We have discussed momentum before. It is an ethereal, elusive thing. You know when you have it, and you know when you do not. Identifying when it begins is all but impossible, and there is no way of forecasting when it will end. It cannot be signed during the January transfer window, not even for all the money in Dale Vince’s green pockets. Paul Tisdale cannot ask Ted Baker to design some for him, and Phil Brown cannot absorb it from the rays of his overworked sun bed. Steve Evans cannot win it on McDonald’s Monopoly, although I am sure it will not be for the want of trying. You have to create it the hard way, by winning lots of football matches.
One thing is for certain: when you do have momentum, it is vital you hang on to its shirt tails for as long as possible and do everything in your power to maximise your returns from it. During his most recent visit to these shores, Clive Nates referred to the momentum Lincoln have created as ‘a once in a lifetime opportunity’, and he is exactly right. It is an opportunity to transform ourselves from a lower-half National League side into an established medium-sized club with potential to survive at Championship level. We have a responsibility to seize the opportunity with both hands, and that means using the current momentum as a springboard for what happens next. Easy.
Now for a dose of reality: frighteningly, you never know when momentum will abandon you for a club down the road, and sometimes there is not a lot you can do to stop it. Allow me to give you an example from ninety years ago.
Not many people from these parts will have heard of Mid-Rhondda Football Club. There are several good reasons for that, the most obvious being that they existed long before anyone on this site was a twinkle in the eye of a milkman. From creation to oblivion, their flame burned for a rollercoaster sixteen years either side of the First World War. Had the wind blown another way in June 1920, Lincoln City could have been meeting the side from The Valleys in the Football League this weekend. A cruel twist of fate saw what should have been a career in the Football League turn into a terminal tailspin, but we are getting ahead of ourselves. Danny says we must never do that, so let me take you straight back to 1912.
Surrounded by a rugby union heartland, survival for a small-town football club in South Wales should have been as close to impossible as makes no odds, and that turned out to be true in the end. Ironically, it was the failure of a rugby club that gave them birth. Hailing from the mining town of Tonypandy in Glamorgan, Mid-Rhondda began life as a rugby league club in 1908. They joined the Northern Union, but gates at their Mid-Rhondda Athletic Ground home seldom rose above 3,000 to 4,000, and the venture was deemed unprofitable after just one solitary season. By contrast, attendances of up to 8,000 at various football matches hosted at the ground persuaded the owners to change code, and the rugby club was wound up in 1909.
However, those plans to turn the rugby club into a more profitable football club were put on hold due to continuing industrial unrest in the area which came to a head with the Tonypandy Riots of 1910. The ground continued to be used for large athletics and cycling meetings in the interim, as it boasted one of the best cycling and running tracks in Britain. Once the mines resumed normal production in late 1911, a committee was formed and Mid-Rhondda FC came into being in early 1912. The club’s reliance on local industry is highlighted by the fact that 41 of its original 88 shareholders were listed as miners, an initial strength that ironically would haunt the club for the whole of its existence.
The fledgling club was immediately accepted into Southern League Division Two despite having no funding, no manager and no players just two weeks before the start of the season. A scratch side was assembled which enabled the club to finish a creditable 8th in its first season of 1912-13, 7th in 1913-14, and a disappointing 12th in 1914-15. Gates rose to around the 10,000-mark for the bigger games, although occasionally fell to 3,000 when the local economy endured one of its many lean spells. The club quickly gained the nickname The Mushrooms, or The Mush for short, because of its rapid rise to prominence. However, there was little sign of what was to follow when the First World War saw football suspended in 1915.
