We challenged the world on our field of dreams
Continuing our autumn series by John Geraint, author of ‘The Great Welsh Auntie Novel’, and one of Wales’s most experienced documentary-makers. ‘John On The Rhondda’ is based on John Geraint’s popular Rhondda Radio talks and podcasts.
“In 1910, this is a modern stadium – with a rugby pitch, a grandstand, a running and cycling track. And for local people, it’s a highly charged space – here they can play out their sporting dreams and ambitions at the highest level. It’s a Field of Dreams where they can challenge the world.”
Those are the words of the late and much-lamented Eddie Butler, speaking in a film I made back in 2010 to mark the Centenary of the Tonypandy Riots.
But do you know which ground he was talking about? Here’s another clue from that film script – as Eddie Butler goes on to mention one of the famous games that were played there:
“Penygraig v Australia may sound a little strange to the ear of a modern rugby commentator, but a hundred years ago, we’re in first Golden Era of Welsh rugby – and it’s a natural match. The vanguard of modern Wales wanted to test itself against the best in the world. By coming to this very same spot for their mass meetings, the miners of Mid-Rhondda are also laying down their challenge to the wider world.”
The playing field Eddie was talking about is the Mid-Rhondda Athletic Ground. Or as we used to call it with typical Rhondda bluntness, ‘Mid’. Others know it as ‘The Mid’, or ‘The Track’.
Whatever you call it, Eddie Butler was right to say that, in holding their mass meetings there, during the Cambrian Combine Dispute that led to the Tonypandy Riots, the 12,000 Mid-Rhondda miners were challenging the world, just like their elite sporting teams did.
And if you think that sounds a bit overblown – consider what went on in that stadium in 1908, just two years before the Riots.
In April, the first-ever rugby league international between Wales and England was played there – Wales won 35-18, by the way.
Then, on successive weekends that autumn, huge crowds paid handsome gate money to watch two epic contests featuring local teams – Penygraig in rugby union, Mid-Rhondda in professional rugby league.
And yes, in both cases, the visitors had travelled to play on ‘Mid’ from about as far anyone can on this planet – they were the full Australian national teams.
After the First World War, it was the turn of soccer to take over the ground. I remember my grandfather telling me about the ‘Mush’, as they were called – Mid-Rhondda FC, a professional football team who took on the likes of Derby County, Aston Villa and Tottenham Hotspur. Glory days!
Fifty years later, I had my own moment of sporting glory on the Mid-Rhondda Athletic Ground. I wasn’t a sporty child. I never got near our Hendrecafn Junior School soccer team with its stars like prolific striker Paul Edwards and overlapping full-back Robbie Rees, ten years old and ten years ahead of his time.
And when it came to athletics, Dai Michael could sprint from one end of Hughes Street to the other before I’d crossed it from side-to-side.
So the only time I ever featured in the green vest and black shorts of Hendrecafn at the Annual Sports Day up on the Mid-Rhondda Field was as a member of the tunnel-ball team.
The Sports Day was the biggest event in the Junior Schools’ calendar, pitting Hendrecafn against our local rivals Tai, Alaw, Cwmclydach, Pontrhondda and a host of others.
It was a huge occasion. And we were doing so well in the tunnel-ball, neck-and-neck with Williamstown and the Catholic School – until I let the ball hit my leg, and it bounced away – the wrong way – out of reach, disqualifying us.
But I wasn’t to be denied my moment of Mid-Rhondda Magic.
Because it wasn’t just on Sports Day and in organised inter-school football matches that we played on ‘Mid’. We made use of it all year round in our unofficial pick-up games of soccer, rugby and cricket.
We were used to playing football in the side-streets of Penygraig, even on Hill Street, which was more like mountaineering than soccer. But ‘Mid’ was a different class of pitch. Instead of tarmac, it had grass! It was a level playing-field!
So, after school some days, once we were sure that ‘Jack’, the fierce groundsman, had gone home for the evening, we’d head up to this Field of Dreams: up past the tumps, across the brook and the Incline, the derelict tramway that used to carry waste from the Naval Colliery up to the Black Tip above mid-Rhondda.
The Ground itself was shut to the public, the gates at the Ely Street end locked, the perimeter guarded by a continuous line of upright metal railings, too high for any child to climb.
But just at their lowest point, by the side of the Incline, a pair of the railings been prised apart – just enough so that by tuning sideways we could squeeze through the gap.
Then, all that lovely mown grass was ours!
A breathless hush
I remember we used to go up there on Good Friday, the first day of the Easter holidays, with hot cross buns for a picnic.
We’d play to our hearts content, or at least until we wore ourselves out. Easter marked the crossover between the winter sports and the cricket season. And it was cricket that gave me my Magic Moment. I was ten.
The game – Hughes Street versus Mikado Street – isn’t recorded in Wisden or any of the Annals of Cricket, but to us it was as important and as tense as any Test Match. And the bowling every bit as fierce.
The two teams were big boys – most of them three or four years older than me. Tony Stevens captained Hughes Street, I think, and maybe it was John Long who skippered Mikado.
Hughes Street were short of a player, and because I’d brought along a bat that my Uncle Len had given me, I was pressed into service – a non-bowling number eleven, only to be called upon if all the other batsmen were out.
Well, that’s what happened: nine others back in the pavilion – well, back in the rusty, open Mid-Rhondda grandstand – and big Gary Dodds stranded at the bowler’s end.
As I strode out to join him, shaking with nerves, there was a breathless hush, almost like that famous poem – still seven to make and the match to win, a bumping pitch and the last man in.
I don’t think I’d ever faced a proper, hard cricket ball before – us nippers used to play with tennis or sponge balls.
But I had Uncle Len’s bat, and that was my secret weapon. Len was a stalwart follower of Glamorgan, and he’d got one of his heroes to sign the back of the bat. Jeff Jones wasn’t much of a batsman – he was an ace fast bowler, but definitely a number eleven batting, just like me.
I knew, though, that that winter he’d bravely played out the last over of a Test Match against the mighty West Indies, drawing the game and winning the series.
He was my talisman, his autograph my protection against the missile that was about to come speeding my way. And it worked – though my teeth were chattering, my grasp was steady.
I played cautiously, correctly, forward. The ball spun off the edge of Uncle Len’s bat, past the despairing dive of slip, and we scampered home for a single.
Gary Dodds smashed the next ball halfway to Llwynypia for a six, and Hughes Street won the game!
I was a hero. One not out, the bravest and best innings ever played on the Mid-Rhondda Athletic Ground.
In recent years, ‘The Mid’ has got into a sad state of disrepair, and there was a danger that it might fall into the hands of housing developers.
Thankfully, a local campaign got going, a campaign to secure and develop as a resource for everyone in Mid-Rhondda, to make it a vibrant home again for sport and all sorts of activities, a green space where the whole community can come together.
And do you know what, ‘Friends of the Mid’ have succeeded. The good guys won. Check them out online.
As they say themselves, “our past can be the key to our future.”
‘John On The Rhondda’ is broadcast at about 3.15pm as part of David Arthur’s Wednesday Afternoon Show on Rhondda Radio
All episodes of the ‘John On The Rhondda’ podcast are available here
John Geraint’s debut in fiction, ‘The Great Welsh Auntie Novel’, is available from all good bookshops, or directly from Cambria Books
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