CLUB INSIGHT: BLAENAVON BLUES AFC

Blaenavon Blues AFC currently play in the Gwent County first division. A town steeped in heritage and history with Ironworks and Coals in the surrounding area have dominated the town for generations and shaped the landscape, Blaenavon are now aiming to make their own history and put the town on the map for footballing matters. Here, we take a look at the history of football in the town.

While there were many football clubs within Blaenavon dating back to the 1900’s, most of the clubs were church sides, and no sides made an impact on a national or even a senior level. Some of the clubs that have been documented to who represented the town are Blaenavon Thursday’s, Clapham United from Forge side, The Corinthians, and Garn–y-erw to name but a few. In fact, there is evidence of a Blaenavon side competing in the Usk & District league in 1936 to 1939.

Before the Recreation Grounds were built in 1921, the main football pitch of the time was on Cwmavon Road, at Coffee Tavern. The pitch being down in the valley and with the road above it being named ‘The Free grandstand’ as the spectators could watch the game for free from Cwmavon Road – but the club as we know it today was founded by Blaenavon local Ernest Pugh in the summer of 1946.

Turn the clock forward to 2016 and Ernest would be proud to know that the club is continuing to play at the Memorial Ground and battling to get back to the Welsh League where the club has previously graced during its proud history.

We caught up with club chairman Rob Browning and Secretary Richard White on the club’s ambitions.

How important is it that in 2016 the club continues to operate and remain part of the heritage of Blaenavon and embrace the community?

“With our local authorities having funding cutbacks, the leisure activities are being particularly hard hit. Within the last 10 years we have lost both our Leisure Centre and Swimming Pool to accommodate a new school. Neither were replaced in any form and as a result our children can easily drift into hanging around street corners and causing trouble.

The club were also forced off the Co-Op field which was the senior team’s home for many years to the Memorial ground our current home.

The positive to come out of the re-location is that the Memorial ground is located next to what was local authority pitches that were used by the junior section. We have been given an opportunity to create a football campus with 4 pitches and for the first time in the clubs history we have our own clubhouse situated at the memorial ground. The club is firm in its belief that it is vital for the future of the children of the community that we provide the opportunity for everyone to take part in sport.

The club is committed to continuing the good work having leased the 4 pitches for the next 20 years securing our ability to provide these ongoing opportunities. A strong club helps to have a strong community spirit and hopefully give our youngster confidence as they strive to meet the challenges of everyday as they grow up.”

The club were forward thinking embracing social media back in 2006 by creating a website, you now use twitter and regularly update via that platform. How important even at Gwent county level do you feel it is to embrace social media and interact with clubs and supporters from clubs in South Wales and further afield?

Not too long ago the only way of communicating was face to face or telephone. Communication within even a single team was a nightmare, either telephoning everyone individually, asking a friend to pass on a message or relying on people remembering what you told them in training.

The weekend would be filled with trepidation as you waited to see who turned up. Now its easy. Facebook, Twitter, Whatsapp which ever you use its one message that get to everyone within seconds.

Twitter seems to be the chosen medium for clubs to communicate with each other albeit unofficially and their supporters. Many clubs are posting updates in the build up to the weekend and creates great interest even when it doesn’t involve your own team. Gone are the days of having to wait till later Saturday night or even Sunday morning to find out how the team got on when they played away.

As someone who has a mind-set of Saturday is for sport all my life, it is sometimes difficult to concentrate on other activities when you can’t get to the game until you know the result. All that frustration has now gone, and I am currently in California but will be following twitter avidly on Saturday.

What are the clubs aims and expectations this season as a club  who has of course played host to Welsh league football in its history, even reaching Division 1 back in the mid 1970’s?

At the beginning of the season we were optimistic of pushing for Welsh league status, but with a string of bad injuries including a broken leg, fractured back and a string of other injuries we now find ourselves fighting to maintain Gwent County Division 1 status. Our vision remains to get back into Welsh League and follow in the footsteps other recently promoted Gwent County teams and be successful in Div 3.

As club chairman I was fortunate to be part of the 1970s Welsh league teams, we then attracted players like Tony Viliers who played for Cardiff City and Wales, David Harris who had Welsh youth honours, not to mention other high profile players. At one point we also Ken Morgan as player manager who was one of Sir Matt Busby’s “Babes”.

How do you see the Division 1 playing out this season?

“I think we can safely say that its a very competitive league and of course teams who have come up in recent seasons and got promoted out of the league appear to be going from strength to strength such as Abergavenny Town in the Welsh League.

