My summer plans to head to Stuttgart for three days of football quickly died when Student Finance informed me I wouldn’t be receiving as much money as they had initially stated. Now, I know (morally) that my maintenance loan should not be used to fund my holidays, but I don’t tend to go out drinking a lot in York and had budgeted for a few months to enable me to get to Germany.
No trip abroad. After sulking for a few days I reassessed everything and wondered what could I do to cheer myself up. I could go and visit the National Coal Mining Museum in Wakefield. I could finally purchase a ukulele and join the Bolton Ukulele Society. I could even, at a push, watch every episode of Homes Under the Hammer ever created. In the end I decided it would be best to head down to South Wales and stay at Matt’s for a couple of nights, after all, he had been encouraging me to see his part of the world for a couple of years now.
When I awoke ahead of my trip to a foreign land I was feeling a bit rough. I had only enjoyed a few hours sleep following my escapades in Nuneaton the previous evening, which saw me arrive home at 01:30 in the morning. Despite this, I dragged myself out of bed and finished off my packing before scuttling around to Atherton train station to begin my adventure.
A few of the locals I know looked a bit confused when they saw me sat in amongst a load of commuters on the platform. “What are you doing up so early?” came a voice from up the stairs where Colls tea lady Emma was preparing herself for a day at work. She didn’t seem at all surprised when I told her I was off to watch football for three days and had booked ridiculously early train tickets.
Manchester was relatively quiet when I arrived and boarded on the Metrolink at the sparkling new stop that had recently opened at Victoria. I knew I was in for a long day, so couldn’t be bothered walking across to Piccadilly where I would go on to break tradition from a normal ground hopping day.
Matt and I always meet at Starbucks on the morning of a match. We never arrange a time, or even contact each other to see how we’re progressing. It’s a tradition that is bound to go wrong one week, but we’ll carry on for the time being. Obviously, Matt was down in the Valleys awaiting my arrival, so I swerved Starbucks for the day. Instead, I ventured next door to Pret-a-Manger, where I would soon be left speechless.
Kristina, a beautiful brunette barista, was primed to take my order. What followed turned out to be one of the nicest English Breakfast Tea’s I have ever supped. What made it even better was that she wandered over with her beaming smile and wished me a nice day. Did I mention that Kristina was Spanish? That is an important detail in this story which led to me declaring my love to her via Facebook. “Kristina from Oldham” doesn’t really have the same ring to it, does it?
I am going to West Didsbury & Chorlton on Saturday and will be going through Piccadilly again, so I will attempt to create some small talk with her and see where it goes. Who knows, I could be ground hopping in Andalusia this time next year?
Unbeknownst to me there was a National League AGM taking place at Telford United’s ground, which explained why there were a number of men in suits and FA folders in their hands as I boarded the Arriva Trains service to Cardiff.
I thought absolutely nothing of this at first. I didn’t for a second imagine that a club – who will remain anonymous before I become even more unpopular with them – would be stupid enough to talk so openly about the club in public. The team, who may or may not be from Bradford, went on to discuss which players they’re hoping to sign and how much their playing budget is per week. It was quite an eye opener as I sporadically sat there taking notes.
My fun was soon over as the group disembarked at Shrewsbury, oblivious to the fact that they had just performed a bit of a blunder. In hindsight, I could have leaked the lot about the club on Twitter but I’m not that mean.
I was due to meet Matt and his Dad in Cardiff, but they decided it would be easier to pick me up from Cwmbran which meant my long journey was made a bit shorter. I had waited a long time to meet Bob and as I began speaking to him, I think he found my accent quite amusing.
Jokingly in the morning I had tweeted Matt asking if they had any cash machines in the Valleys. I was a bit taken back when we had to make a special journey to go to the cash machine in Nelson before we went out to the football in the evening. What made it even more ridiculous was that the cash machine had run out of money, so we had to drive to the next village to find some.
We finally arrived in Quakers Yard where before heading back to Matt’s we went for a pint in his local, the Glan Taff Inn, where LostBoyos was apparently created. There were only a couple of regulars in at the time, but as I sat there outside with a pint of Fosters I felt like I was in the Lake District. The hills were surrounding us in every direction, there was a small river behind the pub and other than the occasional bus which goes to Merthyr Tydfil it was quite calm and quiet.
A couple more beers were had while we watched Real Madrid v AC Milan battle it out in one of those awful pre-season competitions on TV. It was painful viewing and we were soon heading out to the Rowan Tree on the road between Nelson and Ystrad Mynach for another pint. Of course, this pub formed the start of our evening in Ystrad Mynach which was just a few miles from Matt’s house.
The beer garden offered a nice view of the valley but I couldn’t enjoy it for long as Matt was soon leading me down a dirt track into a cow field, where my only shoes for the weekend got covered in shit. Things soon improved (they couldn’t get any worse) as we strolled down a cycle path which winded past a lake into Ystrad Mynach.
Ystrad Mynach is a town which sits in the Rhymney Valley. In Welsh, Ystrad means flat bottomed valley, while ach is associated with floodplains and rivers. The town once welcomed Ronnie Barker where he filmed a scene for the first episode of Porridge where he relieves himself into the petrol tank of a car having got off a train at the local station. A notable native of Ystrad Mynach is Andy Fairweather-Low, who provided backing vocals to the album Who Are You from The Who, specifically one of my favourite songs Who Are You.
