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Friday 8th February 2013

Big Pit, Blaenavon, Torfaen.

Entry FREE

Guide Book £4

Then,

19.30 Welsh League Division One

BRIDGEND TOWN 2 (Bell 12 24)

MONMOUTH TOWN 3 (Evans 22 E Ford 31 Harrhy 62)

Att 53 (h/c)

Entry & Programme £5

If the School of Hard Knocks had a headmaster’s office then it would definitely be in the valleys of South Wales. I’d wanted to visit Bridgend’s current home at the Brewery Field for some time, but from a 5pm start in Oxford, it was just outside of my radius of opportunity. So with a day off, and an enquiring mind, I decided to make a day of it, and visit somewhere else I’d had on my to-do list for some time.

Torfaen is coal-mining country, as I drove from Abergavenny over the foothills of the beautiful Cambrian Hills, I considered my upbringing in Oxford. The only mining that ever took place was the stone quarrying for the colleges, a couple of centuries ago. The Miners’ strike of 1984/5 had little impact on me save for news reports, flying pickets outside of Didcot Power Station, and the acerbic notice of the front gate of the local coal merchant saying that there was no coal, ” Due to the (insert expletive) miners.”

It’s hard to feel any sympathy without empathy, and I have football to thank for understanding the other point of view. Visits to colliery sides shorn of their pit in places like Rainworth, and Clipstone in the Midlands, with the pit wheel outside set half-way down in a concrete grave, taught me that not only did the mines disappear in the 1980’s and 90’s but so did the entire economies of the communities that supported them.

The Big Pit is a case in point, as Blaenavon thirty years ago was a single employer town. As a young boy you went to school until aged 13 then down the mine you went. It was a thoroughly unpleasant occupation, dirty, dangerous, and poorly paid, but it created a sense of belonging, a reason-to-be, the reasons on a smaller scale that I find football so attractive. The pit now is a fascinating glimpse of what was, and whilst Blaenavon does have industrial estates, light industry attempting to provide some of what the pit provided, a town selling itself as a heritage town seemed melancholy to me.

Even today the pit sends out mixed signals. On one hand it harks back to the days of “Coal is King” with full employment and a strong community backed by the Federation union later swallowed up by the National Union of Mineworkers. On the other hand, there’s a sense that they’re glad to escape the deaths, injuries, and pollution of the mines, with the women having just sufficient education to marry a miner and become a domestic drudge. It would be interesting to see where the valleys find themselves in 50 years’ time, as the re-invention is by no means complete. It goes without saying that the Big Pit is a wonderful, thought-provoking place to visit.

It’s about 50 miles south-west to Bridgend from Blaenavon. The town had no coal seams, but was an important transportation centre for the black diamonds as the confluence of the rivers Garw, Ogmore, and Llynfi made the town rich. The town escaped much of the bombing during the Second World War, perhaps due to a naturally occurring air pocket above it, but like many other towns in the area suffered with the decline in the coal industry.

The football club have unquestionably suffered with their FAW enforced return to the Welsh pyramid. As a Southern League outfit in the English pyramid, they won the Championship in 1980, but have found success hard to come by after their return to exclusively Welsh football in 1983. They vacated Coychurch Road in 2006, their home for many years – to make way for a new supermarket, and have led a peripatetic existence since. They’ve played on a university pitch at Trefforest, and on an outside pitch at Porthcawl, before co-signing a 99 year lease with Bridgend Ravens RUFC for use of the rugby union ground, The Brewery Field.

As a sports venue its steeped in history and atmosphere, a wonderful place for the sports fan to visit. It’s also way too big for Bridgend’s meagre crowds of around 50, and there are moves afoot to merge with Bryntirion who play in the town’s suburbs. There’s money to spend on improving Bryntirion Park so as to create a UEFA compliant ground, mandatory for elevation to the Welsh Premier League. When Bridgend sold Coychurch Road £2,000,000 was held in trust by the local council to provide a permanent home for the club. Since then the club haven’t managed to find anywhere suitable, so an upgraded ground on Llangewydd Road, with a 3G pitch could just work for them.

I smiled when the man at the main entrance had no change, and allowed myself a knowing smile when the programme was its usual poor effort, just 2 sheets of photocopied A4 folded in half, but the welcome was genuine enough, and the game was an entertaining finale to my day.

Monmouth have risen rapidly through the leagues, and most present had them as firm favourites at kick off. They were surprised as former Barry Town forward Josh Bell danced through the visitors’ defence to open the scoring. Ben Evans nodded home from a cross to equalise, before Bell restored the lead, with a beautifully placed curling effort. Evans then turned provider as his long ball found Elliott Ford, who rounded Leighton Rhys in the home goal before tapping home for 2-2.

After the break the teams tightened up significantly but Monmouth deservedly won the game when Nick Harrhy’s wonderful cushioned volley broke Bridgend’s resistance. No great quality but honest endeavour, and that of course had been a running theme during the afternoon’s adventures.

Will Bridgend stay at the Brewery Field? Who knows, but its clear that the Brewery Field is far too big for their needs, or even the club officials capabilities. For the lover of stadiums and their history, the Brewery Field needs to be visited sooner rather than later.