The Big Freeze of 2010?

So another day with snow, another day off for the kids, and continued coverage on both radio and television as to the effects of the current arctic conditions for South Wales. It’s certainly affecting the Martyrs, we haven’t played a match since 12th December and we’re unlikely to do so until 23rd January for the visit of Chippenham, but how has snow and ice affected the club in previous years?

I spent a few hours researching the “big freeze” of 1963 and how we coped in days of yore with frozen pitches? I’m sure older readers will have some memories to share too.

It seems the cold weather hit the UK and South Wales in particular on the evenings of 28th-30th December and the Lilywhites were only just able to complete their 1962 fixtures with a 4-1 defeat at Rugby on the final day of December. A match played on two inches of snow, cleared lines and sanded goalmouths. A match remembered for the great performance by goalkeeper John Clarke who prevented a rout with some inspired saves.

The Club chose this time to launch its new Heads of the Valleys Bingo Club as a fundraiser, Doug Morgan of the MTFC Supporters Club was on hand to warn that “if the scheme doesn’t go I don’t think we’ll have Southern League football in Merthyr Tydfil for much longer” A scenario all too familiar to the current supporters of our club.

A visit to the Rich Field to play Brecon Corinthians in the Welsh Cup was the next match but was postponed due to the icy conditions, the cancellation having a knock-on affect already on fixtures as the proposed visit of Worcester City was postponed in order that the Welsh Cup match be played. Things were a lot different in those days.

It was no surprise that the re-arranged match in Brecon for 12th January was also postponed as that area was particularly badly affected, my dad remembers driving in a truck up the main road to Brecon with the snow packed up on each side of the road with just a gap to drive through, it must have been a claustrophobic experience indeed. The Welsh Cup still took priority so the Southern League remained dormant for the Lilywhites.

The cold snap was already affecting the club’s finances but Vice-Chair Bill Richards remained bullish; “It is a present loss which we hope to recover later in the year with evening matches”.

By 19th January the Merthyr Express was reporting Thousands Without Water in Merthyr’s Freeze Up, it was noted that many homes in exposed areas had been without water for two weeks already. Of the 4,000 council homes in the Borough, a third were frozen up.

Indeed elsewhere in the UK, the FA Cup 3rd Round was struggling to its conclusion. It finally took 66 days to complete with a total of 261 postponements recorded. This inactivity provided the cause for the Pools Panel to sit for the first time.

Despite the cold weather and no football Merthyr team manager Les Graham continued to look for new signings, it was reported that Alan Wood was a target from Bristol Rovers coupled with Ray Williams coming from Hereford United.

Merthyr still looked to play their Welsh Cup tie with Brecon but the low temperatures and snow was unrelenting and the chances of playing this match were basically nil.

Ken Tucker remembered the season very well, “The pitch at Penydarren Park was unavailable so we had to train indoors at the YMCA on Tuesday and Thursday as normal. The team was full of ex-professional players so there was no let up in training”.

Meanwhile the Heads of the Valley Bingo Club had got off to a slow start, Doug Morgan blamed the weather and the overlap with the Supporters’ Club established Lucky Numbers scheme. However with the backing of the local LVA the scheme was picking up. The first £70 winner was Mr. J.H. Jones of Merthyr Conservative Club.

The local weather conditions had not changed by the following week, this time it was local industry that was forced to act. On 23rd January Hoovers put off 1,700 workers as Welsh Gas reduced its supply to businesses by up to 50%, the factory was able to re-start the day shift the following day and had to send telegrams (this is long time before text messages!!) to 450 workers advising them to resume. Lines Bros had 500 workers off by that Wednesday too but hoped to resume by Monday. The domestic scene was no better as coal supplies were scarce too, the prefab house in Haydn Terrace, Penydarren were particularly badly hit by this.

The Brecon game unsurprisingly still had not been played but the club was hopeful of reserve team fixture at Penydarren Park on 26th January against Swansea Town. The match in Brecon scheduled for that day was doubtful so the club announced that if off then they would play the Southern League XI in the Welsh League fixture. It was hoped that as Swansea’s match at Queens Park Rangers that day was also in doubt that a match containing both first team squads could be witnessed by the Merthyr Tydfil faithful.

The ice remained in place though and was delaying the signing of both Wood and Williams. Good news though as Colin Rees joined the club from Leeds United.

Ice on the Neuadd Reservoirs was reported as 18 inches thick.

Halifax Town converted The Shay stadium into a public ice rink to raise funds.

It was now over a month since the last match at Penydarren Park, a Welsh League match against Ferndale on 22nd December 1962.

It was still not as bad as the 1946/47 season when Merthyr went nine weeks without a home game, although they did manage to play away games in that time. When they finally managed to play a match at Penydarren Park 5,400 fans turned up to see Bedford smashed 6-1. That season had to be extended with the final home match being the visit of Milford United for a Welsh League match on 14th June!!!

The Brecon match on 26th Jan was off, there’s a theme to this story somewhere.

