Football Re-Discovered. Step 1: Taffs Well and the start of Welsh groundhopping.

Taffs Well FC received an unprecedented level of exposure when Neil Warnock took his Cardiff City squad to play a pre-season friendly at their Rhiw Dda’r ground in July. That was a fantastic evening and looking at Cardiff City’s positive start to the season it is difficult not to see that occasion as some kind of spark for the renewed sense of positivity and optimism around the Bluebirds.

 

I said I would go back to Rhiw Dda’r for a league match so it is was a natural place to begin a new project this season: to watch more local, grassroots clubs inside the Welsh football pyramid, as well as the likes of Merthyr Town making a go of it lower down the English system. The visit this past weekend also provided a seminal moment in the lives of my 3-year-old daughter’s and my life: our first football match together. I won’t get too heavy with the sentimentality, but it did feel like a pretty big deal.

 

The Welsh Football League

 

Taffs Well (or ‘The Wellmen’) play in the Welsh Football League, which is one of two regional league systems that sit below the Welsh Premier League. The Welsh Football League serves South Wales (east and west); its partner is the Cymru Alliance covering Mid and North Wales. Taffs Well compete in the Welsh Football League Division One, which is the highest level in South Wales and occupies level 2 in the Welsh football pyramid.

 

Barry Town United were champions last season and gained promotion to the Welsh Premier League after a 13 year absence. While there are a few clubs I recognise from the early years of the Welsh Premier League such as Ton Pentre, Afan Lido and Briton Ferry, there doesn’t appear to an obviously dominant side. Pen-Y-Bont look like the team to beat on paper as they finished as runners-up to Barry Town United last season; while Llanelli Town boast the evergreen Lee Trundle up front.

 

The Village and the Football Club

 

In the event you are reading this and you don’t know where Taffs Well is located, it’s about six miles north out of Cardiff on, believe it or not, the banks of the River Taff. Historically it is well-known for its thermal spring (located just off the village’s main road), nestled in the narrowing of the valley between Garth Hill (to the west) and Craig-Yr-Allt (to the east). Hence it has been regarded as the gateway to the South Wales valleys.

 

The football club were formed in 1946 following a meeting in St. Mary’s Church in nearby Glan Y Llyn (according to the matchday programme – more on that later). Initially the football club played in the local Cardiff leagues and later the South Wales Amateur League. The Wellmen eventually joined Welsh League in 1977, where they have played ever since. Their biggest success has come in the Welsh Football League cup, which they have won four times since the start of the 2011-12 season.

 

Rhiw Dda’r

 

Taffs Well play at Rhiw Dda’r, which roughly translates into English as ‘Good Hill’. Once again drawing on the excellent match programme, it informs the reader that The Wellmen acquired the land where the current ground resides from a local farmer (Dai Parry) shortly after their formation.

 

I am at loss to explain which is the ‘good hill’ in question. Two hills dominate the skyline around the village: Garth Hill to the west and it’s less famous easterly cousin, Craig-Yr-Allt, which is merges into Caerphilly common going further east. There is a ‘Ty Rhiw’ marked on my Ordnance Survey map of the area, but that seems to be located on the slop below Fforest-fawr, where Castle Coch is prominent.

 

All of this gives Rhiw Dda’r a beautifully picturesque setting, especially on the eastern side of the ground where Garth Hill provides a brilliant backdrop to the action.           When you’ve got the sun setting behind the ridge that runs north of the Garth you get an added splash of atmosphere. The pitch is in fantastic condition after receiving a makeover courtesy of Cardiff City’s groundstaff in pre-season, with a noticeable downward slope running south-north. It cannot be said that Rhiw Dda’r is a ground lacking character.

 

Facilities at Rhiw Dda’r are decent. There are two modern stands with seating and as the ground has a capacity around 3,000 there is plenty of area for standing around the pitch. The clubhouse is fairly basic, but it has everything you could want, i.e. they sell beer and have toilets. If you’re taking kids there is plenty of space for them to run around and lark about while you take in the football. I was certainly comfortable to keep my daughter in eyesight, but largely let her get on with her own thing knowing she was safe and sound.

 

The overall atmosphere is relaxed, with Chairman Liam Edwards the friendly and welcoming face at the door. You also get the sense that the locals who turn out are passionate about the club (the attendance for this match was about 50-60 by my rough count) and there was some vocal support. This is fantastic in age where so much football can grabbed at the touch of a TV remote, more people these days are only interested in following success and fewer engaging with ‘real’ football. Regular followers of non-league football always tell me how passionate it is; at Taffs Well there is certainly that vibe.

