Football: One man and his club; Cwmbran

For Cwmbran to survive, their benefactor must dip into his piggy bank. As he tells Andrew Longmore, the rich are getting richer and the game poorer
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The Independent Online
HALFWAY THROUGH Celtic's televised demolition of Aberdeen last weekend, the phone rang in the home of John Colley, the chairman of Cwmbran Town. "Are you watching this?" the caller asked. Colley admitted that he was. "Frightening, isn't it?" came the voice. For a moment, the thought of his little band of firemen, printers and part-time pros taking on the multi-million-pound swaggerers of Celtic seemed less a dream to Colley than an elaborate practical joke, a fiendish plan designed specifically by football's powerbrokers to humiliate the club he has financed, loved and nurtured for the past 27 years. Frightening didn't begin to describe it. "Petrifying," he said. "They're making Aberdeen look like Cwmbran seconds." And both chairman and his manager returned for a second-half dose of horror.

Kenny Dalglish and John Barnes, Celtic's new Batman and Boy Wonder, will be cushioned from the full extent of the gulf separating one of the biggest sides in Europe from one of the upper medium-sized clubs in the League of Wales on the inaugural night of the newly expanded Uefa Cup. The whole population of Cwmbran (50,000) would fit comfortably, literally and metaphorically, into Celtic Park. But Celtic will not see the real Cwmbran Town FC on Thursday; they will meet a customised version, decked out in its livery, transferred from the soulless surrounds of their home at the Cwmbran athletics stadium to the throbbing metropolis of Cardiff and Ninian Park where Cwmbran's home gate, which sometimes spills into three figures, will be topped up for the first leg of the preliminary round of the Uefa Cup by a few thousand Celtic ultras, the great and the good of Cwmbran and, with luck, a handful who just enjoy watching cars crash. Colley will not mind who comes. Each pounds 17 ticket sold means one less journey into his back pocket this coming season.

In fact, he's had a few complaints about the steep price of seats. "I've told them: `I tell you what, I'll buy your ticket for you if you guarantee me you'll come to all the rest of our home games this season.' They usually get the point," he says. But it would be instructive for the big bosses in the headquarters of Uefa, the governing body of European football, to monitor the effects of its Goliath of a competition on football's true Davids. The decision to shift the home leg of the tie from Cwmbran to Ninian Park was a foregone conclusion the moment the former European Cup holders emerged from the same bag as the twice-winners of the Gwent Senior Cup.

But that was only the beginning of the problems. "Try," as Colley says, "shifting your whole business 50 miles down the road and see how easy it is." Cwmbran have sold home television rights to BBC Wales, but then there was the matter of the television gantry. Ninian Park did not have one and neither they nor the BBC were prepared to pay for one to be built, just for a night. So, little Cwmbran Town had to stump up the pounds 3,500 capital cost, which in effect meant, because income and expenditure do not often meet in the middle of Cwmbran's bank statement, another dip into the chairman's personal piggy bank.

Because he is a bit deaf, John Colley misheard the draw. When the announcer said, "Celtic, Scotland", he thought it was some long-winded club from Moldova or Georgia, somewhere that sounded expensive at least. Then the phone began to ring, two Celtic directors came over to shake hands and Colley disappeared into a football-induced coma from which he emerges briefly to sell a few Hyundai cars to the people of the valleys and to eat.

In his office last Wednesday, two phone calls epitomised the past few weeks. The first came from someone in west Wales, enquiring gently if John Colley was a member of the Colley family, once of Ammanford. He is. "But, blimey, I've never been to the place in my life." The next came from an agent in Bristol. The former Cameroon Under-21 international he was shepherding from Dublin to Cwmbran for a trial was stuck at Bristol Airport. It was 5pm and kick-off for that evening's friendly against Swansea City was 6.30pm. Colley had a feeling he might be paying for the taxi too.

Colley's lovely wife Diane is genuinely worried about the increased pressure this tie is starting to put on the one-man infrastructure that is Cwmbran FC, the man who also happens to be her husband. It is one thing climbing on board the coach every other Saturday for a day trip to Connah's Quay, quite another to be hosting a full blown wedding with Celtic, complete with a shaft of regulatory requirements from Uefa, the police force and television companies. Colley is still trying to do a deal with the local Italian restaurant to fulfil the Uefa-compulsory dinner the club has to fund on the eve of the match; 20 people at pounds 20 a head. A petty expense for a club the size of Celtic, the cost of a couple of precious coach trips for Cwmbran FC.

Last week, Arsenal's auctioneering - Anelka for Suker and Henry - netted a trading profit of roughly pounds 10m, money enough to keep Cwmbran in business until the second half of the next millennium. Pride at his club's achievement and the genuine fulfilment of a footballing passion has been tinged with a sense of disillusion, not just at what he terms the "immoral" economics of big-time football of which this tie has allowed him a brief glimpse but of the apathy of his own community. It was not until he persuaded his own motor dealers, Hyundai, to come on board that Cwmbran had a sponsor for the team's shirts.

"I suppose what it has brought home to me is the enormous gulf there is in football now," he says. "At the moment, it seems the rich are getting richer and the sport is getting poorer. This tie is great for the club, but it's not paying for this season, it's paying us back for the last six or seven. We run at a deficit, so we have to be funded by someone. You'll have to work out for yourself who that someone is."

By the standards of Cwmbran, Colley is a wealthy man, but the fact that he bankrolls his club is the sum of his similarity to Jack Walker. Lady Walker has never been required to sell programmes or run the lottery, Diane Colley's standard Saturday afternoon tasks. The lack of business support for the tie has exposed the flimsy allegiance of multi-national companies to a town funded by government to soften the blow of the pit closures further up the valley. In that sense, for all Cwmbran's arrival on the map, the Celtic venture has revealed deep tensions within the community. Cwmbran might be kings of Welsh football for a day, but putting his club on an independent financial footing for the other 364 is an uphill struggle.

Yet, for a night, the sums will add up, not least in the memory bank. Colley was in the tunnel at Ninian Park on the night Jock Stein died. For the first 20 years of his footballing life, he supported Cardiff City, never missed a game. But Cwmbran, his home town, usurped his allegiance because he has this old-fashioned belief that you should support your own. He has been president for 27 years, chairman for the past four, unofficial treasurer and general all-purpose fixer for all time. Cwmbran decamping to Cardiff and honouring the visit of mighty Celtic with a minute's silence in memory of Stein.

"It's as if my whole footballing life has been channelled into one night," Colley says. He might even sneak out at the head of his team - a few paces behind the manager, of course - just to savour the full atmosphere. Over the years, he reckons, he has earned the right.