How Port Talbot Town are on the way back after a four year match fixing investigation ripped the club to pieces

Up until June this year that had been a bit of a cloud over Port Talbot Town Football Club.

The famous old Welsh side had become a staple of the Welsh Premier League in the modern era, but in 2016 it had become embroiled in controversy.

Heading into a game at Rhyl in 2016, Talbot were 12 points ahead of their opponents who had not won in 17 games.

They lost 5-0. Immediately alarm bells were raised.

After an investigation eight men and three women, including players, staff and associates were arrested on suspicion of match fixing.

For four year South Wales Police kept their investigation open, before submitting a file to the Crown Prosecution Service earlier this year.

But in June, the CPS found the legal test for a prosecution was not met, and the sun could shine on the ‘Sand Siro’, and the dark clouds lifted.

But during the investigation the club had slipped into the South Wales League and were no longer the force they once were.

And for fans and officials it was a sad sight. Mark Pitman is one of those former officials at the club who was left saddened by his local side’s plight.

The freelance sports journalist Mark Pitman still regularly watches Port Talbot, admitted it was tough to see the impact of the investigation and the fall from grace.

“Most fans can accept the rough with the smooth when it comes to supporting your team, and most clubs at this level can expect a 10-15 year cycle of relative success,” said Pitman.

“It usually coincides with the patience of the owner and the investment it requires. I became involved at Port Talbot Town when the club was in Tier 3 back in 1994 and enjoyed two promotions, a League Cup final, a Welsh Cup final and a Europa League campaign before two relegations brought the club back to Tier 3 in 2019.

“Both relegations were through failed licensing applications, so that was hard on the management, players and fans, and it’s a situation that more and more clubs are experiencing now.

“But the whole match-fixing episode did make you question a lot of things.

“Regardless of the outcome of the investigation, the allegations brought a lot of distrust about players, and certainly made you think and question previous results, as well as odd comments that may not have made much sense at the time, red cards, anything really that didn’t seem right. “It was almost like a ‘Truman Show’ reality check! So it was a tough time for everyone concerned, and the high-profile media attention it attracted really put the club in a bad light.

“As a fan at this level you take a lot of pride in the public perception of your club, and for the weeks and months after the story broke it was the only thing that people wanted to talk about. “Naturally, so many rumours continued to fuel the story, and there was a real negativity surrounding everything around the club at that time.”

A few years before the investigation Port Talbot had been in Europe, and before the rise of the likes of Bala, Airbus and Connah’s Quay, they had probably been one of the next challengers to TNS.

But as it turned out the club went the other way.

As someone who knew the club inside out, Pitman insists it wasn’t sustainable before hand and the investigation was almost the final straw in what was a sad few years for Port Tlbot.

He added: “To people on the outside I can understand why it would be considered the catalyst for the subsequent downfall, mainly due to the fact that it became such a high-profile story in the national media.

“But really it was the final straw that broke the camel’s back. I think losing the Europa League play-off final to Bala Town in 2013 was a turning point, and the club lost its direction after that.

“It was clear to everyone that the level of investment in the team didn’t match the revenue being generated by the club, and it just became a really false situation that was never likely to be sustainable.

“This is certainly no criticism of the people that invested so much into the club at the time, but it certainly separated the team from the reality of the club.

“The club had lost all of its local identity and had become an investment project to try and achieve European qualification, there was certainly little that the local people involved with it at the time could really relate to, regardless of the quality of players that the club were attracting.

“The club failed to achieve a domestic licence a month after the match-fixing scandal came out, and it was that relegation that forced the reset button to be pressed, as a lot of changes then followed behind the scenes.”

The media headlines were all about Port Talbot in 2016, with many guessing and speculating about what had gone on.

It wasn’t what the league wanted in a time when it was trying to improve on and off the pitch.

The most damage was done to the club, but as Pitman explains, it was unjust because no charges or allegations were ever brought against the football club itself.

He added: “It took four years for the investigation to come to a close, I’m not privy to the reasons why and it wouldn’t be right to comment on it.

“In terms of how the whole thing was handled in the media, that was the most damaging aspect. “The allegations were made against individuals, some of them were playing for the club at the time and others were related to them in some way, and the match in question involved Port Talbot Town.

“However, no charge was ever made against the club, but it was the club’s name that was used in every single media story. ‘Port Talbot Town match-fixing’ was the standard headline and blame was naturally attached to the club.

“The reality was that the club name was just being used as the collective term for the individuals that the allegations had been made against, which was completely unfair and wrong.

“Naturally, everyone assumed from the way the story was portrayed that the club had been involved in match-fixing, and the stigma of that will stick for many more years to come.”

The club now ply their trade in the newly renamed JD Cymru South and are hopeful of getting back up into the Welsh big time.

Pitman, who is still closely linked to the club, insisted the club is now on the up after a dark few years and has ambitions for the future.

He added: “For the first time in a few years there is now a lot for the club to be optimistic about. Manager Mark Pike has done an absolutely incredible and brilliant job to restore the local pride and identity in very difficult circumstances, and he deserves a lot of praise for sticking with it when so much was going against him.

“Achieving promotion this year was more than deserved by a great group of players who have developed a real genuine attachment to the club.

“Financially, the club is spending sensibly, and the legacy of bad debt is becoming part of a previous chapter in the club’s history.

“The glory days of qualifying for Europe in 2010 may never be repeated without significant investment, but what the club has now is something that cannot be bought.

“Success is subjective, and after the struggles of recent years this does appear to be the start of an exciting new era, even if a return to the top-flight remains out of reach for now.”

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