Matt kept informing me that there was a lighthouse in a park that he used to slide down when he was a child, but I wasn’t listening to him that much as I was in need of a drink after the walk in the heat from Nelson. We stopped at the Ye Olde Royal Oak pub which sits next to a roundabout which is shaped like an oak, all very nice and thought out… but you can’t see the shape from street level which makes it seem like a complete waste of time and money.
In a strange turn of events, neither of us opted to have a beer as we sat outside drinking a cider and a Newcastle Brown Ale respectively. I ruined the mood slightly when I informed Matt that his Brown Ale was in fact brewed in Tadcaster, a town which we will be visiting at some point in the upcoming season.
The pub which had been recommended to us was the Coopers Arms which was found past the ground at the other end of the town. This was a lot busier than the Royal Oak, with many locals sat propping up the bar. A Kopparberg was the tipple of choice this time around as we both found ourselves needing a sugar boost. All was going well until a bloke in a long coat wandered in and ordered a pint for himself and his rather quiet mate. I’ll leave it to Matt to explain what happened next as I couldn’t put it better myself…
The bloke in question shouted, “Alright John! Seen on Facebook that you’ve not been well. How are you doing?”, before John gave him a run down of how he was feeling and then asked how he was doing. He then went into a spiel about how he’d got over his 8 month depression and was fine…until some hospital workers came and ‘kidnapped’ him in the middle of night.
“I’m an escaped mental patient,” he proudly declared to the pub much to everyone at the bar’s amusement. We assumed that this was a joke, but it definitely wasn’t as just minutes later two hospital workers turned up to take him and his mate away.
With 15 minutes to go until kick off we headed back down the road to the Caerphilly County Borough Centre for Sporting Excellence, possibly the longest ground name in history? The development was opened last year, and was funded by a number of organisations and professional sports clubs in South Wales. Cardiff City use the football pitch along with a number of other clubs, while Newport Gwent Dragons use the rugby pitch for training purposes.
The football ground houses a 500 seater stand which has the most legroom ever seen at a facility, while the Aaron Ramsey Conference Suite overlooks the pitch. The ground was a bit odd in the sense that you couldn’t walk all the way around it and one end consisted purely of toilets.
The match between Llanwern who normally play their matches at the Newport Stadium and locally based Ynysddu Welfare attracted a few spectators, with many appearing to be friends and family of the players of both sides. Matt and I knew that Nicky who runs the fantastic blog My Year in the Welsh League would be at the match, and it didn’t take us long to find each other as we all wandered around the ground taking photographs of meaningless things.
Nicky is a self labelled disillusioned Cardiff City fan and is currently halfway through watching and documenting 100 Welsh League matches in a calendar year. It was great to hear him talking so enthusiastically and passionately about teams and towns I’d never heard of and it made a pleasant change from NWCFL talk back home.
In fact, both Matt and Nicky were so passionate about Welsh football, and this match that I will use their words to talk through the match. I think the pair are only interested in Welsh football following the nations meteoric rise into the top ten of the FIFA world rankings.
Prior to the match Matt had been talking about how there’s always one player in Welsh League matches who stands out above the rest. This type of player tends to be a bit older, doesn’t run around a lot and can run the match with simple passing and ball control. This player was Llanwern’s very own Gareth Delve… or the Welsh Pirlo as I called him.
Predictably, it’d be Delve who opened the scoring and with a beauty. After skipping past a few players, he fired home a ferocious left-footed shot from the edge of the box.
Delve continued to mesmerize the crowd for the rest of the half as he almost mocked the Ynysddu defence at times with his passing and trickery. Even the Ynysddu club Twitter account tweeted us later saying how their defence had been given the ultimate run around.
Llanwern doubled their lead shortly before the break, when that man Delve set up his team mate with a fantastic through ball. Our new footballing hero delicately curled the ball with the outside of his foot and we were willing the striker to slot past the keeper, and he did.
At half time we wandered around to the other side of the ground where a large brick wall was kindly acting as a radiator. The heat which had been beating down all day had been absorbed into the building and was providing me with some warmth as the sun began to set. As I remained near the corner flag hugging the wall, Matt’s friend Huw turned up to watch the second half. Huw is another Swansea fan who has played in the Welsh League meaning he could provide me with more insight into the football on show.
Ynysddu pulled a goal back early on in the second half, but the match was sealed for Llanwern with a tap in on 73 minutes. Gareth Delve had been substituted by this stage, with a small number of us giving the playmaker a standing ovation. Matt has since gone as far as saying that he is an early front runner for his LostBoyos Player of the Season Award; an accolade won by Lionel Messi last campaign.
As the large moon rose above the hill that was in front of us, the final whistle blew and it was time to head back to Matt’s via another one of his local pubs. Nicky kindly gave us a lift up to Nelson, where we went for a few drinks in the Holly Bush.
Matt’s mum was already in the pub enjoying some wine with her friends from work, so while they carried on with their evening out, Matt and I sat down and discussed at length the pros and cons of having Coors beer on draft. This particular beer had been at the centre of many discussions during the afternoon, and I can now conclude that draft Coors is awful and is slowly declining in quality while the bottled version is beautiful and will not leave you with a headache.
It had been a great first day in the Valleys and with a further two days of Welsh football to watch and a number of pubs to visit we headed back and got some sleep. Merthyr Tydfil and Abergavenny awaited.
If you’re ever in need of a Welsh fix of football, then please do give Nicky’s superb blog a read – https://myyearinthewelshleague.wordpress.com/
- DISTANCE TRAVELLED TO GROUND: 186 miles
- ADMISSION: Free
- PROGRAMME PRICE: N/A