In the winter of 2009 local TV, radio and newspapers were full of coverage of Merthyr Tydfil Football Club. The club had difficulty paying its bills and a young boy responded to an appeal for cash to the supporters by donating his pocket money to the club. Others donated or lent fairly serious amounts of money in the hope that the club would survive. It was clear to many however that people were throwing their money away. This was the point at which Merthyr Tydfil FC Supporters Trust realised that their ambition to become involved in the running of the club was likely to become a reality in the coming months, although they did not realise what a arduous and tortuous journey they were about to embark on.
Part of the coverage on television involved interviewing people on the street in Merthyr and asking them whether they cared whether Merthyr Football Club survived. The unanimous answer was yes – they thought it would be a tragedy if football was no longer played at Penydarren Park.
Although for many these were easy words which did not involve in actively supporting the club, luckily there were many supporters who would be willing to help to ensure its survival.
This story is about how the Supporters Trust took the club into administration, ran the club for one year for the administrator, reformed the club, moved to play at Taffs Well for a year, and finally moved back to Penydarren Park, its home for just over 100 years. It is also about the many people who gave their time and money to keep the club alive, and contains examples of individuals who went well beyond the expected commitment.
John Stand’s, an influential figure in the Supporters Trust and now Club Secretary, involvement in the club started in 2007 when he responded to a request in the match day programme for a new editor. John had supported the club for the previous 30 years or so and was about to retire, so he was attracted by the possibility of carrying on the excellent job performed by the former editor Mike Donovan. John’s aim was to involve as many people as possible in contributing to the programme, which he managed fairly quickly. We have two history teachers who support the club, Anthony Davies and Philip Sweet, and they were happy to explore the club’s rich history, especially over the previous 50 years. There was also a retired editor of the local paper, Philip Howells, regular match reporter Richard Bennett and football betting advisor Jon Caple.
Unfortunately, despite the fact that the club depended on many volunteers, it had built up extensive debts and was finding it difficult to pay the bills. There were frequent rumours of wages not being paid on time or threats from utility companies threatening to cut off gas, electricity or water. At this time the Martyrs to the Cause Trust started to come to prominence.
The Trust had been formed by a group of far sighted supporters in 2006. The Trust (its formal name was the Merthyr Tydfil FC Supporters Society) had the aim of influencing the way the club was administered and also in the long term to achieve a shareholding in the club. The new society was formed on principles laid down by Supporters Direct, the nationwide association of supporter societies, some of whom already owned their clubs. The best known example of such a club was AFC Wimbledon. That club was formed by its supporters following the transfer of Wimbledon FC to Milton Keynes. The new club started near the bottom of the English non league pyramid and have worked their way up to the Football League.
Following the formation of the Trust the membership strove from the beginning to raise funds and fairly quickly built up a new lottery called SOCCALOT, which still runs today and is a significant source of income. Several people have remained at the core of this fundraising scheme to this day. Overseen by Phil Evans, a band of lottery sellers such as Len Sankey, Ron Philips, Jeff Hurley and Geoff Chinnock have raised many thousands of pounds for the Society over the last six years.
The Society, with the advice and guidance of Supporters Direct, started to build up a reserve that could help with the rescue of the club, should it be faced with a winding up order by a major debtor. What Society Board members did not realise at that time was the amount of funding that would be required when the time came to mount a rescue of the club.
In the early days, the club owner Wyn Holloway welcomed the Society and offered a share in the club and invited a Society Board member onto the club Board. However within a couple of years later the relationship between the Club Board and the Society became strained. The crux of the problem was that the club owner could not understand why the Society would not hand over the reserve of funds it was building up. Things came to a head when there was a serious disagreement between the then Society Chairman Mr David Webb and the club board. David was the representative of the Society on the football club board. The result of the disagreement was that David was removed as a director and banned from attending Penydarren Park.
Following on from this the Society was banned from carrying out any activity including raising funds at Penydarren Park. This led to the Society holding its weekly SOCCALOT draw and its meetings at the Cefn Coed Club, a couple of miles away from Penydarren Park.
At the end of the 2008-2009 season it became apparent that the owners of the club were not dealing with the growing debts at the club, and that there was a danger of the club going out of existence. The Society had made approaches to the club to arrange some form of transfer of ownership, but the owner would not consider this option.
During previous season the Society had donated thousands of pounds to the club, very much against the advice of Supporters Direct. In the spring of 2008 the club were taken to small claims court by the council for unpaid rates. On this occasion the Society loaned the club £1000 to help pay the bill. This proved to be a crucial move.
By June 2008, when the club was on the brink of a winding up order from HMRC, John Strand telephoned the latter to ask that the winding up order be postponed. This was a very lucky and successful Friday afternoon conversation. The loan by the Society then enabled them to ask the Courts to place the club in administration, which it successfully did on June 18 2008 in the Birmingham Courts at a cost of £18k.
After the appointment of Mr Bowen of Worcester as administrator, the next step was to seek permission from the FA, the FAW, the Southern league and the administrator for the Society to run the club at Penydarren Park. The administrator was happy to do this, but the FA insisted he remain responsible for gate money and payment of wages. In view of that the administrator charged the Society £600 per week for a year to enable it to run the club.
During that year the Administrator’s task was to release the club’s assets (basically the lease to Penydarren Park) to help pay creditors. At the end of the year in May 2009 the administrator advised that the club would have to leave Penydarren Park because he was trying to sell the lease to a builder.
In June 2009 the Society successfully applied to the FA to reform the club as Merthyr Town FC. At this point it was necessary to find a suitable ground. A frantic search resulted in an arrangement with Taffs Well FC. The new club was placed in the Western League Division One, a drop of three divisions from the Southern League Premier Division, where the club was playing before the formation of Merthyr Town FC
During June 2009 the administrator gave up his search for a buyer of the lease and wound up Merthyr Tydfil FC Ltd, the lease to Penydarren Park reverting to Merthyr Tydfil County Borough Council.
In September 2009, with the new Society owned club playing at Taffs Well, the council offered a new lease for Penydarren Park to the Society. The Society tried unsuccessfully to persuade the Western League and the FA of a mid season return to Penydarren Park, so the Society helped maintain two grounds for a season, with the Merthyr Town Youth team playing at Penydarren Park.
In August 2010 Merthyr Town FC returned to Penydarren Park as Western League Division One Champions.
Since then Merthyr Town FC have gained grants for the installation of a state of the art 3G pitch at Penydarren Park and are currently undergoing a £1.8m redevelopment of the ground thanks to a VVP Grant from Welsh Government.
Merthyr Town FC have gained two more promotions since the 2009/2010 season and the 2015/2016 campaign will see the club return to the Southern League Premier, the same division that it was in before its liquidation.