Rhyl v Gap Connah’s Quay
Belle Vue / Welsh Premier League / 28th March 2015
In my 26 years there have been many times when hope has arisen whilst watching the Welsh national team. ‘Hope’ is the only word really, as just when you think the glory (qualifying for a first major tournament since 1958 in our case) is on the horizon, cruelty strikes and hope is dashed. This is the vicious cycle of following the Welsh national team. Currently, we’re at the ‘hope’ stage again with the national team, as we look to seize a place at Euro 2016.
Basically, Israel v Wales was to be a massive game for the Welsh – probably our biggest since our play-off games v Russia in 2004. Israel started the day as group leaders, but Wales were on their tails. Many of my pals have spent the week on social media counting down the days until they headed for Tel Aviv and then posting photos of the Israeli capital on their arrival. I was jealous. Once again, my professional life would quash any chance of going to watch Wales away. However, I had decided that I couldn’t stay in Manchester to watch the Wales game (no pub would probably show it anyway) and so I opted to head over the border and into North Wales to watch Y Dreigiau take on Israel on TV there. Of course, this was to be coupled with a groundhop to a North Wales footballing hotspot. Sod Tel Aviv! I was off to Rhyl! Probably much nicer than Tel Aviv too, especially at the start of British spring time.
Despite it being spring time, it was absolutely pissing it down in Manchester, to the extent that I was worried about Rhyl’s pitch as I headed through the north-west towards North Wales. My doubts were unnecessary, as it seemed as soon as I crossed the border into Wales that the sky was clearing. By the time I got to Rhyl itself, it was actually a fairly pleasant day. It seemed Rhyl was living up to its ‘Sunny Rhyl’ moniker.
I walked through the town centre (making a note of pubs on the way) and headed for my first port of call: the seafront. Oh I do like to be by the seaside, but it seemed today that no-one else did. The seafront was a ghost town – an extremely windy one at that too. I had a nose round and headed past the empty funfair and the various amusement arcades before heading back into town.
My first pub stop of the day was The Lorne. A pleasant enough place, where it seemed several locals had gathered for an early pint and to peruse their Saturday papers. In a running theme throughout the day, the beer was cheap too.
Next up, I found myself in the town’s Irish Bar – not something you see too often in Wales. I had been informed before heading to Rhyl that there is a strong scouse presence there; well, this was my only really encounter with it, as it seemed everyone in the bar had a slight scouse tinge to their accent. It was a bit strange in there and others confirmed to me later that I wasn’t wrong to find it a bit ‘odd’ in there. However, once again beer was cheap.
Obviously, I can’t visit a town without taking in the local Wetherspoons, so across town I walked until I arrived at The Sussex – an unusual name for a pub in Rhyl I felt; although I did then notice that I was on Sussex Street. I thought it was a bit boring naming the Wetherspoons after the street it is on, so I decided to Google ‘famous people from Rhyl’ to come up with alternative pub name suggestions with many Spoons pubs being named after famous local heroes. The best I could muster from the measly amount of famous folk from Rhyl was renaming the pub ‘The Lisa Scott-Lee’ after the former Steps singer who was born in the Denibighshire town. I felt ‘The Ched Evans’ may not be appropriate. Wetherspoons did provide me with some wi-fi too; from the moment I arrived in Rhyl, my phone had some sort of breakdown and my internet and even phone signal seemed to suddenly vanish.
The prematch pub crawl finished in the North Wales Inn – a place bountiful with characters it seemed. More amazingly, a pint of Tuborg was £2! I got talking to two of the characters in the bar and they kindly gave me directions to the ground, as my usual trick of using Google Maps to locate the ground was going to be impossible with my phone still not functioning properly. One lad in bar went on to describe me as ‘one ballsy young lad’ for having the audacity to walk into and drink in random pubs around Rhyl by myself. Quite possibly. He even shook my hand in awe of the fact that I was on a solo mission round Rhyl.
The directions given to me in the pub were spot on, as within ten minutes of leaving the pub, I found myself outside Rhyl’s Belle Vue home (we won’t resort to calling it by its sponsorship-inspired name, The Corbett Sports Stadium, here). Once again, Atherton Colls manager and all round legend Cleggy had sorted me out with free entry to the game, as he called in a favour from his former Colls player and now Rhyl defender Jack Kenny. Much appreciated lads!
