Welsh League Ground #14: Victoria Road (home of Port Talbot Town)

Ground: Victoria Road (home of Port Talbot Town)
Date of visit: Saturday 21st April 2018
Fixture: Port Talbot Town v Llanelli Town
Welsh Football League Division One
Admission: £4 (programme £1)

Many of the virtues of groundhopping at lower leage/non-league/grassroots levels have absolutely nothing to do with the ninety minutes (or so) of football being played. I won’t presume to provide an exhaustive list, but for me what makes groundhopping such an interesting hobby are the following things:

The adventure of visiting a new ground, finding your way to unknown places and whether there is anything interesting to be found there in addition to the football ground.
The people you meet, be they club officials/volunteers, local spectators, media representatives or other groundhoppers
Learning the stories behind the clubs, their history, ambitions, how they connect with their local communities.

On top of all of this I do want to watch an entertaining game of football, but it’s not the be all and end all.

My recent trips to the Port Talbot area exemplify these virtues. I have driven past Port Talbot many times on the M4, but I have reached my 30s without any real knowledge of the town because I have never had a reason to go there. While I wouldn’t suddenly declare myself an expert in all matters Port Talbot, four trips to watch Welsh League games in the area have given me a greater acquaintance with the area (and it’s many roundabouts!); my experience of the football clubs have given me cause to find out a bit more about Port Talbot (which I had always identified solely with the steel works) and through this you can learn something about the people and the communities around the clubs.

This isn’t an experience you get if your only consumption of football is through television or even as a paying spectator at a professional club. You get some aspect of this (for example, if you are a dedicated away dayer), but it is a very diluted version and professional clubs are so detached from spectators nowadays that you will never get the level of intimacy you will find lower down the pyramids.

I use Port Talbot as an example because my 14th new Welsh League ground of 2018 took me back to the area, this time to the town’s eponymous football club: Port Talbot Town FC.

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According to the match programme, Port Talbot Town (nickname: The Steelmen) can trace ‘tenuous’ roots to a club formed in 1901 and which competed in the Welsh League in the 1920s under the name Seaside Athletic. What is more certain is that the modern club’s origins are with the club formed as Port Talbot Athletic after the Second World War, which began competing in the Welsh League in the mid to late 1950s.

Port Talbot Athletic would remain a Welsh League club for the remainder of 20th Century (bouncing between the top two divisions) but in over forty years playing in the Welsh League they never won the championship and their best performance came in their season of promotion to the then named League of Wales, finishing 2nd behind Ton Pentre (who, presumably, opted against or were declined promotion). While in the Welsh League Port Talbot Athletic did lift two Division Two (West) titles in 1957 and 1962, as well as Welsh Football League Cup win in 2000.

The dawn of a new millennium brought about the Port Talbot club’s most successful era. Having survived their first season in Wales’ national league, Port Talbot Athletic marked the club’s centenary by changing to the current guise Port Talbot Town. Several years of steady consolidation followed before Port Talbot Town suddenly leapt from a mid-table outfit into a regular among the Welsh Premier League’s top six; the Steelmen’s best season being 2009-10 when they finished of 3rd in the Welsh Premier League, as well as reaching the Welsh Cup final (losing a five-goal thriller to Bangor City). As a result of their exploits, Port Talbot Town earned a place among Wales’ representatives in UEFA club competition.

The start of the following season saw Port Talbot Town play Finnish side FC Turku in a UEFA Europa League qualifying tie, but there was to be no extended European adventure for The Steelmen as they crashed out 7-1 on aggregate.

Further success in the Welsh Premier League years also included a run to the semi-finals of the now defunct FAW Premier Cup in the 2006-07 season, boasting the scalp of Swansea City (then of League One) in the quarter-finals. A year previously, The Steelmen were beaten finalists in the Welsh League Cup (today’s Nathaniel MG Cup)

Port Talbot Town’s run in the Welsh Premier League ended in their 16th consecutive season in the top flight. Despite finishing 10th and outside the relegation places, Port Talbot Town were demoted back to the Welsh League after failing to obtain the FAW domestic licence. The Steelmen’s first season back in the Welsh League saw a continuation of this decline, finishing 13th in a battle against relegation.

This season there has seen some steadying of the ship on the field. Port Talbot Town currently sit in mid-table and despite the mid-season loss of Paul Evans as first team manager and a number of key first-team players, under the Evan’s successor – player-manager Cortez Belle – the Steelmen have rallied of late with a short run of form that should mean relegation is no concern during this campaign.

