Life’s A Beach

Ground: Marston’s Stadium
Date of visit: Saturday 17th March 2018
Fixture: Afan Lido v Haverfordwest County
Welsh Football League Division One
Admission: £5 (programme and team-sheet included)
Attendance: c.100 (h/c)

My last trip west long the M4 took me to Trefelin BGC, one of four Welsh League clubs based in the Port Talbot area. With four clubs within a radius of approximately four miles it may just be the area with the strongest concentration of representation in the Welsh League. Ground 9 would take me back into that area, this time to see Port Talbot’s leading club in the present time: Afan Lido Football Club.

What struck me about the journey to Trefelin BGC last time was how quickly you transition from the industrial-urban area of the Port Talbot conurbation into the picturesque scenery of the Afan Valley. This remarkable feature is found throughout South Wales, particularly in the Valleys where the peculiar juxtaposition of industrial past and repairing countryside is abundant. The trip to Afan Lido’s ground, the Marston’s Stadium, has this same feel of moving from urban landscape to a more natural setting.

Once you’re off the M4 and heading towards the town centre along the A48 you are confronted with a heavy industrial backdrop from the steelworks. Leaving this behind it’s a case of navigating through some residential streets and then out of nowhere you’re looking at the sea.

Aberafan Sands is surprisingly breathtaking because it’s just not what you expect to find a town known primarily for heavy industry and which once had the ignominy of having the most polluted air in the UK outside London. A Blue-flag beach, Aberafan Sands is a lovely stretch of golden sand in keeping with the more celebrated beaches to the west along the Gower peninsula and South along the Vale of Glamorgan coast. It’s just a (strong arm’s) stone throw from the Marston’s Stadium, which invites a full day out consisting of a lounge on the beach in the morning and football in the afternoon.

Not that this day was quite fit for that. The sun was shining on Aberafan, but blustery and bitter wind meant it was a day for layers rather than catching a few rays. Something to keep in mind for later visits though.

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Afan Lido Football Club was formed in 1967 and associated with the Afan Lido Sports Centre, which was destroyed by fire in 2009 and demolished two years later.

After just four years in the local leagues, Afan Lido joined the Welsh League for the 1971/72 season, finishing 3rd in what is now Division Three. Their first promotion came at the end of the 1973/74 season and by the mid-1980s the club were an established force at the top tier of domestic football in Wales’ south. Afan Lido won back to back Welsh League titles in 1988 and 1989.

Their status as one of the foremost clubs in domestic football meant Afan Lido were one of the twenty clubs that made up the League of Wales (now the Welsh Premier League) when it was formed for 1992/93. This period was arguably the most successful in the club’s history. There were back to back League of Wales Cups won in 1993 and 1994, followed by finishing runners-up in the LOW to Bangor City in the 1994/95 season and earning a UEFA Cup place during the next campaign. Unfortunately, that season (95/96) would see the club’s fortunes plummet as they were relegated back to the Welsh League.

Since the club have yo-yoed between the Welsh Premier League and the top flight of the Welsh League. Afan Lido’s best league finish in the past twenty or so years being 5th in the Welsh Premier League at the end of the 2001/2 season. Afan Lido reached the final of the Welsh Cup in 2007, losing narrowly to Carmarthen Town and secured the Welsh Premier League Cup (the re-branded LOW Cup) in 2012.

Although Afan Lido have been promoted from the Welsh League twice in this time, they haven’t won the Welsh League title since 1989. They have enjoyed cup success though, winning the Welsh Football League Cup in 2007 and 2009.

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Marston’s Stadium reflects the heritage and status of Afan Lido. Although there are visible signs of wear and tear, and the need for a touch up or two, the set-up can’t be bettered by many in the Welsh Football League.

As a recent Welsh Premier League club the legacy of the domestic licence remains with the 350-seat grandstand the dominant feature of Marston’s Stadium. A smaller structure with 150 seats behind the dugouts on the opposite side completes the 500-covered seats, with a television gantry on top and signs still in place for media offices. The on-site clubhouse is the brightest jewel, as they inevitably tend to be when Welsh League clubs have them, boasting a full bar and packed with locals before the game.

The walls of the clubhouse are adorned with the history of Afan Lido, the most notable feature being the recognition of all those from the club that have earned representative honours. It’s a fantastic nod to the club’s history, as well as highlighting exactly what all community football clubs should be about: giving opportunities to local players to participate and achieve through football. In addition to the clubhouse, Marston’s Stadium has a separate tuck shop selling the usual hot drinks, hot snacks and there’s even a pick and mix of sweets for younger spectators.

The programme comes with admission at no extra cost, as well as free team sheets. The latter a very convenient touch, especially when you are writing a report on the match. In general, obtaining team-sheets across the Welsh League isn’t a difficult task, but it’s a nice touch of professionalism when they are provided for your convenience. It’s worth calling out and congratulating when it’s done.

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Afan Lido 1-2 Haverfordwest County

(Scorers: Liam McCreesh 90+2; Greg Walters 7, Danny Williams 37)

Both sides went into the game with an eye on the Welsh League title. For Haverfordwest County, this could also bring about promotion to the Welsh Premier League as they have applied for the domestic licence. With Llanelli Town stretching their lead at the top the night before and very much in the driver’s seat as far as the title was concerned, there was no room for error for either side.

Afan Lido started the match as one of the division’s form sides (winning eight of their last ten, losing once) and may have been seen as marginal favourites with home advantage against a side that had lost three on the spin. However, it was Haverfordwest that opened the scoring with an early goal and with the first effort on goal.

The blustery conditions were already evident when midfielder Greg Walters struck a speculative effort from just inside the Afan Lido half, the wind taking hold of the ball and deceiving Afan Lido goalkeeper Steve Cann before it dropped under the bar and into the net. An ideal start for Haverfordwest and no signs of any sort of crisis of confidence that a three-match losing streak may have provoked.

It was the start of a dominant performance from Haverfordwest, who on the day were too strong for Afan Lido and but for some poor finishing could have won the game more handsomely. Danny Williams doubled the lead before half time and in the second-half the side from Pembrokeshire run riot counter-attacking as Afan Lido pushed forward. Williams and Walters were a constant source of menace and both should have added to their goal tally on several occasions.

Liam McCreesh struck a spectacular free-kick in the second minute of injury time to give Afan Lido a brief glimmer of hope. They even had a good penalty shout turned away for what looked like a push in the penalty area, but Haverfordwest held on for a win they did deserve on the balance of play.

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My trip to Afan Lido is certainly up there among my best Welsh League ground experiences. It’s a cracking set-up, local amenities mean there is more top do than just attend the football. While I didn’t get around to speaking to anybody at the club on the day, I know from other sources this is a club with quality people behind the wheel, a truly community club with an excellent youth set-up and a resurgent first team that seems to have a good blend of experience and local young players.

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