Merthyr At Play
A Sporting Trail
Sports of all descriptions as an essential past-time have been crucial to this town’s development as a civic entity. Merthyr Tydfil has been nothing if not always competitive; the price of bar iron on the world markets decided that long ago. Teams were formed of whatever sports discipline even among rival streets, colliery lodges and chapels. The end result, well written up in numerous publications is “Sporting Merthyr Tydfil.”
This trail starts at Merthyr Town Football Club and ends in the heart of the town centre but additional visits can be made to the clubhouse of Merthyr Rugby Football Club and to Merthyr Tydfil Leisure Centre, where you can see a comprehensive boxing “hall of fame.”
Merthyr Town Football Club
Merthyr Tydfil as a soccer or rugby town is a continuous debating issue. Football – soccer – has been in the town’s DNA since almost the inception of the “beautiful game” and at the beginning of the 20th century Penydarren old roman fort site became the home of Merthyr Tydfil FC, known subsequently by its nickname, “The Martyrs.”
Teams have played here since 1908. The club’s fortunes have more or less followed the cycle of the town’s relative prosperity and depression. Thus at the end of the 1920s, with massive unemployment as the only prospect for the town’s future into the 1930s, Merthyr Tydfil FC was bankrupt, symbolically let in a record number of goals for a season (1929-30) and was actually wound up as a going concern by the mid-1930s. Revival after the war coincided with a halcyon period of Welsh Cup and league successes. In 1987 the club once again won the Welsh Cup, qualifying for European competition; and so the Italian club Atalanta visited Penydarren Park, where the home team won 2-1, before losing the return leg by a wider margin. Club memorabilia can be viewed inside the new clubhouse. Check access before visiting.
Statue of Eddie Thomas
Standing outside what was once Bethesda Chapel, which Thomas attended as a boy, is the one time welterweight British and Commonwealth boxing champion, astride in typical fighting fashion. Thomas, of humble background at Colliers’ Row above Ynysfach, came to local and British prominence as a fine boxer. Upon retirement from the ring he did not so much leave the ring as just step outside it, managing a local world champion, Howard Winstone among a stable of up and coming boxers, not least champion lightweight Ken Buchanan. Eddie served his home town well as a local councillor and mayor, and remained a benefactor to numerous local charitable causes until his death in 1997.
The fine exterior balcony of Redhouse, formerly the town hall, has seen sporting heroes of the past take the adulation of the crowds over the years including world champion boxer, Howard Winstone in 1968, and Merthyr Tydfil FC upon their victory in the Welsh Cup in 1987. Inside, a series of illustrated roundels decorate the café, corridors and hallways. Alongside Merthyr’s three most famous boxers, who feature elsewhere in this trail, is Jimmy Wilde, who started fighting aged 15 in fairground boxing booths and went on to become world flyweight champion in 1916. His extraordinary punching power combined with excellent defensive skills earned him the nickname “the ghost with a hammer in his fists.” Also featured is Gordon Davies who, after scoring 30 goals in his first season for Merthyr Tydfil FC, went on to play professionally for Fulham, Chelsea and Manchester City, and was capped 16 times by Wales.
The boxing theme continues at the nearby Station Cafe, owned for decades by the Italian Viazzani family. It provided a popular haven for boxing and political chatter over frothy coffee and steamed pies. For many years, Frank and Tony Viazzani were the ticket agents for local boxing tournaments and the walls are still adorned by some of the boxing greats of previous decades.
Statue of Howard Winstone
Within the central aisles of St Tydfil Shopping centre are fine statues of two of the town’s boxing heroes. Nearer the High Street is Howard Winstone (1939–2000). In 1958, as an amateur, Winstone won both the ABA bantamweight belt and a Commonwealth Games gold medal. Turning professional under Eddie Thomas, he became British featherweight champion in 1961 before losing 3 times to the Mexican world champion Vicente Saldivar in a series of brutal fights. In 1968, he finally won the WBC world featherweight title, defeating the Japanese boxer, Mitsunori Seki. “The Welsh Wizard” retired aged 29 having lost the world title in his first defence. This fine bronze statue, sculpted by Welsh artist David Petersen, was unveiled one year after his death in 2001.
Statue of Johnny Owen
Nearer the bus station is the statue of Johnny Owen (1956–1980), a British, European and Commonwealth champion. Owen, fighting at bantamweight in a fateful clash in 1980 in Los Angeles against Mexican challenger Lupe Pintor, lost consciousness and never recovered. Known locally as “the Merthyr Matchstick” because of his almost skeletal physique, he was universally mourned by the boxing world and by the town of his birth. The statue is the work of sculptor James Done and was unveiled in 2002 by Owen’s final opponent, Lupe Pintor.
That concludes our town trail but there are two additional sites of interest for lovers of the sports of rugby union and boxing.
Merthyr Rugby Football Club
Is Merthyr Tydfil a rugby or a soccer town? As this sport became organised, so Merthyr Tydfil was at the fore and was one of the twelve clubs meeting at Neath Castle Hotel in 1881 to establish the Welsh Rugby Union. Local teams throughout the town and valley were soon established; a Merthyr Tydfil RFC dates from 1876. Rugby league took away some fine local talent; but Merthyr RFC survived, with its distinctive yellow, green and white strip, eventually finding a permanent home at the Wern Field above Ynysfach. Recently the team has enjoyed a winning streak; they continue to play under the local nickname of “The Ironmen.” The present clubhouse was once the Royal Air Force Association Club at Georgetown where rugby memorabilia can be viewed and refreshments taken. Prior booking is essential; check before visiting.
Merthyr Tydfil Leisure Centre
The boxing “hall of fame” inside is a full wall of framed photographs of virtually all of the boxing heroes of this town with informative captions and dates. It is the best single visual record of the sport within Merthyr Tydfil. The entry in a recent encyclopaedia on Wales best sums up this town’s affinity with boxing, not just as a sport and recreation but almost as a way of life. “Undoubtedly it is Merthyr Tydfil, Wales’s first industrial town that can lay claim to Wales’s richest boxing tradition, celebrated in prose, verse and sculpture...”