I’m going to throw it in here that Rhyl’s ground is brilliant and definitely one of the best you’ll find at this sort of level. With a bit of sprucing up it really wouldn’t look out of places in the lower echelons of the Football League. I think it helps that the ground is four-sided, unlike the majority of the Welsh Premier grounds which have large open areas. Three sides of the ground feature seated stands of some sort; 1720 of the ground’s 3000 capacity is made up of seating. Behind the near goals as you enter is another area consisting of some seating (I was told that the seats are from Manchester City’s old Maine Road) and standing areas. This part of the ground also houses the main food bar and the club bar, which is raised above the rest of the ground with a little viewing balcony adjacent to it.
The ground has been home to Rhyl since 1892, but football in Rhyl dates back to the 1870s with the first incarnation of Rhyl FC being formed in 1879. They were founder members of the Welsh League in 1890 before withdrawing in the following year and then reforming in 1893 as Rhyl Athletic. The first quarter of the 20th century saw the North Walian club ply its trade in various Welsh leagues, before the club tried to gain election to the Football League in 1929. After a few unsuccessful attempts at entering the Football League, the club joined the Birmingham and District League and then moved into the Cheshire County League to avoid the long trips to the Midlands.
Post war, the club went on to win the league several times as well as winning the Welsh Cup twice in two years in the 50s. The club would climb up through the North West Counties Leagues and into the Northern Premier League in 1992. It was at this time that Welsh clubs were being forced into the newly-formed League of Wales (now the Welsh Premier League), so Rhyl were reluctantly forced to exit the English football pyramid and join the new Welsh league. However, as their application arrived too late for the League of Wales, they were forced to play in the second tier in the Cymru Alliance league (although they won this in their first season and joined the League of Wales proper for the 94/95 season).
In that time the club have had star players like Andy Holden, Barry Horne and, more importantly in my eyes, Lee Trundle grace their shirts, as well as playing in the Champions League (qualifiers) in 2004 after winning the Welsh Premier League. Today, Rhyl, as well as today’s opponents Connah’s Quay, found themselves languishing in the lower half of the Welsh Premier. I had not brought the club much luck last time I saw them play either, as I found myself in Bangor last May to see their big rivals beat them in the Europa League Qualifier Play-off final. Maybe I’d bring them more luck today.
I headed to the bar with Rhyl (and West Ham) fan Matt and I was soon invited to join the group of Rhyl fans drinking towards the back of the small club bar. All were very friendly, although they did tell me not to expect anything dazzling on the pitch today. They weren’t wrong in fairness to them.
We headed down the steps from the bar, as the teams began to walk out on to the pitch. It was here I met Clint Jones, the man behind the excellent Welsh football groundhopping site The 94th Minute. We headed to get some food just as the game was kicking off and for £2.50 I had a fairly excellent pasty and chips, whilst Clint told me the story behind the ‘The 94th Minute’ name of his blog – a name that derives from a day Clint spent here at Belle Vue. His team, Holywell Town, were trailing 2-0 to Conwy Borough in the FAW Trophy played at Rhyl’s home, only the Wellmen to score three goals in the last minute and injury time to clinch a dramatic cup win; the winner came in the 94th minute.
Today, the game unfolding in front of us was far less thrilling and unlike my usual experiences with the Welsh Premier, where I have witnessed some really exciting games. One of the more lively players on the pitch was Connah’s Quay’s Cortez Belle, a player who had signed on loan from Carmathen just the day before. I was particularly interested in him as he had played for my hometown club, Merthyr Tydfil.
With the game struggling to spring to life, I went for a wander of the ground to take some photos. Within minutes of leaving our spot behind the goal, the away team were netting into that goal. Rhyl’s keeper chose to punch the ball away from a corner, but the ball fell to a Nomads player, who directed the ball in as it came back down. And so the PA system declared, “Goal for Connah’s Quay, number 14 Steve Evans.” Steve Evans! I immediately turned to Clint and asked if it was THE Steve Evans, but I didn’t even give him a chance to answer as I looked at the pitch and spotted him straight away. I’m not sure how I didn’t notice him earlier. For those unaware of who THE Steve Evans is, he became the first non-league footballer in 76 years to represent Wales, with John Toshack awarding him 7 caps despite playing for Wrexham in the Conference. In fairness to him, I don’t think he did too much wrong when he was wearing a Wales shirt, despite the massive jump from non-league to international football.