When football resumed in 1919, Mid-Rhondda immediately made a real statement of intent. Former Welsh international Haydn Price, who had enjoyed success at Walsall immediately before the war, was brought in as secretary-manager. England International Joe Bache was signed from Aston Villa, while fellow inside forward Jimmy Seed – soon to star for England himself – joined from Sunderland with team mate Frank Pattison. Striker Dai Collier, badly wounded during the war, would earn a move to Grimsby and score on his debut for Wales a year later. It was an extraordinary assembly of talent for a Southern League Division Two club, and it was funded partly by undertaking challenge matches against top English clubs. Nottingham Forest (3-1), Derby County (2-0) and Portsmouth (1-0) all left South Wales with their tail between their legs in 1919. That season’s FA Cup winners Aston Villa (a 1-2 defeat) and runaway Second Division champions Spurs (a 1-1 draw) – both former clubs of manager Price – attracted gates of between 15,000 and 20,000 to the ground in 1920.
The investment paid off in spectacular fashion as the club strolled to both the Welsh League and Southern League Division Two championships at the first attempt. Forty wins from their fifty league games produced an incredible 155 goals scored and just 33 conceded. They also won the South Wales Cup with a 1-0 win over Barry FC. All of that was achieved despite the controversial sale of Jimmy Seed to Spurs in January 1920, which resulted in incredible scenes as the supporters tried to prevent Seed leaving the town with the Spurs officials. An FA Cup preliminary round defeat to local rivals Ton Pentre drew over 20,000 paying spectators plus thousands more on the hillside above the ground. To this day, it remains the highest attendance ever at any sporting event in the Rhondda Valley.
Those remarkable gates came at a time when the population of the entire valley was just 162,000 and already beginning to decline. In contrast, Lincoln City’s record attendance at that point was only 13,000, and that was after a quarter of a century in the Football League. As a further contrast, the 1919-20 Welsh Cup Final between Wrexham and Cardiff City attracted just 6,618.
At the end of that momentous season, Mid-Rhondda might have been forgiven for thinking that the future was set fair. Promotion to Southern League Division One had been secured, and there was no reason why they should not continue their rise into the 1920s. They had earned the respect of the football world, the community had supported its club magnificently despite some very hard economic times, and they had momentum to burn. They went ahead with the construction of a new £1,400 grandstand complete with press box and gymnasium.
Then came that cruel twist of fate.
In June 1920 the Football League decided to extend its two-division format to three, and to do it by taking over Southern League Division One in its entirety. In one of those demented decisions much admired by exasperated football fans across the land, the Southern League decided not to allow any promotions first. Therefore Southern League Division One – as it had ended the season – became Division Three of the Football League. To compound matters, local rivals Cardiff City were elected straight up to the Football League Second Division despite having only finished fourth in the Southern League. Even worse, local rivals Merthyr Town – who had finished 21st in Southern League Division One and were due to be replaced by Division Two champions Mid-Rhondda – were elected to the Football League instead of being relegated to Southern League Division Two. Bizarre, but painfully true.
The list of clubs elevated to the Football League that summer is an impressive one: Portsmouth, Watford, Crystal Palace, Cardiff City, Plymouth Argyle, Queens Park Rangers, Reading, Southampton, Swansea Town, Exeter City, Southend United, Norwich City, Swindon Town, Millwall, Brentford, Brighton & Hove Albion, Bristol Rovers, the original Newport County, Northampton Town, Luton Town, Merthyr Town and Gillingham. By rights, that list should have included Mid-Rhondda. It didn’t, and the effects were devastating.
Momentum exploded and disappeared like a firework in a Bonfire Night sky. Instead of mixing with Southampton and Portsmouth in the Football League, Mid-Rhondda found themselves jettisoned to the new Welsh section of the reconstructed Southern League to face fixtures against the likes of Porth Athletic, Mardy and Abertillery. Manager Haydn Price immediately departed for Grimsby taking five players with him (captain Joe Bache, Dai Collier, Albert Irvine, Harry Moody and prolific striker Jimmy Carmichael, who went on to score 142 goals for the Mariners). The remainder of the 1919-20 squad was released to find new clubs.
Price was replaced by 28-year-old Lincoln City striker Billy Egerton, presumably because he was cheap and willing to come. However, Price returned to the club after four months after falling out with the Grimsby board. In the face of a very unpromising set of circumstances, the bargain basement team did well to finish fifth in 1921 and reach the quarter-final of the Welsh Cup. But to rub more salt into an open wound, neighbours Aberdare Athletic finished just four points ahead of them and were elected to the new Football League Division Three South.
