Welsh League Ground #11: Stebonheath Park (Llanelli Town AFC) – Rising From The Ashes

Ground: Stebonheath Park (home of Llanelli Town AFC)
Date of visit: Saturday 24th March 2018
Fixture: Llanelli Town v Cwmbran Celtic
Welsh Football League Division One
Admission: £5 (programme £1)
Attendance: 282

I live in Trefforest (Pontypridd), which puts me in a good position logistically for getting around the Welsh League. It’s a fairly central location in terms of the Welsh League geography and means all but a handful of grounds are accessible to me with less than an hour’s driving.

When it comes to the ‘outliers’ I haven’t really given much thought to the logistics, I certainly haven’t planned out the order of my visits. If this winter has taught me anything about Welsh League groundhopping it is that it is futile making any concrete plans because come Saturday morning everything could be up in the air because of the weather. However, recently I have tried to give more attention on Saturdays to some of the clubs that are a bit further afield, bearing in mind I can check-in at many of the more local grounds during the week now that the midweek fixtures are upon us.

Stebonheath Park has been on my radar for a while then, mindful I may not have many opportunities to visit the ground as a Welsh League one in 2018. Llanelli Town are sitting pretty at the top of Division One and unless their application for an FAW domestic licence fails it looks almost certain they will be a Welsh Premier League club next season. Looking over the fixtures Llanelli Town had just three home fixtures remaining this season. One of them was a midweek fixture, so was completely out of the question, and I didn’t want to hang it all on the final Welsh League fixture at ‘Stebo’ this season.

So with no other game really appealing to me on this particular weekend I decided to head west along the M4 for a second Saturday in a row.

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Of the Welsh League clubs I have visited, Llanelli Town AFC (nickname: The Reds) are indubitably the biggest and most prestigious so far. There are a number of clubs that can boast a recent history of playing Welsh Premier League football recently, some have also represented Wales in UEFA competitions. However, Llanelli boasts the only current Welsh League club to have lifted the Welsh Premier League/League of Wales title.

While the history of Llanelli’s primary football club is long, sharing ties with both Welsh and English pyramids, it also carries with it a cautionary tale of the price grassroots clubs can pay when they try to reach too far beyond their means.

Despite being a rugby union town through and through, there has been a representative football club stretching back to the 19th Century. The roots of the town’s original eponymous football club, Llanelli AFC (known as Llanelly AFC before 1963), can be traced back to town’s pottery industry in the late 19th Century. Economic migrants from Staffordshire, with no affinity for rugby union, set up a football team and Llanelli AFC was established in 1896.

Llanelli turned professional in the early 1910s following the involvement of a local businessman in the club and joined the Southern League for the 1912-13 season. Llanelli AFC would maintain an on-off relationship with the Southern League until the 1950s, as well as running a side in the Welsh League (champions in 1914, 1930 and 1933). In the end Llanelli AFC were forced into committing solely to Welsh League football in the late 1950s when the FAW twice refused to sanction the club’s participation in the English league pyramid. Since then Llanelli AFC have competed in the upper echelons of the Welsh Football League, their status as one of the foremost clubs in the south of Wales recognised when they were invited to be one of the twenty-two founding members of the national League of Wales for the 1992-93 season.

During the period prior to the formation of the League of Wales, Llanelli AFC were crowned Welsh League champions on three further occasions (1971, 1977 and 1978). Although they were unable to compete in the English league pyramid, Llanelli participated in the English FA Cup up until the late 1980s; their best performance coming in the 1952-53 season when they reached the second round (losing 3-2 away to Colchester United). Their best run in the Welsh Cup saw them play Wrexham in the final of the 1913-14 competition (beaten in a replay at Oswestry); there was also a run to the quarter-finals (ended by Cardiff City) in 1970-71 season.

The early years of the League of Wales saw Llanelli AFC largely fighting to maintain their league status, but they were eventually relegated at the end of the 1995/96 season. After three years in the Welsh Football League, Llanelli returned to the League of Wales, recording a 5th placed finish in their first season back. However, the earlier pattern resurfaced and Llanelli AFC were relegated from the re-branded Welsh Premier League in 2003.

After a one year stay in the Welsh League, promoted as champions (their 7th Welsh League title), Llanelli would embark on the most successful period of their history. Investment from Jesco Group allowed Llanelli to go professional and compete among the top sides in the Welsh Premier League. This period peaked under the management of Peter Nicholas (a former Wales international and League of Wales winning manager with Barry Town) when the Reds lifted the Welsh Premier League title and Welsh Premier League Cup in 2008 (denied a domestic treble after losing in extra time of the Welsh Cup final to Bangor City). Three years later, with another ex-professional Andy Legg in charge, Llanelli AFC lifted the Welsh Cup for the only time in their history, turning the tables on Bangor City. Welsh Premier League champions that season, Bangor were denied by Llanelli their own league and cup double in the final.

In UEFA competitions between 2007 and 2012 Llanelli also enjoyed some measure of success. In their debut European campaign, Llanelli AFC defeated Gefle IF (Sweden) in the first qualifying round of the UEFA Cup, bowing out in the next round to three-times Danish champions OB Odense. In later years there were famous victories away to Motherwell and at home to Dinamo Tblisi in the Europa League, although Llanelli would eventually lose both ties on aggregate.

Disaster struck during the 2012-13 campaign as financial difficulties finally took their toll. Several winding up petitions were issued and Llanelli AFC were eventually wound-up in April 2013 over an unpaid tax bill of £21,000. Within months a phoenix club, Llanelli Town AFC, was formed and began life in the Welsh League Division Three.

