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Sunday, 24 April 2016 07:48

Ups & Downs

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Week Commencing 18th April 2016:  it's the silly season, the clocks have gone forward, pitches have dried out, and almost every day brings early evening kick-offs. I managed three games this week, but the main subject of this entry is Saturday's action - with a midweek summary below.

 SATURDAY 23rd APRIL - Tranch recreation Ground, sunny intervals.
TRANCH 3 PENYGARN & TREVETHIN 2 (Gwent County League Div 3)
As promotion and relegation matters start to come into clearer focus, followers of Welsh football try to calculate the likely consequences at all levels of the pyramid. Recently, the position regarding relegation from the Welsh League Third Division has begun to look worrying for the Gwent section of the pyramid, with possibly three or even four Gwent sides in line to be dumped down into the Gwent County League this summer. And that means that, several levels down in the Gwent County Third Division, relegation carnage is looming, with the bottom six or seven at risk of being relegated to district leagues. A glance at the league tables reveals that the town with the most to lose in all this is Pontypool. [If rest of article is not visible, please click Read More below]

Pontypool is known as a rugby town, but it has just two rugby union clubs, and a host of small football clubs - Panteg in the fourth tier of Welsh football being the highest-ranked, followed by Cwmffrwdoer at level 5 (Gwent County Div 1), then numerous clubs at the next two levels, in Divisions 2 and 3. And down in the wrong half of the Division 3 table are several Pontypool clubs in danger of dropping out of the league.

So a local derby involving two of those clubs piques my interest today, and I my travels take me to the hilltop district of Tranch - a simple three-bus journey (home - Gabalfa - Newport - Pontypool), followed by a short but stiff uphill walk to Tranch.

Tranch recreation ground is a small public rec built into the steep hillside. The park entrance is high above pitch level, with a grass bank running the length of that side; then a flat pitch, and then a very steep drop away on the far side of the pitch, down towards the town and the valley floor. A small changing room block sits between bank and pitch, and the club has firm plans to extend it to provide a refreshment area and somewhere to shelter from the elements (I'm sure it gets inhospitable up here in winter). Remarkably, four holes have also been dug on the near side of the pitch, in readiness for erection of lights (which have been donated to the club).

Tranch sit three off the bottom of the table, while visitors Penygarn & Trevethin are bottom. With games running out, both look in serious danger of relegation, though nothing has been officially communicated about numbers. The visitors, promoted last season, have recorded only one win all season, but make the better start, actually taking a fifth minute lead. From then, things start to go downhill. As early as the tenth minute, they incur the wrath of the lone official - a prolonged spate of moaning about a couple of decisions tests his patience too far and he waves a red card at a visiting player. A couple of minutes later, Tranch are level, and it seems they will probably kick on from here. But, despite creating the better chances, they can't find the net, and in the 35th minute fall behind to a breakaway goal, which gives the visitors a half-time lead. The home keeper even has to make a couple of smart saves to prevent further damage.

Within a couple of minutes of the restart, Tranch do get their equaliser, and now the onslaught starts. They are unquestionably dominating, but make heavy work of turning that into a lead, notably through wayward shooting. A third goal does come ten minutes into the half, and on the balance of play it should be followed by more, but the last half hour is a remarkable passage of play as the Penygarn goal somehow remains impregnable. Although Tranch continue to be careless with scoring chances, huge credit for the final one-goal margin of defeat has to go to visiting keeper Feather, who pulls off a string of acrobatic and brave saves to deny Tranch.

In the end, the three points are unlikely to be enough to save Tranch from accompanying Penygarn back into the Gwent Central League, but it is, at least, a win in a local derby. There is an air of disappointment that avoiding the bottom two or three places isn't going to be good enough this year, and that relegation may be inevitable through no fault of their own, but there seems to be enough spirit and determination at Tranch to suggest they'll fight their way back to this level before long, to bolster once again the tally of Gwent County football teams in this rugby town.


Meanwhile, earlier in the week my games were more concerned with promotion battles..........

