Ground: Ivor Park (home of Pontyclun FC)
Date of visit: Saturday 14th April 2018
Fixture: Pontyclun v Tredegar Town
Welsh Football League Division Three
Attendance: c. 60-70 (h/c)
If you have read more than one of these blogs you will know I like to bang on about community clubs. For me, it is the essence of what Welsh football clubs should be about: integrated with the local community (and asset for the community) and striving to offer the highest platform possible for local players while sustaining the football club.
It could be argued as you approach the Welsh Premier League greater professionalism, and all its trappings, must be adopted. However, I would hope that even at the top tier of Welsh football clubs are not so short-sighted as to neglect the locals. If Welsh domestic football is going to improve it can only do so through the support of the people of Wales and a league of sustainable community-focused clubs – rather than clubs run on the financial goodwill of a wealthy benefactor – is hopefully the ideal for even the Welsh Premier League.
One of the great appeals of this Welsh Football League journey I am on is learning about some of the fantastic community clubs across the three divisions. They all seem to have their own story, philosophy and some are further along than others; but the essence of co-existing with the community seems widespread across the Welsh League. Last weekend I feel very fortunate to have encountered another club with a really strong connection with its community, as well as being up there with the friendliest I have visited: Pontyclun Football Club.
Pontyclun is a community located at the southern end of Rhondda Cynon Taf. Despite not being, strictly speaking, part of the South Wales Valleys, Pontyclun owes its growth to the industrial legacy of the south of Wales. Prior to the 1850s the area that is the modern-day Pontyclun consisted of a handful of farmsteads, but the establishment of various industrial works in the second half of the 19th Century – including a colliery, an iron ore mine and the Ely Tin Plate Works – facilitated the development of the community into something more akin to the village of today.
Despite having never played higher than what would now be considered the third tier of Welsh domestic football (although no formalised national pyramid existed before 1992), Pontyclun FC (nickname: The Clun) is a club with a long history. Founded in 1896, the club slowly developed from a local side and became affiliated to the FAW in the 1920s (despite retaining their amateur status). The club’s motto ‘Gorau chwarae, cyd chwarae ’ (best play is team play) was also adopted by the FAW (in the 1950s according to the club programme) and remains part of the national association’s official emblem.
Pontyclun joined the Welsh League for the 1968/69 season and spent 44 seasons at this level before relegation at the end of the 2012/13 season. Most of this first run in the Welsh League saw Pontyclun competing in the lowest division, although there were promotions in 1980, 1984 (due to league reorganisation), 1993 and 2003. The season 2002/3 saw Pontyclun promoted as Division Three champions by the narrowest of margins (on goal difference).
Upon relegation from the Welsh League, Pontyclun joined the South Wales Amateur League and underwent a few years of rebuilding. When the ‘Amateur League’ merged with the South Wales Senior League for the 2015/16 season to form what is now the South Wales Alliance League (SWAL), Pontyclun were placed in the Premier Division. The Clun won promotion back to the Welsh League – ending their five-year absence – last season by winning the SWAL Premier Division ahead of Penydarren BGC. During these years, Pontyclun also reached the final of the John Owen Cup (the equivalent of a League Cup) in the 2014/15 season.
In their first season back in the Welsh League Pontyclun have more than held their own. Currently they sit a respectable 7th in the table, but with a number of games in hand over the sides immediately above them, The Clun could finish higher still.
Ivor Park – Pontyclun’s ground – is just south of the village’s main hub, abutting Cowbridge Road and a stone’s throw from the River Ely, which separates Pontyclun village from the community of Brynsadler.
Ivor Park has two pitches, the main pitch and a recreational pitch beyond that. There is a small stand on the halfway line that can accommodate the required 100 people (for WL status), but there is presently no seating at Ivor Park.
The ground boasts a new changing room complex, built in recent years through local fundraising with some of the work even done by people at the club in order to help keep costs down. As well as providing the required changing rooms for both teams and officials, there is also a cafe serving hot drinks.
The old changing room block is still on the grounds of Ivor Park. In a derelict state nowadays and described by Pontyclun chairman Tony Bishop as even worse on the inside than it looks on the outside. Some might say it’s a bit of an eyesore, but I quite like that juxataposition of the old changing rooms and the upgrade on the other side of the pitch. It’s a relic that helps provide some narrative between Pontyclun FC of the past and the present-day improving club.
The programme offered is a real treat. A high quality print mixing colour with mono, it is loaded with reading information. The typical features are present: stats, results, pen pics, manager’s thoughts etc. What makes Pontyclun’s programme unique is Phil Sweet’s (a history teacher) touch. There are flashbacks to past Pontyclun matches, as well as historical features on the Welsh League and the senior national team. The programme I was given included some excerpts from the Glamorgan Free Press. I particularly enjoyed reading the match report from 1911 on Pontypridd AFC’s clash with Treharris, played, according to the report, in front 4,000 spectators at the now lost Taff Vale Park.
A really superb publication, easily one of the best Welsh League programmes I have seen and well-worth the £1 it ordinarily costs (the club were kind enough to give me a complimentary copy).
