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Friday 23rd November 2007 ko 19.30

Welsh Premier League

NEATH ATHLETIC 2 (Price 78 Bevan 90)

ABERYSTWYTH TOWN 2 (S Roberts 18 Sherbon 32p)

Att 218 at Llandarcy Park

Entry £5

Programme £1.50

Today’s “Greatest Hit,” is a little unusual. Not only does the ground not exist (for football) but neither does the team either! The roots of the club lie in BP, British Petroleum and their predecessor National Oil Refineries. The club was founded in 1922 as National Oil Refineries F.C as the works team for the new refinery, and played at Llandarcy Park, now to the south-west of the M4 as it passes by Junction 43.

The name was soon changed to BP Llandarcy, and the club settled into a reasonable existence in the Welsh League changing their name to Neath FC in 2000, but the club’s fortunes began to look up when they merged with Skewen Athletic in 2005. The new club opted to play at Llandarcy Park, rather than Skewen’s Tennant Park, but were denied promotion in their first season. They finished second to Goytre United, who true to form declined promotion, but due to Llandarcy Park not meeting the required Welsh Premier League ground grading, they stayed put.

It proved to be one season delay, Athletic winning the 2006/7 Welsh League with a record 92 points, and with Llandarcy improved sufficiently, the club took their place in the FAW’s top league. And here, dear reader, is when I paid them a visit.

It was a cold Friday evening, and with the fixture brought forward so as not to clash with a Swansea City game the next day it was easy enough to book myself into a hotel, and get to the ground early. It was obvious why the ground wasn’t originally up to WPL standards, it wasn’t enclosed! In fact the club seemed to have much the same issues as Welshpool Town whose ground was the major reason for their demotion. At Llandarcy Park the problem was solved with a temporary fence separating the football ground at one end with the other sports facilties elsewhere. It worked, of a fashion, and I do remember obtaining the line-ups from the announcer in the cricket scoreboard!

I watched Aberystwyth, featuring captain former Nottingham Forest and Oxford United centre-half Christian Edwards throw away a two goal lead, letting Neath gain a point with virtually the last kick of the game that looked scarcely possible at half-time. I spent the next morning driving up the West Wales coast to watch another side destined to sink a long way from the WPL, Llangefni, but what happened to Neath Athletic?

They certainly didn’t lack ambition in this part of South Wales, and with both the football and the rugby union clubs being owned by Geraint Hawkes, a local businessman, the decision was made in 2008 for both clubs to share the rugby club’s historic ground, The Gnoll. It meant that the newly named and re-badged Neath FC had swapped a barely adequate out-of-town base with a 2,500 capacity for a well-appointed stadium with double the capacity. And if the books had been balanced, or even close to it, Neath would still have a football team today.

The first two seasons saw moderate finishes or 14th and 8th (of 18) before the shock announcement that for the 2010-11 season the club would go full-time. At this point the only other full-time club in the WPL was the Oswestry-based TNS, themselves very much the baby of owner Mike Harris, and with average attendances of 300, Neath’s decision looked fool-hardy at best.

Former Swansea players Kristian O’Leary and Chad Bond were signed but undoubtedly the signing that made all the waves was that of Swansea legend Lee Trundle. After all he’d played for English Championship side Bristol City the previous season, and the club scheduled home fixtures on a Friday when Swansea were at home on a Saturday so that Swans fans could still see their hero play.

Two 3rd place finishes and a 6-1 aggregate drubbing at the hands of Norwegian outfit Aalesunds FK in the first qualifying round of the Europa League in 2011 saw a club with next-to-no assets and spiralling debts. When Hawkes’ woodworking business went into administration the warning lights where flashing, but the club hoped that qualifying once again for Europe would allow them to trade their away out of trouble.

It wasn’t to be; the state of the finances was bad enough for, in April 2012, the FAW to deny Neath a domestic licence to continue in the WPL and UEFA did the same with regard to the UEFA licence mandatory for European competition. The club appealed unsuccessfully, and were wound up in the High Court soon after.

So, what’s left now? There’s no lack of football to watch in the area, nearby Briton Ferry-Llansawel, and Pontadawe play in the Welsh League. The Gnoll is still there too, and Neath RUFC still play there as they have since 1871, this is the ground of the sainted Elgan Rees after all. Presumably the Ospreys link-up saved them.

As for the poor maligned Llandarcy Park that has been coverted to 3G and rugby union. It is part of Neath Port Talbot College, styled Group NPTC, and there’s an arrangement with The Ospreys regional rugby club  (formed, by the way, from a joint venture between the Swansea and Neath clubs) where they use Llandarcy as a training base, whilst providing rugby programmes at each of the college’s campuses.

In fact, its almost as if football in Neath never existed….