My last trip around Welsh domestic football took me up the Rhondda to Ton Pentre, the most famous and storied football club from the old South Wales coalfield. For the best part of 100 years Ton Pentre enjoyed a football monopoly in Cwm Rhondda, but over the past decade that monopoly has been challenged by another Rhondda Fawr-based club; just south over Mynydd Bwllfa in Clydach Vale the Cambrian & Clydach Vale Boys & Girls Club have emerged as serious challengers to claim the title of the Rhondda’s premier football club.
As luck would have it, a perusal of the Welsh Football League fixtures for my next spare weekend showed Cambrian & Clydach Vale had a home fixture. So back up the Rhondda it was.
The club in its present form is relatively young in age, coming into being in 2001 as an amalgamation between Cambrian FC and the Clydach Vale Boys and Girls Club. Cambrian FC were formed in 1963 and took their name from the colliery in Cwm Clydach. The old Cambrian Club competed for most of its existence in the South Wales Corinthian League, challenging for the title on several occasions and multiple times winners of the Corinthian Cup.
It was once the merger between the Cambrian and Clydach Vale (Boys and Girls Club) that the club in Clydach Vale began to enjoy its most successful period. The South Wales Corinthian League title was finally won in 2005 and the club joined the Welsh Football League for the first time for the 2005/6 season. A rapid ascent through the Welsh league pyramid reached its peak when Cambrian & Clydach Vale (henceforth Cambrian) were crowned Welsh Football League champions at the end of the 2011/12 season under the management of Jarrad Harvey (who has since gone on to the position of Head Coach of the Professional Development Team at Cardiff City).
Since then the club’s story has been one of consolidation in the second tier of Welsh domestic football as a steady decline has taken hold on the field. Last season Cambrian finished 11th, they endured a slow start to this season and are probably a fair bit short of returning to their former glories. Nevertheless, the Cambrian hierarchy are ambitious and work is being carried out off the field to make the club high achievers again.
The infrastructure at the club with the UEFA accredited academy means Cambrian are part way to fulfilling the criteria that could make them a potential Welsh Premier League (WPL). The vision is certainly to make Cambrian the first Rhondda-based club to achieve promotion to the newly structured WPL. There is a desire to turn the club’s King George V ground into a community hub, with facilities not just for football but education also. These ambitions are shared with local rivals Ton Pentre and it will be interesting to see how that race unfolds.
On the pitch manager Craig Hughes – a trainee at Coventry City when they were a Premier League team and veteran of the Welsh domestic game – is working hard to instil a sense of professionalism and competitiveness in his young squad. With a modest budget, the need to develop players capable of stepping up to Welsh League level is essential for a club like Cambrian and in fairness to Hughes, he isn’t afraid to give young players a chance. A large proportion of his squad are teenagers and he has even blooded 16-year old Cory Morgan this season.
When you’re talking about Cambrian you have to look at the club’s academy, which is the UEFA RCT Academy Programme. It came into existence in 2008 when UEFA restructured guidelines for youth development programmes for their members. As part of this the FAW set up the FAW Academy League – a youth development programme that works at national level, replacing the pre-existing regional structures.
In order to ensure broad representation across Wales, the FAW conducted a feasibility study to ascertain where would be the best place to locate a football academy for Rhondda Cynon Taff. That work identified Cambrian & Clydach Vale as the only club capable of sustaining the model.
Over the past decade the Cambrian academy has gone from strength to strength. Broadly its aim is to provide players capable of going on to play at professional levels, as well as providing players for their own first team. In order to maintain its UEFA accreditation it has to meet the same criteria as every academy that comes under the UEFA Club Licensing (which is required for participation in UEFA’s continental club competitions), even though their academy is not eligible for any UEFA funding because Cambrian are not a Welsh tier 1 club.
The success of the academy which is entirely self-funded by the football club (with the assistance of the club’s community arm, the Cambrian Village Trust) is testimony to the dedication and commitment of the management team and the volunteers who help make it work.
The Cambrian academy has developed individuals in both coaching and playing spheres, among the most notable successes on the coaching front are the aforementioned Jarrad Harvey, as well as Dane Facey who is Head of Youth Development at Cardiff City and Ian Lewis who works as a scout and talent developer in the RCT area for Swansea City.
Playing successes go to the highest level with Liam Edwards (U15, U17, U19) and Jake Thomas (U15) representing Wales. Graduates of the Cambrian academy also include Connor Young who is a professional at Cardiff City, as well as several players currently on scholarship programmes at English Football League clubs including Newport County and Yeovil Town.
Below these headline success stories though there are hundreds of youngsters who go through the Cambrian academy every year and they boast age grade sides from under 9s up to under 18s. There are outreach programmes that include two full-time coaches employed by the club going to local schools to deliver coaching and football education. That is a huge engagement with the local community and provides access to a level of coaching these young players would otherwise be excluded from.
When the club boast their academy is the envy of other Welsh Football League clubs and arguably the best in Wales outside the academies run by Wales’ two biggest clubs Cardiff City and Swansea City, it is hard to disagree.
Getting to Clydach Vale isn’t particular difficult. You can get the train to Tonypandy (on the Treherbert line out of Cardiff or Pontypridd) and it is about a mile if you are on foot (but mostly uphill). By car you take a left off the Rhondda Fawr’s main trunk road (A4119) at Tonypandy and follow the signs for the council offices to get to the football club.
