Giant Killing

Ground: USW Sports Park

Date of visit: 27th January 2018

Fixture: Pontypridd Town v Penydarren BGC

Welsh Cup Fourth Round

Admission: £5 (programme £1)

When the draw for the Welsh Cup fourth round was made I believe almost every neutral with an interest in domestic football based in South Wales had penned Pontypridd Town v Penydarren BGC into their diaries. Not just a fairly local affair between two valleys clubs separated by just 12 miles on the A470, but a fixture between the last representative of the Welsh Football League in this season’s competition and the lowest ranked side in the entire draw. In addition, having already watched both teams this season I knew it would also be a fabulous exhibition of football.

From my point of view there were just two potential problems: the weather and Cardiff’s FA Cup fixture with Man City. Fortunately, the latter was moved to Sunday for television; it was all on the weather then.

With persistent rain in the days before there was a real threat of the tie being called off, despite assurances that USW Sports Park usually holds up well under the rain. The morning of the game arrived and as message after message flashed up on Twitter off games being called off across South Wales because of waterlogged pitches (the Welsh League programme was reduced to just 3 matches, 2 of those on 3G), I feared the worst.

The consolation was that USW Sports Park is less than 10 minutes in the car from my home and the scheduled earlier kick-off meant that if the game was called off at the last minute I had plenty of time to get up the Rhondda for the Cambrian & Clydach Vale v Penybont fixture scheduled to kick-off at 2pm.

There was no need for the anxiety because, despite extremely soggy conditions underfoot, there was no postponement and in front of a bumper crowd, Pontypridd Town and Penydarren BGC produced a wonderful cup tie that had a bit of everything you want from such an occasion.

*

The Clubs

Pontypridd Town AFC are a fairly junior club in Welsh football, the fruit of a merger between Ynysbwl and Pontypridd Sports and Social football clubs in the early 1990s. However, there is a much richer history of football in Pontypridd, despite it being a town more renowned for the rugby union side based at Sardis Road.

Anyone familiar with Welsh Cup records will be aware that a team from Pontypridd three times contested finals, losing each time in replays (Cardiff City in 1912, Swansea Town in 1913 and Wrexham in 1921). In those breakthrough decades at the start of the 20th Century when the working men of the South Wales coalfield increasingly adopted football as a popular pastime alongside rugby union, Pontypridd boasted one of the finest professional teams in Wales at the time.

Pontypridd FC circa 1921 – Taff Vale Park (Trefforest) (https://cpdtonpentreafc.files.wordpress.com/2014/05/pontypridd-dragons-afc-1921.jpg)

As well as those Welsh Cup runs, Pontypridd FC also competed in the Southern League for much of the 1910s and 1920s alongside more illustrious or well-known Welsh clubs like Cardiff City, Merthyr Town, Swansea Town and Aberdare Athletic. Pontypridd won the Welsh League in the 1923-24 season.

Unfortunately, economic depression and a surge in unemployment in the mid-1920s (the growth of Cardiff City as one of best teams in England and Wales at the time was probably a factor too) meant the legacy of professional football in Pontypridd was short-lived. By 1926 Pontypridd FC folded due to a lack of financial feasibility.

The village of Trefforest in the 1930s. Taff Vale Park – the now lost home of Pontypridd FC – is left of centre. (https://www.peoplescollection.wales/items/423311)

Taff Vale Park (2018)

Since then football clubs based in Pontypridd have been purely recreational, rather than providing a serious sporting spectacle. There is hope the ambitions and success of Pontypridd Town could see something of a resurgence in interest in the local club in a town where there is certainly the potential for a top-flight club.

Pontypridd Town’s first entry into the Welsh Cup came in the 1994/95 season. Victories over Porthcawl Town and AFC Porth saw them through to the third round where they were beaten at Risca United. The following season would produce the club’s best performance in the competition to date, reaching the quarter-finals. Their cup run was ended at home by Llantsantffraid (the origin club of The New Saints) in a narrow 2-1 loss. Llansantffraid went on to lift the Welsh Cup that season.

After a decade of failing to get past the first round (in the years the club entered), Pontypridd’s next affair with the Welsh Cup came in the 2005/6 season. That run took Ponty to the fourth round, including arguably the biggest win in their history when they beat Welsh Premier League outfit Aberystwyth Town 1-0 at their former ground Ynysanghard Park in the third round. The Dragons couldn’t follow it up that year, however, thumped 5-0 at home in the fourth round by that season’s Welsh League champions, Goytre United.

Since then there has been no further joy in the competition, regularly eliminated in the preliminary or early rounds. Until this season, where they have enjoyed a run that has seen them beat higher division opposition Cambrian & Clydach Vale and Haverfordwest County (both sides going well in Welsh League Division One this season). Going into the Penydarren tie, this Dragons side were one game away from equalling the club’s best ever Welsh Cup performance.