The weather at the end of the month seemed to improve but still the problems continued with over 1,000 burst water pipes reported and many gas mains fractured. Residents in Blanche Street, Dowlais were evacuated from their homes as gas board workers looked to repair a leak, unfortunately one resident Sarah Williams was found unconscious at home and had to be rushed to St. Tydfil’s Hospital for treatment, sadly she died two weeks later. The emergency services remained on high alert, they even had to intervene to remove a large icicle from outside of Howfields in the town High Street.

Good news for the football though as the Swansea Town friendly went ahead. The first match at Penydarren Park for six weeks, a disappointing 2-1 defeat. Ken Tucker raised the spirits though with a spectacular goal in response to brace by the visitors’ Mike Hayes. Frankie Collins missed a late penalty for the hosts, hitting his shot straight at keeper Gordon Smith after Brian Hughes had handled. 420 attended this match, no doubt hungry for football action.

The Swansea match wasn’t without its problems though, the water system froze so the players had to use the YMCA building’s facilities after the match.

Brecon finally relented to Merthyr’s request and the Welsh Cup match was scheduled for Penydarren Park the following week if it passed an inspection by referee Leo Callaghan therefore the match with Wisbech Town joined the long list of postponed Southern League fixture sidelined by the Welsh Cup. If the match went ahead then Cyril Beech was the surprise choice at centre-forward. Alan Wood had finally joined Merthyr but was unable to play due to FA of Wales rules.

Within seven days the snow had returned and in force - a warm front then produced a thaw that turned the roads to slush nevertheless the road system was hit badly. Water pipe problems remained for residents and coal supplies remained low.

The FAW finally relented as the Brecon match was postponed once again, both clubs were instructed to resume their league fixtures with the Welsh Cup match scheduled for a midweek date. Penydarren Park was put once again on stand-by for the fixture but in the meantime the Lilywhites turned their attention to the possible visit of Cambridge City but the thaw had brought its own problems and the match was considered 50/50 to be played.

The Heads of the Valley Bingo Club (does anyone know how this worked?) continued and the £70 first prize was claimed by a Mrs. Richards who had bought her ticket in the Glamorgan Arms (where was that in the town?), the LVA was now in full support of the scheme and publicans were encouraged to lend their support.

The home matches did not beat the elements so Merthyr gambled on playing a tour of Dorset to tick off two fixtures for 15th and 16th of February. Weymouth on the Friday night with Poole hosting the next day. Danny McCarthy, a former Cardiff City player, also joined the squad.

The gamble was a relative success with a 2-0 defeat at Weymouth and a excellent 3-0 win at Poole. Merthyr playing well in both matches. Centre-half Keith Vopke continued to catch the eye at the back. The win at Poole was particularly satisfying as the match was played in ankle deep mud plus new signings Wood and McCarthy netted a goal apiece.

As Merthyr planned for the next week’s journey to Yeovil, who were the proposed Welsh League opponents for Penydarren Park (weather permitting)? Brecon Corinthians of course.

Merthyr continued to impress with a 1-1 draw in front of 1,820 at Yeovil. Jim Clarke scoring a brilliant goal with a cool lob over the goalkeeper from a narrow angle. The Brecon match? … Postponed I’m afraid.

The Penydarren Park groundsman John Rees now called for volunteers to clear the pitch and get it ready for the visit of Guildford City on 2nd March, the Supporters’ Club responded and a dedicated team worked all week to attempt to finally get a Southern League fixture completed at our home ground.

864 supporters were there to see the return of first team football after over 2 months absence from Merthyr. Some still thought that the match shouldn’t have gone ahead but referee David Jones from Aberbargoed got it started and both teams entertained in a 0-0 draw despite pools of water and ankle deep mud all over the pitch.

After the match it was reported that manager Les Graham had confronted one of the club directors.

The following Thursday saw the long awaited Welsh Cup tie with Brecon finally played, a 2-1 victory meant a fourth round tie at home to Newport County but Les Graham had already departed. He tendered his resignation to the Board prior to the match. Les Graham had joined the club in 1959 to succeed Albert Lindon, he had already taken two pay-cuts whilst managing Merthyr.

The Directors’ dispute with Les Graham appeared to be about the amount of time he spent at Penydarren Park, he lived in Cwmbran and trained in Newport.

The loss of the Manager was far from popular with the supporters but at least they had football to watch as the Club looked to tackle the obvious back-log of fixtures. Following a 4-0 defeat at Wellington came a spell of three matches in five days; Thursday 21st March home to Newport County in the Cup (kick off at 4.30pm as we had no lights in those days) - but were well beaten 4-0, two days later we hosted and lost 1-0 to Dartford in the League (560 crowd), at 4.45pm on the Monday we took and beat Wellington 2-1 in front of 490 fans.

The remainder of that season became a relegation battled culminating in a fine 3-1 win over Cambridge City, who arrived as League Champions, in front of 780 supporters on 11th May. The heroes on the day were Ken Tucker who scored two goals, both from Frankie Collins’s long throws, and Brian Williams.

Who knows how long the current freeze will remain? Will it surpass both 1947 and 1963? Let’s hope not. I fancy watching us on 23rd January v. Chippenham, don’t you?

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