Iconic

Ground: Ynys Park (Ton Pentre)
Date of visit: Wednesday 7th March 2018
Fixture: Ton Pentre v Caerau (Ely)
Welsh Football League Division One
Admission: £5 (programme included)
Attendance: c. 60-70 (h/c)

The Rhondda Valleys are a fantastic place to watch football. It is an underrated part of Wales with some beautiful scenery and some of the football grounds are settled amongst some gorgeous backdrops. The area is packed with excellent community-minded football clubs; the people of the Rhondda are some of the warmest you’ll ever meet too and I enjoy the proud rivalries that exist between all the local clubs.

There is no club prouder than Ton Pentre AFC (nickname: Rhondda Bulldogs), whose long history and success in Welsh domestic football means they are without doubt the most famous football club from the Rhondda. Twelve-times Welsh League winners and a former League of Wales (now the Welsh Premier League) club, for many years Ton Pentre were de facto representatives of Rhondda Valleys football.

Formed in 1896, Ton Pentre have spent their entire existence based at Ynys Park. The Rhondda Bulldogs were members of the Southern League in the early 20th century as organisers of that league tried to tap into the growing popularity of football in the Valleys coalfield. This climaxed with the creation of a Southern League ‘Welsh’ Division for the 1920/21 season – a time that was arguably the high point for club football in the Valleys. However, this boom was short-lived. Economic depression hit the region and by 1923 the ‘Welsh Division’ ceased to exist as clubs resigned from the league amidst financial hardship; many even forced out of business. Ton Pentre survived, but had to resign from the Southern League and return to the Welsh pyramid (in as much as one existed then), where they have remained ever since.

Their time in the Welsh football has seen the Rhondda Bulldogs ever-present in the equivalent of the modern-day Welsh League Division One except for two brief interludes. Ton Pentre earned promotion to the League of Wales for the 1993/94 season by winning the Welsh Football League and maintained that status for four seasons, even representing Wales in Europe in the 1995/96 season. The other absence from Welsh League top flight came in the 2010/11 season, following relegation the previous campaign because of pyramid re-structures. The Rhondda Bulldogs’ stay in Division Two was limited to one season as they were promoted as unbeaten champions.

The club’s golden era came between 1997 and 2005 when they won the Welsh League six times in eight seasons, as well as claiming Welsh League and Welsh League Cup doubles in 1999 and 2001. The recent story has been less successful though. Since returning to Division One, Ton Pentre have failed to record a finish in the top half of the table and in many ways their rivals nearby Cambrian & Clydach Vale BGC have surpassed the Rhondda Bulldogs. This season it looks likely Ton Pentre will return to Division Two for just the second time in their history.

*

My last visit to Ton Pentre AFC was just my second Welsh League game. I was very much taking everything in with ‘newbie vision’ and left Ynys Park that day with a real buzz from watching an entertaining football match (a 3-3 draw with Cwmamman United) at an iconic Welsh League ground. Six months on and having watched many more Welsh League games at many more grounds, I was curious to see what impression the next visit would have on me.

I’m glad to say, weather notwithstanding, I left Ynys Park again feeling I had gained something of value from the experience. It wasn’t so much the game, which was a bit of a turgid scrap between two sides fighting relegation on a heavy pitch under torrential downpour, but rather the confirmation that Ton Pentre is a welcoming, friendly and community-minded club.

Ynys Park itself is worth a visit. Not only a place steeped in Welsh League history, but on a bright day it’s a great setting surrounded by some classical Valleys scenery. The club produce a decent programme, pin/lapel badges can be available (I purchased one on my first visit) and the club’s cafe sells hot drinks in real mugs, as well as some hot snacks. There is some seating inside the ground and the club are having work done to install more seating in order to meet the FAW Tier 2 ground regulations. However, Ynys Park’s superb feature is the covered terrace behind one of its goals.

Terracing is quite rare in Welsh domestic football, but behind the goal fan enclosures where (in theory) the locals can congregate to generate an atmosphere is even rarer still. While, that atmosphere isn’t quite there at the moment I have this romantic notion that in better days the Ynys Park terrace was a superb place to watch football with the Rhondda Bulldogs roared on by hundreds of locals.

