A bleak midwinter By Konrad Bartelski
My wife reckons that summer officially starts on the day after the winter solstice, I think she’s clutching at straws but to be fair the days will become longer as we head into 2022 and the second half of this intriguing season which was full of hopes of consolidation but has become more of a fight of attrition against relegation. It’s never been easy to be a Martyr, that goes without saying, but we are about to be tested once again with our club’s fight for survival in this our spiritual home in the top division of the Southern League.
A season in hibernation within a global pandemic has required us to basically start a football club all over again. Thankfully we were able to keep the off-field business alive albeit in much reduced circumstances, the Wales matches in the Euro2020 tournament certainly helped raise both funds and morale at Penydarren Park especially with TalkSPORT basing their coverage at our ground. The ever-present uncertainty over Covid restrictions ensured that our pre-season preparations were nowhere near what we needed with a completely new squad to recruit.
Let’s be honest here, we’re still recruiting players, even now in this bleak midwinter. The balance of financial power has moved in South Wales over the previous decade and our unique fan-owned social enterprise will continually struggle to compete with clubs who have both private investment and UEFA funding. A few of our fellow fans seem to be in denial of this reality, we may have larger crowds than almost every other non-league club in Wales but that counts for little when negotiating with potential players. Owain Jones loved playing for us, he couldn’t fail to be impressed by our fan culture especially away from home, he’ll never forget that New Year’s Day at Swindon Supermarine but ultimately, he must pay the bills so who could blame him for joining Aberystwyth Town?
There’ll be an opportunity to debate the future direction of our club soon enough but in the short term our concentration will be on the 2021-22 season and whether we can escape the dreaded drop. Relegation shouldn’t frighten us of course but it would definitely be a step backward and an admission of failure for our little utopian experiment of fan-ownership.
There’ll be elections to the club’s Board in the early part of 2022 which provides an opportunity for any of the club’s owners to come forward to shape that future and our values.
This season is undoubtedly frustrating; unsettled squad, new managers, games behind closed doors, confusing messages from any government you wish to follow and of course the defeats especially those home defeats.
This fanzine has spoken previously about the “glass ceiling” of our ambitions as a fan owned club but that was based on reaching the Conference South, it would be a harsh lesson for us all if we were to become a yo-yo club within the Southern League but it’s something we may need to accept unless we revolutionize how we market Merthyr Town.
The best social media story of 2021 for us wasn’t about players or fans, it was our cob & chips with sausages covered in curry sauce which continues to circulate on Twitter as the best food available at any football ground in the UK.
The best marketing tool for our club continues to be the friendly match experience at Penydarren Park; the safe environment for children, alcohol on the terraces, fantastic food and the noise generated by our fans. It’s been evident that our crowds haven’t dropped as expected as we struggle at the bottom of the table, it’s obviously still a great day out at Penydarren Park whatever the result. The fanzine has updated the away fans guide to hopefully attract more visitors to us in the future (as soon as we’re allowed fans back of course) and we’ll be soon distributing an up to date “new fans” guide to watching the Martyrs around as many streets in the borough as possible.
It was probably inevitable that our risk-averse Government in Cardiff Bay would go nuclear with their risk mitigation for live sport over the Christmas period, it was disappointing that they couldn’t have liaised with their Scottish counterparts to follow their maximum capacity of 500 for our games in Wales. It wouldn’t have been perfect of course, a home game at Penydarren Park over the festive period is always the best day of the season; exiles returning home, a time to catch up, a few hip flasks being shared and the ubiquitous smell of a Lynx box set.
By the time Yate Town arrived we were suddenly the only football game in Wales as the Welsh pyramid games were postponed and positive Covid cases forced the postponement of the professional clubs’ games. It was so frustrating not to be trusted by the Labour administration to host a game at our big, open stadium. The preparatory work had already been done to ensure a 2m social distance in the ground so it was sad to see only painted footprints on the terraces reminding every one of absent friends.
Radio Martyrs made its debut for the game in an attempt to relay the game to as many Merthyr fans as possible, at one point the show was being followed by as many as 110 listeners, it was a bit of a muddle at times but it seemed to be well received so it may be on the air again if we have any other games behind closed doors.
We had four players unavailable with Covid at this point so it was predictable that the Swindon Supermarine would be postponed as another two of our squad needed a PCR test. This was another blow to the Christmas calendar as we would have had a big away support in Wiltshire and who knows if they would have inspired a performance worthy of a rare three points for us.
We await the next review from the Senedd on Friday to find out when fans can return for home games. There’s a fund available for us to reclaim lost revenue from any game played without fans but the loss of memories made and the lack of human contact for many lonely people over such a tough period as Christmas will never be compensated fully.
It’s hard enough to fight a relegation battle but without your own supporters it’s probably impossible.
January will provide further challenges to us as the transfer window reopens In Wales and therefore those clubs with sugar daddies and the like will come calling for our quality players, it also provides us with opportunities to strengthen our squad but to do that we’ll need more money and games behind closed doors with limited bar takings won’t help us raise the necessary funds.
It’s always darkest before the dawn or so the saying goes. It looks bleak at the moment whether within or without footballbut we’ve got four months left to save our season and the next few weeks will be vital to our survival. A pandemic, postponements and empty terraces will of course hinder us but since when has it ever been easy to be a Martyr?