Head of the Valleys: road trip to the home of The Martyrs (and a brush with the FA Cup in September!)

Last Saturday while thousands of Welsh football supporters were heading toward Cardiff for Wales’ crunch World Cup qualifier against Austria, I found myself heading north away from the capital. My destination: Merthyr Tydfil. It wasn’t the World Cup I had on my mind; it was instead the FA Cup.

 

Long before the mainstream media take an interest and start spouting their ‘magic of the cup’ clichés the FA Cup begins and ends for a lot of clubs. It’s hardly uncommon knowledge the FA Cup begins in September with the first qualifying round, but how many football fans take any notice until the first round proper (arguably the majority take no interest before the third round draw in December – if at all)? Before the weekend I could count myself among that disinterested number.

 

With no Cardiff City match due to the international break and the fact I am, at best, an armchair supporter of international football, there was a gap in my diary. It’s a good thing the relentless pace of non-league football waits for no-one: while players at the elite level of the game were dreaming of a place at next summer’s showpiece in Russia, for clubs in the 7th tier and lower of English football last weekend was the first step in their aspiration to reach the draw of the first round of football’s oldest competition. To my joy, Merthyr Town FC had been drawn at home in the first qualifying round. How could I resist?

 

If you didn’t know already, Merthyr Tydfil sits in a fairly central place at the head of the South Wales valleys. It is the most significant point at which the old industrialised regions of South Wales give way to the picturesque and rural expanses of the Brecon Beacons National Park. It’s geographical position at the confluence of the two minor Taff rivers into the larger one that is practically synonymous with Wales and the Welsh once made Merthyr Tydfil one of the most important places in the world.

 

In its heyday, Merthyr Tydfil was Britain’s industrial powerhouse: the town’s four ironworks responsible for around 40% of Britain’s iron exports, influencing the transformation of Britain’s economy that would make it the world’s greatest industrial nation in the nineteenth century. As one of the major focal points of the greatest social and economic revolution in the history of Britain, Merthyr was also the epicentre of significant political change: Merthyr was, along with Derby, the first constituency to elect as a Member of Parliament a Labour candidate (Keir Hardie in 1900) and thereby giving the working class movement its first parliamentary voice.

 

Like much of the South Wales coalfield in post-industrial Britain, Merthyr is a town that has fallen into decline and suffered tremendous hardship. It is one of the most of most deprived towns in Wales, and if you grew up in the valleys it was more often a subject of ridicule rather than celebrated or remembered for its historical significance. Yet Merthyr Tydfil endures and once you dig below the cruel stereotypes you find a town that is fascinating to explore and not short on vibrancy, as well elements of a strong community and local pride. If you need an example, look no further than the town’s football club.

 

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The existence of a football club in Merthyr Tydfil dates back to 1909 with Merthyr Town AFC (nickname: The Martyrs) the first club formed in the town. The original Town’s highest point came in the 1920-21 season when they finished 8th in the Football League Third Division. That success proved short-lived and by the 1930s the club were in serious decline, dropping out of the Football League before liquidating in 1934.

 

Merthyr Tydfil FC was the successor club, formed in 1945, and within a few years joined the Southern League. The Martyrs’ forty year stay in the Southern League generated six titles before finally gaining promotion to the Football Conference in the late 1980s. The closest Merthyr Tydfil came to Football League status was in the 1990-91 season when they finished 4th; however, by 1995 the Martyrs had fallen back into the Southern League.

 

It was prior to those heady days in the Football Conference that The Martyr’s enjoyed their greatest night. In the 1987 Merthyr Tydfil FC beat Newport County 1-0 to win the Welsh Cup for the third time (and the first time since the 1940s). It meant they would take part in the 1987-88 European Cup Winners’ Cup. The first round draw paired Merthyr Tydfil with Coppa Italia finalists Atalanta and on a famous night at The Martyr’s home Penydarren Park they defeated the Italian club 2-1 (although they would lose the second leg 2-0 in Bergamo and exit the competition).

 

Domestically, Merthyr Tydfil FC would never again escape the Southern League and despite the occasional high moment (such as a televised FA Cup game against Walsall) the first decade of this century would be one of struggle – especially off the pitch as the debts began to mount. After entering administration during the 2009/10 season, The Martyrs were unable to provide guarantees to the FA the club could continue to trade effectively. Merthyr Tydfil FC was expelled from the Southern League and the club wound up at the end of the season.

