Merthyr Town 2 – 2 Hereford FC
Cigg-E Stadium, Friendly, Saturday July 18th, 2015
Once, in a McDonald’s in the northern German town of Lüneburg, a local told me he knew of Merthyr Tydfil because of the town’s football team defeating Atalanta in the old Cup Winners Cup. Not many people I meet on my travels have ever heard of Merthyr, and, unlike the Lüneburger, those who have generally know it from the negative press the town sometimes receives in the national media.
Like the majority of those who have called Merthyr home, I have always felt that the criticism was overly harsh and that the town was too often seen as an easy target. Now it seems the town is fighting back. Over the many years that I have lived away from Merthyr, I would usually be told on returning that “Nothing has changed, mate.” That, however, no longer seems to be the case.
The retail park at the top of town has been around for several years now, but always seems to be changing and expanding, and the same goes for the leisure village at the bottom of town, too. Perhaps more interestingly, the Redhouse in the old town hall seems like a great space, and events like the recent return of the Merthyr Half Marathon and the Merthyr Food Festival are further signs of the regeneration going on in the town.
And now sport in the town is seeing investment. “Merthyr’s a great town and I want to put something back into it,”was how local millionaire introduced his ambitious plans to redevelop the town’s rugby club and generate more good press for the town. That investment has already seen one former Wales and British Lion arrive, as well as other recognisable names to rugby fans.
Of course, rugby is not our thing here, so what of the club’s football team? Well, football in the town has also been rebuilding its own reputation over the last few years and it has largely been a story of success. That story begins on a sad note, as Merthyr Tydfil FC, who had played in the town for 55 years, were liquidated back in 2010.
With no richer backer offering funding to save the football club, supporters took their own initiative and headed down the increasingly popular fan ownership route. Since its formation in 2010 the new fan-owned club, Merthyr Town, has enjoyed almost continual improvement; the final league placings over those five seasons have been 1st, 1st, 3rd, 2nd and 1st. After back-to-back play-off final defeats in 2013 and 2014, Merthyr eventually clinched promotion by winning the Southern League Division One (South & West) this past season. In the 2015-16 season, they will play in the Southern League Premier Division (Step 3 of the non-league pyramid); the same level the club was at before liquidation.
As I’ve travelled, I’ve always kept an eye on the results of the Merthyr’s football team, but I’ve never really had a relationship with my hometown club.
It could have been different. Like many kids, my first game of live football was to see my local team. I don’t remember a great deal about it, but I remember it was unplanned with my dad suddenly announcing on the morning of the game we would go. I remember it was a Conference game between Merthyr Tydfil and Enfield at Penydarren Park. I remember the home side won 5-1. I remember being impressed by the noise a crowd of several hundred, perhaps more in those days, could generate.
Dad said we would go again against better opposition and for our next game we made the jump from Conference to international football, as Wales entertained Costa Rica in a pre-Italia ’90 friendly at Ninian Park. For me, that World Cup, like so many other football fans born in the early 1980s, was when football changed from enjoyable playground activity to all-out obsession.
Not long after the tournament’s finale, we did return to Penydarren Park and the opposition were definitely an upgrade on Enfield. Red Star Belgrade were preparing for the 1990-91 season in the UK and brought a team to Merthyr that included several of the Yugoslavian team that had reached the quarter finals in Italy. Robert Prosinecki, later to play for Barcelona, Real Madrid and, erm, Portsmouth was one of those players and he scored a free-kick. Merthyr, however, got a scrappy equaliser and held the team that would end that season as European Champions to a 1-1 draw.
If any game was going to create a bond between me and the club, it was probably that one. However, the visit of Red Star is now almost 25 years ago and I hadn’t gone back until this visit. Why did it take so long to return? Well, there was a certain lack of curiousity on my part; Dad and I went to a few Cardiff City home games and a few more Wales home games, but I don’t think I ever really pushed to go more often. My 1990s Saturday afternoons were usually spent delivering newspapers or playing rugby, while I got my football fix from satellite television, magazines, computer games and the occasional appearance for local boys clubs. These were the early days of the phenomena we now refer to as ‘Modern Football’ and I was among the early ones taken in.
Dad was joining me again for this game, while my wife and my mother checked out the Merthyr Food Festival. We all had a quick stroll around the stalls and there seemed to be a great variety of different foods and drinks available. It smelled great and a good crowd was taking advantage of the good weather, but it wasn’t long before we left the ladies and strolled up to Penydarren Park.
We stopped for a quick pint in the Park View, just around the corner from the ground. The music was very loud, but we were able to hear one punter’s criticism of our local pub. He was friendly enough, though, and, as he had been to see visitors Hereford FC’s well-attended return to Edgar Street a week previously, the conversation had us all hoping for a big crowd.
