Swansea Town v Mardy, 18 January 1913, Southern League Division II
By Peter Dawson
By January 1913 Swansea Town were establishing themselves as a force in Division 2 of the Southern League, a competition which at that time was dominated by South Wales clubs. Ten of the thirteen clubs in the division were from South Wales, and the travelling expenses of Southend United must have been a drain on club funds – not that this held them back as the Essex club would eventually pip the Swans for the second promotion spot. Swansea were a respectable 6th in the table despite having played fewer games than any other team, with a record of won 4, drawn 3 and lost none. Cardiff City were at the top but had played a remarkable six games more.
The weather had been very bad during December and January, perhaps accounting for the fixture backlog. In the week leading up to the Mardy game the South Wales Daily Post reported the cancellation of the All Whites’ game against Llanelly due to heavy rain, which as St Helen’s has a reputation as a fast draining ground gives an indication of the conditions.
Swansea Docks was enjoying a near monopoly of tinplate exports from Britain, and The Post also reported that Miss Nellie Le Breton was appearing as Jill in “Mother Goose” at the Grand Theatre; the readers of those days would hardly have imagined that in future days Kevin Johns would provide a link between the Football Club and the panto with appearances as match day announcer and pantomime dame! “Typical scenes of religious fervour” were reported at a gospel meeting in Cwmtwrch showing that the Welsh religious revival was still in full swing, but football supporters would have been more interested in a series of articles by Billy Meredith, famous winger for Wales, Manchester United, and Manchester City and founder of the Players’ Union which showed that sporting celebrity was already well established.
Most excitingly though that week the Daily Post reported the appearance of the world famous escapologist Houdini at the Swansea Empire music hall in Oxford Street. Houdini had accepted a challenge to escape after being “trussed” to a plank and broomstick by three local men, a captain and two seamen – this apparently being the way mutinous sailors were secured at sea. A huge crowd assembled to see this feat, as many being locked out as got into the theatre, with traffic nearly being brought to a standstill. Houdini escaped in seventeen minutes – claiming (as he presumably did in every town) that this had been his hardest challenge.
Many of those who had queued to see Houdini must have been in the crowd at the Vetch – its shale surface possibly better able to withstand the rain than turf – to see the Swans take on Mardy the following Saturday. They were able to boast a perfect home record up to that point and would have been favourites against the team from the Rhondda (Maerdy as it is now known) who would eventually finish eleventh. However the Swans found their defence even harder to escape from than Houdini had found the sailors’ ropes at the Empire and they scraped a 1-0 win. “Ajax” in the Daily Post felt that weakness in front of goal was the only thing holding back Swansea’s promotion challenge. Wales were also reported to have been rather lucky to escape with a 1-0 win against Ireland in Belfast, Billy Meredith impressing the crowd with “some splendid dribbles”. The Welsh soccer side was weakened by withdrawals, as it often seems to be a hundred years later.
The Western Mail that week seemed more interested in Wales’s 12-0 home defeat by England in the rugby international. This was England’s first ever win at Cardiff Arms Park but the Swansea papers had shown less interest than usual; the selectors had chosen only one West Walian player despite the All Whites’ unbeaten record and the Post and Herald of Wales both felt this had contributed to the poor showing and, despite the ground improvements, disappointing crowd. It would be many years before the West Wales public conceded that Cardiff was the home of Welsh international rugby! The Western Mail report of the Mardy game is briefer and emphasises Swansea’s poor finishing rather than the Mardy defence or bad luck.
“Cynicus” in the Herald of Wales also felt the Swans should have won by more but was more inclined to praise the visitors’ defence. Another curiosity is that Mardy featured John Goodall, a veteran former England international and their player-manager, at centre forward. The Western Mail thought he showed “great cleverness”, but the Daily Post claimed he was “undoubtedly too slow.” As Goodall was nearly 50 years old at the time this was hardly surprising! Goodall’s story in itself is a remarkable one. He was born in England of Scottish parents, his brother played for Ireland (the first example of two brothers representing different countries), and his professional career spanned nearly 30 years with appearances for Preston North End, Derby County and Watford. He won 14 England caps and kept pet foxes! His views on the Vetch shale pitch are sadly not recorded, but it must have been hard on aging knees even with the knee pads apparently worn.
So by January 1913 the Swans – as they were now known – were established in their league and successful. The following week they faced a much greater challenge – a trip to Penydarren Park to play Merthyr Town in the quarter finals of the Welsh Cup. Merthyr were the acknowledged top side in South Wales and had beaten West Ham United 6-2 on the previous Saturday. It is a matter of record that the Swans won 3-0, and it was the Welsh Cup which would bring the new club its first taste of real glory.