2013/14: Skrill Conference North – Harrogate Town v Stockport County

Sometimes it’s just not your day. Last Saturday the intention was to go and make a first visit to the CNG Stadium to see Harrogate Town take on North Ferriby United. However, the ‘train gods’ intervened meaning that the necessary connection couldn’t be made to make kick-off and so a detour to Throstle Nest ensued for the Farsley AFC v Darlington 1883 fixture.

CNG Stadium – Harrogate Town AFC

This Saturday the plan was to get to one of the numerous FA Cup Preliminary ties in the Yorkshire region, but at the last minute, on impulse the decision was to make another attempt to visit Harrogate Town for their fixture against Stockport County. All was going well as having made the appropriate connection, arrival into Harrogate was achieved eighty minutes before kick-off. Momentarily the thought of getting a taxi to the stadium was considered, but given that the walk was only about a mile and it was a warm day, then it was a journey by foot that was undertaken. Last week a study of Google Maps had been undertaken to see what the route was, however, having made a snap decision today to make the trip to Harrogate, no further look over the directions to the ground was made. The recollection from the scouting mission of the previous week was that the journey involved walking from Harrogate Station across The Stray to Wetherby Road culminating in total a mile and a quarter trek to the home of Town.

The finery that is grassed areas of Harrogate were soon reached and on stepping foot on the verdant expanses another companion was gained when an innocent looking Stockport fan decided that this errant scribe was a likely looking Saint Christopher. With a confident stride the predicted fifteen minute journey began. However the assured measure began to wane when some twenty minutes later the ground had not been reached and advice was sought from a local shop. The good news was that the owner had a local street map; the bad news was that he pointed out that the stadium was now two miles away. With directions now memorised it was going to be a mad dash to make it for kick-off as it was now ten past two. To his credit, the County fan just shrugged, smiled and put his best foot forward. What had been planned as a pleasant sunny stroll was now a heads-down sweaty route-march.

At five to three the teams emerged onto the pitch with loud applause from the crowd as the ground was finally reached. Given how close to kick-off it was and what looked to be a large crowd with a significant travelling support in the ground, it was no surprise that the programmes had sold out. The food kiosk was doing a roaring trade as supporters spilled out of the bar and the referee blew his whistle to start the game.

First-half: Harrogate on the attack.

The home team were quickly on the offensive and created the first chance of the game with their first attack, when Ashley Worsfold fired over from twelve yards out after Stockport failed to clear. However, County responded and dominated the game over the next thirty minutes, winning a number of corners and creating some excellent chances. One such opportunity fell to Adriano Moke, but the Stockport number seven screwed his shot horribly wide. Another chance fell to County striker Phil Jeavons whose curling free-kick was well saved by Craig MacGillivray. However that was as good as it got for the visitors, as a three goal blitz in four minutes blew away Stockport. First on thirty seven minutes from a move started from the back, Adam Bolder had time and space to fire home past Ian Ormson. Two minutes later from a long ball out of defence, Chris Hall battled with two Stockport markers and the ball broke to Michael Woods who clipped it forward before expertly firing home a half-volley. Woods was again involved on forty one minutes when after a surging run into the box, his pass found Chris Hall who cleanly finished to put Town 3-0 up. This sparked fury amongst a number of County fans who made their feeling known to the Stockport manager Ian Bogie from behind his dugout.

At the half-time whistle many of the disgruntled visiting fans headed to the bar and it was noticeable that a number did not emerge when the second-half kicked off. The second period did not contain any of the drama of the first-half, with Harrogate best chances being a Chris Hall header and a Michael Woods effort that was cleared off the line. As the home team eased up, the final quarter belonged to Stockport and good chances were created for Howard and Verma. With four minutes remaining, the visitors got reward for their efforts when fullback Kyle Jacobs was twice involved, finally delivering a cross which Iain Howard collected and then swivelled on to fire home. It was just a mere consolation for the vast number of travelling fans who at the whistle once again vented their anger towards the County management team. For the Harrogate fans it was positive start to the season as they had just witnessed a third win from their opening five games.

Second-half: Stockport defend.

Just as the second-half had been pretty quiet so was the journey back into Harrogate without incident. Sadly for Stockport the day did not get any better when Ian Bogie resigned a few hours after the final whistle. It must be a difficult time to be a Hatters fan, who will know that as recently as 2001/02 their club was playing just one league below the Premier League. On 27 August 2001, County travelled to Birmingham City and lost 2-1 in front of a crowd of 18,478. Just twelve years later 918 witnessed their latest defeat which leaves them second bottom of the Skrill Conference North. You think you’ve had a bad day? Try being a County fan right now.

Evo-Stik First Division North – Harrogate Railway v Trafford

Geographically Harrogate is a town in North Yorkshire situated 12 miles from Leeds. It is best known for its Spa facilities and Betty’s Tea Rooms – a town also immortalised by Alan Bennett in the television programme, Dinner at Noon (BBC, 1988) which portrayed the staff and guests at the Crown Hotel in Harrogate.

Given this, Harrogate is not a town people associate with football, yet it is in fact home to two clubs, Harrogate Town and Harrogate Railway Athletic. Harrogate Town is the elder statesman having been founded in 1914, whilst Railway came along in 1935. Town also have the edge in terms of League status over their rivals in that they play in the Blue Square Conference North, whilst Railway ply their trade in the Evo-Stik First Division North.

