Welsh League Ground #1 and the start of my 2018 Welsh League challenge: Cardiff University Playing Fields/STM Sports)

Happy New Year!

I’m not one for making resolutions at the start of a new year but this year my wife asked me to make three. I didn’t want to have a needless argument about why I believe new year resolutions are vacuous, so I gave her three off the top of my head. One I threw out was to visit every ground in the Welsh Football League at least once during 2018.

It was just something to say I guess, but also if it’s written down then surely I will be held to account, right? Probably not, but now I have a perfectly justifiable reason to watch even more Welsh League football!

Given some time to mull it over, it has become to evident how stiff a challenge it will be. Nominally, it’s 46 grounds in 52 weeks (it’s potentially 50 with promotion/relegation permutations at both ends of the Welsh League). That’s pretty modest by any serious groundhopper’s standard; it’s less than one new ground per week. However, there are logistically issues that make it less straightforward.

Firstly, the football season doesn’t run for 52 consecutive weeks of a calendar year. The Welsh League is scheduled to run August – March, but with postponements the seasons runs well into April as clubs fulfil all their fixtures. That means you’ve got somewhere between 12-15 weeks when there are no official matches scheduled.

The next problem is that all Welsh League fixtures are scheduled to be played on Saturday afternoons or Friday nights. Generally, Friday nights fixtures are not available to me. This leaves me with just Saturday afternoons and one ground per matchday. I don’t know how many matchdays are scheduled for 2018, but I doubt it comes close to 46 required to hit every ground given this limitations.

There’s also the not so small matter of being a Cardiff City season ticket holder, which means when City are home on a Saturday that’s one less Saturday dedicated to the Welsh League. There’s eight Cardiff home games scheduled for Saturday afternoon between now and the end of the season; a sizeable chunk of my available time.

I’m already resigned to the probability that I won’t even come close to hitting every ground in 2018, but as a consolation prize I will aim to see every side at some point. That is much more feasible and realistic a target.

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With this in mind, for the first weekend of 2018 I decided to dodge Cardiff City’s FA Cup home tie with Mansfield Town and instead opt for a Welsh League game. Looking over the fixtures there were plenty of options open to me, but I set my mind on one of three games: Penybont v Goytre, Bridgend Street v Ely Rangers and STM Sports v Garden Village.

All three games had some appeal. At Penybont the game was between two sides expected to challenge for the Welsh League title; the game at STM Sports was a top of the table clash in Division Two; Bridgend Street v Ely Rangers was a third division game, but a Cardiff derby. With the weather forecast nowhere near as bad as it has been this winter, I was confident the games would be on – especially the Penybont and STM games, which are played on 3G.

As it turned out, overnight frost had put a lot of games at risk and after checking the Welsh League website I found Bridgend Street’s match had been postponed. That left one of the two 3G grounds and arbitrarily I opted to go to STM Sports v Garden Village. That meant a short trip down the A470 and along the A48 into the suburbs of the Welsh capital.

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Club FactFind

STM Sports are a Cardiff-based club founded in 2007 on the back of the success of a Sunday League outfit, according to the matchday programme notes. They began life in the third division of the Cardiff Combination League and in their first decade have achieved six promotions to reach their current level. This rise from the local Cardiff leagues to the third tier of Welsh domestic football in such a short space of time is an incredible story and testament to the dedication and ambition of the people running the club.

The biggest day in the club’s history was undoubtedly in June 2015 when they won a South Amateur/Senior Leagues play-off against Pontlottyn at the Cardiff City Stadium to earn promotion to the Welsh League.

Under the management of former Cardiff City player Nathan Cadette, STM Sports quickly made a name for themselves in the Welsh League, achieving promotion to Division Two last season. Cadette had to step down due to work commitments, but true to their spirit STM Sports showed great ambition by securing the appointment of Gareth Morgan as manager, along with his assistants Dom Dwyer and Rhodri Morgan.

