From Guyana to South Wales

This is the story of Cohen Griffith. A player who obtained cult status at Ninian Park with the Cardiff City faithful. Cohen later went on to grace Jenner Park with Barry Town and endeared himself to Merthyr Tydfil supporters when he signed for the Martyrs in 1997. 

But like any good story, where do we start? Well, in this case, it was Georgetown, Guyana and the year was 1962. Growing up in the West Indies the passion of course with the locals was for cricket; however, it was to be the beautiful game that Cohen loved to play. Cohen excelled at football, and his talent was soon spotted by Bath City who signed Cohen and between 1980-1982 Cohen scored 14 goals in 28 appearances. Cohen then moved onto the East Midlands based team Wigston Fields, and also enjoyed a spell at Houghton Rangers. However, in 1985 it would be Cohen’s former manager at Wigston Fields who re-signed Cohen this time at Leicester United.

Cohen continued to impress, and in 1988 Cohen made a move to Rockingham Road the then former home of Kettering Town. Cohen enjoyed one season in the Conference but his exploits were attracting the attention of other teams and it was only a matter of time before a bigger club would move in.  It was the “Bluebirds” of Cardiff City that realised Cohen’s potential and moved in with a bid of £60,000.

With Jimmy Gilligan just sold to Portsmouth Len Ashurst, the Cardiff manager said “Cohen is quick and brave. He has natural ability. It is a gamble, but it could be a masterstroke”.

However, a far cry from the modern footballers in the top flight. Cohen had been playing part-time at Kettering, and this meant that he had to serve his notice in the council wages office where Cohen worked, in conjunction with playing for Kettering Town. However, the move paid off for Cardiff City, and Cohen went onto to make 275 first team appearances for the Bluebirds scoring 48 goals.

Cohen made his debut away at Huddersfield Town on October 7th, 1989. Cardiff City enjoying a 2-3 away win with Cohen on the scoresheet, and Cohen also set up Chris Pike for another goal. The City was relegated that season, but Cohen had become a fans favourite and was even was made a Welshman.

Only three ‘foreigners’ were allowed to play in European competition, and as Cohen was a British passport holder born in Guyana, he was thus able to choose which country he was eligible for.

“I was 29 at the time and had thought about the possibility of representing Guyana. But they hadn’t shown interest, and I felt that at my age the chances of winning a cap were not that great. Becoming ‘Welsh’ helped Cardiff City because they could have three other non-Welsh players in their side, so I was happy to give it a go.”

Cohen’s end at Cardiff City came in 1995. But during several years at Cardiff City with Eddie May at the helm, he endeared himself to Bluebird supporters time and time again. It was during the 1992/93 season that Cohen helped lead the Bluebirds to promotion. Terrorising defenders along the Bob Bank side, the city fans came to love Cohen’s unusual stance and drop of the shoulders as he beat defenders before sending in a superb cross to the frontmen.  Notable players at the time in the City line up were Kevin Ratcliffe, Nathan Blake, and Carl Dale to name a few.

Cardiff City finished their campaign with a crushing 3-0 win at Scunthorpe United. And yes you guessed it, Griffith was on hand with two of the goals and with Cardiff City fans in fancy dress and taking over several sides of Glanford Park there were jubilant scenes at the final whistle. Cohen also scored in the 1993 Welsh Cup final win over Rhyl and played in Europe featuring for Cardiff City against Admira Wacker of Austria and Standard Liege of Belgium.  One of the low points for Cohen during his spell at Cardiff was a 1-4 rout in the Welsh Cup by Merthyr Tydfil FC at Ninian Park in 1990.

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Cohen lining up with his Cardiff City team mates

“Dai Webley scored a hat trick that night. He always seemed to be able to run rings around Jason Perry. I spoke to him afterwards in the bar, and he wasn’t crowing about it. He went out and did his best. The problem is whenever a Football League club plays a Non-League team, everyone expects them to win. Confidence is another factor. Their confidence was high; we were struggling at the time, and ours was low. You are not playing against a ‘parks team’ you are playing against a good side with good players. If things go your way, and you get the luck at the right time, upsets will happen.”