 

A Merthyr-based club was reformed quickly by a group of supporters, returning to the name Merthyr Town, but forced to begin life in the Western League First Division – the 10th tier of English football. The new club was formed as a Community Benefit Society (its purpose must be to serve the community rather than its members) and is fully owned by the club’s supporter’s trust. The club has a constitution that governs how the club and board ought to act in accordance with its status. Part of the status means anybody can become an ‘owner’ of the football club by paying an annual membership fee (or share). From as a little as £20 a year it is possible to have an equal share in the society with full rights to vote and stand for the board of the football club. Any profits generated by the football club are to be invested into the community, not distributed among members.

 

In serving the community it means the football club makes its facilities accessible for public use. The 3G pitch at Penydarren Park can be hired and is the epicentre of the club’s community projects – used by the first team through to the club’s walking football outfit; the ‘clubhouse’ is available for social functions; there are broader initiatives to encourage participation in the community, using football as an active force to engage locals and break social barriers, including walking football for the elderly, disability football, football for girls, promoting work experience and skill development through volunteering. The club support coach development with opportunities for prospective football coaches to gain experience and paid work through the academy.

 

This work saw Merthyr Town FC recognised by UEFA in 2015 with a gold award for the ‘Best Grassroots Club’, stating the club “embodies the very essence of sport and community spirit, embracing coach education, fun football and small-sided games, while facilitating the sport for a wide target group. With the pitch always in use, the club is able to use football as a means of tackling social issues at the heart of the town.”

 

On the pitch Merthyr Town quickly found their back to their previous level, returning to the Southern League Premier Division within three seasons. The club continues to look upwards, last season reaching the division play-offs (for promotion to the Conference South), losing out on penalties to Hitchin Town at the semi-final stage.

 

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Saturday’s FA cup tie saw Willand Rovers (of the ninth tier Western Premier Division) visit Merthyr Town. It’s an 224-mile round trip for the Devon-based club. I can’t boast anything like the same level of commitment, but even if you’re travelling from South Wales it is well worth a visit and even making a day of it.

 

You know it’s proper football ground when there’s an immovable obstruction

 

You can get to Merthyr Tydfil via Wales’ main south-north trunk road, the A470. It is pretty dull south of Merthyr, but it gets you there fairly quickly (about 45 minutes from Cardiff). There’s also the A465 (Heads of the Valleys Road) if you are coming from the west or east. However, I would recommend the train if you are coming from the south (you could always join the Merthyr line somewhere along the way otherwise). Not because there is anything particularly attractive about the service Arriva Trains Wales offers, but rather because it allows you enjoy at leisure a fair amount of the landscape along the length of the river Taff.

 

If you are coming out of Cardiff, for example, once you hit Radyr the country opens out before you, the line hugging the river more or less all the way to Taffs Well with Castle Coch and Garth Hill both prominent features to behold. Then it’s onto the historic industrial settlements of Treforest and Pontypridd. Once you get past Abercynon the line plods up through the Merthyr vale with good views of the steep, narrow valleys.

 

From Cardiff the journey takes about an hour and if you really have time on your hands it is worth stopping off along the way. There’s certainly a pre- (and/or post-) match pub crawl to be had with a number of stations boasting pubs a short walk away (my recommendation is putting any of Treforest’s Otley-owned pubs somewhere near the top of the list). Even if visiting every boozer along the hillside isn’t your thing, there is plenty to find and do.

 

Once you’re in Merthyr it’s a short walk through the town to find the ground. When I first went in August, Google Maps suggested it was an 18-minute walk, but it takes me closer to 10 minutes from station to ground. It looks more complicated on the map than it actually is – just don’t miss the turning onto Glebeland Street (if you reach the Red House you’ve gone too far). If you’re coming by car there’s a cheap Car Park in the heart of the town near the magistrates court. It’s about a five minute walk (by my standards) from here to the ground. There is parking available at the ground and on Park Terrace, but I can’t comment on the level of restriction, so it’s probably best to contact the club if you need to arrange parking close to the ground.

 

If you’re walking up from town you will pass the Park View pub on Brecon Road en route to the ground. This is the Merthyr Town fans pub and according to their Twitter page away fans are welcome at the cost of selecting a song from the juke box. You can also purchase copies of the Dial M for Merthyr fanzine here. I wish I could praise the quality of the beer and the atmosphere, but on my two visits to Merthyr Town I have been so late arriving I have barely made the first blow of the referee’s whistle. Maybe next time.

 

The home of Merthyr Town, Penydarren Park (or LoadLok Community Stadium to give its official name), sits at the end of Park Terrace (it’s clearly signposted). On my first visit I was surprised by the first impression. I expected to find a beaten down old ground, but you have a modern looking facade, although the cladding of the refurbished clubhouse is a bit of an affront to the eyes. Once you are through the turnstiles (£10 on the door) you can move straight ahead into the roofed and seated stand, or veer right and move around the stand onto the terracing.

