In domestic Welsh football it is indisputable Ton Pentre AFC and Cambrian & Clydach Vale BGC are the juggernauts in the Rhondda Valleys. I believe a case can be made for them being the two biggest football clubs in all of the South Wales Valleys in the domestic game. That statement comes with a qualifier: Taffs Well come under the Rhondda Cynon Taf (RCT) banner, but it seems unlikely too many people consider the village part of ‘the valleys’, while Torfaen-based Cwmbran Celtic are still establishing themselves at tier 2.
Ton Pentre are the club with the weight of history behind them as the most successful club in the region, with 7 Welsh Football League (WFL) titles to their name, an appearance in the first round of the FA Cup, the only club from the region to have played in the top flight of Welsh domestic football and even represented Wales in European competition in the 1990s; while Cambrian and Taffs Well have been more successful on the pitch in recent years.
Although these clubs can claim to be the biggest clubs in RCT, there are a number of clubs in the borough that have tasted WFL Division One football in recent seasons in Aberdare Town and AFC Porth. Sadly, both clubs appear to be in decline this season but it wasn’t that long ago they were representing the region well (finishing 5th and 6th respectively in D1 in 2013). However, it is another club that is emerging as the latest contender to challenge Ton Pentre and Cambrian’s dominance, especially in the Rhondda area. It is the club from RCT’s biggest town – the eponymously named Pontypridd Town FC.
At this level of football you could argue they are as close to a ‘sleeping giant’ as you will find. Ponty Town are an ambitious club and they have flown through the Welsh Football League in recent seasons.
Pontypridd – the ‘gateway to the Valleys’
The town of Pontypridd (Ponty) lies 12 miles north of Cardiff and, according to Wikipedia, it’s estimated population in excess of 33,000 people makes it Wales’ 13th largest community by population.
Geographically Ponty sits at the confluence of the Rhondda and Taff rivers, with the latter flowing south into the Welsh capital. A few miles further up the road the Cynon river joins the Taff at Abercynon, hence why the area is often considered ‘the gateway to the valleys’.
Pontypridd’s location means it was a very important town during the industrial age, arguably second only in importance to Merthyr Tydfil among the towns of the Taff and Rhondda rivers. Iron from Merthyr and later coal from the Rhondda, Cynon and Taff valleys passed through the town before heading to the docks of Cardiff, Barry and Newport on the Bristol Channel via canal and later rail. While Ponty was never a big primary producer – even though a myriad of collieries did pop up on the hills surrounding the town – it was an important secondary industrial town.
The Crawshay family built a tinplate works in the area, a mile south of the modern day town on the banks of the Taff in Treforest (the Taff Vale Ironworks was also based in the heart of modern-day Treforest on the banks of the Taff); while the famous Brown Lenox company was world renowned for its quality and produced cable chain and anchors for the Royal Navy fleet. The vast array of impressive Victorian buildings around the town and variety of places of worship in the community point to the wealth and prosperity that once flowed through Ponty (the most notable being the town’s indoor market building), even if post-heavy industry the town has fallen into decline in keeping with many of the coal and iron communities of the valleys.
Historically Ponty’s other contributions to the world include the Welsh national anthem, penned by father and son Evan and James James in 1856; Tom Jones was born in Treforest and you do occasionally get stopped in the village by an American tourist seeking directions to Kingsland Terrace or even looking to get lost on The Graig in the search of a prized selfie opportunity. There are a whole host of musicians born or at some time living within Pontypridd, including members of AC/DC, Motorhead and, more infamous, Lostprophets.
However, Ponty’s biggest continued contribution to life across Wales comes through sport, specially the town’s rugby union club Pontypridd RFC. Not only has the town and club produced players that have gone on to achieve the highest honours, it remains one of the biggest clubs in Welsh rugby outside the elite regional outfits. The club’s home fixtures regularly draw in excess of 1500 spectators and more than double that for big games (going off very limited records, admittedly).
In a sporting sense Pontypridd is very much a rugby union stronghold, although I dare a few hundred head down the A470 or take the train into the capital when the Bluebirds are at home. Nevertheless, there is definitely some potential in the town for a successful football club.
A short history of Pontypridd Town AFC
Pontypridd Town AFC (nickname: The Dragons) came into being in 1992, coming forth out of the Ynysybwl and Pontypridd club that was in itself formed earlier as a merger between Ynysbwl FC and Pontypridd Sports & Social Club.