I was surprised, but also pleased, to see the required seating wasn’t being installed on the terrace. I don’t know if this was feasible or whether a separate stand is being built for financial reasons, but I like to believe it is respect for tradition that forced Ton Pentre’s power-brokers not to impinge on Ynys Park’s best asset and greatest selling point for the football traveller.

The ground improvements, while necessary to compete at tier 2 in the future, are part of the club’s ongoing strategic plan. This can be read here.

*

Ton Pentre 0-2 Caerau Ely (Huw Corne 41, Ben Rose-Miles 62)

Considering the Welsh Valleys were covered by at least a foot of snow just a few days before this game took place it was incredible the pitch was in any fit state for football. I was told upon arrival referee Kim Fisher had carried out two inspections before deciding the pitch was playable, although there was uncertainty before kick-off the 90 minutes would be completed with a heavy rain showers falling on the Rhondda that evening.

Fortunately, it never came to that. While Ton Pentre and Cardiff-based Caerau (Ely) hardly served up a feast of football, they did give the spectators in attendance a hard-fought and honest contest.

At the start of the play the teams occupied the bottom two places in Division One, both on eight points, Caerau enjoyed a slight elevation in league position due to a better goal difference. However, seven points adrift of safety, this was a must-win ‘six-pointer’ for both sides. One thing I noticed from the team sheet, Ton Pentre’s squad on the night contained not a single player that played the last time I watched them (the 5-1 Rhondda Derby defeat at Cambrian & Clydach Vale last October), consisting largely of former youth team players from the programme notes.

Ton Pentre started the better of the two sides, enjoying more of the ball. However, the pattern of play was particularly scrappy with neither side keen to hold onto the ball for any length of time. It was instead a match where the essence was to compete before playing; lots of speculative punts forward into advanced areas, something for attackers to chase down and hopefully force a defensive mistake, rather than build-up play aimed at creating chances.

Given the manner of the play, it was no real surprise it took 22 minutes for an attempt at goal to be registered. It was a good chance too as full-back Adam Lewis’ long ball forward brought about a shooting chance for midfielder Jason Davies inside the penalty area, but he blazed his effort over. Unfortunately for the home side it would prove to be their best chance and the beginning of what turned out to be a wretched night.

After managing the opening half hour fairly well, Caerau began to offer their own attacking threat through wide runners Rameer Outlaw and Ayo Ajijedidun. Ajijedidun had two excellent chances to score for Caerau before they did break the deadlock a few minutes before half time. A corner from the left was only cleared as far as Caerau captain Huw Corne on the edge of the box and he struck a well-timed half volley that beat Ton keeper Steven Hall and found the top corner. 1-0 to Caerau at half-time.

The second-half didn’t produce a strong fightback from the hosts, instead Caerau began to dominate territory and chances. Sam Cawley twice tested Steven Hall as Caerau looked to extend their lead, Nathan Mathias forced an even better save out of the Ton keeper before a shot on the turn by Ben Rose-Miles found the bottom corner to extend Caerau’s lead.

Despite there still being nearly half an hour to play, the reality is Ton Pentre never looked like getting back into the game. There was a lot of bluster and some energetic play from Josh Luker forced a couple of half openings, but the Ton players in the penalty area always looked a yard off the pace or not aggressive enough with the second balls.

To round off a pretty miserable night, Ton Pentre were reduced to ten-men inside the final ten minutes when Lewis Holder received his second yellow card of the evening for an apparent off the ball incident. His first yellow card was given for unsporting behaviour in the first half.

The loss left Ton Pentre bottom of the table with just one league win to their name all season and none at Ynys Park. Ton have nine league matches to play and need to close a seven-point gap. It’s getting to that stage when you feel something miraculous will need to take place to avoid the drop.

These are very tough times for the Rhondda Bulldogs, but it is a club that has suffered in the past and managed to come back. It is very much a re-building phase at Ynys Park, one which may require a step backwards before the club can start to move forward in the direction their vision wants to take them.

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