(For more on Pontypridd Town’s history refer to the post based on my previous visit: https://welshgrassrootsfootball.wordpress.com/2017/10/26/challenging-the-duopoly-can-pontypridd-town-become-the-next-dominant-force-in-rhondda-football/)

This is Penydarren BGC’s first ever Welsh Cup campaign. While the cup run has brought the Merthyr Tydfil-based club a level of exposure it has never seen before, it is only a part of what has become an incredible story this season.

As far as I can trace records, Penydarren BGC have always been members of the South Wales Alliance League (Welsh Tiers 5-7) and one of its predecessors, South Wales Senior League. For years Penydarren have been knocking on the door of the Welsh League, their final Premier Division position in the last three seasons being 2nd, 3rd, 2nd. This season it does not appear they will denied, they have won every league game so far (although they face a severe fixture pile-up due to their cup runs) and are still going strong in the FAW’s other national competition, the FAW Trophy, as well as their League Cup.

Their 2017/18 record going into this fixture was unblemished, spanning more than 20 games across four competitions. In both the national cups (Welsh Cup and FAW Trophy) they have knocked out several higher tier clubs, including a 4-0 win away to Cymru Alliance (tier 2) outfit Llandudno Junction in the last round of the Welsh Cup. On top of this they can also call upon a high level of support for a club of their stature (including 250 signed up members). To all intents and purposes Penydarren BGC are a Welsh League club in waiting and barring a catastrophic collapse it seems likely they will make their bow at national level next season. With the momentum they will no doubt bring from this season they could be a force to be reckoned with too.

The Welsh League has seen a number of promoted clubs rise quickly through the ranks, could Penydarren BGC be the latest?

As an aside, it is somewhat ironic that while Merthyr Tydfil’s premier club, Merthyr Town FC, has been in the news this season due to financial problems, with questions from some quarters about the feasibility of their continued participation in the English pyramid, the heads of the valleys town has already produced a club that could go and do what many followers of Welsh football have wanted for years: add Merthyr Tydfil’s valuable presence at the very top of Welsh domestic football?

From what I have seen I would say there is a mutual respect between the clubs, rather than a rivalry. It will be an interesting study though over the next few years: if Penydarren continue to move through the tiers of Welsh football and Merthyr Town struggle, could the balance shift in terms of the clubs’ status?

*

The Ground

Pontypridd Town’s current home is the USW Sports Park, which is located on Treforest Industrial Estate (which is actually part of Nantgarw rather than the village of Treforest) approximately 3 miles south-east of Pontypridd itself.

 

USW Sport Park (the Pontypridd Town ground is beyond the rugby pitch in the centre of the frame) – source: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=syBsRWxrAqQ

This wasn’t my first visit to USW Sports Park and I have already written about it detail on this blog (see link above). I wasn’t overly impressed with the Sports Park when I first visited (from a strictly spectator’s point of view) so it was nice to see steps have been taken to improve this, although I think there is still some way to go yet in regards to attaining the Tier 2 Ground certification ahead of the next season.

The obvious change at the Pontypridd Town ‘ground’ within the complex is the addition of a refeshments van; a much needed improvement for the spectator. There was also a PA system in place during this game, so a bit of half-time music to entertain the crowd.

It is unclear what Ponty Town’s position is regarding their USW ‘ground’, but what is certain is that if this is the ground that will be inspected as part of the club’s Tier 2 application it will surely fail. The lack of seating, hardstanding around the pitch and separation of the football area from the rest of the complex are among the most obvious issues.

The stand at Pontypridd Town’s ground holds approximately 100 seats. (https://allevents.in/pontypridd/pontypridd-town-vs-abergavenny/941017916052785)

I’m not privy to the details of plans and there are rumours of a new 3G football ground being built on the Sports Park, though nothing yet publicly announced. The deadline for developments to be complete (or evidence of future completion) to receive tier 2 certification is April 30th, so if Ponty’s current ground is going to pass there is quite a bit of work that needs to be done between now and then.

The Match Experience

Amenities: I’ve mentioned the refreshments van, a clear sign the club are trying to improve the experience for spectators. I’m informed by an external source the burgers are good and it was certainly popular throughout the Penydarren game. That popularity meant I cannot speak for the range and quality of its offerings as the queue was always too long and the game just pulsating to avert attention from.

I did notice also since my last visit a new car park has been opened. The provision was certainly stretched for this game, with both car parks full cars were parked along the lane that acts as a corridor between the main road the Sports Park. In general, Ponty’s games don’t attract such large crowds so there should be plenty of space. There is plenty of parking nearby on the trading estate anyway.

Toilets remain a fair old trek from the ‘ground’, in the building opposite the CCFC Academy. Also, at this time of year don’t wear any footwear you don’t want spoiled. Both the path to the ‘ground’ and the surrounding grassy areas are soggy to say the least.

Programme: I know from previous conversations that Pontypridd Town are a club that want to improve, not just in terms of the first team, but the whole club structure and outlook. There is evidence of that with the addition of pitchside refreshments. I also know from a brief conversation I had with Lyndon Francis (commercial manager) at the home match against Caldicot Town towards the end of the last year that Ponty are keen to improve their website and social media presence, while having the self-awareness that at the moment the club may lack the type of individual to take that on.

