Rhyl FC: heartbreak and hope amidst Covid-19

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It is known among archaeologists that Rhyl was once visited by prehistoric survivalists. Flint tools dating back to the Middle Stone Age, axe heads, and even ancient tree stumps rising out of the beach – just enough to get Indiana Jones salivating over an adventure! And in September 1878, a new generation of survivalists got fed up of whatever they were doing, gathered in the town hall, and founded Rhyl Football Club. 

Covid-19’s human cost has been ghastly, but on 21 April, it contributed to a single casualty that affected thousands of people: Rhyl FC entered administration. Since then, the club’s board and fans have sprung into action to raise money in the aim of establishing a phoenix club. Part of Britain’s footballing heritage is on the line. 

“We’ve got a fantastic tradition in the FA Cup,” Graham Cartlidge, a fan of over fifty years and former kitman, tells Palatinate. “We had to go through the qualifying rounds and we got to the first round proper on thirteen consecutive occasions, which I think was, at the time, a record for a non-league club. 

“One of the memories is when we played Barnsley. We drew home and away and, as there were no penalty shootouts, we played the third tie at Old Trafford. We won 2-0, which was amazing.”

When we played Barnsley, we won 2-0

That was just before Christmas in 1970. The next game would see them defeated 6-1 by eventual finalists Swansea, but there is no taking away from Rhyl’s general success in the competition. The side won 113 of 217 FA Cup games and went as far as the 4th round until they had to stop competing in English competitions in 1992.

Though they competed in the Northern Premier League, in 1992 the club was forced to join the Welsh league system by the Welsh FA, alongside other irate clubs who wished to retain their non-league status in England. 

However, thanks to their placement in the Welsh football pyramid, Rhyl are able to occupy quite a rare place in the footballing pantheon. While their budget and usual attendance of around 300 equal them in size with a non-league club, their fans have enjoyed seeing two Welsh Premier League titles, two Welsh Cups, and six European campaigns. And don’t forget a prolific Lee Trundle (the guy who scored that trick-shot penalty in 2016). 

“We’ve been to Latvia, Lithuania, Serbia, things you’d never think you’d do,” says Cartlidge, who curated the club’s museum.

Their second trip into Europe, in 2005, saw Rhyl claim a historic away-goals victory over FK Atlantas of Lithuania in the UEFA Cup’s first qualifying round. After the match, FK Atlantas manager Vacys Lekevicius ran onto the pitch and started throwing punches at defender Alan Morgan. Goalkeeper Ged McGuigan ended up with a bloody nose. 

“We needed a police escort back to the hotel and we were told not to go out,” Cartlidge recounts. The travelling contingent did the only thing they could to put a positive spin on a distressing experience. “We drank the place dry.”

The reward for their bruises and hangovers? A clash against Roy Hodgson’s Viking Stavanger, which sadly saw the Lilywhites crash out 3-1 on aggregate, but nevertheless marked a success for the Welsh Premier League which had only seen Barry Town go so far in the competition before. 

Yet despite the glories, financial issues have beset the club for a long time. One of the reasons for this is that the club struggles to afford the rent charge for the ground. This expenditure, alongside the absence of gate receipts in recent times, is part of the reason why the club could no longer survive.  

Managing Director Adam Roche tells Palatinate: “The club has always struggled, just about breaking even each season. The Coronavirus has really highlighted that because with no income you can’t pay the bills.

“Unfortunately, I had to lock the gates at Belle Vue for the final time a few days ago.”

What, then, are the hopes for the future? Can a phoenix rise from the ashes?

There will be challenges, but based on recent weeks, the people of Rhyl can have confidence.

In February, six fans founded the Rhyl Fans’ Association (RFA). So far, the group have organised two streams of activity. One of these is a GoFundMe page called Save Rhyl Football Club, which has raised over £3,900 to date and has seen contributions from across the world.

There is also a seat sponsorship initiative which has raised in excess of £1,500, which brings the total contributions to more than £5,400, though the RFA have set an initial target of £20,000 to get the club in a more stable position again. 

Ashley Higham, one of the RFA’s founders, says: “The fundraising has been a massive success. We could never have imagined it. We’ve had people from all over Wales and Europe, and even Adrian Durham from TalkSport donated £20. It’s still ongoing.”

Mr Higham also chuckled and expressed his thanks for how fans of local rivals Bangor City have set aside any difference in football allegiance and contributed to the cause. 

Ensuring the club’s survival means more than entertaining football fans in this coastal town.

The club has an academy system coaching dozens of players from U8s to U19s, as well as a women’s side established in 2009 which has provided local women the opportunity to play at a competitive level. Between 2015 and 2019, Rhyl were the only women’s team in north-east Wales to offer top-level football. 

The club also boosts the economy of the town and their ground acts as a platform for other clubs in Wales to access European competition, explains Managing Director Adam Roche.

“Our ground is pivotal because it hosts European games for other clubs when they qualify for Europe and U19s national games for Wales as well.”

“Last year we hosted Connah’s Quay Nomads for two ties. They famously beat Kilmarnock, who brought about 4000 fans down, albeit only about 1000 got in. They brought much-needed money to the town. Then they drew FK Partizan. That’s the type of status that the club has. For friendlies with free standing against big clubs, we can get 2500-3000 fans.”

In what division the phoenix club might restart is unknown. At best, the new club would start in the 4th tier of Welsh football, a two-tier drop from the Cymru Alliance that Rhyl played in this season. Even starting at that level is contingent on finding a suitable ground. Wherever it is, Roche and the club’s key figures want to do it the Rhyl way. 

“If we can’t find a place locally, we might have to drop down to tier five. I would want to make sure that we can maintain our great support wherever we are. Moving out of Rhyl would be a last resort.

“Once we’ve found a place to play, we can get started recruiting management and staff. We have had a really promising U19s team recently so it would be good to see local lads playing- we want to make sure that the club is based on a core backbone of local lads. We want that from the offset.”

Rhyl have not been the only club facing problems during these unfamiliar times. At the end of April, Richard Holden, MP for North West Durham, wrote to the government about sporting issues affecting small clubs like Consett, Crook Town and Tow Law Townin County Durham. As bastions of community spirit, offering a more personal and social fan experience, such clubs are as vital as any other. 

To end: when asked if Rhyl had a motto, Mr Cartlidge, who seems to have done just about everything for the club, answered: “When I used to put labels on the seats, I’d put: ‘More than the club, a way of life’.” If there’s anything that would make Rhyl’s prehistoric occupants proud, it would be community heroes like him. 

Image: Rhysllwyd via Flickr and Creative Commons

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