Gates had fallen dramatically, a position exacerbated by the disastrous economic effects of the national coal strike of 1921. The club’s indelible links with its local community were further highlighted by the ground’s frequent use by thousands of miners for mass meetings during the numerous strikes throughout the period. The exodus of people from The Rhondda as mines became exhausted was under way, reducing its population by 50,000 in around twenty years. Severe financial problems meant the club was unable to cover its debts, which led to a suspension from football by the Welsh FA in 1921. A decision was accordingly taken to resign from the Southern League and the Welsh League and play in local football. A brief respite was enjoyed when they reached the 5th qualifying round of the FA Cup in 1921-22, only to go down 1-0 at home to old foes Merthyr.
The original club was finally dissolved and reformed in 1923 as Mid-Rhondda United , and a degree of stability enabled them to rejoin the Welsh League in 1923 and the Western Division of the Southern League in 1924. Interestingly, it was weekly subscriptions (3d.) deducted from the wages of local miners which enabled the club to reform. Two successive third-place finishes in the Welsh League and a fifth-place finish in the Southern League in 1925 gave the resurgent club the confidence to apply for election to the Football League, but not surprisingly they received no votes at the League AGM. Audacious at best, the continued rumours surrounding the club’s precarious financial position cannot have helped their bid either. Re-elected with the maximum 44 votes each were Brentford and…Merthyr Town.
This optimistic throw of the dice was the final act of defiance, and the club disintegrated thereafter amid a morass of internal and financial wrangles. A further investigation by the Welsh FA in 1926 revealed illegal gaming practices, and former manager Haydn Price was declared bankrupt after a local builder sued him for the outstanding £1,400 for the building of the new stand back in 1920 (Price was a guarantor for the amount). The side finished well off the pace in 8th in 1925-26, and decided to return to amateur status. Further decline was inevitable, and they finished bottom of the Southern League in 1926-27 with only two wins from their 26 games. Attendances fell as low as 50 at a time when 5,000 was the break-even figure. The situation was further aggravated by the general strike of 1926 which caused the 3d. subscriptions to dry up. Despite a slight improvement in 1927-28, the club finished bottom of the Southern League for the second successive season and also sank to the foot of the Welsh League.
At the end of March 1928, the club finally reached the end of the road. The bank called in the club’s overdraft and Mid-Rhondda passed into history with debts of £1,400. What could have been a glorious future had crumbled to nothing in almost no time at all, and through no real fault of their own.
The historic Mid-Rhondda Athletic Ground was abandoned and fell into decline until the local council found the money to take it over in 1933. The stands and structures were eventually demolished and much of the earth banking levelled to create an open-access ground, which happily is still used for rugby today by the Tonypandy Community College. Except for a somewhat conspicuous grass bank along the western side and the overgrown foundations of the ruinous £1,400 grandstand, you would never guess that one of the largest and most well-populated football grounds in Wales once stood there. The ground is also notable for having hosted the first ever rugby league international between Wales and England in 1908, watched by 12,000, and for hosting two matches against the touring Australian rugby league team in the same year. Due to its sporting and industrial heritage, the ground is now listed by the Royal Commission on the Ancient and Historical Monuments of Wales.
In case you are interested and happen to be in the area, the ground is on the eastern side of the modern A4119 Tonypandy bypass, on Gelli Road. It is not the current athletics ground at King George’s Field, as erroneously stated on Wikipedia and elsewhere.
As a footnote, Merthyr Town and Aberdare Athletic fared little better in the 1920s because of the same economic and industrial problems that brought down Mid-Rhondda. Aberdare finished bottom of Division Three South in 1927 and were not re-elected after just six seasons as a Football League club. After one season of struggle back in the Southern League, Aberdare folded in May 1928, just two months after Mid-Rhondda. Having comfortably survived re-election votes in 1925 and 1928, Merthyr finished bottom of Division Three South in 1930 and were not re-elected after ten seasons in the League. They slid steadily down the Southern League until debts of £3,000 sent them to the wall in June 1934.
