The Rhondda Valley. When I was growing up the Rhondda was like this mythical place, like some lost world amidst our own. It was commonplace to joke about the Rhondda as though it were a place inhabited by troglodytes and other strange life forms, to head out on the road that leaves Pontypridd for Hopkinstown, Trehafod, Porth and beyond was to put your life at serious peril. When I moved back to Wales six years ago my cousin, who lives in Porth, joked the Rhondda was a great place to live – if you didn’t mind the odd knuckle dragger!
That perception is still there that the Rhondda is packed with feral dullards, juiced up overly macho alpha male types, women of loose virtue and despair. There is some element of truth in the perception, but it can be applied to the all of The Valleys. However, when you actually venture up the Rhondda (there are two Rhondda Valleys emerging beyond Porth where the Fawr (large) and Fach (small) become one river before they join the Taff at Pontypridd) you find not only a place of genuine beauty, but lively communities full of good, friendly people. There are a few idiots, of course, but don’t let them get in the way of the reality.
It is fitting that of all the Valleys of the former South Wales coalfield, the Rhondda is the one that is most synonymous with Wales. It is famed as a rich source of “steam coal” which made landowners extremely rich and saw the peak-figure of 73 mines sunk in The Rhondda by the late 19th Century; not mention a historical hot bed of male voice choirs and nonconformism. As the greatest projection of the wealth generated by the Welsh coal boom, the Rhondda is also a fitting symbol of the decline the former coalfield has experienced since the end of the Second World War.
There is a lot of deprivation – that brings some despair – throughout the Rhondda and without getting too much into politics, questioning whether the both national and devolved governments have done enough to fill the economic void left by the demise of heavy industry. Making the valleys commuting fodder for Cardiff’s isn’t doing the people and the communities of the former coalfield any justice at all.
Nevertheless, there are proud communities throughout the region and some of these have football clubs at their heart. The last in this series looked at Merthyr Town FC’s role as a community-serving project; up in the Rhondda (Fawr), there is another club following the same model. It is one of the oldest and proudest football clubs in Wales; it’s situated the village of Ton Pentre.
The History of Ton Pentre FC
According to the club’s programme, there has been a football club in Ton Pentre since 1896. Current records take the existing club’s formation back to the mid 1930s, but other records show evidence of incarnations bearing the Ton Pentre name prior to this – most notably the 1922 Welsh Cup Final, in which a Ton Pentre outfit were defeated by Cardiff City. Prior to this there was a Ton Pentre FC competing in the Southern League before the outbreak of the First World War.
Such was the appetite for football in this area in the inter-war period, it is reported that a match between Ton Pentre and Mid-Rhondda drew a crowd of 20,000 to Ynys Park (the home of Ton Pentre FC) – believed to be the biggest crowd for any sporting event in The Rhondda.
Since re-formation in the 1930s, Ton Pentre FC have competed exclusively within the Welsh league system and when the FAW formed the League of Wales (LOW) in 1992, such was the standing of the Rhondda Bulldogs (the club’s nickname), they were invited to join the inaugural season. However, as a true testament of the spirit that is symptomatic of the values of areas like The Rhondda, Ton Pentre declined the invitation; choosing instead to earn promotion to the LOW through their own merit.
It took one season for Ton Pentre to do that and during those formative years of the new national league, the Rhondda Bulldogs were a force to be reckoned with, achieving very creditable 3rd place finishes in the 1993-4 and 1994-5 seasons. The latter brought the reward of European football as Ton Pentre competed in the 1995 Inter-Toto Cup.
The Bulldogs were outclassed at that level, losing all four games and failing to score a goal, but did get to play both their home fixtures against Dutch outfit Heerenveen and Portugal’s Leiria at the then national stadium (Cardiff Arms Park). However, the European venture would have a devastating impact on Ton Pentre’s finances and in 1997 they were forced to resign from the League of Wales amidst the threat of liquidation. Ton Pentre have remained a Welsh Football League club ever since and have been crowned champions on six occasions.
Aside from that mid-90s European jaunt, Ton Pentre’s biggest day came in 1986 when they drew Cardiff City at home in the first round of the FA Cup. Such was the attraction that the BBC sent the Match of the Day cameras to cover the tie. There is a fantastic BBC feature on Youtube about the fixture, which Cardiff won 4-1. You can watch it here.
