My first heartbreak by Chairman Mao
I’ve never really been one for the theory that we can suppress bad memories or incidents so that they never appear in our consciousness but a random discussion with a former England international awakened dark memories of a promotion near-miss and my first experience of how cruel a game football can be especially when your heroes seem invincible.
The Merthyr team of the late seventies is often overlooked when the histories of our clubs are debated but it could be argued that for a generation of fans it was Doug Rosser’s lads who cemented our affiliation to the black & white (striped then of course) colours at Penydarren Park.
1979 remains an iconic year in history; Margaret Thatcher starts her reign of destruction, the Specials release their first records, I’m in my first year at Vaynor & Penderyn and Doug Rosser’s black & white army is fighting for promotion.
My dad took me to Penydarren Park from a young age and as I’ve written in many articles over the decades I spent most of my time running around the terraces, playing football on the big grass bank and wondering if the club shop cabin would ever open. I vaguely remember being bored and cold as we lost to Hendon in 1974 but apart from that there’s not much to recollect, that is until the 1978/79 season and the goals of Ray Pratt, Micky Dicks and Paul Caviel.
The spark for this shuffle down memory lane was a chat with Ian Storey-Moore after a Nottingham Forest game last season. Whilst the rest of the lads were enjoying John Robertson’s tales of European Cup glory I was engrossed in Storey-Moore’s time at Burton Albion and an amazing match on 1st May 1979 at Penydarren Park which took me back to my first real experience of football heartbreak.
Merthyr Tydfil AFC (it was always AFC in those days) had a great team back in 1979 led by our gritty player-manager Doug Rosser. Ray Pratt was smashing in the goals, aided by Micky Lenihan and Paul Caviel. Alan Sullivan was the midfield maestro pulling the strings and the centre half partnership of Doug and Chris Holvey were an uncompromising defensive duo. The final line of defence was the loudest goalkeeper in the history of the game Don Payne.
I’d been watching the Martyrs since a very young age. My dad brought me to Penydarren Park with him and I enjoyed the wide open spaces of the old ground to run around, eat sweets and play football with the other kids. I remember a few of the big games such as Hendon but it’s not until 1979 that I actually took notice of what was happening on the pitch.
Every campaign up until then just seemed to meander through the months with no discernible point to the games except as an escape from the mundanity of life in seventies Wales.
Whereas 1979 means the arrival of Margaret Thatcher to most people it was the start of a lifetime of football for me.
In the latter part of the year the Martyrs went on a FA Cup run that ended with the infamous matches with Chesham United in our glass ceiling of the 2nd round. Alan Sullivan scoring one of my favourite goals in a tense 2-1 win over Maidenhead United in the 4th qualifying round.
However it was run-in to the previous season that cemented my love for the Martyrs as my newly found heroes battled for the Southern League Division North title with Grantham Town and Alvechurch. It was time for another of those realignments in non-league football as the new Alliance Premier League was to be formed in the next season as the pinnacle of the semi-professional game. Only the champions would be guaranteed promotion at the end of the campaign.
I remember the climax to the championship race as being all encompassing to this twelve old schoolboy. The Football Echo was scoured every Saturday evening as every Merthyr fan worked out the league positions as the games came thick and fast as previous postponed matches had to be played alongside the scheduled games.
It was strange to realise through researching this article that the Merthyr Express didn’t appreciate or even convey the promotion chase as their match reports by John Hughes are perfunctory at best. I remember John Hughes as a miserable prick and his coverage of the Martyrs seems to confirm it.
On 7th April the Martyrs returned from the long journey to Kings Lynn with both points after a 5-2 win, Micky Dicks and Ray Pratt getting a brace each with Ian Docherty converting a penalty.
The Easter weekend was next as the three clubs continued to compete for the main prize.
Alan Sullivan’s continued good form was the catalyst for two important wins as Enderby Town were beaten 3-2 on a Good Friday evening with another brace for Ray Pratt and a late goal by Barrie Thomas securing the points. Three days later and a 3-0 win at Bromsgrove Rovers on an Easter Monday afternoon as goals by Ian Docherty (penalty), Pratt and Dicks kept up the momentum for the Martyrs.
The title race was still tight however and the visit to Gloucester City on 21st April was vital so a 4-0 defeat due to a weak defensive display was a disaster and a real set back to the club’s hopes for promotion.
The next game was the visit of Corby Town to Penydarren Park and I remember the match very well as for some reason I decided not to go with my dad, maybe the 4-0 defeat in Gloucester had convinced me that all was lost in the race for glory, so my childish decision not to keep the faith in the players resulted in me missing a 9-0 mauling of our visitors. I can
recall my Dad relaying the score by just handing me the Football Echo that evening. I was gutted. I’d missed seeing Pratt (4), Caviel (3), Docherty and Lenihan scoring against the hapless Steelmen.
I was determined to be at Penydarren Park on the evening of Tuesday 1st May for the visit of mid-table Burton Albion. We had to win and after the previous Saturday’s victory surely this would be a formality as a depleted Burton team travelled to South Wales. Ian Storey-Moore remembered the game very well as they had travelled more in hope than expectation with a game plan to defend and rely on breakaways. I recall the game as being one-way traffic towards the visitors’ goal but I was only 12 years old so how reliable were my memories for that heart breaking evening.
Ian had no hesitation in agreeing with me and remembered Merthyr laying siege to the Burton goal but despite constant pressure we couldn’t get past the inspired goalkeeping of Barry Alcock and to add insult to injury a solo run by Mick Fletcher resulted in a match winning goal. It was a bad week for me as a football fan, I’d missed a 9-0 win and then experienced how cruel football was as my heroes’ efforts went unrewarded despite total dominance of the game.
48 hours later and a chance to get the promotion chase back on track as Oswestry Town visited Penydarren Park in one of those rearranged games. This time there would be no mistake as Ray Pratt scored every goal in a comfortable 4-0 win.
Merthyr Tydfil was still in the race but the next match was two days later and a trip to London Road to face league leaders Grantham Town safe in the knowledge that just a draw would give us the title if we then overcame Wellingborough in our final league game. A large traveling support made the journey to Mrs. Thatcher’s birthplace to support the team and at half time with no goals scored it looked as if the Martyrs could pull off a result but a second-half hat-trick by their top scorer Robbie Cook shattered our hopes and made Grantham champions.
The trip to Wellingborough was now meaningless and it’s not even covered by the Merthyr Express in its sports section which brings me to the conclusion that John Hughes hated the Martyrs for some reason.
In the restructure of the leagues Grantham, Oswestry, Burton and Tamworth all headed to the Northern Premier League whilst Merthyr Tydfil and the rest of the clubs moved across to the new Midland Division where we were joined by the relegated Bridgend Town. By the way Barry Town came 13th that season but no one cares about that so let’s just remember a brilliant team that despite being top scorers by a margin of 20 goals missed out on a Championship by a single point on the penultimate day of the season.
Pld W D L F - A Points
Grantham Town 38 21 10 7 70-45 52 pts
Grantham Town 38 21 10 7 70-45 52 pts
Merthyr Tydfil 38 22 7 9 90-53 51 pts
Alvechurch 38 20 10 8 70-42 50 pts