So, what has this to do with Lincoln City?
In less than two years, Lincoln have reached the quarter-finals of the FA Cup, the semi-finals of the FA Trophy, won the National League, appeared at Wembley for the first time, won the EFL Trophy while they were there, challenged for promotion to League One, and increased attendances from 2,500 to 9,000. Whilst those are all incredible achievements separately and collectively, reality suggests that the job has only just begun.
Ironically, that success has raised expectations among the newer supporters in particular, and even impatience for more. Some appear anxious to get to the end of the season, to reach the play-offs, to win promotion at Wembley, and in due course return to the Championship that City last graced in 1961. That would be very welcome of course, but it is also missing the point.
Danny Cowley insists it is all about the journey, and that we should remember to stop and enjoy it every now and then. The logic of that is hard to dispute. What we are experiencing right now is a moment in time that we may never see again. When it will eventually end is open to conjecture, but one thing is certain: at some point, it will end. Mid-Rhondda probably felt invincible a hundred years ago, but they had disappeared completely within ten years. Their moment in time was hopefully briefer than Lincoln’s will be, but they are both moments in time all the same.
For whilst Lincoln will do all they can to maintain their momentum for as long as possible, it may not be entirely within their powers to do so. Just ask Mid-Rhondda about that.
Who did our members consider to be April’s star players?
Player of the Month is captain LUKE WATERFALL, possibly making a late bid for our Player of the Season title. His cameo from the substitutes’ bench against Colchester will live long in the memory, and could well be the goal that takes City to the play-offs.
Second place goes to ELLIOTT WHITEHOUSE, who now holds the distinction of being the first Lincoln player to score at Wembley in addition to being the first (and only) Imp to score for England C. Oh, and the first City outfield player to play in gloves at the end of April.
Third place goes to on-loan centre half SCOTT WHARTON, who kept up an impressive run of scores despite switching to left back following an injury to Sam Habergham. Wharton is clearly too good for League Two; perhaps our only chance of seeing him return on loan in August is promotion to League One.
A special mention this month for Matt Rhead, who at Accrington became the 100th player to make 150 appearances for the Imps. A mention too for Neal Eardley, who has made 50 appearances in a season for only the second time in his career. Three more appearances will make this his best season ever, currently 53 in 2007-08 (including three international caps). Not bad for a player considered crocked. Finally, a mention for Danny Rowe, whose season is over through injury: thank you for your important contribution, and we hope to see you in August.
The average team score of 6.78 is the fourth-highest of the season.
1. Luke Waterfall 7.29
2. Elliott Whitehouse 7.16
3. Scott Wharton 7.13
4. Alex Woodyard 7.11
5. Michael Bostwick 7.06
6. Neal Eardley 7.01
7. Ryan Allsop 7.00
8. Danny Rowe 6.93
9. Ollie Palmer 6.86
10. Matt Rhead 6.58
11. Matt Green 6.56
12. James Wilson 6.55
13. Sam Habergham 6.509
14. Lee Frecklington 6.507
15. Harry Anderson 6.01
16. Jordan Williams 5.94
17. Tom Pett 4.82
Individual ratings by match:
Carlisle: Alex Woodyard 7.37
Shrewsbury: Michael Bostwick, Elliott Whitehouse 8.50
Port Vale: Alex Woodyard 7.11
Wycombe: Scott Wharton 7.45
Colchester: Ollie Palmer 8.18
Coventry: Matt Rhead 8.27
Accrington: Ryan Allsop 7.00
So where does that leave us regarding the current player of the season standings?
With only one more game to go – and hopefully four – that would be telling. All will be revealed very soon.
nb I am indebted to Mushrooms, Scandal and Bankruptcy: The Short Life of Mid-Rhondda Football Club by Martin Johnes, which provided much of the information given in this article.
Thank you to Graham Burrell and Lincoln City for the photograph!
— Vital Lincoln City (@VitalLincoln) May 4, 2018