 

Approach to Penydarren Park

 

When I first started reading other accounts visits to Penydarren Park it was the terracing I was most looking forward to experiencing; I’m not exaggerating when I say it really took my breath away. Stretching along the eastern (open) and northern (roofed) sides of the ground, it’s a short terrace, but it is wonderful vista of battered, chiselled and weed-invaded concrete; rusty, weathered metal and a real old school football charm.

 

Terracing at Penydarren Park

 

Since Cardiff City left Ninian Park my experience of live football (pre-Taffs Well) has been exclusively in modern, all-seater stadiums. I grew up watching the Bluebirds on the Bob Bank terrace and even if the standard of football has improved at the Cardiff City Stadium, the atmosphere has rarely reached that same euphoric feel as cold nights under the lights at Ninian Park – especially if City bagged a scrappy winner or salvaged a plucky draw. I believe to any fan whose formative years came in such surroundings the sight of any proper terracing gets the heart fluttering.

 

There is a bar at Penydarren, but the facilities in the northern stand are what I want to call out. It’s your standard football nosh, beige, deep fried and served out of a shed, but the curry and chips are hit the spot surprisingly well – served with a sweet bit of local charm too. There’s none of that characterless, overpriced, corporate, I-couldnt-give-a-shit attitude you tend to get from food vendors at modern football grounds.

 

Better than a Clarkies every day of the week!

 

As you would expect, the artificial 3G pitch at Penydarren Park looks immaculate; although on a sunny day you no doubt need some protection for your eyes from the plasticky glow. Artificial pitches still seem to carry a bad rep these days and as I haven’t really kicked a football in over a decade, the only real exposure I’ve had to them is that awful pitch Wales played on in Andorra a few years ago. Suffice to say the pitch at Merthyr Town is a far cry from that and played, to my surprise, really well.

 

The problems Wales had stringing 2-3 passes together in that Euros qualifier are certainly not present at Penydarren Park and the surface plays well and consistent enough for Merthyr boss Gavin Williams to have the confidence in his side playing a surprisingly progressive brand of football.

 

Given it is the seventh tier of English pyramid the football isn’t as fast or technical as you will find watching Sky Sports every weekend, but the two Merthyr matches I have watched suggest to me there is clearly a focus on playing a brand of football that emphasises short-passing and building from the back. Of course there are long balls, but not nearly as many as you would expect to see in non-league football. I can’t claim to know much about Merthyr’s footballing heritage, but I find it hard to believe this style of play would be possible on a bobbled and sticky grass pitch (such is the reputation of non-league grounds).

 

The FA Cup tie against Willand Rovers was particularly exceptional from Merthyr – albeit against vastly inferior opposition. Playing a 4-3-3 with ex-Cardiff trainees Stuart Fleetwood and Jaye Bowen on either flank, Merthyr wore out their opponents with the quality and precision of their passing game. It wasn’t just about hoofing it towards a target man and winning the second balls, or the speculative balls into the channels that identifies a basic territorial game; from the first whistle Merthyr played with a clear purpose to keep the ball on the ground, play it short, use one-twos and movement between the lines to probe and punch through Willand’s deep defence. The winning margin (6-1 to the Martyrs) accurately reflected the gulf in quality between the two sides and it could have been double figures on the day but for some inspiring first half goalkeeping and profligate Merthyr finishing in the second half.

 

Without watching a league game against a similar calibre of opponent it may be premature to jump to conclusions about Merthyr being some non-league incarnation of the Barcajax model; however there was plenty of evidence in the friendly win against Hednesford Town (of the Norther Premier League – also seventh tier) in August that this is a pattern of play Merthyr Town are trying to employ.

 

If there is one thing I have yet to experience at Merthyr Town (admittedly a short sample I’m working with) it is the atmosphere I have read about. There wasn’t really an atmosphere to speak of against Willand Rovers, which may be expected given there wasn’t a lot of edge in the game. Encouragement, cajoling, appreciation, frustration – there was plenty of that being vented; I was just hoping to hear some of the songs I’ve read the names of.

 

But as I am certain I will be going back to Penydarren Park, I have no doubt I it will be a short wait.

 

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If you are a Cardiff City fan reading this, you’re not going to Fulham and are free on Saturday afternoon, The Martyrs are home to Bishop Stortford in the Southern League Premier Division. I’m sure they would welcome your custom and support; I’m confident you’ll enjoy the day out.