I wasn’t overly fussed on the matchday programme previously, but I was pleased to see that efforts are being made to improve the quality of content. There is still some way to go to reach the standard you can find at other clubs, but additions like a Welsh football quiz and review of the latest ongoings in local domestic football at least provides something of interest to read beyond the usual stats.

Pontypridd Town (white) v Penydarren BGC (red) match action

Fans: This was not a usual crowd for a Ponty game. There were somewhere in the region of 400-500 at the game, probably 75% (if not more) were Penydarren supporters. A noisy bunch too! It was a superb show of support and really added to the enormity of the occasion. What I liked also was the amount of young people there supporting Penydarren and they brought along some of their age-grade sides in full kit. There was young boy stood next to me who knew all the Penydarren players, pulled to and fro by every ebb and flow in the game. It was fantastic to see and hear all of this, highlighting that Penydarren BGC are a real community club.

*

The Match

Pontypridd Town 1-2 Penydarren BGC

From the outset it was obvious that Penydarren, despite playing two tiers below their hosts, had no fear going into this cup tie. But then, why would they, when their Welsh Cup run has seen them beat tier 3 and tier 2 opposition in the last two rounds?

Penydarren dominated the opening ten minutes. Whether it was nerves or a case of being caught off guard, Ponty looked rattle early on and simply seemed unable to cope with the quality, the interplay and phrasing of Penydarren’s snappy one and two-touch attacking play. It seemed only a matter of time before the breakthrough would come and there were a couple of near misses before Penydarren did take the lead in the 10th minute; the prolific Christopher Colvin-Owens connecting with a cross at the near post and squeezing the ball past Ponty keeper David Burnett.

Ponty hit back almost immediately. James Hill dispossessing the Penydarren right back and somehow his cross squeezed inside the post. From my position behind the goal at the opposite end I thought it may have been a fluke, a mishit that was misjudged by the away keeper. The Penydarren Twitter feed stated it was an own goal.

Own goal or otherwise, the tie was level and it was curious to see if Penydarren could pick themselves up and go again.

Indeed they did and Penydarren largely dominated the first half, forcing a succession of saves out of Burnett and bombarding Ponty with constant pressure. There were forays forward on the counter from Ponty, especially through the pace of Hill and Luke Gullick, but Penydarren’s greater cohesion and fluidity gave them superiority and they probably should have reached half-time with a sizeable lead.

The break definitely seemed to benefit Pontypridd, invigorated early in the second-half while Penydarren’s first half efforts and the heavy pitch seemed to have drained their energy. For twenty minutes Ponty were on top, Gavin Beddard’s ferocious drive against the post the closest they came to taking the lead. Penydarren weathered that storm though, then another opportunity for Colvin-Owens in the 65th minute and he produced a composed volleyed finish to restore the lead of the visitors.

Two clear-cut chances to kill the tie were squandered in quick succession. Pontypridd inevitably pressed (as well as introducing set piece specialist Dan Hooper) in the final 20 minutes, but Penydarren held firm, displaying incredible organisation, teamwork and determination to more than hold off their higher-ranked opponents through the tense final stages.

At the final whistle there were wonderful scenes as the Penydarren players and management celebrated on the pitch and no shortage of good sportsmanship from Pontypridd, who took the defeat on the chin. Quite simply they were deservedly beaten on the day by a team that wanted it more, displayed more enterprise going forward and had composure when it mattered.

Penydarren BGC are the only non-Welsh Premier League club in the final eight and tonight’s draw on S4C handed them a daunting, yet exciting away tie at Welsh football giants Bangor City in the quater-finals. It isn’t the home fixture Penydarren wanted but it is a superb draw nonetheless. I’m sure their fans will travel en masse, the facilities at Nantporth will suit Penydarren’s style and having already travelled north and come home victorious in the Welsh Cup this season, I’m sure there will be a lot of belief they can cause another ‘giant killing’.

*

I’m still not overly enamoured with USW Sports Park, but this visit will live long in the memory. Despite being a visit aimed at focussing on a Welsh League club, ultimately it is the non-Welsh League club that has stolen the attention.

Rightly so, the Penydarren story is a remarkable one, a credit to the hard-work, commitment and sacrifice of the club’s entirely voluntary management. What makes it even better is the style of their football, so ambitious, so easy on the eye and genuinely joyful.

What is the story behind this remarkable success? It is the question everybody interested in Welsh domestic football wants to know right now. Is it simply down to this particular group of players, has it come from the management, or does it run deeper than that? Has this side and this well-defined style of play been honed within the age-grade sides where it has now produced a luscious fruit for the senior team?

I’m confident that Penydarren BGC will be playing the Welsh League next season, which means they will be featured in this blog. What is more they will not just be a credit to the Welsh League, but will improve it and if they keep this team together, Penydarren BGC could be a force to be reckoned with for a number of years.

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