Merthyr Town 0 Paulton Rovers 2 (5th May 2014)
Watching a car full of St John’s Ambulance Brigade staff struggle to manoeuvre on the steep slopes behind Merthyr’s main stand, I did think it would be an awful place to try to park a bus. Ironically really, as that’s exactly what Paulton Rovers did to clinch promotion in this seeming home-banker of a play-off final.
Driving up to Merthyr, deep in the valleys of South Wales, I have to confess I was almost taking a home win for granted. 2200 others would be there, with no doubt most having similar thoughts. After all, the entire population of Paulton, south-west of Bath, could almost fit twice over into Merthyr’s Penydarren Park. Merthyr were unbeaten at home in the league all season, winning all but three games, and had notched a hefty 111 goals in total over the whole campaign. It’s understandable confidence was high.
With Methyr Tydfil having folded in 2010, the relatively newly formed Merthyr Town were trying to fight their way back to former glories. In a division where 120 is a respectable crowd, a ground holding 10000 would seem pretty empty even with three times that amount, so it was good to see it with “league-sized” crowd in attendance.
Probably 4000 of those fit into a large covered terrace down the side, which strangely had other sections of terracing added in a slightly disjointed fashion at either end. Three angled terrace sections, separated by thick brick walls, curved towards one corner. At the back of one was a toilet block, the kind of which twenty-year olds with their “Against Modern Football” t-shirts have probably never experienced. It was OK, if you were male, and only wanted a slash, but the no-roof, bare walls, silted up gutter filled with a trickle of stale piss, and a hint-of-extremely-hardy-foliage-peeping-through facilities were something of an 80s throwback.
On the other side was a flat roof extension above another walled off terrace section, with open terracing in the corner. At the back of this terrace was another toilet block. This one appeared to be in a state of partial collapse, although that didn’t deter the locals.
Round the corner, the terracing continued on the same impressive scale. It might have been uncovered, and the concrete had started to crack, but this felt like a ground that had been hosting League football 30 years ago, rather than one that was kicked out of the league in 1930.
The Main Stand, seating around 1500, has probably seen better days. An ugly camera gantry jutted out awkwardly towards one end, leaking rusty smudges down onto the roof fascia.
The final end, with fine valley views beyond, was the smallest part of the ground. Once a covered terrace, it was now partially converted with backless seats into a semi-seated stand, with more thick walls needlessly separating each section.
Lastly, and rather strikingly, the 3G pitch gleamed with summer greenness beyond a wide tarmac surround, giving a pre-season-doesn’t-the-pitch-look-good ambiance all year round.
In the opening stages, with the sun shining down, everything was looking rosy for the hosts. They were dominating the play, looking to attack at will, but the afternoon would deteriorate for them alongside the weather.
It started to become clear that for all of Merthyr’s possession and territorial advantage, they weren’t exactly creating many efforts on goal. Paulton were taking no chances against their free-scoring hosts, and got men back and closed down as soon as they lost the ball. The expectant singing from the side terrace died down, and small boys decided playing their own games on the grass behind the terrace more enjoyable.
Worryingly, Paulton were starting to get the odd attack of their own. One break saw an attacker break away on the right, only to see his shot pulled badly wide of the left post. The best Merthyr would muster would be a free kick that flicked off the angle of post and crossbar and into the crowd.
It was clear if Paulton scored first, things would get very difficult indeed, and that’s exactly what happened. With the first spots of rain falling, Paulton stabbed in a scrappy set-piece goal from close range five minutes into the second half. Confidence was draining as fast as the covered home end was filling up.
Fifteen minutes later it was game over. A dispirited lunge brought a penalty, knocked coolly into the bottom corner for 2-0, to the delight of the 80 or so travelling fans from the southwest.
Merthyr needed to change something, anything, as it just wasn’t working. They were too slow, too predictable, and only seemed to use the width down the right hand side of the pitch. They did little more than chip in a series of crosses which the Paulton central defenders headed away with ease all afternoon long.
Still, even in such games, you feel one goal could change the game. If there was a chance of that it was in the final ten minutes. Alas, a shot was somehow turned away from close range by the keeper, and the ball chipped in to the back post for a certain goal, only for the bullet header to be almost unfathomably headed off the line by a defender.
I think everyone from Wales knew it wasn’t going to be their day after that. Some, probably fans of other Welsh teams, enticed up for occasion, were not pleased. “£9 for this shit?” was one comment, to little complaint. The numerous teenage girls in attendance, all fake tan, false eyelashes and attire you’d expect their fathers would ban them from going out in on a Friday night, were texting rather than watching before the end.
As injury time ticked by, and the rain got steadily heavier, a clunk on the floor a few metres away heralded the arrival of a smoke grenade. It may not have exactly been welcome in this confined space, but the choice of smoke colour, a dismal slate grey, did at least match the mood of most.
After missing out in the play-offs for two years in a row now, Methyr will no doubt be looking to finish one better, and go up properly next time. If they do go the play-off route, then having seen them fail on both occasions, maybe it’d be kindest if I give next year’s final a miss. That really would be one unwanted hat-trick, however much Merthyr could have done with one today.