Moments later, it was 2-0 to the Nomads. Alex Bull broke down the left wing, beat a man and then finished into the far corner past Ramsay. A deserved lead for the away team, who slightly edged the first half for me. I was just let down that there wasn’t a small, yet noisy contingent of Nomads fans like when I saw them play at Cefn Druids back in August. On that night the Nomads fans came up with one of my favourite chants of the season (which you can read about on that blog here). In fact, I hadn’t spotted a single Connah’s Quay fan in the crowd of 374 today.
Half-time: Rhyl 0 – 2 Connah’s Quay.
There was chaos in the bar as the club had run out of lager on tap and so for some reason I opted to have a Newcastle Brown Ale instead. I do forget how much I like the stuff though, but I’m fairly sure it played a large part in making really drunk later in the day.
I headed back out of the bar and then encountered 2 scousers on the balcony area who were actually Connah’s Quay fans; I had finally found some and a friendly duo they were too.
After chatting to them for a bit, I headed down the steps and I stood behind the near goals with the Rhyl fans for the second half. For some reason I started explaining how 23 is my lucky number, so Matt told me to stand in front of the light blue seat numbered 23.
Rhyl did certainly improve in the second half, but they were still creating very little. The home team started to attack more aggressively, yet the Nomads’ defence was still working tirelessly with Evans in particular making a couple of crucial tackles.
The Lilywhites eventually got the goal their second half showing deserved when a deflected shot in the box fell to Ashley Ruane to fire home from close range. 2-1.
The lads behind the goal tried to cheer Rhyl on to a equaliser, but still the away team remained stubborn and strong with the defence making vital blocks and tackles to hold off the Rhyl attack. Rhyl just never looked like grabbing another goal and the Nomads held out for an important three points which takes them further away from the relegation zone.
Full-time: Rhyl 1 – 2 Connah’s Quay.
I headed back up to the bar for a quick drink and a chat with the Rhyl fans I had befriended (they now had bottles of Budweiser available), before I planned on darting back into town for the Israel v Wales game. I had planned to go to the Bodfor pub near the train station, but one Rhyl fan suggested I go to the Cob and Pen, also opposite the train station. I thought I’d try give both a go.
I waved goodbye to Belle Vue, the Rhyl fans and Clint and made my way back into town. I headed to the Bodfor first as the Wales game was just kicking off, but I was immediately annoyed with the place as they didn’t have the commentary on and instead opted to play loud music instead. Fair to say I drank my pint quickly and jogged back over the road to the Cob and Pen.
This turned out to be my favourite pub of the day. The Cob and Pen is a very homely and pleasant pub and, more importantly, they had the Wales game on several screens with commentary on. Perfect. I was beckoned over to join Rhyl fan Carl and his friends, who I had been speaking to in the Rhyl clubhouse. We were all engaged in watching the biggest game in past 10 years for the Welsh national team.
I mentioned ‘hope’ with Wales earlier – well, if there is one thing that was provided in abundance on this Saturday evening, it was hope. As he does for his country, Gareth Bale inspired Wales to a superb 3-0 win out in Tel Aviv to send Wales top of the group! By now, the day’s beer had hit me a bit (I still blame the Newcastle Brown) and I’m probably right in saying that some of my celebrations were a tad boisterous. We did make sure to have a Gareth Bale ‘heart celebration’ photo together though to commend our hero, although some of the heart impersonations were a bit woeful (myself especially). By now, the beer had also led to me sending Snapchats of me singing ‘Viva Gareth Bale’ too, which was not pretty listening.
Following the final whistle, I headed over to the station as my train was rolling out at 19:12. I found Rhyl to be a funny little town but with lots of good people. The football club was very inviting and everyone very friendly, as well as the Lilywhites’ possessing a great ground. I’ll always have fond memories of the place anyway, as I’ll remember the place as the town where I watched Wales deliver one of the best away showings and hopefully a game that will prove a stepping stone to our first major tournament
Highlights: plenty of pubs (Cob and Pen stand out), ground easy to get to from town centre, good ground, free entry, friendly fans, good pasty and chips, Wales beating Israel 3 – 0!
Low Points: poor game.
You can see all my photos from my trip to Rhyl here.