 

The Programme

 

If you ever go along to Rhiw Dda’r I highly recommend paying the £2 for a programme as it is without doubt one of the most interesting and eclectic match programme I have ever picked up. If it is typical of the idiosyncrasy of non-league football I am looking forward to seeing what each club has to offer.

 

Inside the programme you find typical informative pieces about the history of the club, the league and the match opponents, which help to provide some context and feel for the game. However, throughout the Taffs Well programme, among the adverts for local businesses, you have interludes of editorial randomness. In this particular programme there are musings on the transfer market, the tactical state of the game, the conduct of Cristiano Ronaldo. Then you’ve got the further entertainment in the form of some decent and genuinely thought-provoking quiz questions, and a few strange jokes here and there.

 

The total lack of corporate pretention is very refreshing and provides a strong impression that this is a unique football club occupying its own space and doing its own thing in the universe. There is a sincerity and passion for the game that is so often lacking in the fan experience at professional and elite clubs. No wonder Neil Warnock loves grassroots football and giving his players a good splash of it in pre-season. There is simply no bullshit being handed off as gold around here.

 

The Match

 

The Wellmen’s visitors were Goytre FC. When I first started looking into this league I saw Goytre and Goytre United on the league table. I know Goytre near Pontypool and thought to myself ‘surely that small village cannot accommodate two football clubs…and in the same division’. I had the ‘Goytre Derby’ pencilled in as a must for the season.

 

Alas, I was quickly disappointed. While Goytre FC are from the Pontypool area, Goytre United hail from the Port Talbot area. Having lived in Wales all my life I really ought to have known that place names are rarely unique here.

 

Last season Goytre FC finished 3rd in the league, their total of 80 goals made them the league’s top scorers. They also conceded 49 goals, so on paper they appear to be the division’s entertainers. The programme also boasted that Taffs Well-Goytre encounters were often high scoring affairs, so I was looking forward to this one.

 

Goytre were certainly had the early ascendancy and twice came close to opening the scoring; their best effort being a well-executed free kick that struck the post with The Wellmen’s keeper flat-footed. Taffs Well fought their way back into the game – attacking up the slope in the first half – and it soon became end to end with some very ‘competitive’ challenges going around.

 

Taffs Well did get the breakthrough around the half hour mark from the penalty spot. A goalkeeping error about ten minutes later enabled Goytre to level the match, only for The Wellmen to strike again quickly. Taff Well’s number 10 pounced on a loose ball inside the Goytre penalty area to score. At first he seemed to be in an offside position, but the final touch before his finish looked like it came off a Goytre defender. There was no flag anyway and little in the way of protest at the officials. At the break The Wellman had a 2-1 lead.

 

The second half saw Goytre press for an equaliser but a well-organised Taffs Well side held firm and broke quickly on the counter, especially on the right hand side with full back X bombing forward on several occasions to support the attack. It was a neat move down the same flank that allowed Taff’s 10 to grab his second goal and effectively seal the win and 3 points.

 

To Goytre’s credit they did continue to press and it could have been a tense finish if they had taken advantage of their number 9 breaking the Taffs Well offside trap. Through on goal he elected to square to a team-mate, but his scuffed pass allowed Taffs Well’s keeper to recover and smother the shot.

 

Full-time result: Taffs Well 3-1 Goytre FC

 

It was a good, competitive match; a higher standard than I anticipated. Taffs Well looked a well-organised side and it was nice to see them trying to make the most of their renovated pitch and play the ball along the floor at times. Their front three, in particular, were a constant threat and out wide there was some good service into the box. Goytre FC, in contrast, were much more direct, looking to play to the strengths of their big centre forward. It wasn’t their day and (excuse the pun) always an uphill struggle chasing the game in the second half.

 

*

 

If you’re not following City away and you’re looking for a football fix (or just looking for a football fix in the Cardiff area) I recommend you go along to Rhiw Dda’r. At a mere £5 admission it was good value for money: a decent ground and a friendly and welcoming grassroots experience; it’s great for kids because it gets them outside and shows them there is more to football than Man United, Liverpool, Chelsea or whatever Sky Sports ram down your throats these days. £5 – it’s nothing these days. You can’t even buy a pint for you and a mate in the city for that money; a really bad Hollywood movie will cost you more or less double the price (while you sit in the dark and eat junk food). It’s a no-brainer; I know I will be back for more.

 

 

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