This time last week I was in Clydach Vale for the second time this season, stood in torrential rain on the sideline at King George New Field – the home of Cambrian & Clydach Vale Boys & Girls Club – watching my first ever ‘Rhondda derby’. The visitors, a club I have previously written about on this blog, were Ton Pentre.
Considering Cambrian’s emergence as a force to be reckoned with in Welsh football has only come in the past decade, this particular derby remains in relative infancy. Nevertheless, it is de facto the biggest club game in Rhondda football at the moment.
Therefore, it was fantastic, in spite of the conditions, to see supporters of both clubs turn out in good spirits and numbers for the occasion. It was without doubt the biggest crowd of any of the Welsh League games I have been to this season, with both the seated stands open and packed, as well as a the covered benches behind the goal at the dressing room end and a good spread along the touchlines.
It really marked out for me the importance of the friendly rivalry between the clubs and communities. In a piece for Y Clwb Pel-droed, Cambrian manager Craig Hughes (Guppy) told me it was a derby between two ‘proud Rhondda clubs’ and in terms of the local turnout it didn’t disappointment.
Speaking of Guppy, it was nice to finally say a face to face hello. I’ve spoken several times to the Cambrian manager for Y Clwb Pel-droed and he’s always been superb. His passion for Welsh grassroots football, the club and players he manages always shines through; Guppy is a real credit to Cambrian & Clydach Vale and the Welsh football scene. The same goes for Cambrian’s director of football Mark Morgans, who I also got to say a brief hello to. He’s been a brilliant point of contact not just with the coverage for Y Clwb but helping me out with detail on the Cambrian piece I wrote here.
I’m starting to learn that these people are no exceptions to the rule either. Everyone I have spoken to covering Welsh domestic football this season has been top class – I should mention the folks at Merthyr Town too as they aren’t technically under the Welsh domestic umbrella – and I really feel these people have enabled me to go through some sort of awakening in terms of my experience of football.
All these years I’ve followed Cardiff City and consumed the Premier League totally blind to what is going on in the local football scene. Those familiar with philosophy and Plato’s analogy of the cave will know what I am talking about here, but it does feel like I have been chained to the ground watching shadows all these years. Suffice to say my experience – and so far they are brief and narrow in scope – has reinforced the belief I was beginning to form that the elite level game is toxic and has truly disconnected itself from what makes football the best sport in the world – people and communities united.
Grassroots football puts to shame the elite professional clubs when it comes to inclusivity and playing the role of community custodian. When I see and speak to people giving their time to the local game out of sheer love of the sport, their community and the clubs they represent and you compare it to millionaire playboys who will kiss a badge on the shirt one week, sign for a rival club the next, totally detached from the person in the stands; billionaire owners who will come into a club and rip apart its identity for the satisfaction of their own ego or treat it as a plaything – it does make me question the entire focus I have put on professional football I have had up to this point in my life.
Back to the football though…
It’s been a tough season for Ton Pentre. Early on I think they were handed a fair bit of misfortune, conceding late equalisers, having some poor officiating go against them. However, that bad luck quickly turned into a freefall and recent results have been woeful. Since I visited Ton Pentre, they replaced Lee Phillips with Kevin Richards as manager.
Richards comes with enormous pedigree having won the Welsh League five times with the Bulldogs and is by self-confession Ton Pentre through and through. He didn’t quite manage to have the immediate impact he and the club would have wanted; his first game in charge was a 4-0 drubbing at Ynys Park by Briton Ferry Llansawel. The derby was his second game since taking over.
In the first half I decided to locate myself near the Ton Pentre dugout to get a sense of Richards and he is a fantastic study. What sticks out immediately is his energy: cajoling, organising, encouraging, scolding – it’s all there and he’s up and down the touchline, switching from snappy retorts, frustrated outbursts and jokes with his assistant from one moment to the next. Beyond all this though is someone who sees the game so well and so clearly, spotting small details and pointing out sometimes what’s going to happen before it does.
When you get close to watching Richards in action you can see why Ton Pentre are confident he can turn around the club’s fortunes again. His record speaks of a born winner, but I think he’s got his work cut out because from what I have seen it looks like Ton are in a low place right now and there are a few individuals in the side that seem to me to go missing when it gets tough. To an extent that is understandable when things are going badly and confidence is low, although I can’t imagine Richards accepting the excuse.
Ton Pentre did start the game quite well. Not much happened in the early stages, but there wasn’t any sense that Ton were rock bottom and Cambrian flying – as they were going into the game with 4 wins from 5 in the league. Even when Ton Pentre went behind in the 11th minute, they didn’t sink and were back on level terms within a minute after a well worked free kick routine led to Sam Small heading in his first goal of the season.
The rest of the half was fairly nip and tuck; Cambrian had the better chances but neither side really exerted any level of control or dominance on the game. If Richards had got his side in at half time on level terms I believe the mood would have been positive: they would have been very much in the game and talking about nicking a winner.
But to call on a cliché for help ‘goals change games’ and Cambrian scoring on the stroke of half-time to take a 2-1 lead into the interval was, in hindsight, the big turning point in the match.
From the start of the second half it was quickly evident there was only going to be one winner. It said plenty that one of the floodlights failing during the break represented Ton Pentre’s only chance of heading home with pride intact. Cambrian were quicker and hungrier to retrieve every ball, Ton Pentre struggled to get out of their half of the field and it was just wave after wave of Cambrian attack in the second forty-five. Guppy’s side’s set play power was always prevalent (their set plays are as good as I have seen at this level) and brought their third, decisive goal. There was definitely no way back for Ton Pentre after that. Worse still, the remaining floodlights maintained their integrity.
With the points sealed Guppy’s young side worked through the extra gears and in the last twenty minutes produced some fantastic football, with the likes of Liam Reed, Corey Shephard and Carn Thomas very much to the fore, adding two further goals. To make matters worse for Ton Pentre, their captain Tom Davies was sent off when the score was 4-1. The Bulldogs resembled an even more dishevelled outfit after that.
In the absolute worst of conditions the Welsh weather could muster (one member of a group of 3-4 young lads leaving with a few minutes to play I overheard asking a mate incredulously ‘who’s idea was this, again?’) it was a glorious night for the sky blue of Cambrian & Clydach and probably as low as it gets for their rivals from up the road.
Full time: Cambrian & Clydach Vale 5-1 Ton Pentre
Attendance: By very rough headcount, had to be around the 200 mark.