Paul Williams (Merthyr Programme Notes)

Divided Loyalties?

All who know me will know that I’ve been an Aberavon supporter since I was old enough to understand what that meant. This had its roots in family connections with the club. Primarily my mother’s family, which included within its considerable number a considerable cadre of local men who had played rugby for this old club. An uncle (by marriage), Tommy “Wigan” Thomas used to regale me with tales from his playing days of, among others, Ned Jenkins, who sounded to me like the most fearsome of forwards during the 1920s and 1930s. Later on there was my mother’s cousin Cliff David, sadly lost to us earlier this year after a lifetime of service to the club, another sadly deceased cousin Haldon Lodwig and yet another from the Lodwig clan, Bill Pascoe, with his two nephews Andrew and Adrian Bucknall also popping into the picture during more recent times. Then there was my maternal grandfather, Evan Stanford Rees. Not a rugby player, but nonetheless an Aberavon man through and through, with a wicked sense of humour, I am told, that nearly sparked a riot at his place of work within the boundaries of (whisper it) Neath, when he got hold of a late edition of the Evening Post and typed into the stop-press a fictitious Welsh team to play England the following weekend, containing a healthy number of Aberavon players and not a single representative from Neath. He then left it lying on a table in the canteen and took great delight at the ensuing outrage amongst his colleagues.

So, with my head full of tales of the Wizards of yesteryear there was simply no option for me, despite the inevitable schoolboy peer-pressure to gravitate towards the round-ball game, but to regularly turn up at the Talbot Athletic Ground and cheer on the men in blood and black.

The other side of my ancestry, however, had far less of a local flavour. Local, that is, to what was to be my home-town. My father’s family were lured from his place of birth down coastal Port Talbot by the prospect of employment in the burgeoning steel industry hereabouts, his place of birth being a small terraced house in Penydarren. Google Maps has it that the street on which it stands is called Gwaunfarren Road, but the house, on the corner of Caerhendy Street, still bears a sign on the wall telling the world that its address is 1, Nibloe Terrace. To his dying day my father would proudly tell anyone and everyone that he was a Merthyr boy.

And so it happened that many years later during the 2002-03 season, Aberavon found themselves facing Merthyr RFC in a league match at the Talbot Athletic Ground. Inevitably I took something of an interest in the visitors, given my heritage. Back in those days I spent many a match operating the old pre-electronic scoreboard, and I can recall Merthyr being well on top in most phases of play but somehow the Wizards were ahead at half-time. I recall chatting to a couple of visiting supporters standing in front of the scoreboard and wondering with them how their team could have played so well yet still be trailing at the interval.

The Wizards went on to eventually win that encounter and the end-of-season return fixture at The Wern, and during the subsequent restructuring of the sport in Wales, Merthyr RFC’s spell in what was then called Division One turned out to be frustratingly short-lived until their self-reinvention during more recent times. In the interim, I’ve quietly kept an eye on events at my ancestral home; I recall Josh Lewis making a single appearance on permit for Aberavon in a pre-season friendly against Aberavon Quins, long before his ascent to the sport’s professional ranks, while the collective Aberavon dismay at Stef Andrews’ departure to the Wern was more than cancelled out by the delight at his return a few weeks later. Meanwhile, Jay Baker, who made a try-scoring return to Aberavon colours last week after a long spell out through injury, also graced the Merthyr field with his unique brand of running and try-scoring.

So, some may be wondering whether, on a day such as today, I might have a foot in either camp, so to speak. My answer is this – having an interest in my past is one thing, but when it comes down to rugby, there’s only one team for me, and that’s the one that I’ve supported through thick and thin (and, let’s face it, there was a fair amount of ‘thin’ during the closing years of the 20th century). Divided loyalties? Absolutely not.

Enjoy the game.