After leaving Cardiff City in 1995, Cohen made the short journey to Welsh Premier League team Barry Town and was once again initially under the managership of Eddie May, the former Cardiff City manager. Cohen once again impressed at his new club and during the 1996/1997 season helped Barry Town to complete the treble which saw the Dragons win the WPL, the Welsh Cup and the Welsh League Cup. Cohen illuminated the Welsh Cup final that season and scored two goals in the final against Cwmbran Town which was held at Ninian Park the then home of Cardiff City.

It was, however, nearly another story that was played out. Various clubs were scouting cohen at the time including Wrexham, and indeed two other football league clubs. The then Wrexham manager Brian Flynn was prepared to take a chance on Cohen but Cohen decided to opt for the then fully professional team Barry Town. The Dragons at the time were a real force in Welsh football, and the opportunity was too good to turn down. However, during Cohen’s first season at the Dragons, the club suffered tragedy with the death of chairman Neil O’ Halloran and young midfielder Matthew Holtham.

Cohen then left the Dragons after scoring 16 goals in 59 appearances, and after a brief spell at Weston Super Mare, was once again back at a Welsh club signing for Merthyr Tydfil FC for the 1997 season now aged 35.

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Barry Town squad lineup including Cohen Griffith

For Cohen, however, while now proudly pulling on the Martyrs jersey, it was not the first time he had encountered the Martyrs. There was, of course, the Welsh Cup defeat at Ninian Park as formerly mentioned, and back in his early playing career had faced the Martyrs while playing for Leicester United.

“I can recall a period when we were struggling at Leicester United and Merthyr were going for the league title. We made sure that we weren’t going to lose, wasted time and kicked the ball out of the ground several times. Merthyr then missed a penalty, and we got the 0-0 draw. Then there was the ‘tunnel of hate’ as we ran the gauntlet of the Merthyr supporters and I thought “Right, I’m never going to come to this place again.”

The Martyrs when Cohen signed, were under the managership of Colin Addison who had galvanised them into a good team, and Cohen formed a lethal partnership up-front with prolific striker Ian Mitchell during his first season at Merthyr.

“He would play me, Mitch, or Paul Evans up front and we knew that we would nick a goal and when we did that teams would panic against us, and we would end up getting two or three. The mark of any successful side is that they make themselves hard to beat first of all and then when they get a chance or two, you manage to score one. We knew that if we scored one when Addo was there, we weren’t going to lose”.

Cohen ended the season scoring ten goals in 51 appearances and impressed the Merthyr Tydfil supporters. Cohen was also then employed by the club as Commercial Manager. Unfortunately, the Martyrs despite finishing on 84 points just missed out on promotion to the Conference finishing up runners up to Forest Green Rovers who had amassed 89 points and went up automatically as champions. Unfortunately, things were to unravel at Merthyr with takeovers. The following season the Martyrs were involved in a relegation battle eventually finishing 15th and 9 points clear of the relegation zone.

During the 1998/99 season, Cohen scored 17 goals in 48 appearances for the Martyrs. Sadly the following season saw appearances limited due to injuries, but Cohen still hit the net and scored a superb hat-trick against Gloucester City. Cohen finished the season on 7 points, and the league campaign saw the Martyrs finish just one place above the relegation zone. During his time in South Wales Cohen was also proudly a member of the Valleys Race Equality Council.

The Martyrs

“As a full-time professional, I did experience a few racist comments. The worse place was probably Burnley, which was ironic because they had so many black players themselves. It’s important that we educate the football community as far as racism is a concern and also to be able to respect other people, not just in football but throughout life. If we can teach the youngsters to respect the differences in culture as well as a race, this can only lead to a better society.”

Cohens time at Merthyr was effectively ended due to a knee injury, and Cohen ended up finishing his playing career at Rhayader Town after joining them in 2001. Cohen linked up with former Bluebird and Martyr Gareth Abraham at the Red Kites before they both left in 2002. There can be no doubt that for many of us of a certain age who witnessed Cohen playing for the Welsh clubs there are only positive memories of a player who gave 100 per cent for the cause and, at the drop of a shoulder, would ghost past defenders. And for that, we thank you for the memories and salute you. Always remembered never forgotten.

Footnote: Cohen has remained in South Wales since retiring from football, and has been involved in several Welsh clubs in a coaching capacity. We understand Cohen is currently working with a fitness and wellbeing centre in Ystrad Mynach or Nantgarw in Caerphilly.

Article: Written by Andrew Evans<@therovingsheep> NB: Images used in this article from WalesOnline, ForzaBarry and the Merthyr Town forum.