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Thursday, 15 September 2016 09:58

The Welsh Groundhop Comes 'Home'

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The first, tentative Welsh Groundhop took place in the South Wales Amateur League in 2002. Now, sixteen years later, the 2016 event is back 'home' in Cardiff and the valleys. The league has changed (to the Alliance) and so have Groundhops. But all for the better. A great weekend is in prospect (and the weather forecast isn't too bad either). Read on!

FRIDAY 26th AUGUST - Swanbridge Road, warm and sunny
When the schedule for this weekend was first discussed, back in March, the idea of a summer evening on the clifftop at Sully had obvious appeal. Of course, it could all have gone wrong, given the way the weather has been fluctuating, but we're in luck and it is everything we could have hoped for - sunny, warm, great channel views, a fine sunset - and some great football as Canton Liberal turn on the style to spring a bit of a surprise, going 0-3 up in the first half (only one of the goals to Christopher Quick on this occasion) and coasting (no pun intended) to a 2-4 win in front of 281 spectators. Special mention is due to Sully's remarkable efforts in changing their match programme - after the initial print run - to reflect an enforced late change of opposition.

SATURDAY 27th AUGUST - dry and mild.
The four-game schedule starts at Tonteg Park and I join the hoppers with a short bus trip from Cardiff. I haven't visited this ground since Llantwit's Welsh League days, and a couple of things have changed - it is now enclosed by a mesh fence, and a dragon mural has been painted on the toilet / changing room block by the road. One end of the stand is doing a brisk trade in refreshments as the crowd of 190 assembles to watch a one-sided game against Bettws (who have also come down this year to join Llantwit in the Alliance).

The coaches move on up the Taff valley to the village of Aberfan. The Grove playing field is a new venue for me, a large open playing field area with a wooded mountain backdrop on one side, and a view of village terraces and further hills / mountains on the other. The home club manages to cater for the influx of fans (220 crowd count here) with refreshments from the pavilion and merchandise under a gazebo, and most importantly of all at this open venue, it doesn't rain!

Aberfan dominate the game against struggling Fochriw, but the latter battle hard and restrict the score to 4-1, with Aarran Caffell scoring a hat-trick. Let's hope the day opened the eyes of the visiting club to the opportunities presented by a groundhop - they turned down the chance to host a game this weekend.

There couldn't be more of a contrast in venues as we next arrive at The Bont, Penydarren. This is one of the Alliance's best-appointed grounds, with a seated stand, covered standing, terrace steps and a clubhouse building and the home club have mobilised all resources to make their hosting a success. The crowd of 285 includes plenty of locals and everyone enjoys the range of refreshments before going on to enjoy a remarkable football match: Penydarren seem to be on course for victory after opening up a 2-0 lead, but the Rhondda visitors rally in the second half and eventually snatch a late winner to prevail 3-4. Few saw that coming, but it keeps up the average goals per game for the weekend!

Fourth game of the day, and with Pontlottyn's floodlights not yet restored, we just about have time to scale the steep Rhymney valley hillside and install ourselves at the Welfare Ground before kick off - which is as late as feasible in the late August twilight.

The Welfare Ground is familiar to me - or at least I thought it was. I remember its hilltop location, open and exposed banking and clear views across the valley. The location remains the same, so do the buildings (elevated changing rooms by the entrance and stand opposite) but the aspect of the ground is completely different: mature trees and bushes on all sides have given it an enclosed feeling, and whilst this removes some of the views, it's actually preferable to the somewhat barren place I remember from fifteen or more years ago.

After watching 270 minutes of football already today, concentration is waning. However, it's clear Merthyr Saints are the stronger side here as they score at regular intervals to record a 1-5 win in front of another good crowd, 246 in the gathering gloom of evening. Another six goals - that's 24 today alone. I think I saw most of them...