TUESDAY 19th APRIL: Llanishen Park, dry and mild
CATHAYS CONSERVATIVES 2 STM SPORTS O.B. 4 (Cardiff Combination Premier Division)
Llanishen Park is the nearest football field to my house, but in over twenty years of living here I've not actually watched a game. This is partly because, until last summer, work got in the way of early evening kick-offs, but it hasn't always been easy to find Cardiff parks fixtures. Nowadays, information is readily available from the Cardiff Combination, and when their website revealed the visit of league champions STM Sports O.B. to play Cathays Cons here, it was obvious I should stroll round the corner and watch. Llanishen Park is just that, a single football pitch in a public park, with no facilities, not even changing rooms. But on the plus side, the pitch is fairly enclosed by trees and houses on three sides. On a fine, sunny evening, it's not a bad place to watch a game.

STM have a remarkable record - or rather I should say that they did have one until last Saturday. They have risen through the Combination's divisions rapidly, and hadn't lost since 2012-13, when they were in Division Two. After going through 2013-14 unbeaten in Division One, and then following that with an unblemished record in 2014-15 as they took the league title, the St. Mellons club had again won twelve out of twelve to clinch the championship again with games to spare. But then, on Saturday, they lost 3-4 to Tiger Bay. Tonight, they conclude their league campaign.

Initially it's hard to recognise the team in pale blue as one with such an impressive record. They start poorly, falling behind to a penalty for handball, and don't really begin to play until half-way through the first period. An equaliser on 28 minutes is quickly followed by a second goal - a curling free-kick - and the visitors lead at the break.

In the second half, STM threaten to put the game beyond Cathays, but good approach work fails to bring a third goal, and they get caught on the break just after the hour mark. But quality tells in the end, a fine header restoring the lead, and a well-worked goal two minutes from time sealing the win. Just the one defeat in three seasons then, a pretty impressive stat to take into the SWFA promotion play-offs.

Within less than five minutes of the final whistle, I'm home. Llanishen Park may be the most basic of venues but it sure is convenient.

WEDNESDAY 20th APRIL: The Willows - mild, sunny evening.
BRIDGEND STREET 2 LLANTWIT MAJOR 2 (Nathaniel Cars Welsh League Division 3)
Not quite as local as last night - nothing can be - but just a simple journey across town to one of my favourite Cardiff grounds. The location (Adamsdown) and setting (school grounds) m,ay not sound promising, but what Bridgend Street have created at The Willows is a proper football ground, with its brick stand, advertising boards and red refreshment hut. Always a pleasure to visit, especially so on a mild and dry spring evening.

There's not a lot resting on this game really. Both teams have been in the promotion race, but look more than likely to fall short, with the top three pulling clear now. Bridgend Street led the league at one time, but suffered more than many with the disrupted season. A couple of marquee signings recently gave hope, but results on the run-in haven't been quite good enough to catch up again. Llantwit Major were never up there, but equally were not too far away. I didn't think they looked like promotion contenders recently at the Corries, when they seemed fortunate to win.

Almost everyone is ready at 6.15 and, like me, the home side would have liked the match to start before the official kick-off time of 6.30. But we can't start without a referee, and tonight's official is stuck in traffic, arriving in the nick of time to get the game underway at 6.30.

The first half here is uninspiring: in fact neither side looks like a top of the table outfit. Bridgend Street have some neat approach play at times, but fail to finish their moves effectively. Llantwit seem effective at stopping the home side one way or another, but offer little of quality. As at Corries, their game seems to be built around breaking quickly, and they do it again, snatching the lead late in the first half.

Bridgend Street take their time to make any mark on the game, but eventually, with about half an hour left, they win a penalty which David Brooks converts. This changes the game, the momentum more now with Bridgend Street and they press Llantwit further back. The goal which gives them the lead is an odd one: a Bridgend Street player goes down theatrically in midfield, and players and crowd alike half expect the referee to either give a free-kick or at least stop the game for treatment. But the move continues with the stricken player still down, and Micky Davidson tries a snapshot which beats the Llantwit keeper from 25 yards.

With 18 minutes left, Street now try to hang onto their lead, and the game degenerates. Little football is being played now, it's all shouting, arguing and haranguing the poor official. As the end of the 90 minutes approaches, and the light fades, I slip away to catch my bus, fairly confident there will be nothing more of note. I'm obviously wrong, because after I've left the visitors equalise. The point apiece isn't much use to either side, but at least it's another fixture out of the way.

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