Penydarren Park | Chips, Curry, and Existentialism in the Valleys

Merthyr Town 1-2 Harrow Borough

📍 Penydarren Park | Merthyr Tydfil, Wales
🏆 Southern League Premier (South)
⚽ England (Tier 7)
📅 Sat 20 Nov 21 | 3.00pm
🎟️ £12 | Att: 384

As we drive the 15 miles up the A470, it’s clear that Merthyr Town – and its historic ground, Penydarren Park – have always been good for a story.

Despite being the lowest-ranked of the five Welsh sides playing in the English pyramid, the Martyrs are seemingly a perennial focal point for wild tales of financial mismanagement and mythic European glory. Indeed, it seems that the most iconic of these tales – the 1987 Cup Winners’ Cup victory over Italian giants Atalanta – would be a perfect candidate for the Jonny Owen treatment, especially given the Merthyr-born filmmaker’s self-professed support and financial investment in the club.

Ups and Downs

Of course, where Owen would even think to start with that story is up for debate; although founded in 1909 as a Southern League-cum-Football League mainstay, the club dissolved abruptly in 1934, before reforming in 1945 as Merthyr Tydfil FC.

However, that club was again liquidated in 2010, at which point a supporters’ trust, Martyrs to the Cause, reclaimed the club and resurrected its original name. Despite having to restart in the tenth tier (and play their home games some 20 miles away in Taffs Well), Merthyr Town was able to quickly return to the seventh tier, where it has remained since.

Penydarren Park

That journey back has not been without difficulties. In November 2017, as a result of more financial mismanagement, the club were forced to submit a match day squad of 11 youth players (including a 15-year-old goalkeeper) in an away match at Chesham United, losing 13-1 in the process.

Then, during the 2020-21 season, Merthyr had to withdraw temporarily from the Southern Premier due to cross-border COVID-imposed travel restrictions (a move that chairman Howard King has since claimed saved the club from bankruptcy). As a result, long-time manager Gavin Williams departed (popping up, coincidentally, as a player for Aberfan in last night’s clash with Nelson Cavaliers), leaving his replacement Dean Clarke to patch a new squad together for the current season – a challenge that is reflected in the Martyrs’ league position before kick off.

Clouds Over Penydarren Park

Much like the town of Merthyr itself, Penydarren Park has attempted to modernise without ever really throwing off the burden of former importances. The dilapidated, old-school terracing that surrounds three sides of the pitch is offset by a design-conscious cladded clubhouse, as well as an accompanying all-seater main stand of around 1,500 seats. Then there is the pitch itself, torn up and replaced by a slick, characterless 3G playing surface that provides the club with some much needed extra revenue.

That said, the balance is undoubtedly tipped towards the past; there’s certainly little in the way of ceremony at Penydarren Park. The surprisingly steep £12 entry fee (my father, a senior citizen, pays £6) provides free reign of the ground, and we decide to abandon the comfy seats for the charming covered terrace on the far side. On the walk around, wayward warm-up shots pepper the uncovered fans behind the goal, including one that misses my head by a hair, prompting a sheepish apology from the offending Harrow substitute.

The terrace itself reeks of authenticity, offering up the kind of uncensored, unsanitized non-league experience that Premier League rejectionists seem to obsess over these days. Supporters drink beer from actual glasses, and it’s difficult to resist the look and smell of the curry and chips being served at the back of the stand. Behind us, four elderly gentlemen have even bought their own table and chairs, huddling together in the November cold as they have likely done for decades.

The football itself is decent, too. The nature of the aforementioned pitch allows both teams to play on the floor, although it’s Merthyr who arguably seize the opportunity with more purpose. Corey Shephard and Curtis Hutson both go close, before Harrow – with realistic hopes this year of grabbing a play-off spot – throw the inevitable sucker punch.

I’m surprised by how quickly Merthyr’s supporters turn on their side, especially given their positive approach with the ball. At half-time there is a chorus of boos (although some of these may have been aimed at the young referee), and the players’ reemergence for the second period is greeted by a lone, coarse voice politely asking the team to “have a fucking shot this half, boys”.

Indeed, the general sentiment often shifts awkwardly between frustration, despondency, and downright apathy. One nearby fan implores the referee to blow up early and “put us out of our fucking misery”, his existentialist outburst instantly lost among a family-friendly rendition of “keeper, you’re a cunt” breaking out among some teenagers behind the goal. Under the stand, a fat ginger lad threatens to report the referee to the FA every time a decision is given to Harrow.

Just before the hour, the introduction of club icon Kerry Morgan results in a rare outbreak of positivity, but it’s quickly stifled when Kunle Otudeko digs one out into the top corner, doubling the visitors’ lead. On cue, a man sporting Doc Martens, a bomber jacket, and a mullet walks alongside the front of the stand holding a poodle, like some bizarre symbol of an impending footballing apocalypse.

An Uncertain Future

Dylan Jones does eventually pull one back in injury time for the hosts, but it’s too little too late, leaving Merthyr’s fans – obviously so proud of their past – again wondering about their future.

Given the constant cycle of financial difficulties, one long-mooted option is a switch to the Welsh pyramid, a decision that Colwyn Bay took in 2019. There is actually a precedent for Merthyr playing in the Welsh system (upon their first reformation in 1945, the club competed there for one season) but, as of August 2021, the trust remains unconvinced, preferring to put their hopes – however distant – in a return to the Football League.

Any such decision would be in the hands of the supporters, of course, but living on hope for a new investor or a TV cup run seems strange when there is a very viable chance to once again play – and reap the financial benefits of – European football. Either way, it seems that there are plenty more twists and turns to come for this remarkable club in the coming years; hopefully Owen has his cameras – and his pockets – ready to document them.

Postscript: Despite an upturn in form under the stewardship of player/manager Matthew Harris, Merthyr still finished second from bottom in 21st place. However, they were reprieved from relegation due to the withdrawal of Walton Casuals in June 2022 and will remain in the Southern League Premier (South) in 2022-23. Harrow, meanwhile, were unable to push on for the play-offs and finished comfortably in mid-table.