The club took on the old club’s status, competed within the Welsh League and upon the formation of the League of Wales for the 1992/93, Pontypridd were promoted to Welsh Football League Division One, the new second tier for South Wales within the Welsh football pyramid.
Those early years were Ponty Town’s most successful with 3rd and 5th position finishes in the league and a run to the Welsh Cup quarter-finals in the 1995/96 season, beaten narrowly by eventual winners Llansantfraid (the legacy club of Total Networks Solutions, who later merged to become The New Saints). Relegation that season saw the club enter its bleakest period as they dropped through the leagues into Division Three.
There was a brief return to Division One in the late noughties, but as the club’s programme states, it had been a rollercoaster ride for Pont Town for many years, including a failed merger with another local club Treforest FC (currently of the South Wales Alliance League First Division – tier 6), until Phil Gibb began his investment in the club in 2009.
Ponty’s fortunes on the pitch really began to change during this decade. Allan Davies was the manager in those days and he presided over a number of Division Three promotion near misses – the most agonising being the 2010/11 when Ponty missed out on goal difference; in his final season, Davies’ side missed out by a point.
The 2013/14 season saw the arrival of current management team, the Broad brothers – Dominic and Damien. The structure has changed over the past four years depending on work commitments, but presently Dominic acts as head coach, with Damien as his assistant. Both are accomplished coaches with experience working in elite professional academies: Manchester City/Bristol City (Damien) and Cardiff City (Dominic).
Their tenure didn’t start too well and they had to cobble together a side for the 2013/14 season after Allan Davies’ departure left the club with just two registered players. They managed to hang on to their Welsh Football League status by a single point, but year on year gradually built a team capable of challenging at the top of the table. Promotion to Division Two was achieved in the 2015/16 season, with a number of club records broken in the campaign.
Ponty’s first season in Division Two in nearly a decade was another memorable one as the management duo led the side to an incredible 4th placed finish, missing out on successive promotions by a single point. This season Ponty have started well and going into the Cambrian game they were top of Division Two. They have also enjoyed cup success, dumping Division One side Taffs Well out of the Nathaniel MG Cup and Cambrian & Clydach Vale out of the League Cup.
In recent years attention has been gained from a number of high-profile friendlies involving the club. The Dragons have twice travelled to Spain to play against La Liga reserve sides and in May 2016, Ponty hosted a TalkSport XI at Ynysanghard Park – a motley crew of ex-professional players and celebrities. As an indicator of the potential of Ponty Town when there is a big game to watch, over 1,500 spectators crammed into Ynysangharad to see The Dragons win 3-1.
Until this season Pontypridd Town were based in the town centre within the grounds of Ynysangharad Park – a public park built in the 1920s as a memorial to soldiers from the town that have died in battle. This season Ponty Town have moved their home three miles down the road to the USW Sports Park on Treforest Industrial Estate.
The ambitions of the club mean the present facilities at the park were not up to scratch and if Ponty have aspirations of playing in the Welsh Football League Division One – and even beyond – they cannot make essential renovations that would enable them to meet, first of all, the Tier 2 Licence criteria that all Division One clubs must satisfy for the start of next season (in the event they are promoted).
The Two Grounds
I have found myself inside Ynysangharad Park on many occasions in recent years while there has been football going on. I would stop and watch for brief periods, but in my ignorance assumed the football was not above recreational level. I certainly couldn’t claim a level of engagement or duration to state I had groundhopped the venue years ago.
Fortunately, Ponty Town did play at least one game at the old ground this season – a Nathaniel MG Cup (or Word Cup as it’s known for some reason) fixture against Division One Taffs Well in August. As I live 15 minutes away from the Park, how could I resist?
Despite its proximity to the A470 and the Sainsbury’s supermarket, its roundabout and various slip roads, the football ground at Ynysangharad Park is typically picturesque for a) a public park and b) a club based in the valleys. To the west flows the Taff, although there is sufficient distance and protection from trees to ensure any wayward shots that sail over the bar are in no danger of the ball swimming down river. Southerly the road network casts a shadow over the pitch, but a row of trees disguises the concrete, as they do to the east but the view is largely commandeered by obelisk on Pontypridd common and beyond that the hills above Glyntaff and below Cefn Eglwysilan. Westerly is the park itself, a secondary football pitch and the cricket ground immediately west as the park spreads mostly west and north in the direction of the river and town centre.