Clydach Vale is a community that exists entirely because of the former colliery (the site of the last mining disaster in Wales in 1965) and the impression I got from my brief visit is that it feels a bit like an add on to Tonypandy in the same way as Treforest seems to have been an appendage of Pontypridd. However, with the exception of a school and a couple of churches there isn’t very much going on in Clydach Vale. Despite its small size it’s output includes three former Boxing champions, the most famous being Tommy Farr who once fought the great Joe Louis for the World Heavyweight Title – losing by a controversial judge’s decision.
As well as boasting the Headquarters of the Rhondda Cynon Taf council and the football club, the main attraction here is the Clydach Vale Country Park. This consists of two man-made lakes built on the site of the former colliery, enclosed on all sides except the west by the hills of the small U-shaped valley. The park is worth the trip alone, there are paths around both lakes, a memorial to miners who died in five separate disasters at the colliery and it doesn’t take much for even the mildly adventurous to find themselves exploring the local hills with the aid of the relevant OS map.
There is a cafe with an outside platform/seating area overlooking the bottom lake and on a sunny day I imagine it is a lovely place to simply be. The facility is a fantastic example of former industrialised areas being reclaimed and creating a naturalistic setting that can only benefit the well-being of the local community.
The home of Cambrian – the King George V New Field – is a short walk from the Country Park, so it is easy to combine the two. The custom seems to be to park on the road abutting the ground, but I parked at the lake’s car park, which is free but has limited space. I wouldn’t be surprised if it’s full quickly on a warm day.
Compared to the other grassroots Welsh grounds I have been to Cambrian’s home is more functional than charming, although as with these Valleys football clubs it is the landscape around the ground that really catches the eye. To the north you have the higgledy-piggledy terracing of the Clydach Vale community, south rises sharply the wooded hills of the country park, while the view west opens out to the imposing looking Mynydd Brith-weunydd and the dramatic crucifix painted on its south-westerly side.
The King George V has two stands. The main grandstand rests on the southern side, while the seating on the north end is caged and I am led to believe is for visiting supporters. Apparently, Port Talbot fans have experienced this privilege – if you can call it such. The changing rooms and main facilities, including what looked like a food and drink shed are located to the west; the eastern part of the ground houses the ground’s all-weather Fustal pitch. The football pitch is an all-weather 3G pitch, installed in 2014 with the aid of funding from the Welsh Assembly Government, RCT council and Sport Wales. As far as I am aware, it is one of only two all-weather pitches at this level of the Welsh Football League (i.e. Division One).
It’s the Welsh Football League standard £5 to get in (there are concession prices and under 16s go free) and the programme costs 50p. There are the usual features including home squad player profiles, notes on Cambrian’s history, as well as pages devoted to some context of the visitors (Briton Ferry Llansawel when I visited). Compared to some of the other programmes I have seen around this league, though, Cambrian’s consisted mostly of advertisements and certainly wasn’t as fun to read as Taffs Well’s or as dedicated as that you pick up at Ton Pentre.
I don’t know the official attendance on the day; I found a spot and stuck to that for the duration of the match so didn’t get much of a look at the home stand. However, if I had to hazard a guess it couldn’t have been much more than 50. While the ground is clearly a good set-up for the purpose of playing football matches, the openness and lack of character (especially in comparison to Ynys Park with its behind the goal terrace) sadly leaves King George V with the legacy of being a ground you won’t remember in years to come.
The Match – Cambrian & Clydach Vale 2-0 Briton Ferry Llansawel
The context of the match was both teams were struggling a bit when they met – both having only won once in the league. While Briton Ferry’s boss Carl Shaw was fairly happy with his side’s performance he acknowledged – when I spoke to him for Y Clwb Peldroed – his newly promoted side had found the step up to Division One difficult. Cambrian boss Craig Hughes was desperate to improve his side’s wretched home form, which saw them win just once at King George V in 2016/17.
Compared to the other Welsh Football League games I’ve watched this season the match itself was probably the poorest. That is more of a reflection on this particular game, rather than drawing any broad conclusions about the overall ability of both sides. The game was essentially won by Cambrian in a couple of minutes shortly before half time. First they scored with a header from a corner, then a minute or so later scored after a long punt from the back led to an error at the back by Briton Ferry Llansawel and Cambrian forward Richard French scored.
In truth it was a bit harsh on the visitors who had arguably been the better side in the first half; they certainly looked more composed and comfortable with the ball without producing any incisive play. That said, the Cambrian game plan was to go very direct very quickly and challenge the lack of pace in Briton Ferry’s backline; sometimes that approach makes a side look haphazard and flustered in possession, belying the clear purpose and intent in the tactics.
In that sense you have to give credit to Cambrian boss Craig Hughes, who identified his opponent’s weakness beforehand and aggressively targeted that. To their enormous credit, Briton Ferry kept plugging away until the final whistle but never really looked like getting back into the game; if anything Cambrian probably had the better chances to add to their lead on the counter-attack.
Since the game Cambrian secured another home win – making it three wins on the bounce at home – and Briton Ferry were a bit unfortunate (according to reports) not to beat Penybont 3-3, conceding a late equaliser. It is funny how two sides can go into a game on seemingly similar trajectory, then suddenly veer off in opposing directions. This game could have gone either way and there was little between the sides apart from those two first half minutes. Cambrian have since moved in a more rosier mid-table position, whereas Briton Ferry occupy a place in the bottom five and just one win from their opening seven league fixtures.
The relationship between fortune’s favour and success in football is a funny old thing.
On a nice day, Clydach Vale is well worth the journey. A picnic and walk around the lake at lunch, grab a coffee and then a spot of football in the afternoon. A lovely day out.
With the Rhondda derby at King George V later this month, it won’t be too long before I pay another visit.