During my visit I also had the pleasure of speaking to Pontyclun FC chairman Tony Bishop and club historian and committee member Phil Sweet. It was fantastic to speak to them about the club’s history as well as the aspirations going forward.
Integration with local communities is at the heart of the club. Bishop and Sweet estimated the club has approximately 300 youngsters playing at the club through the various age grade sides, with some groups so popular Pontyclun have the luxury of fielding two sides (‘blues’ and ‘yellows’). There are further links in the community with the local secondary school, the community council and the Athletic Club (for the post-match get together). Considering the size and status of the club, they enjoy a good level of local support. There has been financial and moral support, but on matchdays the locals turn out. The attendance (my estimate) for this game is more than respectable for a Division Three club and Phil Sweet told me they often have 20-30 supporters on away days.
Pontyclun have also remained true to their amateur roots, Bishop told me he was proud that Pontyclun have never paid players, instead trying to build an atmosphere and ethos that recruit and retain players.
The youth set-up forms part of this, providing a clear pathway to the first team. The likes of Sam Shilton and the Lawrence brothers are examples of this pathway in action, but they are also second generation Pontyclun players, which highlights the kind of values the club is all about. Manager Barry Quinn has also been at the club for many years, further proof of the continuity and long-term vision of the club.
The future aspirations at the club include continued work to upgrade the facilities at Ivor Park. Although the ground is a council rent, the club have a long-lease and enjoy a good relationship with their landlord. This is a football club, after all, providing a fantastic community programme, pursuing their goal of developing and giving local players the best possible platform on which to play football.
Work is ongoing to ensure Ivor Park is compliant with FAW ground regulations. At present there are regulations for tiers 1 and 2, but it is anticipated regulations at tier 3 will be introduced with the likely provision of 100 covered seats and some hard-standing around the pitch. Tony Bishop also said work to upgrade the car park to a level tarmac surface is on the agenda as ‘first impressions are lasting impressions’.
Ultimately, wherever Pontyclun go in the future, what remains at the fore for both Tony Bishop and Phil Sweet is that the club does not sacrifice its sustainability and community work. They want the club to reach the highest level possible, but as a club run entirely with the revenue it generates (alongside some assistance through community fund-raising) there is very much a pragmatic approach in play.
Tredegar Town 0
It was inevitable I would one day catch a nil-nil in the Welsh League. At least this one wasn’t a drab draw.
Ostensibly this was a mid-table clash (can’t really say ‘end of season’ because both sides still have 11 games to play) between two sides that are realistically safe but probably 1-2 wins away from making their Welsh League status next season mathematically guaranteed. With so many games left to play both sides might also harbour aspirations of a top five finish – which would be no mean feat considering where they were at the end of last season.
Typical of Division Three this was a tight, evenly poised affair. Most of the Division Three games I have seen go this way. Many of the sides are evenly matched and apart from the top 3, there isn’t a huge amount of consistency. Matches seem to come down to, in general, which side takes their chances on the day. Following this pattern, the match was an end-to-end affair that could have produced five or six goals on a different day; the rustiness both sides showing in front of goal reflecting their lack of recent action. Pontyclun hadn’t played for two weeks, while Tredegar’s last match was three weeks earlier.
That said, the away side started brighter and created a couple of early chances. Pontyclun worked their way into the game as the half wore on, their front two Joel Woodington and Jamie Williams providing a good physical threat. The closest to a goal in the first half was Lewys Cruickshank’s effort for Tredegar cleared off the line.
The second-half was almost an opposite of the first. Pontyclun started better with Jason Bertorelli and Jamie Williams both finding a bit more space behind to run into. Both had chances. The midfield battle was even and contested with one or two typically robust challenges, but all in all this was a good-spirited match between two determined outfits.
Pontyclun introduced as substitute former Cardiff City midfielder Kevin Cooper, who remains a resident in the village. Cooper provided a few glimpses that even after retirement from the professional game, that touch of class never deserts you. Cooper played the pass of the game to release Williams, but the bustling forward was unable to get a meaningful effort at goal. Another substitiute, Sam Shilton, probably should have opened the scoring but his close range header was too high.
It wasn’t all one-way traffic, although in the second-half Tredegar looked more threatening from set plays than open play and created a few chances from free kicks and second balls. Towards the end they dispelled any doubts about a lack of match fitness though and had a couple of chances in injury time, two of their substitutes providing fresh impetus to their attack.
But it wasn’t to be in the end. A point each, probably no less than each side deserved.
This was a fantastic visit. I really enjoying speaking to committed and passionate clubmen like Tony Bishop and Phil Sweet. Football at every level is all about the players, but grassroots football clubs don’t happen without the enthusiasm and commitment of volunteers and people behind the scenes. That Pontyclun is such a good club based on admirable values is testament to the knowledge and experience of those running it.
I wish to extend my gratitude to Tony Bishop and Phil Sweet for their welcome and their kindness in speaking to me. Incidentally, Phil Sweet has written a book on Pontyclun’s five years outside the Welsh League called Pontyclun FC: The ‘A’ Years 2012-17. Copies can be purchased from Phil directly. I won’t put his details here (as I’ve not requested permission) so contact Pontyclun FC if interested. Or better still, if you can, pay a visit to Ivor Park on matchday and speak to Phil directly.