of the country still very much dominated the Welsh football landscape, so much so that no South Wales team would win the Welsh Cup until Cardiff City was to lift the trophy in 1912.
As noted in Phil Stead’s excellent Red Dragons: The Story of Welsh Football, it was also during the early part of the 1900s that Aberdare provided the Welsh national team with the first player to come through the south Welsh league and make it to international level in Bill Jones, the club captain who would feature for Wales during 1901
The English Southern League had taken notice of how football was on the ascendancy across the Welsh border and the fact that the Welsh public desired football of a higher standard coming to them. In 1909 representatives of the English Southern League travelled South Wales enquiring whether clubs would like to go professional and join the league’s second division. Aberdare would be one of the team’s that would accept the invitation along with Ton Pentre and Merthyr Town.
For the start of the 1920s several Welsh clubs stepped up into the Football League’s new Third Division, whilst the Southern League was divided into an English and Welsh section. The winner of the each section would battle off to win the Southern League Championship and the first game of this kind was to be a fixture between Brighton & Hove Albion Reserves against Barry; the Welsh club would sink to a 2-1 defeat. This was still very much in the days of no promotion through winning titles, but instead through election and despite Barry winning the Welsh section, the team who would be elected to the Football League would be the runner-ups of the Welsh section: Aberdare Athletic. Aberdare were one of the eight teams that applied for election to the Football League and only themselves and fellow Athletic suffix sharing club, Charlton Athletic, were successful.
By the 1920s there would be an amazing total of 6 teams in the Football League: Swansea, Cardiff, Wrexham, Newport, Merthyr and Aberdare – notably only one of these clubs were North Walian, a distinct sign of how the football balance of Wales was switching to the south from the once more football-dominated north.
The most successful season in Aberdare’s history would be their debut season in the Football League in 1921/22, as the club finished in 8th position between Watford and Brentford and above their local rivals Merthyr, Swansea and Newport. The town was still very much going through a boom as the local club succeeded on the pitch at the mundanely named Aberdare Athletic Stadium (or the Ynys Stadium if you want to use its other name), a 23-000 capacity ground that would draw big crowds for the big local derbies against Swansea and Merthyr. The ground had undergone a lot of changes over its lifespan as the ground aimed to meet Football League standards: a grandstand was built and extensively developed, the surrounding cycling track eradicated and the embankments constructed behind either goal. Despite the grounds ties with football, the ground also played a significant part in the history of rugby league, hosting the first ever rugby league international involving an overseas team – a game between Wales and New Zealand. The ground would also be a happy home for the club in their great 1921/22 season as Aberdare would beat Swansea 2-1 at the Ynys Stadium in September 1921 and draw 0-0 with Merthyr in April 1922; however their most impressive result of the season was easily their 6-1 home demolition of Gillingham.
As well as Aberdare playing a large role in introducing football to the valley folk, personally, the town would play a significant part in my football upbringing with my Dad taking me along to watch him play 5-a-side at Mike Sobell Sport Centre in my youth. It was in the sport centre bar here I vividly recall watching the early years of Champions League on a Wednesday night. One night stood out for watching almost the entirety of 1997 Champions League final between Juventus and Dortmund, a night in which I first remember being introduced to the likes of Del Piero, Ravanelli, Sousa and even future Norwich and Villa manager Paul Lambert. I’ve been strangely intrigued by Aberdare Athletic for a while now (hence why I’m writing this) as their name seems to pops up a lot in the early part of 20th century Welsh football history. Perhaps my fascination with Aberdare Athletic FC can even be traced to this sports centre as I recently learned that it’s built alongside remains of the Aberdare Athletic Stadium. The actual area of the ground’s old pitch is now the site of an all weather astro turf.
Sadly, the Ynys Stadium would only be a football league ground for 6 seasons. After their 8th place finish in 1921/22, the club sank further into the doldrums of mid-table mediocrity with a 21st, 12th, 18th and a more respectable 9th place finish over the next four years (that 9th place was also coupled with a cup run to the FA Cup 3rd round – their best ever run), before the club finished in 22nd place in 1926/27. The club applied for re-election, but unlike every other team before them, they were not granted it and they were replaced in the Football League by the winners of the Southern League Western Division, one Torquay United FC.
Predictably following their demotion back to the Southern League, Aberdare Athletic went into freefall. In fact, the club were no longer even called Aberdare Athletic and were now named Aberdare & Aberaman Athletic after merging with another local team. After one year the Aberaman half of the club fled away from the Aberdare half to reform Aberaman Athletic leaving Aberdare to completely folded.
Although Aberdare Athletic are no longer with us, the name does live on after the recent renaming of Aberaman Athletic for the 2012/2013. Following the club parting ways with the Aberdare part of their name and becoming solely Aberaman Athletic, (there was another attempt to re-merge the names of the clubs in 1945 as Aberdare & Aberaman Athletic, but once again the new name was short-lived and by 1947 they were once again Aberaman Athletic. That was until last season where once again the name changed again, this time to simply just Aberdare Town, who play just outside the town of Aberdare itself between the villages of Aberaman and Abercwmboi at their Aberaman Park home.