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It is no surprise Port Talbot Town’s ground, Victoria Road (or ‘Genquip Stadium’, as its known for sponsorship reasons), reflects the club’s recent long term status in the Welsh Premier League and offers the standard of facility I believe the FAW would hope to see throughout tier 2 of the Welsh football pyramid. The standard at Victoria Road has no better champion than the story that Liverpool used the ground to train ahead of their Premier League fixture at Swansea City earlier this season.

In terms of seating capacity I believe it is the biggest in the Welsh League, boasting two grandstands of 700 and 300 covered seats along both lengths of the pitch. Behind one of the goals is a grass banked ‘terrace’ that is a good novelty and brought to my mind images of cricket grounds in the southern hemisphere. I’m sure how popular this bank would be on a cold, wet and windy winter afternoon, but under the spring sunshine of this day it was a fantastic place to bask and watch some football.

Beyond the terrace is a concrete/tarmac platform, which is mostly a car park but also houses (on the Victoria Road side) the ground’s clubhouse. Inside there is a licensed bar, a cafe serving hot drinks etc and plenty of club memorabilia and history to peruse on the walls. Inside I found Mark Pitman, a freelance journalist who writes about the domestic game, as well as covering the various Welsh national teams for both the FAW and UEFA. Mark wasn’t at the game in a professional capacity though, he’s a Port Talbot Town fan. It was good to catch up with Mark though and have a chat about the Welsh football scene; it’s always nice when someone who you consider a bit of an expert in Welsh football offers kind words of support too.

Victoria Road is a top Welsh ground for its facilities, but it’s a special ground because Port Talbot Town are a well supported club in a Welsh League context. Port Talbot has always been a strong area for football support, whether it be for the professional clubs east and west, or the domestic game. There are give Welsh League clubs in and around Port Talbot and all enjoy a decent support for the level (although, as with every club, a little more local support wouldn’t go amiss).

As well as numbers, what Port Talbot Town also boast is a set of ‘ultras’ among their support. When you start following Welsh football you soon learn which clubs bring good support and Port Talbot Town are renowned for their noisy and loyal hardcore. While they were small in number on the day, the half a dozen or so of the faithful made plenty of noise from the first to last minute. Beginning in the large grandstand on the day, the ultras moved to the Burns Road End (a low terrace behind the goal opposite the clubhouse end) when the home side were attacking that way in the second half.

It’s a cliché that supporters make a football club, but when you see how even a small band of noisy loyalists can enhance the atmosphere at a ground you see why there is more than an element of truth in the maxim.

The programme offered by Port Talbot Town is very good and reflects some of the expectations and passion at the club. I believe it’s the brainchild of Craig Mapstone and Benjamin Webster, with plenty of words and imagery of interest and packaged in high quality design.

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Port Talbot Town 1 (Chris Keane 26)
Llanelli Town 3 (Chris Jones 21, Lee Trundle 50, James Loveridge 67)

The game had a quite a bit of coverage in Welsh League circles because Llanelli Town came to Victoria Road knowing a point would be good enough to clinch the Welsh League title. Promotion was still up in the air at the time of the match because Llanelli Town’s FAW domestic licence application was rejected at the first instance. However, this has since been granted on appeal and Llanelli will now play in the Welsh Premier League next season.

Llanelli started the game in the mood of side gunning for glory, dominating possession for pretty much the entire game. However, they found a young Port Talbot Town side in competitive mood and their determined rearguard meant this was a decent contest for more than an hour.

Chris Jones – following a mid-week hat-trick – opened the scoring with a 20 yard snap shot after some nifty footwork enabled his evasion of a couple of challenges. However an error at the back by Llanelli allowed Chris Keane a tap-in to level the match shortly after. Llanelli continued to press and won a penalty just before half-time after a foul on Lee Trundle. The ex-Swansea and Wrexham striker took the spot kick himself, but it was saved superbly by home keeper Rory McCreesh.

Half-time: 1-1

Llanelli’s second came shortly after half-time and Trundle was once again the difference for The Reds. The veteran frontman produced a great piece of skill inside the box and a fine finish on the volley from a tight angle to restore the advantage. Cortez Belle had a good headed chance for Port Talbot Town a few minutes later, but Llanelli quickly seized control in the second-half.

A fine move ended with James Loveridge curling home from just inside the box to make it 3-1 and the final twenty minutes became shooting practice for Llanelli as they tried to rack up more goals. They couldn’t do that, but did see the game out without any alarms. After the final whistle they were presented with the Welsh League trophy. Worthy winners this season, there is no doubt about that.

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Victoria Road has to be on any Welsh football groundhop bucket list. It’s easy to get to, good facilities, boasts a clubhouse with a bar and Port Talbot Town’s faithful provide one of the best atmosphere’s you’ll find around Welsh domestic football.

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