Just a couple of weeks ago, Neil Mace was a Welsh Premier League virgin. Last weekend, he continued his discovery of the Welsh national league with a trip to Port Talbot.
There’s no escaping the fact that Port Talbot is an industrial town, the approach to the town is laden with cooling towers, steelworks and blast furnaces. It feels like a community built around industry, but rather than ignominiously rejecting this inherent part of the community, Port Talbot have chosen to embrace it. This is reflected in the nickname of the local football team, ‘The Steelmen’.
The journey to the GenQuip stadium was made all the more difficult as locals were completely unaware of it being called the GenQuip stadium. Located in between rows of terraced houses, it’s not the easiest place to find.However, using my ingenuity and Google maps, I managed to find the stadium more affectionately known as Victoria Road. The stadium is open ended; at one end you have yet more rows of terraced housing, at the other, a view of the hills surrounding Port Talbot. With rain looking likely, I was quite happy to see that there were two sheltered stands running along opposite lengths of the pitch. From the club house in the corner of the stadium, you can see the chimneys of industry billowing smoke, which acts as a reminder of the industrial heritage of this town. Today’s visitors are Newtown, one of the founding members of the Welsh Premier League and one of only three clubs to have been involved in every season of the league’s existence. The White Stars, as they are also known, have been tipped for relegation this season. They have been flitting between relegation and mid-table obscurity in recent years with an unremitting battle for their premiership status. Despite this, they have pulled through numerous times before and maybe that experience will push them to improve this season.
The average attendance for a Port Talbot match is less than three hundred people, although I had been promised that their fans were the most vocal in the Welsh Premier League. As the Steelmen and the White Stars leave the changing rooms, there was no evidence to suggest that this was true. The teams lined up with mascots and flags to mark the coming of FIFA’s Fair Play weekend. Shortly afterwards, football ensued as the first kick was taken. At this point, the small number of people behind me found their voices with protracted shouts of Por’Tal-bot and songs of players they hold dear. Matthew Crowell of Port Talbot made the biggest impression on me in the first few minutes by making a big impression on his opponents. The sort of slide tackling exhibited by him that could easily earn you an early shower should you get the timing wrong, however, Crowell must’ve consulted the talking clock before committing to these challenges. The ball was more often than not heading towards the direction of the Newtown goal in these opening stages, as Port Talbot began to press on with their home advantage.
Early on it became apparent that Port Talbot’s main attacking threat was Cortez Belle, a big man who the fans refer to as ‘Tez’. The first time he drew my attention was after another brilliantly timed slide tackle by Crowell, the ball is left drifting into the path of Dylan Blain who tees up Belle for a shot. The fans behind me are cheering as if he’s already scored but unfortunately for them, the keeper manages to get his right boot to it as he drops to stop the shot. The fans resume chanting about Tez after a moment’s disappointment, accompanied by a man playing the trumpet in a key played exclusively in Port Talbot. Cortez Belle is a newcomer to the Steelmen, moving here after making a name for himself at Merthyr Tydfil. He is Port Talbot’s big man up front, and as such plays a big role in all attacking moves. Belle plays a forward role today but this has not always been the position he has been appointed, at previous clubs he has been a defender. As to which position he prefers, I’m unaware, although he seems to be relishing his chances in this match so far.
In yet another Port Talbot attack, Nicky Holland runs almost unchallenged up the right wing. Evading some late pressure, he manages to stop the ball from going over the by-line and crosses it into the box, Belle jumps highest to meet it and the ball’s path is diverted toward the top left hand corner of the goal. Newtown keeper Nick Thomas is at full stretch to stop this one from going in and he succeeds as he parries the ball over the crossbar. The resulting corner leads to another chance for Belle to head home, but this time he manages to head it wide. Shortly afterwards, Lewis Harlin has regained possession for the Steelmen and he finds himself surrounded by the Newtown defence. He manages to get past these obstacles using step overs and feints usually the reserve of only the best leagues in Europe. Although his efforts are ultimately fruitless, it is clearly appreciated by the crowd who start to chant “it’s just like watching Brazil” once again, accompanied by a trumpeter who won’t be discouraged.
In this half so far, Newtown have seldom created opportunities to score, leaving Port Talbot’s keeper, Kristian Rogers, relatively little to do. Rogers has only had to make one notable save from a Matt Crook shot. A surprise was on the cards though, as Newtown managed to take the lead through Kevin Davies. Davies found himself in front of goal after launching the counter-attack; his shot was hit hard and stayed low as it managed to sneak under Kristian Rogers’ right side. Newtown take a one – nil lead after spending the half so far just soaking up the pressure. Port Talbot must feel aggrieved as they’ve been asking all the questions, the fans reflect this with silence as Davies celebrates his goal. This soon changes as play is resumed, the fans start to bang the corrugated steel attached to the back of the stand and the protracted chant of Por’Tal-bot is once again ringing in my ears.