Morgan boasts a brilliant recent CV in the Welsh League and last season almost took AFC Porth to promotion to Division One. He’s made a habit of taking on unfancied or struggling clubs and turning them into accomplished outfits that punch above their weight. While STM Sports are hardly a struggling club having experienced nothing but success in their existence to date, this season is their first at this level of Welsh football. Morgan (and his management team) have obviously played a part in not just ensuring STM Sports have adapted to Division Two quickly, but have emerged among the three or four likely candidates to win the title.

Garden Village hail from the Gorseinon area of Swansea. Despite coming from what appears on maps to be a blink and you’ll miss hamlet on a B road in the northwest of Swansea, the club are long established in the Welsh League and have been something of a yo-yo club between the first and second divisions.

Recent seasons have been tough, after promotion to Division One in 2014 two difficult seasons followed and they were relegated back to Division Two in 2016. Last season they were probably a little too close to the relegation to Division Three for comfort.

Former professional footballer David D’Auria (Swansea City, Scunthorpe United, Hull City) was appointed as first team manager and this season he has overseen a remarkable turnaround in fortunes, as they are genuine contenders for the Division Two title.

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The Ground

STM Sports play at the Cardiff University Playing Fields in Llanrumney, a district in the east of the city, sandwiched between the A48 (Eastern Avenue – Cardiff’s main east-west trunk road) and the old Newport Road.

The University Playing Fields is only a few minutes drive off the A48 along various residential roads that will have you wondering whether you are on the right track; but it is there, hidden behind some housing on Mendip Road. With a Sat Nav it’s pretty much impossible to go wrong. It is a ground you have to drive to. Given the local rail infrastructure has no easterly stops between Cardiff and Newport, you’re reliant on taxi or bus if you’re coming from the city centre. Having endured Cardiff’s bus network for six months when I worked in Pentwyn, I wouldn’t recommend it.

It’s a huge complex with loads of pitches covering most field sports and at first I did wonder whether I would have the same problem I had when I first visited USW Sports Park in finding the correct pitch. However, when you approach the main building the 3G pitch is well sign-posted towards the north-western end of the complex. There is parking next to the 3G pitch, plus a big overflow car park. If you’re coming for a Saturday game I don’t ever see it being a problem.

The 3G ground is a purpose-built facility, caged with a small stand that by my rough count sits around 60-70 people, but certainly well below 100 (based entirely on my count from the opposite side of the pitch). This will be an issue for STM Sports if they do finish among the top 3 promotion places with Tier 2 ground regulations coming into full effect next season, including a mandatory 250 covered seats. I don’t know what agreement STM have with the University and I am no building expert, but I didn’t see any obvious scope for expansion of the seating.

Otherwise, it has everything you expect of a 3G facility within a larger sports complex. Floodlights and an excellent surface – probably the best 3G I have seen in the Welsh League so far. Changing rooms are located within the main building, including public toilets. From what I saw the facilities are fine and clean if a bit dated.

It’s a charmless ground in fairness, but from a playing perspective it is obviously world’s ahead of some cabbage patch in a Cardiff public park. However, one thing it does boast – especially at this time of year – is a brilliant sunset backdrop along the western side of the pitch. In the right conditions, it’s one for the sports photography enthusiasts.

Spectator Amenities

It was absolutely freezing on Saturday. That is hardly the fault of STM Sports, but it was definitely one of those days when you question why you are standing on some tarmac, scribbling notes about a Welsh League game, while fighting to maintain any sensation in your limbs. For these reasons I really could have done with a hot drink.

I’m not really the most-organised or well-prepared person in the world and the seasoned groundhopper would no doubt have with him a flask of scolding liquid, so I’m reliant on there being something at the ground.

As STM Sports don’t own the ground I’m not sure what they can do to that end, other than setting up some impromptu station with a canteen of hot water and some tea bags/instant coffee. There was a sign for a burger van, but there wasn’t one present on Saturday. Inside there is a vending machine, but it offers only snacks and soft drinks; I found no evidence of one dispensing hot beverages.

Entry includes the programme (some clubs charge extra) which, in my experience, usually indicates a token effort in order to meet the Welsh League’s requirement that member’s produce a matchday programme. However, while it is not the best Welsh League programme I have seen, STM Sports provide by no means the worst – and it’s free so how can I complain?

