When people think of sport in Neath - a historic Welsh Roman fortress town situated not ten miles from Swansea - they would be inclined to think of the rugby team, steeped in history with its plethora of international stars such as Jonathan Davies, Paul Thorburn and Scott Gibbs.
There was another team that played at the famous old Gnoll stadium though, albeit very briefly. They were Neath Football Club, and this is the story of The Eagles.
In 2005, after various failures in gaining promotion from the Welsh Football League Division One – the second tier in Welsh football – Neath and Skewen F.C entered into an agreement to form a single football club with one motive, to reach the Welsh Premier League. It was here that Neath F.C was born.
In the 2005/06 season the newly formed club was a force in Division One, finishing in second place at their first attempt. They even had a chance to go up that same season, as the Champions Goytre United declined the offer to make the step up in to the Welsh Premier League. This meant that Neath had the opportunity to apply for their top flight status. However, they were still playing at Llandarcy Park on the outskirts of Neath. The ground didn’t live up to the Premier League regulations, meaning they were unable to achieve promotion. This didn’t deter the club. Such was their determination to play in the top flight of Welsh Football that they made vast improvements to the stadium. They dominated Division One the following season. On the back of coming first with a record 92 points, they gained promotion to the promised land of the Premier League. With potential European football on the cards for the young club, these were exciting times in Neath.
Neath’s motives were clear in their first season in the Welsh Premier League. One of their first signings was former Manchester United and Wales defender Clayton Blackmore. He signed for his hometown club on the back of well over 300 appearances in the English Football League and 39 caps for his country. It seemed like a good place for him to end his long-standing career.
The Eagles made good stead for themselves in their first season in the Welsh Premier League. They finished in a respectable seventh place, although they were still playing at Llandarcy Park. But this was the beginning of their new adventure.
In the summer of 2008, they entered into an agreement to groundshare with Neath R.F.C. This meant they would play their matches at The Gnoll, situated in the town centre. This was mostly down to both clubs being owned by local businessman Geraint Hawkes, who was the owner of a plywood importing company - FG Hawkes. With this announcement Neath therefore doubled their potential capacity to 5000. Both clubs then harboured big ambitions for the old ground. There were aspirations to upgrade the facilities in and around the stadium, especially the torn up rugby pitch. There was also talk of the Football Association of Wales being approached to host European matches at the ground, something which would have generated a significant income for both clubs. Andy Dyer – Director of Neath FC - saw it as a way to promote football in the town, with potential for a youth academy being set up.
Two seasons of Premier League stability came before the summer of 2010, with The Eagles’ biggest announcement to date coming after a 9th place finish in the division. Neath announced that they would become the second full-time club in the League. This would mean that they could challenge the likes of TNS and Rhyl for the title. Following this they started signing players in abundance; these included the former Swansea players Kristian O’Leary and Chad Bond. The biggest shock of that summer though was the return to the Welsh Premier League of Lee Trundle. The Liverpool-born striker had made his name for Rhyl in 2001 by scoring 11 goals in his first six games. Neath had truly pulled off a coup in signing him, considering he had been playing in the Championship with Bristol City in the preceding season. Trundle had also turned down moves to Yeovil, Swindon and Tranmere Rovers in League One. His motivations for the move were apparently down to location, rather than financial gain. Trundle had expressed his delight at playing in close proximity to Swansea City, a club that had always been close to his heart. Trundle hoped that it would once again be “a chance for the Swansea fans to come over and support” him.
In their first season after turning into a full-time club, Neath finished in third place in the WPL. This was seen as the minimum expectation due to it carrying a European Qualification spot. In that first season, the average attendance at The Gnoll had grown to nearly 600, with a total attendance of over 6,500. This culminated in the first ever play-off in the division for a European place – this was after a complete overhaul of the league, with it being split in two halfway through the season. The Eagles won 3-2 against Prestatyn Town in front of a record crowd of 1000 at the Gnoll. Neath had finally implemented themselves as a force in Welsh domestic football.
All of this success on the pitch could not hide the problems off the pitch though. In 2010, Neath’s total assets were just over £8,000. Unfortunately this was nothing compared to the debt that they had racked up by paying out inflated wages to attract only the best players. The company accounts showed that the net worth of the club was -£103,841, including over £95,000 in total debts. This was clearly unsustainable for a football club the size of Neath. The feeling in the boardroom was that a good European run would be the answer to fund The Eagles.
Unfortunately for Neath – and this has been a trend in Welsh excursions in Europe in the past decade or so – they were outclassed by stronger opposition in the first qualifying round of the Europa League. They crashed out with a 6-1 aggregate score to Norwegian side Aalesunds FK.
There was hope going into the 2011/12 domestic season though. They strengthened their squad that summer with over a dozen new players, including Maltese international Udo Nwoko. There was feeling that Neath could really stamp their authority. However the state of their finances took a downward spiral and it was a disastrous year for them.
In October 2011, Chairman Hawkes’ business went into administration. This led to players and staff going unpaid for a month and culminated with goalkeeper Lee Kendall leaving the club. There were then the inevitable rumours that Trundle would follow suit. At the time, the board made clear that the long-term future of the club was secure, however this proved to be a short-lived promise. Not a month later the management duo of Terry Boyle and Peter Nicholas left the club. While Kristian O’Leary was installed as a player-manager, this only fuelled fears that Neath were doomed.
After a second-successive third-place finish in the league in a tumultuous season - helped by 8 goals from star man Trundle – Neath once again thought they had qualified for another stab at European football. It wasn’t to be.
In April 2012 - before the end of the domestic season - they had failed to gain an FAW license to play in the league and also a UEFA license to compete in Europe. This was down to them failing to adhere to FAW regulations on club finances. After an appeal later that month failed, Neath were relegated back into the second tier of Welsh football. This proved to be calamitous for the club’s economic status. In a club statement they said “to not have a team participating in the Welsh Premier and the possibility of European competition is nothing short of disastrous." They were right. Not a month later they were wound up at High Court, a week after their rugby counterparts had escaped the same potential penalty. The club was no more; there was an unavoidable mass exodus of players. Trundle went back into the Football League, signing for Preston North End.
That was it for Neath Football Club. After arriving with a bang into Welsh Football they were leaving with barely a whimper. They left fans with only memories of the successes they had, but by God, it was fun at the time.
Read more from Josh at Midfield Generals.