Taking confidence from their goal, Newtown press on to make the advantage more comfortable. Goal scorer Kevin Davies passes to Max Penk who quickly plays in Nick Rushton, who manages to push the ball away from the defender and storms towards goal, the ball meanwhile is ambling towards the Port Talbot keeper. Rushton can’t quite get there before the keeper and a succession of exciting attacks by the White Stars comes to an end. At the opposite end of the pitch, Kevin Davies finds himself standing up to Dylan Blain and makes a rash challenge which brings him down in the box. Davies finds himself with a yellow card and Port Talbot find themselves with a penalty kick. There doesn’t seem to be any doubt about who’s going to take it as Cortez Belle steps up to the mark, he places the ball on the spot and steps back to await the referee’s whistle. The fans are once again celebrating before the ball has hit the back of the net, however, this time they are not wrong to do so as Belle scores the equaliser with ease. In the few moments that are left before half-time, Port Talbot seem to be getting back on top, Newtown will surely be disappointed that they couldn’t hold on to that lead, especially Kevin Davies who gave them the lead and cost them the penalty.
Mist rolls further down the hills obscuring the view of the summit and the rain descends upon us before the second half starts. Ed’s diner, a burger van behind the goal at one end of the pitch, has taken a pummelling whilst the teams warm up. Shots aimed towards goal have instead homed in on the deep fat fryer, much to the dismay of its lone employee. This hasn’t deterred the fans from a half-time burger, who willingly put themselves in the firing line. The teams take to the field for the start of the second half and it begins in stark contrast to the end of the first as Newtown come out all guns blazing. Port Talbot should be taking the momentum from the first-half but can’t seem to mount an attack. The first few minutes sees shots from Rhys Jones and Zac Evans followed by a dogged run by Gaz Partridge. Partridge is only stopped by a perilous tackle from Kye Edwards which gave Newtown a corner they couldn’t convert into a goal.
It’s not long into this half that we see the games first subs from both teams. Notably, Port Talbot’s Lewis Harlin leaves the field to be replaced by Martin Rose, surely he has been brought on to support Belle up front? Rose gets into the action almost immediately as he wrestles with Max Penk for the ball, Penk attempts a clearance only to find Sacha Walters who unleashes a shot that keeper Nick Thomas can’t hold on to as he punches it away, Walters has another attempt but this one goes wide of the left post. As Port Talbot’s coach Paul Reid gives his team abuse from the sideline, the fans and the atonal trumpeter reach a crescendo. The rain goes from light shower to downpour making for a difficult playing surface. This is evident as Max Penk goes in for a tackle on Sacha Walters and is unable to stop himself from following through. The tackle looks horrific and the crowd demands he be sent off, the referee reaches into his pocket and presents Penk with a yellow card.
Port Talbot are now the team on top and it can only be a matter of time before we see a goal. It comes as a result of a good piece of play from two substitutes, Lee John and Martin Rose, the former playing in a cross that meets the head of Rose. Newtown keeper Nick Thomas doesn’t stand a chance as it goes past his left side. Port Talbot are regaining control and look as if they won’t have any trouble in holding on to this lead. The match moves on, the rain stops and the floodlights come on to illuminate the pitch as the grey clouds prevent sunlight from breaking through. Paul Reid is screaming at the players, “look after it, we’ve just scored” as possession is lost meekly. His team heed his words and are soon leading this game by two goals. Sacha Walters feeds a ball into the box which Martin Rose meets with his right foot; the ball goes over the keeper’s head and into the top left hand corner of goal. The Steelmen and their fans are elated as they celebrate, Cortez Belle kneels before Rose and mimics cleaning his boots before retaking his position.
The final whistle is blown and Port Talbot walk off the pitch worthy three–one winners. My man of the match could only be super-sub Martin Rose, although special mention goes to Cortez Belle for his continued effort in dropping back when required and making himself a conduit for all the attacking moves. Rose came into the match and became the team’s talisman as he converted his chances, earning the Steelmen all three points. As I walk into the club house with the remaining fans, it becomes apparent that there is strong sense of community at this club. As everyone gets their post-match drinks and watches the results from the rest of the Welsh Premier League come through on S4C, you sense that the fans here feel connected with the team and as such there is a real community spirit, something that is lacking from the upper echelons of football.