He may only be 5foot 5inches tall, but last night a The Gnoll, in the Vale of Neath, Jonathan Pereira Rodríguez was walking as tall as one of the legendary giants that roamed these parts. Few strikers can boast a 4 goal haul in a competitive match, let alone a 5 goal salvo. A double hatrick is as rare as Stan Collymore letting a caller on his show actually get a word in. But to score seven is almost unheard of in modern football. At 9pm when he left the pitch to a standing ovation, Jonathan Pereira joined an elite club. For not only was his seven goals the sole difference between the teams on the pitch, but he became the only player currently playing in Europe to score seven goals in a game twice.
But let’s rewind to Monday 1st August first. That magical day happened to be CMF and my 13th Wedding Anniversary. A blissfully happy day, spent with the little Fullers on the beach of the Gower Peninsula. At 2pm I received an email from our good friend Mark Pitman.
“You won’t believe this but Real Betis are playing at Neath on Wednesday…sort of a warm up act before the Swansea City game”
You are right. I didn’t believe it, until I saw the advert with my own eyes on Neath’s website. Apparently, after coming down to Wales on Tuesday and discovering it wasn’t the “Costa del Sol of the north”, they had headed to a wet and windy Barry Island to stay at Pontins. Boredom soon set in so they needed a few games. First up was Newport County on Wednesday (3-0 to the Spanish), now it was Neath. Rumour had it that they had agreed to play a Sunday League team on Friday night in preparation, but that was unsubstantiated (in newspaper speak that simply mean “we made it up”).
So after a day walking around waterfalls, I dropped the female Fullers back at TBIR Towers (Swansea branch) and made the short trip down the M4 and up the A483. I was worried that parking may be a problem with such a high profile game. On arrival it appeared otherwise. In fact it appeared I was the only one here. Perhaps it had been a cruel wind up by Mr Pitman, taking revenge for me editing one of his articles and somehow getting Neath in on the gag. But then I saw it. In all its majesty. Real Betis had brought a coach. Not just a coach borrowed from “Dave’s Coaches, Briton Ferry”. Oh no. They had their own, big green travelling machine, complete with logos, pictures and a Spanish number plate. Some poor sod had driven that 1,632 miles from hot and sunny Andalusia to wet Wales. That in itself is worth a round of applause.
They love their sport in these parts. Not only is the Gnoll home to Neath Rugby Union team, one of the noblest and proudest club sides in Wales, producing such players as Scott Gibbs, Shane Williams and Allan Bateman but it also plays host to the South Wales Scorpions, who play in the second level of Rugby League’s National Division. But football they haven’t ever really taken to. With Swansea City almost on the doorstep, and up until this season tickets easy to come by, people get their fix of the beautiful game down the River Tawe.
But all of that could be about to change. Swansea’s rise to the Premier League will see them play in front of £35 a seat sell out crowds most weeks this season, whilst at Neath their revolution continues. The club have spent big bringing in such players as Lee Trundle and Chris Jones, both ex-Swansea players who could arguably still be playing at a higher level. Last season they finished 3rd, qualifying for the Europa League for the first time after a play off with Prestatyn Town. Alas their European adventure ended a few weeks ago with defeat to the Norwegians, Ålesunds.
The crowd certainly hadn’t come out for this one, despite Betis promising to put out a full strength team. Mr Pitman was in attendance, as too was our favourite Swansea lass, Abi Davies, who told me that in the past week she had started to drink coffee for the first time. She found the drink unbearable before, but with a shot of Baileys in, it was more palatable. She just couldn’t understand why Starbucks wouldn’t sell it.
Neath 0 Real Betis 8 – The Gnoll – Thursday 4th August 2011
Betis were as good as their word, starting with a very strong XI including Cañas, Matilla and of course up front Pereira. Thirty seconds in and they had their first chance, scuffed wide by the small striker. Neath though had Lee Trundle. Slimmer than the Bristol City version from a few years ago, and now playing deeper to try and pull the strings. In truth he got nowhere near the Spaniards and was lucky not to be red carded for a cynical knee in the throat of a Betis player as they both fell to the floor midway through the first half.
After fifteen minutes of toying with the Welsh, the Spaniards hit first gear. Neat ball played through to Pereira and his miss hit shot dribbles over the line. “GOOOAAAAAAAAAL” comes the loud cry from the commentator behind us, relaying all the action back to the massed throngs in Sevilla who couldn’t get a ticket for the game.
One became four within thirty minutes, and Pereira was having a field day. He could have put a blindfold on and arse-kicked the ball and it would have somehow gone in. He was in that sort of lucky form. The crowd by this stage had warmed to him and every time he got the ball they willed him to try and score.
Neath’s best chance came in injury time at the end of the first half when a Trundle free kick was charged down, by, you’ve guessed it, Pereira. He proceeded to run the full length of the pitch to get on the end of a cross and make it five. Half time and time for some changes surely?
After some much needed refreshment (Brains Dark Ale – possible the third best beer ever created behind JW Lees Chocoholic and Harveys Blue Label) it was time for the second half. Neath took off Trundle (apparently he had to go home and put his daughter to bed – honest!), whilst Betis were enjoying themselves too much and kept the same starting XI. Which meant more chances for Pereira, and he didn’t disappoint, adding a sixth then a seventh in the first fifteen minutes of the half.
He looked genuinely embarrassed by the reaction from the crowd, and when he eventually left the pitch five minutes later as Betis made 10(Ten!) substitutions at the same time, much to the dismay of the fourth official and the announcer, he got a standing ovation from the crowd.
After that it had the feel of a pre-season friendly (no shit Sherlock!) with both teams happy to play the ball around without much energy. Betis scored an eighth when aptly named Salva Sevilla scored a beauty from distance. The rest of the Betis squad by this stage had discovered chips with curry sauce, a change from Gazpacho soup I would image, to really pay much attention to what was going on on the pitch.
So a useful run out for them prior to the game versus Swansea. It still had a surreal feel to it, a Welsh Premier League side (probably the equivalent of a step 2 or 3 Non League Club) playing a side from La Liga. When would that happen normally – well apart from the previous week when they had started their tour against Havant & Waterlooville you mean? I tried to catch a word with 7-goal hero Pereira but with his lack of English and my Spanish limited to just “Cuál es su nombre de hermanos?” it was hardly an in-depth interview – where is Mr Last when I need him.
Still, it was a bonus game on the agenda and one I can tell my grand children about one day because I am sure they will want to know about the night a little Spanish man made history, sort of.
More pictures from the fiesta of football can be found here.