“Once again this season Gwent County Division 1 is very competitive. In recent seasons there has usually been one outstanding team. Trethomas Bluebirds last season and Abergavenny the previous year. This season is a little different in that it appears that anyone can beat anyone. So far no one team has taken the bull by the horns and romped away. I have always maintained it is much harder in Gwent County Div 1 that Welsh League Div 3 as the promoted Gwent County teams have proved.

“Our objectives are to focus on ourselves and maintain Div 1 status and let the other teams worry about themselves. We came so close to promotion 3 seasons ago but have struggled in the opening months of the last 2. Our form after Christmas last season was incredible and if maintained for the whole season would have been good enough to have challenged Trethomas. Let’s hope we find that form again soon.”

Behind the scenes at the club how much do you rely on local supporters and members to help facilitate the weekly tasks at the club to keep it running smoothly?

“We are totally reliant on volunteers to run the club. Our committee is hard working but sadly too few in number.The maintenance of 4 pitches alone is a real struggle with as many as 8 teams playing at home on some weekends.

“With the grounds now leased we receive no help from the local authorities they are 100% maintained by the club. The cost of the maintenance equipment alone puts extreme burden on club resources not considering the time people have to put in out of their supposed leisure time.

“The old cliche “Many hands make light work” is true and I have not yet mentioned the very hard working coaches who give up their free time, without them there is no football. The club works hard to ensure that all coaches have the proper qualifications and training to maintain the high standards we set ourselves. The FAW requirements continue to become more and more stringent for both clubs and coaches.

“On a positive note we have a very active & successful junior fundraising committee but again they are only a small group trying to cover many activities. Nov 6th will see us holding our annual fireworks display that is always well supported by the community. Financially it is difficult to fulfil our desire to provide the best possible facilities, equipment and environment for our members.

“It is only right to say that this would not be possible but for the support of a number of local business to continue to support us.Anyone willing to lend a hand would be very much appreciated.

The playing pool in the Gwent valleys is very competitive with a lot of clubs within a close proximity of each other. Is it hard at this level to attract players to the club? and if so how vital is it to try and bring some players through the system.

“You could definitely argue that there are too many clubs within the area for the player pool. It’s not too bad at Mini and Junior levels but when you get to senior football it is very apparent. It is almost tribalistic in the valleys and players don’t often play for a club that is a sworn enemy of their home club.

“We find ourselves at a level where players capable of playing a higher standard than Gwent County inevitably join a team in a higher league. This is why we strive to get the club to higher level possible and attract them back. We are not a club that attracts too many players from out of town for a long period of time so it is vital for survival that we maintain the juniors and coach them to a level to progress naturally into the senior squads.

“Only recently the Seniors and Juniors have become a combined organisation with the move to our new home but even before this we have had significant success in bringing players through the ranks. This season over 80% of our senior squads are home grown.

“The vision of merging the two sections was exactly to promote these opportunities to our youngster’s.

How frustrating is it that at this level in the winter months many games are postponed due to the bad weather? Higher up the leagues of course 3G pitches are now becoming popular especially in the WPL and Welsh Leagues. Are you a fan of 3G pitches? and is it viable at this level to try and get grants or aids to look into the possibility of installing one.

“If we were offered a 4G pitch we wouldn’t think twice it would be a definite yes.
As a club it would make sense – massively reduced pitch maintenance.

“Currently there are no adequate facilities within the town for winter training for any sports club. We find ourselves in some cases having to go outside the borough to find these facilities. The possibilities of grants aid has been investigated by the club over the past few years but have been turned down or have not had the financial position to put forward our portion of the finance. The cost of these pitch is huge.

“Not so long ago the FAW Trust were funding 2 4G pitches in each borough. Torfaen installed the one in Cwmbran and rejected the opportunity of the second on the ground they couldn’t afford the maintenance of another. This decision was taken without any consultation of the sports clubs at the top end of the valley.

“In our opinion that was ludicrous. Having taken all the leisure facilities then reneging on the original plan to put an Astroturf ¾ pitch as part of the school development and making a tarmac MUGA they should have forced to put it in Blaenavon as pay back to the community. It could have been utilised by many sport organisations.

“There was a campaign started last winter by the Blaenavon public to get an all-weather playing surface in the town because of the bad weather. Some teams didn’t play a game for 4 months. That can’t be right. I don’t see football being switched to a summer sport anytime soon either.

The Memorial ground is ideally suited to having a 4G pitch. It is secure already, the ducting for floodlights is already in place and we have a changing facility on the ground. If anyone wants to provide a 4G pitch for the town we will gratefully accept it!

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