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Page last updated at 14:08 GMT, Wednesday, 6 May 2009 15:08 UK

Why the Martyrs matter

Merthyr Tydfil Football Club stand

By Peter Shuttleworth

It could signify Merthyr Tydfil's last surviving memory of better days, but the once thriving heartbeat of Britain's industrial revolution fears for the loss of its football club.

The financially-troubled Merthyr Tydfil FC are struggling to pay utility bills with alarming regularity.

And the distinct air of concern that the town's football club could follow the way of the town's coal and steel industries was confirmed when case number 12133 appeared on the Companies Court winding up list.

Her Majesty's Revenue and Customs have clearly had enough and Merthyr's fate will be up to a judge at The Royal Courts of Justice - although the initial hearing on 6 May gave the club a 28-day stay of execution.

Sad really. To the untrained eye The Martyrs are just an ordinary non-league football side, yet the British Gas Southern League Premier club boast an extraordinary history.

It is the club where the legendary John Charles ended his playing career, the place where one-time British transfer record-holder and England striker Bob Latchford won his only piece of silverware, and a team that revelled in one of Welsh football's great European nights.

Merthyr's reward for their third Welsh Cup crown in 1987 was qualification into the European Cup Winners Cup, where the Martyrs were paired against Italian giants Atalanta.

Penydarren Park, Merthyr Tydfil
There is something special about night games at Penydarren Park

Former Merthyr Tydfil manager and captain Andy Beattie

The 16th of September in 1987 was the night 11 Martyrs earned themselves immortality in the Valleys town.

Kevin Rogers and Ceri Williams scored the goals in a sensational 2-1 first-leg victory under the floodlights at Penydarren Park, in a night of football the town will never forget.

"The pitch wasn't in the best condition, which probably helped us," recalled Andy Beattie, who captained Merthyr on that famous night.

"We scored two goals from set-pieces and the place erupted.

"There were as many people as you could squeeze into Penydarren Park - about 14,000 people. You couldn't do it in these days of health and safety, but there is something special about night games at Penydarren Park.

"It was a magical atmosphere, absolutely electric. We became instant heroes and partied all night and into the morning."

Not even the 2-0 second-leg defeat in Italy - knocking Merthyr out 3-2 on aggregate - dampened the celebrations.

And rightly so as Atalanta were one of the finest teams in one of the world's finest leagues.

"They were a decent side and showed it in the return leg on a decent pitch," said Beattie.

"However, the two games were not just memorable occasions for the club but for the town as everyone pulled together.

"Half of Merthyr were in Italy, it seemed. Afterwards the players and the fans all went to the pub to celebrate - things like that don't happen any more!"

Colin Addison
I speak on behalf of everyone associated with Welsh sport that I hope they survive this crisis

Former Merthyr Tydfil manager Colin Addison

Merthyr - whose fanzine Dial M For Merthyr is renowned - are one of non-league football's most famous names because of their post-war Southern League dominance where they won five champions in eight seasons between 1946 and 1954.

The Martyrs also won two Welsh Cup finals in 1949 and 1951, but they failed to win the election to the Football League their dominance arguably deserved.

The decline in Merthyr's fortunes mirrored that of the town's industrial prowess, only briefly enlightened by John Charles' career cameo in the early 1970s as the 'Gentle Giant' brought his superstar status to the club as player/manager.

Wales' greatest footballer failed to repeat his title-winning heroics of his Juventus days, but Merthyr are honoured and privileged that John Charles' legacy will forever be associated with Merthyr.

The Martyrs enjoyed an uprising in the late 1980s, peaking with the Atalanta giant-killing, where they won another Welsh Cup - beating arch-rivals Newport County over two legs - and enjoyed six seasons in the Football Conference.

"Those were great days," said Beattie, who enjoyed two spells as a player and one stint as manager at Penydarren Park.

"We also beat Cardiff 4-0 at Ninian Park, beat Swansea 3-0 at the Vetch, drew with Red Star Belgrade in a pre-season friendly in the year they won the European Cup and beat the Malta national team.

"Over that period we enjoyed some amazing results against sides who should have thrashed us, but it was only a shock when we stopped beating them."

The Lyn Jones managerial era was a relative golden generation for Merthyr and victory over Atalanta their finest hour, capped by their highest pyramid finish in 1992 when the Martyrs finished fourth in the Conference.

"The club's current off-the-field turmoil is sad," said Beattie, referring to the cash-strapped club's financial problems.

"And it would be a shame to confine those great occasions to the chronicles of sporting history."

Colin Addison managed West Bromwich Albion, Derby County, Celta Vigo and Atletico Madrid, but he fondly recalls his days managing at Merthyr.

"It's particularly sad because Merthyr are doing well in the league and could win promotion," said the man affectionately known as 'Addo'.

"I remember my time at Merthyr with particular affection and I probably I speak on behalf of everyone associated with Welsh sport that I hope they survive this crisis."

see also
Merthyr FC's temporary reprieve
20 Feb 09 |  South east
Merthyr Tydfil FC given reprieve
06 May 09 |  South east
Merthyr v Cardiff to raise cash
17 Mar 09 |  Welsh
Merthyr v Farnborough postponed
03 Mar 09 |  Welsh

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