There is a single stand on the western touchline, it consists of concrete terracing. It’s fairly nondescript and certainly isn’t as interesting as the terrace located at Treforest FC a mile or so down the road, which is elevated and cut into the ground rising above the football ground there. Given I didn’t get into this game until half time (typical Pontypridd traffic delays!), I can’t really speak of the facilities for the football fan. I don’t recall seeing anybody drinking hot drinks, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t available.
I’m used to seeing the ground in the day, so it was a nice novelty to watch a game at Ynysangharad Park under floodlights. Harking back to some fantastic nights on the terracing of Ninian Park, I’ve always preferred football played under lights and there was something peculiar about watching a game in a place that is closed to the public at night, like being part of a secret society or underground, surreptitious movement. During the day or at night, though, the ground at Ynysangharad Park is great if you like to dabble in a bit of football photography.
It’s proximity to the town centre was probably a big bonus for any spectator: home or away fans, casual visitors or groundhoppers. There was every reason to drop into Pontypridd early, gander about, grab a bite to eat, a drink or two. The same atmosphere is simply not there at the new home. It is understandable why some Ponty fans are disappointed with the move; on the flipside, it is equally understandable why the club felt they had to move. For all its charms Ynysanghard Park simply could not serve a club that wants to be playing in Welsh Football League Division One.
What does the USW Sports Park offer then? For the fans, as it is, it doesn’t offer every much at all. Getting there isn’t particularly difficult if you are driving, it’s about 2-3 minutes whether you exit the A470 at Upper Boat or Nantgarw. There are buses through the industrial estate and a train station, but the latter is a fair trek to the USW Sports Park and they only stop twice an hour. Moreover, as the USW Sports Park is a complex it is fairly charmless.
You get off the main road through Treforest Industrial Estate and follow a lane for about 50 yards and the USW Sports Park sit set back off the road. At first glance it looks as though the car park is modest, but bearing right once through the gates there’s plenty of room. The CCFC Academy is right there in the car park (if that brings any kudos) and the ‘main’ pitch where Pontypridd Town play is south-easterly of the car park, past the rugby pitch. You can identify it by the presence of small stand.
On your first visit and if you are alone, it is a bit of a confusing experience. I had to ask two separate people where Ponty Town were playing before I found the correct place. I didn’t notice any signs pointing you the correct way if there were any. There are the facilities buildings, including a reception area, but I couldn’t find any way to get in or make contact without a key card.
When you get to Ponty’s pitch you realise why the club see this as a massive opportunity. It has almost zero character, but it is well funded, maintained to the highest standard and there is so much room for development. The pitch Pontypridd play on has to be up there with the very best in the Welsh Football League. Given this is where Cardiff City’s academy train and play it is no surprise the facilities are at that elite level. There are a number of facilities that benefit the football team – such as video analysis and conditioning rooms – that were simply out of reach at Ynysanghard Park.
From a fan’s point of view, apart from attending the match, there is not really much else to experience. There is a pub a short walk from the USW Sports Park, across the road adjacent the Welsh Government buildings, another pub at Upperboat and a retail park a further five minutes from that (on foot). Sadly, for a casual fan or groundhopper it’s one of those places you will do once to tick it off, but there is little to really pull you back for a second visit.
Despite the state of the art facilities in some respects, work will need to be done at USW Sports Park if Pontypridd Town are to make it a permanent home while aiming for Tier 2 Licence. Presently, the ‘ground’ Ponty are using fails to meet a number of criteria of the licence to play in Division One, including insufficient seating, a lack of hard standing around the pitch and toilets for spectators, the ‘ground’ not being enclosed or separated from the rest of the USW Sports Park and no public address system.
A WalesOnline article from July 2017 reported there are plans in place to develop a 1,200 seater stadium with an all-weather pitch at the USW Sports Park. The USW are currently building an indoor all-weather facility, but at the time of writing I’m not sure if this will be the same facility Pontypridd will use, i.e. whether it will have the essential ‘tier 2’ facilities in place. I understand the club are also investigating the possibility of building their own ground. That would certainly be a mark of enormous ambition and if it were to return the club to the town centre (or at least closer, as I’m not sure if there are any suitable sites in the town at present) it would be the perfect solution for club and supporters.
Whichever direction Ponty Town go – university partnership or their own ground – if either comes to fruition it could well tap into the well of potential the football club have.
While it is important for the club’s future to take into account the Tier 2 criteria, fan experience should also be at the forefront of any developments. At present I don’t believe it is the best fan experience at USW due a lack of amenities around the ground, the slight awkwardness in getting there (because you’re limited to driving) and the lack of any feeling of definitive atmosphere due to the ground being a pitch in an big open plan complex.