SUNDAY 28th AUGUST - Wet at first, clearing up.
I join the coaches at their breakfast stop this morning in ominously heavy rain. As we head west, it fails to improve. None of this detracts from the impact of Blandy Park on its first-time visitors, for this is truly a 'one-of-a-kind' ground, its stand perched forty feet or more on the rock-face above the little pitch, which is squeezed into the available space between rock and river. Below the stand, treacherous pathways wind around the elevated side of the pitch, leading to the flat grassy standing behind both goals. The far side has nothing but a high mesh fence separating the pitch from the Garw river right behind it. Beyond the river, the steep, wooded hills on the other side of the valley.

Pre-match, most people try to shelter from the heavy rain in the diminutive stand and clubhouse. It's a bit of a squeeze, to say the least, with 257 in attendance. To watch the game in comfort, it's necessary for all but those who really need a seat to head outside. Many perch on the pathways, others of us negotiate the steep, slippery steps down to pitch level. Thankfully, the rain begins to clear up soon after kick-off.

The game proves entertaining, if rather error-strewn. Trebanog, so formidable in all competitions last season, seem more vulnerable here against a very useful Garw side and the goals come thick and fast. It ends 7-2, so that's another boost to the goals-per-game average.

As we make the short journey back towards Bridgend, we come into brighter weather. Cefn Cribwr is considerably warmer and drier than Blaengarw and it seems the whole of this tiny village is at the impressive sports complex ready for the groundhop visit. It's a new ground for me, and I'd expected not much more than a field, so I'm pleasantly surprised by the facilities and the maintenance of the playing surface. A remarkable crowd of 293 is recorded, and they're well-fed here, with faggots and peas the popular local speciality. The day goes well for Cefn Cribwr off the pitch, but not on it, as Penrhiwfer come away with a 1-2 win - the lowest scoring game so far.

On to North Cornelly, and the rain returns as we wait for the evening's business to get going. Pre-match, the priority is sustenance, and Cornelly have catered well. They've got a very well-stocked table of Cerddin Brewery real ales which is (predictably) proving really popular.

Cornelly's Meadow Street may only be a public recreation ground, but the home club prove it's still possible to generate some atmosphere. A crowd of 351 packs into the mesh-enclosed pitch, with United's junior players installed in the little stand and encouraged to "make some noise".

On the field, it's a close and entertaining local derby. Porthcawl take a first half lead, but Cornelly come from behind to win 2-1, much to the crowd's approval.

MONDAY 29th AUGUST - warm and sunny
Nearer home for me today, just the short journey out to North Ely Rec. for the first game. The home club have risen splendidly to the occasion, with ample table space available for pre-match trading in souvenirs etc. and a very imaginative array of food on offer. In the warm sunshine, 261 spectators line the pitch and assemble on the banking to watch a Division 2 encounter which newcomers Cardiff Airport come out on top - 2-4 a rather harsh scoreline on the Hibs, who contributed a lot of the more attractive play but succumbed to the visitors' more direct approach.

Two famous old Cardiff clubs contest the next game at the most urban of our eleven venues this year. Coronation Park is buzzing in the pre-match sunshine, with 225 in attendance. Home-made Welsh cakes prove extremely popular here, while there's also a steady trade at the table selling cold drink cans and bottles.

The game itself is a stroll for Albion. Corries, newly relegated from the Welsh League, are apparently depleted, and despite the presence of the Misbah brothers in attack are soon behind. Albion don't add to their three first half goals but are comfortable winners.

The final game of the weekend's eleven is at tree-lined Bryn-y-Don, Dinas Powys. Once again, the home club has laid on a range of refreshments - although here the catering is in the clubhouse, some distance from the pitch. Even so, at the end of a marathon weekend, staving off hunger and thirst is the priority.

Back over the little bridge to the pitch, there is merchandise on sale as the crowd of 301 gathers in the evening sunshine. For the final game, with many needing to head home, the size of the crowd is impressive, and clearly there were plenty of locals present as well as remaining hoppers.

The final match action is entertaining, but by now it is hard to concentrate for 90 minutes. There are some fine goals - and a few errors - as another eight goal extravaganza rounds off the weekend. Cadoxton Barry initially look to be comfortably in control with three early goals but as the match progresses Cogan threaten to come back. In the end the comeback is prevented by Cadoxton Barry's fifth goal in the 79th minute.

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