Since then The Reds have made good progress through the Welsh League, gaining two promotions in four seasons. This season they are back in Division One of the Welsh League and as the table stands look firm favourites to win the Welsh League for the eighth time. Llanelli Town AFC have also applied for the FAW domestic licence to allow them to play in the Welsh Premier League next season. At the time of writing the application was rejected, although there is a ten day appeal period in which the club can try rectify any failings in the application.

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Llanelli Town’s home is Stebonheath Park (or ‘Stebo’ as it is known as by Reds supporters), where they have been based since 1920. The ground is owned by Llanelli Town Council, has a capacity of 3,700 including seating for more than 1000 spectators. The seating largely consists of a large grandstand with 700 seats elevated above the dugouts and pitch level. On the opposite side of the ground is the remaining seating along one half of the touchline, with terracing comprising the remainder of the stand.

The grass pitch at Stebonheath Park won’t have any rivals at this level, except (from what I’m told) Haverfordwest County, and is surrounded by a narrow running track that I believe continues to be used by the local athletics club. There is also a rugby league team based at ‘Stebo’.

For a ground of this high calibre it is of no surprise the amenities are as good as you’ll find, there is a licensed clubhouse on the stadium’s grounds (just outside the turnstile) and attached to the grandstand is a good cafe boasting a range of hot drinks and snacks, including soup that you have to get in early for if you want any chance of some. The ‘Stebo’ cafe is more expensive than other Welsh League grounds I have been to (£1.30 for coffee) and as it’s just instant in a disposable cup I can’t say it merits the price hike.

Llanelli Town AFC offer a good programme at the standard £1 cost. Colour printed, well presented and designed (by my standards) it carries no less than four separate images of Lee Trundle, but does include some interesting features such as an interview with former goalkeeper Scott Coughlan (who moved to Swedish club GIF Sundsvall in January), a nice birthday tribute to a club regular and insightful club commentary from various perspectives. There is also the usual stats, results, club history (home and visitors) and squad pen pictures giving a nice balance between content and advertising. All in all, I feel Llanelli Town provide value for money with their matchday publication.

*

Llanelli Town 5 (Joe Clarke 6, 64, 69; James Loveridge 38; Kurtis March 82)
Cwmbran Celtic 3 (Chris Ham 39; Callum Wakeham 45+1; Owen Cook 81)

I’ve been watching a lot of low-scoring Welsh League games of late so it was refreshing to enjoy a goalfest, although some of the defending at both ends left something to be desired.

After a wobble, Llanelli have re-asserted their dominance over the league and when this match was played they had the opportunity to take a firm grip of the title race. This win put them nine points clear of their only realistic rival, Haverfordwest County, who they would go on to beat 2-0 at ‘Stebo’ three days later and extend that lead to 12 points.

Llanelli started in the ascendancy and were ahead through Joe Clarke’s header inside the first ten minutes. In mid-week before this game Cwmbran Celtic had put ten past Goytre (Gwent) and having seen Lee Challenger’s side previously I know they are a good footballing side at this level, I was a little surprised then at how poorly they started this game. They were forced into three early substitutions (including a change of goalkeeper after a collision left their number with a dislocation), which probably didn’t help matters.

When James Loveridge burst through and scored seven minutes before half-time I felt the game might be done and dusted and it could be a rout. However, Llanelli have shown signs of complacency through the season and within a minute they fell asleep at the back, allowing Chris Ham in to reduce the arrears with a nice lofted finish. In injury time, a cross from the left was completely missed by the Llanelli stopper and Callum Wakeham tapped into an empty net. Two-all at half-time.

Cwmbran came out at the start of the second-half as the ended the first-half, on top. Suddenly they were looking like the side that knocked Llanelli out of the Welsh Cup earlier in the season. Celtic came close to taking the lead through Callum Wakeham. He did everything right in lifting the ball over the advancing goalkeeper, but a Llanelli defender got back to clear the goalbound effort off the line.

That let-off seemed to spur The Reds into action and they took control of the game again mid-way through the second-half when Joe Clarke completed a hat-trick with a quickfire double. His first was blasted home from 12 yards after Chris Jones’ fierce strike crashed off the crossbar; his second was a simple tap-in, after some neat inter-play involving Trundle. The game-turning third goal incensed Cwmbran boss Challenger so much (he felt there was a foul in the build-up) he was sent to the stands by referee Kim Fisher.

Cwmbran kept going though and when Owen Cook headed home a free-kick nine minutes from time a second fightback was threatened. This time though Llanelli kept their composure and a rocket from Kurtis March restored the two-goal cushion. That knocked the stuffing out of Celtic, but despite Lee Trundle’s best efforts with his shoot on sight policy, there were no further goals.

Finally, a few words on Lee Trundle. At this level he is obviously a big draw and at 41 he still has a degree of class in his play. I dare say he even looks in better shape than he did when he turned out for Swansea City (but I say this as a Cardiff City supporter). Despite his background, there are no airs about Trundle; you can see he’s out there playing because he loves the game and he’s just one player in the team (albeit he’s arguably the one that gives Llanelli the edge over the rest).

It was fantastic to see Trundle stay out after full-time to sign autographs and have selfies with any youngster that wanted one. I also know he’s been happy to give his time for interviews with both The Groundhopper on Youtube and Y Clwb Pel-droed. He’s a credit to Llanelli Town AFC and the Welsh League – I don’t say that lightly as a Bluebird.

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