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Saturday, 01 March 2014 20:32


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SATURDAY 1ST MARCH: Aberaman Park - dry and clear
ABERDARE TOWN 1 BALA TOWN 2 (Welsh Cup, Quarter-final)
St. David's Day: the first day of spring (officially) but not always the first spring day. However, this year, there's no mistake, St. David's Day really is a spring day. The fixture list (or at least the FAW's bag of balls) has decreed that I will head up the Cynon Valley today to see if Aberdare Town, south Wales's last hope in this year's Welsh Cup competition, can overcome Welsh Premier visitors Bala Town, and this means taking my familiar walk across north Cardiff to catch the train at Llandaf; through Caedelyn Park - early daffoldils opening (and maybe even more significant, a junior football match in progress, for Cardiff Council has allowed parks pitches to be used for the first time this year); along Church Road - cherry trees in blossom. And the sun shining all the way. What's not to like about today ?

A month ago, when I visited Aberdare for the previous round (v Bodedern) there was rain, wind, hail. So much that I didn't take the train beyond Pontypridd because of flooding. Today, no such worries, and I take the train through to Fernhill, walking up the valley through narrow, terraced Abercwmboi to Aberaman Park. Now the sunshine will improve anywhere, but in Abercwmboi it also highlights the shocking amounts of litter everywhere along the roadside. This is a community with little pride, and the council must have given up. Even so, in the sun it's not as grim as it was four weeks ago.

Aberaman Park, so waterlogged and cut up a month ago, is much drier today, but the playing surface still bears the scars of its recent punishment. A leveller, maybe ? Most pundits expect a comfortable victory for Bala, who crushed Cefn Druids 5-0 in the last round (Druids play at the same level as Aberdare, but lead their league). When the match gets underway, it's not that one-sided: Bala do have the edge in possession, but Aberdare's back four once again impress with a no nonsense, clear-first-and-argue later approach. There's a competitive, physical edge too, with a couple of minor flashpoints in the opening stages - by the 23rd minute yellow cards are being deployed.

Halfway through the first half my feeling is that Aberdare have settled and are growing in belief - the longer they hold their own, the more this will be the case. But then, in the 27th minute, Bala leading scorer Mark Connolly manages to guide a low shot past Bradley - the visitors are ahead, and have wrested the initiative back. The lead survives intact until half-time, though Aberdare threaten late in the half and aren't beaten yet.

After the break, with the sun gone and the temperature plummeting, it's a question of whether Bala can build on their advantage. A second goal would put the tie beyond Aberdare, and with Bala spending plenty of time in their opponents' half, it seems likely. I'm becoming frustrated with Aberdare for not throwing caution to the wind, not 'having a go' - because Bala don't look impenetrable. But, while I'm thinking this, they do mount an attack and Sam Small finds enough space on the left and fires the equaliser past Ashley Morris: game on !

With half an hour left, the game is now finely balanced. Bala are still shading possession, and chances, but as we've seen Aberdare can hurt them on the break. Thoughts of extra time begin to surface (not with relish - it's getting rather cold). Then, on 78 minutes, a turning point. Bala win a free-kick in midfield. Aberdare defender Scott Woodford is grounded, calling for treatment, but his calls are unheeded by referee and his assistants. Bala take the kick quickly and Woodford struggles to his feet, trying to get back into position. But the ball has already been played forward to Connolly, who curls a shot from distance into the Aberdare net. The home side are incensed - so much so that Aaron Jewell and Sam Small receive yellow cards for protesting - but the goal stands. Rough justice, we neutrals conclude.

Aberdare, with only twelve minutes to save the tie, battle on, but halfway through that time their cause isn't helped when Richard French catches Sean Thornton with a rather dangerous challenge and is given a straight red card. Reduced to ten men, Aberdare struggle to create the killer chance to force the game into extra time, and Bala hold on for victory - a far harder one than generally predicted.

On reflection then, a good cup tie and although, like last week, I've seen northern visitors destroy south Walian hopes for the rest of the season, today was quite entertaining and had the atmosphere lacking last week at Aberavon - not least because there were actually some visiting fans here, proof that if the competition captures the imagination, people will travel. Those from Bala, who have spent much of St David's Day on the road, will make their return journey thankful to be in the hat for the semi-finals.

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