LATHAM PARK: Final Day Pandemonium

From where I live, the small Welsh dwelling of Newtown is about 30 minutes away on the train. I had no idea it was so close, and no idea that the 131st Welsh Cup final was being played there until being tipped off by a fellow groundhopper on Twitter. The GroundHopper, to be precise.

He’s a lot more clued up than I am, with his YouTube channel taking him across the UK and through the various divisions of the Welsh footballing pyramid. It was no surprise to learn he was attending the cup final between Aberystwyth Town and Connah’s Quay Nomads. Saffron and I felt inspired to head over too.

The Highs

Perfect build-up

Right from the moment my eyes opened, it was an immaculate start to the day. The weather looked glorious. The sun was beaming, birds were singing and a gentle breeze came through the window as Saff and I marvelled at the glistening River Severn. On the opposite bank, a couple of guys were preparing a boat. Rather innocuous activity, we thought, until a large cheering crowd gathered around them. It turned out the boat was in place for safety reasons as a baptism was taking place in the river.

We watched it unfold before taking in the sunlight ourselves.

Heading to Newtown, I had one eye on the final day of the Championship season. My uncle, Keith, was in Cardiff knowing that a win for his Bluebirds would be enough to earn promotion to the Premier League. They were drawing as we got on the train but their promotion rivals, Fulham, were 2-0 down to Birmingham. It was looking promising.

The situation didn’t change until we were in Newtown. Fulham pulled one back, which meant if Cardiff conceded and the Cottagers levelled, they would go up on goal difference. I was sweating for more than just the 20 degree heat.

But, thankfully, Birmingham grabbed a third just as we entered Latham Park. I celebrated with Saff, knowing Keith was further down in Wales having even bigger celebrations of his own.

A Wild(e) day

With raucous scenes happening across the country in the Championship, Latham Park had a similar amount of buoyancy – but in a more unorganised fashion.

The tone was set when we collected our tickets. I was expecting to be directed to an office or stand but they were handed out on the street by a chap holding a few envelopes. The description on the front said ‘VIP’ as we avoided the turnstiles and headed through the luxurious side entrance.

Inside the ground was manic. TV cameras for S4C’s Sgorio coverage were situated all around the side of the pitch, as well as from man-made gantries and an outside cherry picker. Fans were scattered in various spots too – some to avoid the sun and some to soak it in – while boxes of programmes were left unguarded on the floor. We assumed they were free as they didn’t have a price on. But we might have nicked them for all we knew.

The ground itself contained four stands of varying sizes, a grassy bank in the corner and even supporter benches. A cluster of Aberystwyth fans were congregated in the stand by the dugouts and were making a right noise. It was here that I found The Groundhopper. He informed us that parachuters were due to come down any minute to deliver the match ball, adding to the chaos.

Saff and I wandered around the ground to gather our thoughts and decided on returning to the ‘Aberystwyth stand’ as they were in shade and having the most fun. The parachuters then spectacularly came down and were still evacuating the pitch as the teams came out for kick-off.

When the line-ups were read out, I recognised a few familiar names from Wrexham’s past. Declan Walker was playing in defence for Aberystwyth having spent four seasons at the Racecourse Ground. Meanwhile, Kai Edwards (known for being the first player culled under the Dean Keates regime) and Michael Bakare (a growing cult figure who’s the butt of all jokes whenever a new striker is about to sign) were in the starting line-up for Connah’s Quay.

For the fact that we were with the Aber fans and Walker featured in much better times for my club, I backed them to win.

They were well in the game during the opening exchanges as both sides passed horrendously to keep the score goalless and the game chanceless. The only notable bit of quality came off from the Aber fans’ chanting. Nomads manager Andy Morrison received particular scrutiny that later seemed warranted once his team took control.

Town were pretty poor at the back, missing several headers from inside the box that let Connah’s Quay quickly run away with the game. Bakare scored the opener before Michael Wilde hit a brace. All from Aberystwyth’s poor defending.

Credit to the Aber fans, they didn’t stop singing. This was despite being three down and suffering the significant annoyance of Morrison heading straight for the cameras for each goal – aiming his delight and pouted lips at the opposition fans.

Their support was rewarded, though, with a game-changer in first-half added time. A looping header from Ryan Wade stopped what looked like becoming a Connah’s Quay rout.

Nomads focussed on defending their lead in the second-half rather than adding to it and Town were remarkably still in the game as a result. They had a penalty claim turned down before Malcolm Melvin did his best to recreate Frank Lampard’s disallowed goal from the 2010 World Cup.

We were actually stood level with the byline when Melvin’s shot cannoned back out of the Nomads goal after hitting the bar. Most of the ball looked in but I thought the whole thing may not have crossed the line. I can appreciate how tough the call must have been for the officials, it happened so fast.

Replays seemed to show the ball was over but the Aber staff didn’t let the decision weigh them down at full-time, instead focussing on how they should have avoided conceding three goals in the first place. Following that controversial moment, it didn’t feel like Aber’s day. Their players looked exhausted out in the sun and eventually let in a fourth to give Connah’s Quay their first ever Welsh Cup success.

Cardiff calling

Heading into the quieter surroundings of Newtown’s abandoned Bank Holiday streets following the game, I called Keith. I actually tried speaking to him during the game but the Aberystwyth fans were so vocal that I didn’t have a clue what he was saying. The only thing I could vaguely make out was: ‘I’m on the pitch!’ When I finally got to talk with him, he confirmed his earlier call was from the pitch of the Cardiff City Stadium and we both drank in the Bluebirds’ successful season.

Even though I didn’t realise its significance at the time, being with a group of Aberystwyth fans cheering their team in a cup final whilst my uncle celebrated winning promotion on the turf of Welsh football’s home stadium is probably my best moment of the season. It’s what football is all about. Reward for following our teams’ fortunes over nine months. And it will live with me forever.

The Lows

Giggs goes missing

I spoke to The Groundhopper at half-time and he told me the current Welsh international manager and Manchester United legend, Ryan Giggs, was supposed to be at the game. I’m not a huge fan of Giggs, to be honest, but it would have been cool to tell my dad and uncle that I’d seen him. However, as much as I tried to spot the man, I didn’t catch a single glimpse of him. Not even when his name was called out during the presentations. His time in Newtown will forever be a myth in my eyes.

The Verdict

This was my first taste of Welsh football outside the teams that play in the English system and I thoroughly enjoyed it. Latham Park is one of the quirkiest grounds I’ve visited, offering great views of the countryside as well as a variety of seating options! A crowd of around 1,500 was more than I expected and the whole day was cheap to attend (especially with a couple of free programmes). The only thing that let me down was the artificial pitch. I didn’t like how much it slowed the game and killed the bounce of the ball. But the sun might have also played a factor and possibly the two teams as well.

I think a few Welsh Premier League clubs use 3G pitches so it’d be interesting to see how different sides play on it. But it definitely hasn’t deterred me from venturing into the Welsh footballing pyramid again soon.

Aberystwyth Town 1 – 4 Connah’s Quay Nomads
Welsh Cup

Ground rating: 6/10

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