Monday 29th August 2016, Southern Football League Premier Division
The August bank holiday found me at a loose end but without any convenient Western League fixtures. It was time to move up in the world and set off on a jaunt to Gloucestershire for some Southern League Premier action.
Cinderford is a small town on the edge of the Forest of Dean whose football club is currently playing at it's highest level since forming in 1922, albeit against it's will. After a lot of will-they-won't-they during the close season, Cinderford did eventually accept promotion when faced with that or being expelled from the league but not before they'd lost their manager and some of their best players. Add to that an unsettling financial outlook and it's hard to see anything but strife for them this season and they start at the bottom of the Southern Premier this afternoon, with just one win and four losses from the opening five games.
From one club teetering on the brink, to another coming back from it: Cinderford's opponents were Merthyr Town. The original Merthyr Town lasted from 1909 through to 1934 and spent time in the Southern League and the Football League before winding up. Football would return to the town 11 years later with the founding of Merthyr Tydfil FC, which shared the same nickname as the previous club: The Martyrs. Tydfil enjoyed a wildly successful 65 years of non-league football, winning the Southern League Premier Division on six occasions and seeing off Swansea Town (1949), Cardiff City (1951) and Newport County (1987) in three Welsh Cup finals.
This wasn't to last and they were liquidated in 2010 but a new club was set up under the original name that same year. This new club ground shared with Taff's Well at Rhiw Dda’r and were placed in the Western League Division One, a league it won it in it's first season of existence. After that the club returned to it's spiritual home of Penydarren Park and it was like the previous 77 years never happened. Three promotions in six years now sees Merthyr Town back at their historical level, with scope to push up to the sixth tier.
Looking around the Causeway Ground you get the impression that a similar move upwards would not be an option for Cinderford. It's a decently equipped ground and isn't without it's charms but it needs a lot of love in several places.
When you enter the ground you are met with a dirt track that spans the entire end behind the goal. On the side of the pitch opposite the clubhouse is a small terrace buried in a grassy hill. The grass, as you can see in the pictures, looks to have seen better days. Add the rickety wooden fence that serves as the ground's perimeter and you've got a scene from Mad Max, I thought to myself as the dust swirled around my feet in the warm breeze. My misgivings wouldn't put a dampener on the mood of the 303 in attendance who were basking in the sun with pints and climbing up on the dry hills for a better view. As I strolled around the pitch I overheard a pleasing number of babs and buttys being exchanged, which told me that there was a large contingent from the valleys down for the afternoon.
On the other side of the pitch things are a lot less threadbare. To the left of the centre line there's a small shed with flat standing. This area is on a lower level than the other two stands. In fact if you stand there you'll find that you're about pelvis-level with the pitch, which is an interesting if slightly terrifying way to watch football. On the right we have a covered terrace with brick and concrete steps packed in five tight rows. The centremost stand is seated and contains seven long benches for the weary traveller. Not too bad, although the visibility is quite poor in a few places. I was taken aback when I entered the clubhouse at half time for a pint by the Butlins style glittery purple curtain covering the stage at the far end of the room. Come to think of it, I actually can't think of any other clubhouses with a stage.
|Didn't they do well?|
One thing that you can get at the Causeway Ground that you won't find anywhere else is a pint of Cinderford Town Football Club Pilsner™. The sign on the tap was literally just the club's badge with 'pilsner' written underneath. Pretty good stuff as well.
The game began and within 10 minutes a Merthyr forward had collected the ball in a prime central position in the box and rattled the bar with it. Chances kept coming thick and fast, a Cinderford charge at 15 minutes won a corner but the header that followed was offside and later still Merthyr shot another promising one just over the bar. Scoring opened in the 20th minute from a Cinderford penalty given when the Merthyr keeper had little option but to pull a Cinderford player down in the box. Cinderford continued to pile on the pressure as one of their wingers withstood several meaty challenges only for his cross to be intercepted. The Welsh side got themselves back in the game through a series of free-kicks. One from 20 yards, with the reason for it being given unclear, sailed over the bar but another taken from near the corner failed to find any heads as it sailed across goal but curved into the bottom corner anyway. Cinderford 1 - Merthyr 1.
The first half had been very much a battle of two solid midfields, with both teams struggling to break each other down honestly, hence the number of free kicks. However the same could not be said for the home side's defence as a clearing cock-up gave a Merthyr player, who didn't look like he could believe his luck, the ball at his feet mere yards from goal. After a quick spin to shake off his marker he slotted home Merthyr's second. For the remaining 5 minutes of the first half Cinderford's defence were indeed terrified, with Merthyr rattling the crossbar and going just wide in quick succession. Cinderford were playing very deep and stubbornly refusing to clear the ball which I'm quite surprised didn't cost them but the half ended with no more goals being scored.
At this point I would like to dedicate a word to Cinderford Town's fine chips, which were plentiful in quantity and bore a crispiness that greatly exceeded expectation. It was like a little punnet of fried hash browns. So enamoured was I by my chips that the first thing I noticed in the second half was a fine save by Merthyr's keeper. Utilising the awesome power of his stylish and practical baseball cap he was able to crouch down and collect a probing grass cutter without being blinded by the sun's harmful UV rays. That's using your noodle kids. Merthyr came agonisingly close to their third when a player flew into a cross but his powerful shot was just wide. They came just as close 5 minutes later and were denied only by the Cindy flapper's trailing foot.
However in the 68th minute against the run of play Cinderford notched an unexpected equaliser. A goal-line scramble ended with the goalkeeper falling into the net whilst holding the ball. A true delight to behold. From then and for the first time in the match Merthyr Town looked to be under a bit of pressure. A lone Cinderford forward breaks free and forces the keeper to come out and save with his fingertips, the resulting corner fizzles out to the back and Merthyr reclaim the ball for themselves but fire over the Cinderford goal from close range.
A draw would've been a fair result but Cinderford's Ben Hands had other ideas. Taking the ball on the wing, he launched a rocket from 30 yards that Merthyr's keeper had no chance with, baseball cap or no baseball cap. The manager and coaches flooded the pitch and there was much rejoicing. This was followed by drama as a Cinderford man was sent off, receiving his second yellow for leaving the pitch without the referee's permission, as I would later learn. A bit of a killjoy move on the ref's part, considering Cinderford were celebrating going from the bottom of the table to that all-important for morale purposes safe zone but I suppose rules are rules.
An enjoyable game all considered that had the right mixture of skill, drama and comedy that I hope for on these days out. As I was writing this, news came in that Cinderford's financial future is looking far rosier than previously which is great news. With any luck they can avoid relegation and push on in the Southern Premier.