Inside there is the typical club history and player profiles, always useful for some context and these pieces. There’s a ‘President’s Welcome’ from Darren Campbell (ex-professional sprinter), which isn’t specific to the game, the usual array of sponsor’s adverts, plus a decent quiz (even if some questions suggest this was a quiz belonging to 2015).

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The Match

STM Sports 3-0 Garden Village (Welsh League Division Two)

I’m not going re-write a full match report, which I produce for the Y Clwb Pel-droed website. If you want to read that, click here. Instead, I’m going to offer a summary/commentary on the game.

STM Sports and Garden Village went into the game 3rd and 2nd in Division Two respectively. As I touched upon above, both sides have been something of surprise packages and both have done well to stick with Pontypridd Town – fancied by many to run away with the league this season.

This particular fixture is part of a (undesigned) series that goes right back to November 2017 involving clubs positioned near the top of the table. Through these games STM Sports, Garden Village and Pontypridd Town have emerged with the best results. The last three matchdays, including this one, have now seen them all play each other.

Before Christmas STM travelled to Pontypridd Town. They were top and unbeaten in the league going into that game, but STM had a bit of shocker that day, going down 6-1 and finishing with nine-men. New Year weekend Garden Village hosted Pontypridd Town and won 2-0, completing a league double after winning 4-2 at Ponty earlier in the season. The win moved Garden Village level on points with Ponty at the top of the table.

This was the first meeting between STM and Garden Village this season, so it was a key and intriguing encounter on paper. Hardly a must-win for either side with so many games still left to play, but given their previous result it was no doubt a game STM Sports wouldn’t have wanted to lose.

Having not seen either side before it is hard to judge whether STM had a good day or Garden Village a bad one, but on the day the home side were much the superior outfit. The scoreline was arguably kind on Garden Village because STM missed several good chances and hit the crossbar in injury time.

An early penalty set STM on their way and the focus for much of the first half on the home bench was why the referee didn’t send off the offending defender, who dragged down STM attacker Josh Graham when he was through on goal and seemed to make little attempt to play the ball. Anyway, STM got the early lead and after a fairly cagey opening half hour began to breakthrough the away defence. They had chances to double the lead, Jack Kinnerly and Josh Graham guilty of the worst misses. However, a composed finish from Andy Gardner on the stroke of half-time gave STM a comfortable margin.

The second-half, as you would expect, saw Garden Village try to press for an equaliser, while STM were content sitting on their lead and hoping to expose a consistently high defensive line on the break. This cat and mouse battle between STM’s fleet footed attackers and that aggressive defensive line was a feature of most of the game, with the highest number of offsides I can recall seeing in a game for a long time. However, if you keep probing ala Filippo Inzaghi, eventually someone makes a mistake or gets lazy with their positioning and the longer the game went on the more often STM got themselves into good areas up the pitch.

It was a counter-attack that put the game beyond doubt, with Chris Worsley finishing calmly from close range after a couple of his team-mates had efforts blocked. I was very impressed with Worsley; a bit of a star at STM and from the programme I’m told he’s a local lad, which is great to see. Some lovely touches, great vision and that composure in front of goal; STM definitely have a player who could hold his own higher up the pyramid.

Others who impressed were Joe Evans in midfield, that cool head and organiser in midfield who you can see keeps everything ticking over. Jack Kinnerly was good on the left too. I thought the young looking centre back Joel Queni did a good job against Garden Village centre forward Scott Smith, who seemed to want to try and physically impose himself on the centre-half throughout the game, but barely got any loose change out of Queni.

Overall, STM looked a decent outfit. I felt they were a bit too direct early on, premature in challenging the high line. As you would expect they were a lot more settled and composed once they had the lead and started to play the type of football a good 3G surface encourages. You can see too how well-drilled they are (Morgan’s attention to detail evident in the pre-match team talk I eavesdropped) and for all their efforts, it took Garden Village about 80 minutes to create a clear chance at goal.

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STM Sports appear to be a good team to watch, boasting some good technical players, playing some decent football on a very good 3G surface. I can’t really say much positive for the ground, but in terms of the standard of football, it is well worth the trip. Might be a bit more enjoyable in the balmier months.

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