Ton Pentre FC – like Merthyr Town FC – are a Community Benefit Society (CBS). It means anybody can join the society as a member by purchasing a share and with that comes voting rights (one vote per share, one share per member), as well as the right to stand for election to the society’s board. The purpose of a CBS is to work for the benefit of the local community, not to serve the interests of any of its members. It means Ton Pentre FC is an entirely supporter-owned club and all money generated must be used to improve the club and/or provide community services – no money can be distributed among members.
The club’s current strategic plan is very ambitious with the aim of reaching a membership total of 2000 by 2022. Alongside this the club aim to become a centre for engagement in the local community, presumably based at their home Ynys Park, in a not dissimilar way to Merthyr Town’s home Penydarren Park or the centre for Sporting Excellence at Ystrad Mynach in the Rhymney Valley.
The Ynys Park Experience
The village of Ton Pentre is about 8 miles north-westerly of Pontypridd and 20 or so miles from Cardiff. One of the virtues of watching football in the Valleys is the natural amphitheatre created by the surrounding hills. Ton Pentre is no different and Ynys Park is perfectly situated with the Mynydd Eglwys more or less standing over the ground to the North and Maendy and Llywnypia mountains to west and south. It is a spectacular setting.
Anyone who has read my previous pieces on Welsh grassroots football will know my preferred mode of travel is by train. That is perfect for Ton Pentre FC because the ground is located just off the railway line. You have to head out of the station and back over the tracks (via a road bridge) to get to the ground. It’s not the easiest navigation as Ynys Park is hidden away at the back of an industrial estate, which in itself is enveloped inside those labyrinthine streets that are so typical of old Valleys towns and villages. It isn’t signposted either, so with a little help from Google maps (after initially missing the turning to the industrial estate) I got there.
The ground itself lacks the verdant beauty of Taff’s Well Rhiw Dda, but there is a good, roofed terrace behind the goal at the top of the slope (on the right as you enter and past the dressing rooms/club house), with a small seated stand on halfway to the left. The perimeter of the pitch is essentially a walkway (walled off to the south, more open on the northern side) with some wasteland behind the goal at the bottom of the slope.
It’s not the most attractive ground I have ever visited, but neither is it without its charm. It feels intimate and you get the feeling if they got a good number on that terrace it would make a cracking atmosphere.
Entry is £5 on the door (under 16s get in for free) and the match programme is included. This pricing seems to be a recurring theme in the Welsh Football League and I was really pleased to see a good number of youngsters taking advantage of some free Welsh League football on a Saturday afternoon. Naturally, there was as much conversation about Cardiff’s match at Fulham that afternoon, a few bits and pieces about this or that Premier League team as there was interest the action on the pitch – while others just seemed to be hanging around for their chance to get on the pitch for a kickabout before and after the match – but whatever reason brought them there, getting kids in through the door has to be a big part of any CBS’ local engagement. Certainly when I was a kid I would have loved to have this level of football on my doorstep that I could access free of charge.
Ynys Park has a good cafe run by volunteers. There’s a decent range of stuff, you can get some hot food, as well as the usual snacks (you can purchase pin badges too). Best of all, the hot drinks come in an actual mug; no paper or polystyrene cup at Ton Pentre. It’s a very small detail in the grand scheme of things, yet it feels much bigger than you would think. It carries with it all the association of popping in to see a friend or relative over a cuppa.
I really like those kinds of details, it’s one of the things I’m enjoying about grassroots clubs, how welcoming they are and there is evident a warming feeling of familiarity and community of those people who stand on the Ynys Park terrace for every home game. The mug is not disposable and you return it when you’re done. It’s a gesture of responsibility, of taking pride in the image of the club and what it is doing. While the drink comes and goes, the mug endures – much like the club.
If you are a first timer at Ton Pentre the match programme is an absolute godsend. It is jam-packed with information that really gives you a sense of context. There is a comprehensive history of Ton Pentre FC, the visitors (Cwmamman United when I visited) get a piece to provide their own heritage. There are informative profiles of both home and away squads, so you’ve got the context you need when you are watching the match; you can get a sense of who the players you want to look out for are.
Overall it is less whimsical than the programme you pick up at Taffs Well, but it demonstrates the commitment of those running the club and the attention to detail in providing a meaningful match programme is fantastic.
