Neath 0 The New Saints 1

Neath 0 The New Saints 1 (17th March 2012)

“Nice Legs, Shame About the Face” sang The Monks in 1979, and “Nice Ground, Shame About the Game” rather sums up this trip down to the other end of the M4. Like The Monks’ song, this too was something of a “one hit wonder”, with TNS’ winner being perhaps the only shot on target that wouldn’t require generosity to be described as such. The were even some nice legs too, in stilettos no less, in the shared Neath RFC/FC bar. The girl with the nice legs though (no caveat about her face required) seemed to have the good sense to be in the bar to watch Wales win the Grand Slam, rather than watch Neath FC play TNS at football.

While in national terms this was a table-topping premier league fixture, without being too unkind, The Welsh Premier League probably has more in common with the Rymans and EvoStik versions than the English behemoth. Neath had averaged around 440, the second best in the WPL, but the conflict with the rugby being played at the same time meant this would be Neath’s lowest crowd of the season – just 217. A surprising large number of those had appeared to have travelled down from around Oswestry too.

Clashes with imminent success in Wales’ national sport aside, Neath’s fortunes have prospered since arranging to groundshare with Neath RFC at the delightfully named “The Gnoll”. They had previously played at a modern, but rather characterless sports academy. There was a definite case of serendipity as WPL requirements saw this ground as inadequate, and a groundshare at the 125 year old Gnoll, with its Neath RFC owners was the outcome. It is without doubt one of the best “old skool” grounds in the UK, and it’s a joy to watch from, even without the crowds to come even close to filling it.

In fact for football matches only the main stand is in use. Richly painted in black – both Neath RFC & FC play in all black and have incredibly similar Maltese Cross club badges – it is a throwback to the stands of old. About ten rows of faded red seats, with “Neath” picked out in black, sit below a rusting propped roof and an oversized and overhanging tv gantry.

The stand is split into two by an oddly placed large exit gate about two-thirds along. Above the gate sits a messy and cramped-looking press box, with newer red and blue seats from here towards the corner. The large gap between the front row of the stand and the pitch is marked by an unusual fence, looking like it is made from scaffolding poles, just before the pitch starts.

Around the corner is a terrific home terrace – if you can overlook the small detail that no fans, home or away, can actually use it. With its high black propped roof, echoing the style of most of the main stand, and substantial depth, it’s like walking into football ground nostalgia. In an age when fans are getting used to dull identikit stadiums, and looking at photos of grounds of the 80s and before and wishing they could have been around to go to grounds like that, here’s a ground that is still “like they used to be”.

Allowed onto this terrace to take a few pictures, its impossible not to imagine how good this terrace would be, packed for a big game. A real home end.

Opposite is another terrace. This is uncovered and not quite as big, but still bigger than found at most non-league grounds. A large exit tunnel leaves a tiny corner of terrace almost stranded at the far side. The terrace does not quote go the full width of the pitch as the rugby club bar fills the corner.

Opposite the main stand, blocking the view of the small cricket ground next door, is a new “temporary” stand. Seven rows of green seats under a white roof that would look more at home on a wedding marquee fill this side in a much better way than they really should. Undulating Welsh hillsides dominate the view beyond.

Topping it all off, the real cherry on top, is an old-fashioned set of four corner floodlight pylons. I can almost feel myself growing an anorak and plastic wrapped notebook as I type that, but there is something deeply satisfying about them that just cap off a “proper” looking ground, in a way that other kinds of lights don’t.

So, as I was saying earlier “nice ground…..”

I suppose when crowds are no better than Rymans League levels, it shouldn’t be expected that the football on show should exceed that standard either. Without seeing other Welsh Premier games – and this match wasn’t really the best advert for making you consider doing so – it’s hard to know how typical this game was. It wasn’t actually a boring game. Both sides showed attacking ambition. It’s just that both sides showed an unswerving knack of finding an opposing team’s player with virtually every attempted through ball or cross.

The pitch didn’t help. While very green, the grass just camouflaged a surface lumpier than school dinner mashed potato, and the regular clouds of dirt the puffed up hinted at the impact the dry winter has had. Even so, both teams were hugely wasteful, and even with the almost total lack of pace on display, speed of foot won over speed of thought nearly every time. Lee Trundle, Neath’s big name (and often big-boned) striker showed flashes of being able to drag the game up, but as well as he could retain possession under a flurry of attempted tackles, he often lacked the speed or the passing range to do that much with the ball. That the first half ended goalless wasn’t a huge surprise.

The game potentially opened up slightly, for TNS at least, with a Neath player seeing a second yellow fairly early in the second half. Neath actually played a bit better with ten men rather than eleven, and fashioned a few opportunities, sadly all wasted.

The New Saints weren’t exactly looking like a team hoping to return to the top of the table. A few dangerous balls were put in, but the few shots they were having would have been more appreciated had the Neath RFC goalposts been in place instead.

I’d taken a fair number of “action” (in its loosest sense for much of the game) pictures during the game, which is usually a bad sign as far as quality of the game goes. So when The New Saints mounted a forray around the edge of the box, and the game stubbornly 0-0, I decided my only option if I wanted to see a goal was to temp fate. I turned my camera off.

Sure enough, after an unelegant stumble through the Neath back line, a thumping shot from twelve yards gave the Neath keeper no chance, tucking into the corner of side and back netting before he could even move.

This prompted a spell of real urgency for Neath, but they never really looked like creating a decent chance, let alone scoring. The contrast between the loud cheers from the rugby fans in the clubhouse, and the silence of the home fans drifting away, was pretty marked. One set were hailing the clinching of a championship. The others were witnessing the probable end of a chance of theirs. That “big game” for Neath FC will have to wait.

Click here for full gallery (41 pics) on the UK site.

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