Abertillery Bluebirds 4-1 Llandrindod Wells
📍 Cwmnantygroes | Blaenau Gwent, Wales
🏆 Ardal South East
⚽ Wales (Tier 3)
📅 Sat 19 Mar 22 | 2.30pm
🎟️ £4 | Att: ?
With Cardiff’s trip to Middlesbrough postponed and Newport County having already played yesterday, it seems as though today’s groundhopping options are limited only by my imagination (and, of course, the sudden uptick in fuel costs, which instantly reins in my grander ambitions and instils a hypothetical geographical barrier of around 50 miles).
Luckily, after perusing the Futbology app over a morning coffee, I manage to narrow the choice down to something resembling a compromise, with Hereford’s Edgar Street, Cheltenham Town’s Jonny Rocks Stadium, and Cwmnantygroes – the famed home of Abertillery Bluebirds – making the final cut.
In the end, though, Cwmnantygroes – or the Candour Talent Stadium, to give it its official title – wins out. The crisp, March sun suggests that, on balance, today is a grassroots day and, besides, at £1.60 a litre and rising, the short drive past Newbridge is just a lot more palatable than a trek up the A40.
The Famed Cwmnantygroes
There’s a third factor in this decision, too: in groundhopping circles, Cwmnantygroes is one of the more iconic ticks in the proverbial and, given that it’s only 20 minutes away, the stars seem readily aligned for today to be “the day”.
As previous visitors – or, indeed, anyone familiar with the various articles and YouTube videos dedicated to this ground – will attest, the nature of its appeal is immediate; perched discreetly on the edge of a nature park and dwarfed by the imposing hillsides of Blaenau Gwent’s mining landscapes, it is the football cinematographer’s wet dream.
It’s not just one for the hobbyists, either. Cwmnantygroes has garnered recognition in the mainstream football media, landing 40th place in FourFourTwo’s recent (and surprisingly well-researched) 100 Best Football Stadiums in Britain feature. Only Garw SBGC’s Blandy Park – which is currently closed for changing room renovations – tops it in Wales, reinforcing the idea that, behind the conifer trees here, lies something very special.
A Ground to Match the Surroundings
Situated in the picturesque ex-mining village of Six Bells, the ground itself is home to third-tier Abertillery Bluebirds (strangely, neither the Bluebirds or fierce rivals Abertillery Excelsior actually play in the town, with the latter’s Jim Owen Field located in nearby Cwmtillery).
This clearly doesn’t diminish the sense of community or identity around the place, though. The £4 gate fee is, in practice, entirely optional, as the opposing side of the pitch is accessible through a public path. Yet nearly every single spectator – and there are a good 50 or so of us – choose to part with their change, providing the club with some much welcome revenue.
Clubs at this level can often be hit and miss in terms of hospitality and facilities, but the Bluebirds are certainly running one of the smoother operations in grassroots football. Alongside a cozy but modern seating area, a moderately-sized clubhouse offers up a wide range of standard lagers, soft drinks, and hot beverages, as well as some local off-tap offerings such as Tiny Rebel. Despite not being a fan of last night’s Afghan Pale Ale in Newport, I opt for a Clwb Tropica (ABV 5%); my £3 gets me a refreshing, juicy taste with a cloudy haze, keeping me just about interested in – but still generally unsure of – the Rogerstone-based brewery’s offerings.
The mix of spectators is pleasingly diverse, too. As well as the regulars enjoying a sun-kissed pre-match pint on the patio, wives and children are present to show their support, while groups of teenagers sip Fanta respectfully. A small but vocal entourage from opponents Llandrindod Wells (a 100-mile round journey from Mid Wales, no less) put some cash behind the car, and engage in some good-natured banter with the locals.
As a big screen shows the opening minutes of the Welsh rugby team’s doomed Six Nations clash with Italy (result redacted), I scan the many photographs and pendants adorning the walls, most of which suggest a modest yet dignified history. One in particular stands out, commemorating a 2019 Welsh Cup defeat by Connah’s Quay Nomads; given that the Nomads went on to win the Cymru Premier that season, the 3-0 losing margin that day must rank as one of the Bluebirds’ more palatable defeats in recent years.
From Scrappy to Sumptuous
As discussed previously on this blog, Welsh domestic football has undergone significant restructuring in recent years and, as a result, I’m keen to ascertain what sort of standard the Ardal South East is actually at. With both of these sides in the top half of the league standings – and the home side chasing promotion – it should be a fairly positive sample, although when giant Bluebirds centre-half Dan Paull hoofs it into touch straight from kick-off, my expectations take a slight dent.
In fairness, the pitch is unforgivingly bobbly, and a repressive, swirling wind severely restricts Wells’ ability to get out of their own half. Across the park, first touches are poor and passes often waywards, although judging by the sentiments expressed by the watching faithful, things are not usually anywhere near this bad.
At any rate, Bluebirds midfielder Corey Mitchell drives home from the edge of the box in the 31st minute to give the home side a deserved lead; the referee’s vocal assertion that Mitchell’s midfield partner, James Young, is “going down like a sack of shit” is the only other illuminating incident in an otherwise dull first half. The claim is met with accusations of disrespect from Bluebirds manager Lee Thomas, to which the referee’s instant retort – that respect “goes both ways” – gives everyone a brief pause for thought.
Luckily, the start of the second half suggests that an increase in quality and excitement is imminent. Young fails to convert a spot kick in the 50th minute, drawing an impressive save from Wells keeper James Barker, but he quickly makes amends when he prods home a Bluebirds second minutes later.
This lead is then almost immediately halved as Wells’ Kieran McCarley converts a dubious penalty for the visitors, although any potential fightback is deflated by one of the stranger red cards I’ve ever seen.
As I initially see it, an unidentified Wells player is sent off for foul and abusive language, which I assume is aimed at the referee (or an opponent). But, as it transpires, the tirade – which goes along the relatively inoffensive lines (by grassroots standards) of “you need to shut the fuck up you prick” – is actually reserved for a teammate, with the offender in question sheepishly apologising to, well, everyone, as he leaves the field.
In the event, the Bluebirds dominate the remainder of the contest and add two further goals through Tom Beynon and Luke Lewis, with the sending off not really affecting the result. It’s been an enjoyable afternoon in the crisp March sun watching an (eventually) exciting game of football at a level of football that’s ultimately new to me.
The Bluebirds are still very much in contention for promotion to the second-tier Cymru South, and this is a ground that deserves to be in as bright a spotlight as possible. Off the field, the club are seemingly well organised, welcoming, and family-friendly, and their surroundings are sure to provide a steady stream of interested neutrals for years yet to come.
They continue their promotion push with a trip to AFC Goytre on Friday, while Wells are away to Monmouth Town.
Postscript: It was a dramatic end to the season for Abertillery who, after narrowly losing out on automatic promotion to Abergavenny Town, were soundly beaten by their Ardal SW counterparts Ynyshir in the Ardal South promotion play-off final. Llandrindod, meanwhile, finished in 8th place, although they will play in the Ardal NE in 2022-23 following a geography-forced transfer.