Penydarren Park had not changed much from my memory of it. The stands look rickety and rundown, but they certainly give the place plenty of character. The famous Strikers bar has gone, but the early stages of a new clubhouse and improvements to stands are underway. The big change is the 3G playing surface, which I had seen a lot of travelling in Korean lower leagues, but which was a first for dad. There’s also, of course, the name change. Selling naming rights may not seem in keeping with the trends of fan ownership, but no doubt it’s a necessary evil for a club whose motto is ‘progress through stability.’
A lot ties Merthyr to visitors Hereford. The border city is a little over an hour from the Valleys town and several players and managers have represented both, most famously John Charles. Now the supporters both share the despair of seeing their club wound up and the hope of fan ownership. Hereford United, a club with 90 years of history, including one of the FA Cup’s most famous upsets, were shut down in December 2014. The supporters trust immediately set about ensuring football continued in the city and this eventually led to the formation of Hereford FC, who will play two step below Merthyr in the Midland League in 2015-16. The new club was also able to secure Edgar Street as its home and on July 11th a crowd of 4,000+ fans turned up for the visit of FC United of Manchester.
£7 got us through the turnstiles and we took up a place next to the far wall, near the corner flag. While the teams were going through final preparations, we browsed the teamsheets for any familiar names. Former Swansea man Guillermo Bauza stood out most, but he would start on the home bench; he being another whose former clubs include Hereford.
Over the past few years, I have moved slightly more outside the ‘Modern Football’ bubble, but old habits die hard. My Japanese artist-designed Real Madrid third strip is the probably most Modern Football of my attire and perhaps wasn’t the best choice for a game between two supporter-owned, non-league clubs. The colours- black and white- were, at least, right and the expensive footballer named on the shirt is a celebrated, (relatively) local lad. Another young fan was also in a Real Madrid shirt, but his pink jersey was accessorised with a Merthyr Town scarf, increasing my own belief that elite and grassroots can co-exist, despite the ever-widening gap.
Both teams began the game trying to play football. Merthyr’s young goalkeeper always seemed to look for his centre backs first, especially one-time Wales prodigy Ryan Green, and the big number 9 Prosser second. The wingers for the Martyrs and for Hereford saw plenty of the ball and constantly attacked their full backs.
Despite the openness and willingness of both sides to play on the ground, it was a set-piece that provided the first goal. Merthyr’s marking on a corner was poor and Hereford’s Summers was there to head in at the far post. The lead didn’t last long, however. It was hard to know what Kerry Morgan had in mind when he was presented with the freedom of Hereford’s penalty box, but fortunately Jarrad Wright was on-hand to save his blushes. Hereford’s powerful winger Wheatley was probably the first half’s stand-out performer and he put the visitors ahead again. Beating a couple of defenders, he cut in from the left and curled a shot over the keeper’s head, probably helped in with a bit of a deflection. Merthyr’s second equaliser was, for me, the goal of the game, though. Ian Traylor freed Morgan and, after some good wing-play, he put in a cross to the near post where Traylor, who had continued his run, was there to head in.
Several people were walking past with half a cob and chips (for the uninitiated, this is exactly what it sounds like- half a cob loaf emptied of its bready core and stuffed with chips). Dad and I eyed them up hungrily, but resisted the temptation. When I later learned Dad had never sampled this Afon Taf High School lunchtime staple, I regretted not introducing him to this Merthyr delicacy. Instead, I settled for just a cold can of Coors from the back of a van.
The teams were largely unchanged as the second half began, but within 15-20 minutes of kick-off both teams had changed most of their starting XIs. Bauza was among the last of those to enter the game and we hoped his quality would add some late spark. Playing in midfield, the Spaniard had a poor game, but given that he has just completed a degree in medical genetics with first class honours, it is possible football has not been his main priority recently. Instead, the entertainment came instead from the Hereford fans trying to make sense of some interesting calls from the referee’s assistant on our side of the field.
There were no more goals and the game ended a 2-2 draw. It had certainly been a largely entertaining affair, certainly more so than either of the well-known European club’s pre-season friendlies I had watched earlier on TV (another cross against the modern game).
I don’t know when I’ll next be visiting Penydarren Park because I’m leaving for another Asian adventure soon, but I’m sure it won’t take 25 years. Another thing I’m certain of is that there will have been more changes by the next time I’m in Merthyr. Hopefully one thing that won’t be changing soon is Merthyr Town’s ongoing success.
GOOD: the long-delayed return to Penydarren Park; entertaining game with some quality goals; decent crowd, even if it wasn’t the huge crowd some had predicted (just under 1,000 according to reports); great weather
BAD: substitions slowing the tempo (but it is still pre-season); sunburn