We challenged the world on our field of dreams

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Middle Rhondda image by John Geraint

Continuation of our autumn series by John Geraint, author of ‘The Great Welsh Auntie Novel’ and one of Wales’ most experienced documentary filmmakers. “John On The Rhondda” is based on John Geraint’s popular talks and podcasts on Rhondda Radio.

Jean Geraint

“In 1910, it’s a modern stadium – with a rugby pitch, a stand, a running track and a cycle track. And for the locals, it’s a very busy space, where they can fulfill their sporting dreams and ambitions at the highest level. It’s a field of dreams where they can challenge the world.

These are the words of the late and much-mourned Eddie Butler, speaking in a film I made in 2010 to mark the centenary of the Tonypandy Riots.

But do you know what terrain he was talking about? Here’s another clue to that movie script – as Eddie Butler goes on to mention one of the famous games that was played there:

“Penygraig v Australia might sound a bit strange to a modern rugby commentator’s ear, but a hundred years ago we were in Welsh rugby’s first golden era – and it’s a natural match. he avant-garde of modern Wales wanted to compete with the best in the world.By coming to this same place for their mass meetings, the miners of Mid-Rhondda are also challenging the rest of the world.

The playground Eddie was talking about is the Mid-Rhondda Athletic Ground. Or as we used to call it with typical Rhondda brutality, ‘Mid’. Others know him as “The Mid” or “The Track”.

Whatever you call it, Eddie Butler was right to say that by holding their mass meetings there, during the Cambrian conflict that led to the Tonypandy Riots, the 12,000 miners of Mid-Rhondda defied the world, just like their elite sports teams. .

And if you think that sounds a bit far-fetched, think about what happened at this stadium in 1908, just two years before the riots.

In April, the first-ever international rugby league match between Wales and England was played there – Wales won 35-18.

Then, on successive weekends this fall, huge crowds paid handsome sums of money to watch two epic competitions featuring local teams – Penygraig in the rugby union, Mid-Rhondda in the league of professional rugby.

And yes, in both cases the visitors had traveled to play on ‘Mid’ from as far away as anyone on this planet can – they were the full Australian national teams.

After the First World War, it was the turn of football to invade the field. I remember my grandfather telling me about ‘Mush’, as they were called – Mid-Rhondda FC, a professional football team that played Derby County, Aston Villa and Tottenham Hotspur. Glory day!

Fifty years later, I had my own moment of sporting glory on the Mid-Rhondda Athletic Ground. I was not an athletic kid. I never came close to our Hendrecafn Junior School football team with its stars like prolific striker Paul Edwards and full-back Robbie Rees, ten years and a decade ahead of his time.

And when it came to athletics, Dai Michael could sprint up and down Hughes Street before I ran right through it.

So the only time I featured in Hendrecafn’s green vest and black shorts at the annual Mid-Rhondda field sports day was as a member of the tunnel-ball team.

Sports Day was the biggest event on the Junior Schools calendar, pitting Hendrecafn against our local rivals Tai, Alaw, Cwmclydach, Pontrhondda and many more.

It was a great 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 – the wrong way – out of reach, disqualifying us.

But I shouldn’t deprive myself of my Mid-Rhondda Magic moment.

Because it was not only on Sports Day and in the organized inter-school football matches that we played the ‘Mid’. We’ve used it all year round in our unofficial football, rugby and cricket matches.

We used to play football in the side streets of Penygraig, even on Hill Street which was more like mountaineering than football. But ‘Mid’ was another class of pitch. Instead of tar, there was grass! It was an even playing field!

So after school on some days, once we were sure that “Jack”, the fierce gardener, had gone home for the evening, we headed to this Field of Dreams: over the bumps, through the creek and slope, the abandoned tramway that carried waste from the naval coal mine to the black point above mid-Rhondda.

The grounds themselves were closed to the public, the gates on the Ely Street side locked, the perimeter guarded by a continuous line of vertical metal railings too high for a child to climb.

But just at their lowest point, next to the slope, a pair of guardrails have been pushed apart – just enough that by adjusting laterally we can squeeze through the gap.

So, all that beautiful mowed grass was ours!

A breathless silence

I remember going up there on Good Friday, the first day of the Easter holiday, with hot bread rolls for a picnic.

We played as we pleased, or at least until we were exhausted. Easter marked the crossover between winter sports and cricket season. And it was cricket that gave me my magic moment. I was ten years old.

The match – Hughes Street v Mikado Street – is not recorded in Wisden or any of the Annals of Cricket, but for us it was as important and as tense as any Test Match. And equally fierce bowling.

Both teams were big boys – most of them were three or four years older than me. Tony Stevens was the captain of Hughes Street, I think, and it may have been John Long who skippered Mikado.

Hughes Street was missing a player, and because I had brought a bat my Uncle Len had given me, I was put on duty – a non-bowling number eleven, only to be called if all the other batsmen were out. .

Well, that’s what happened: nine more people back in the clubhouse – well, back in the open, rusty Mid-Rhondda grandstand – and the great Gary Dodds stuck on the bowler’s side.

As I strode out to join him, shaking with nervousness, there was a breathless silence, almost like that famous poem – seven more to go and the game to be won, a chaotic pitch and the last player to enter.

secret weapon

I don’t think I’ve ever faced a real hard cricket ball – us grippers played with tennis balls or foam balls.

But I had Uncle Len’s bat, and it was my secret weapon. Len was a devout Glamorgan fan, and he had one of his heroes 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 hitter, just like me.

I did know, however, that that winter he bravely played the final leg of a test match against the mighty West Indies, drawing and winning the series.

He was my talisman, his autograph my protection against the missile that was about to swoop down on me. And it worked – even though my teeth were chattering, my grip was steady.

I played carefully, correctly, forward. The ball sped off the edge of Uncle Len’s bat, past the desperate dive of the slide, and we ran home for a single.

Gary Dodds smashed the next ball halfway down Llwynypia for a six, and Hughes Street won the game!

I was a hero. One step out, the bravest and best rounds ever played on the Mid-Rhondda Athletic Ground.

In recent years “The Mid” has fallen into a sad state of disrepair, and there was a risk that it might fall into the hands of property developers.

Fortunately, a local campaign has been launched, a campaign to secure and develop a resource for everyone in Mid-Rhondda, to make it once again a vibrant home for sport and all kinds of activities, a green space where all community can come together.

And do you know what, ‘Friends of the Mid’ 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’ airs around 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 first novel, ‘The Great Welsh Auntie Novel’, is available from all good bookshops or direct from Cambria Books

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