Cost-wise it’s £4 on the door, although another spectator told me that was only to sit in the stand. I believe this is due to the difficulty of getting people standing around the pitch to pay in what is effectively an open area. I suppose this is a further problem for the club of not having an enclosed space at USW Sports Park (although there were similar problems, I presume, at Ynysangharad Park due to that being a public park).
Pontypridd Town 2-1 Cambrian & Clydach Vale (Welsh Cup First Round)
With Ponty going so well and Cambrian struggling on the road this season (at the time of the match), this one had ‘cupset’ written all over it. For myself, it was a re-acquaintance with Welsh football’s showcase competition after two decades of absence (I hadn’t seen a Welsh Cup tie since Cardiff City beat Rhyl in the final at the old National Stadium in 1993).
Despite playing Division Two (third tier of Welsh football) Ponty had quite a couple of recognisable names. Ellis Bellamy – son of former Wales captain Craig – is on the club’s books and like his father appears to operate from the left wing, preferring to cut inside and shoot with his right foot. In midfield, Jamal Easter (a former Wales U21 international) seems to be the engine and his older brother – Jermaine – had a good career in the English Football League and earned 12 Wales caps.
Beyond those standout names, there are some other good players. Luke Gullick seems to be the star of the show. Pacey, direct, he can see a pass and score a goal; he’s an excellent player at this level. Gullick doesn’t appear to have a defined position, he wears the number 7 jersey but seems to crop up everywhere – out wide on both flanks, through the middle, and the fact he is Ponty’s top scorer this season suggests he gets into some advanced positions.
I was also really impressed with Ponty’s full backs. On the right Scott Hillman is a fantastic athlete, charging up and down the line for the whole game and producing some quality in the final third. The club’s programme has ‘centre-back’ next to his name, so if he’s a converted centre back playing as a modern full back like a natural then that’s an incredible testament to his ability and personality.
On the left plays Dan Hooper. Whereas Hillman has the physique of a natural athlete, Hooper less so (I don’t want to be rude). However, whereas the athleticism of Hillman seems to be his virtue on the right, Hooper’s technique is hands down a cut above anything I have seen in the Welsh League this season. His left foot is a fabulous weapon for Ponty from corners and free kicks and when they need to go direct he can arrow the ball into the box with pace and pinpoint accuracy.
On the day he was up against Cambrian’s Liam Reed, who is a quick, skilful runner and a non-stop force of energy who has been in excellent form this season. On paper, Hooper should have had a torrid time, but it speaks highly of his experience and reading of the game that he wasn’t caught chasing Reed’s heels too often.
On a pristine surface, for most of the game both sides nullified each other’s threat. The home team were more assertive in the first half and while they didn’t really create any clear cut opportunities, there were a number of shots at goal. However, I don’t recall either goalkeeper having to make a single save in the first half.
The second half was better, whether Hughes had words with his players or otherwise, Cambrian were less timid and much more proactive in their approach – even if it did leave them more exposed to Ponty’s pace on the counter. It was more to and fro, end to end, in the second half but still mostly chanceless with defences on top.
Cambrian broke the deadlock with about 10 minutes left. Reed got the better of Hooper and put in a good cross that that was headed in classily by Leon Anstee. Behind to a Division One side you would have expected Ponty to fold here, especially considering they had played 120 minutes a few days before against Welsh Premier League side Cardiff Met (most of it with 10 men). To their credit, the Dragons found another flurry of energy and showed their fantastic fitness levels to put the squeeze on Cambrian and good interplay by Gullick and James Hill brought a deserved equaliser to take the game into extra time.
It all fell apart for the visitors in the additional half hour;00 two players were sent off – the first for petulance, the second a controversial decision as a player from both sides went for a 50/50 and an over the top reaction by Ponty’s Easter seemed to sway the man in the middle. Ponty got the winner (that man Gullick) and with 9-men there was never going to be a way back into the game for Cambrian.
Ponty Town will make for an interesting study over this season and beyond. They seem to be the favourites among most observers to win the Division Two title. The level of expertise in the management team, the calibre of the squad and their result performances/results against higher level sides probably justifies this tag. Whether they can become a force at the top of the Welsh Football League remains to be seen.
The USW Sports Park wasn’t my best day out in Welsh football, but what the ground lacks in atmosphere and fan experience the side at least makes up for with the quality of football Ponty are trying to play. Probably not a ground you would make the effort of a long trip for, so if you want to watch The Dragons it may be worth having a look at them on the road.