What strikes you at Ton Pentre FC is that strong sense of pride the people involved have. It’s in the programme, the refreshments, on the terraces the home support are vocal and passionate. They aren’t here to just pass a couple of hours; they really care about the team doing well on the pitch.
There was good camaraderie with the few visiting supporters/officials too at the end of the match. Given the controversial finish to the game there could easily have been some sourness or spikiness, but the hosts took it on the chin. I guess you’ve probably seen it all when you follow Ton Pentre – even refereeing decisions worse than that which cost the Rhondda Bulldogs a win against Cwmamman United.
The Match: Ton Pentre 3-3 Cwmamman United
What the Welsh Football League may lack in technical skill it more than makes up for in entertainment and the breathlessness of the football on show. I feel fortunate I chose this day to come to Ton Pentre because it was a blinder of a game and had everything you could wish: end to end action, plenty of chances, good and bad defending, good goals, team play, individual skill, a pitch that was as much an opponent as the two teams, a late goal and quite possibly one of the worst refereeing decisions I have ever seen.
I wrote a full match report for clwbpeldroed.org (which can you read here), but here is the match in summary.
Ton Pentre raced out of the traps and probably should have been more than 1-0 ahead after 20 minutes. They hit the bar, had shots blocked, the Cwmamman keeper was forced into several saves and they scored a well taken goal. What impressed me most was the collective pressing of Ton Pentre, I never expected to see a press that aggressive at this level. They smothered Cwmamman’s attempts to play through the middle and it was through their brilliant right winger did the visitors have an outlet in the opening 20-25 minutes.
Naturally all that extertion did take its toll on the home players and Cwmamman worked their way back into it. They scored a long range equaliser that to this day I’m sure was a really good strike or a goalkeeping error. Shooting down the slope, the ball did appear to hit one of the pitch’s many divots and bounce over home keeper’s dive. I think we should give the Ton Pentre number 1 the benefit of the doubt.
Ton Pentre hit back before half time with a cute finish from Leon Jacka. The hosts went in 2-1 up and would attack down the hill in the second half.
However, the second half largely saw Cwmamman dominate the ball and territory as Ton Pentre (who are still seeking a first league win of the season) tried to hold on. The home captain Thomas Davies was brilliant, bulwark-like at the heart of the defence as he headed, blocked and kicked away anything that moved. It was very harsh that he would be the ultimate victim of the officiating at the end of the game.
Cwmamman’s pressure eventually told and they got it back to 2-2. At this point I thought they would go on and win the game; I couldn’t see how Ton Pentre would be able to muster the energy to go again after defending for so long. They did though and quickly got back into the lead, an even cuter finish from Jacka from a direct free kick about 25 yards out.
The last 10 minutes were mental as Cwmamman pressed and Ton Pentre counter attacked. There were chances at both ends and Ton Pentre probably had the better. Callum Shepherd had the best chance saved at short range and then Jacka hit the ground after the Cwmamman keeper challenged him in the aftermath. The home supporters were adamant it was a penalty; I thought the home player went to ground a bit easily.
Then deep into injury time, Cwmamman’s man of the match Ashley Curtis drove into the box and Thomas Davies performed a brilliant tackle to deny the shooting chance. Davies didn’t dive in, he simply stepped in and took the ball away clean as a whistle. I was stood behind the goal, 15 yards away, straight on to the challenge; I was stunned when the ref pointed to the spot.
What was even more bemusing was that the linesman, when confronted by Davies, bottled it and said it was the ‘ref’s decision’. He should have had a word and told the ref he got it wrong; it was clear to everyone it was a valid tackle and I don’t even remember the Cwmamman players appealing for it. Well the decision was made and Cwmamman scored the penalty. Ton Pentre still had chances to win it before the final whistle, but had to settle for a draw.
It would be unfair to say Cwmamman didn’t deserve something from the game because they were the better side in the second half, but it was definitely unjust on Ton Pentre to be denied a win in those circumstances.
That was that, a great afternoon in the heart of the Rhondda valleys. I can’t speak more highly about Ton Pentre FC: an ambitious, community-focused and supporter-owned club; friendly, welcoming and passionate atmosphere in a unique ground. They’ve got a great history and it is a fantastic part of Wales that deserves projects with this level of inspiration and commitment behind them.
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