I’ve never been to either of the grounds, but had the choice this weekend to visit one of them, as both Harrogate clubs were at home. Town hosted AFC Telford United in the FA Trophy whilst Railway had a League fixture against Trafford. In the end I opted for a visit to Station View to watch Harrogate Railway v Trafford.

In terms of history the club was formed by workers at the Starbeck LNER depot, initially joining the local Harrogate League. The 1950’s saw the club progress through the West Yorkshire League to the Yorkshire League winning the West Yorkshire Football League Division Two Championship in 1950–51. In 1953 they made the Second Round proper of the FA Amateur Cup going out 3-2 at Harwich & Parkstone. Further success was achieved in 1957-58 when Railway were promoted from Yorkshire League Division Two.

However, in 1959 the locomotive sheds closed which affected finances as many of the workers and players, had to leave the area. Nevertheless, the club battled on through the sixties and they almost repeated their FA Amateur Cup exploits of the fifties when they made the First Round proper in 1961 only to lose 4-2 at Whitley Bay. The 1963-64 season Railway won promotion to the First Division of the Yorkshire League, which back then was just three steps from the Football League and got through to the Yorkshire League Cup Final, only to lose to Farsley Celtic after a replay.

The late sixties and the seventies became a real struggle and Railway had to pull out of the Yorkshire League and return to the Harrogate League in 1973. This gave the club time to re-group and they were back in the Yorkshire League in 1980 becoming founder-members of the newly created Northern Counties East League (NCEL) in 1982. In 1983-84 Railway won the NCEL Division Two North title and the League Cup with a 5-0 victory over Woolley Miners Welfare.

In the 1990-91 season Railway made their first major impression in the FA Cup when they reached the Fourth Qualifying Round, going out 3-1 at Chorley. As with many clubs at this level the nineties proved to be difficult times financially. However, in 1998-99 Railway won the NCEL First Division under David Fell, however he departed at the end of the same season, taking most of the side with him. New Manager Paul Marshall kept Railway in the Premier Division and was to mastermind two amazing back-to-back FA Cup adventures.

 In 2001 Railway reached the Fourth Qualifying Round before a 3-2 defeat at home to Morecambe. Just a year later and Railway went even further. The Harrogate club gained a 2-1 win at Slough Town in the First Round proper and history beckoned. The draw for the Second Round produced a fairy-tale tie. Railway as the lowest-ranking club ever to reach this stage were drawn at home to Bristol City, then top of the Second Division and the highest-ranking club in the Second Round. Railway chose to host the game and with temporary stands erected at Station View, Sky TV broadcast the game around the world and the club was the focus of the football universe in December 2002. However, the dream ended there and Bristol City ran out winners 3-1. The season did bring silverware however; as the NCEL Presidents Cup was won as Railway beat Bridlington Town 7-2 on aggregate.

Success came again to Station View in 2005-06 as Railway won promotion to what was the UniBond Northern Premier League. In 2007–08 the town of Harrogate was gripped by FA Cup fever as Town and Railway met in the Fourth Qualifying Round. Railway emerged 2-1 winners, only to lose 3–2 to Mansfield Town in the Second Round proper, a fixture which was televised live on Match of the Day.

This season has been a strange one to say the least. Railway opened 2010-11 with a scoreless draw at home to Prescot Cables and three days later a thumping 6-2 away at Garforth Town. September was a terrible month as the Railway took just 1 point (at Ossett Albion) from 7 League games and found themselves bottom of the table. This dreadful run continued at the start of October, as two further home defeats occurred against strugglers Leigh Genisis and League front-runners Chester. Fortune turned with a 2-1 FA Trophy First Qualifying Round win at Ossett Albion and October ended with three more games unbeaten. A League point was won in a 2-2 draw at Witton Albion, followed by progress in the Presidents Cup (3-2 away at Durham City) and another away win at Romulus in the FA Trophy Second Qualifying Round. November and Railway simply couldn’t stop winning as League victories were obtained against Chorley, Durham City and Mossley, and a Cup double against Wakefield in the West Riding County Cup and Presidents Cup. The only blimp was exit from the FA Trophy at the hands of Nantwich Town.

That game took place on 20th November and proved to be the last action for Railway for three weeks. The heavy snow and wintry conditions hit the North hard and despite the thaw in the week beginning 6th December, the club was not confident the Station View Ground would be fit for play. However, incredibly the game against Trafford did take place.

If people are unsure of the financial struggles at this level of the football pyramid then the following should provide some enlightenment. Just 68 hardly souls braved the weather to watch this fixture. Every penny is crucial and so the recent postponements hit clubs hard. Given that Railway didn’t believe the fixture would go ahead they didn’t order any programmes for the game. They calculated that if the fixture went ahead it would cost less to suffer the League fine for not producing a programme on the day, than to go ahead with the expense of printing and then be stuck with them if the game was cancelled. It also impacted on the catering, as the crowd was informed before kick-off over the tannoy that there were no pies on sale, as they hadn’t been ordered as a precaution against the match being cancelled.

So to the game itself. The pitch was in remarkably good condition given the snow that had fallen in and around North Yorkshire in the proceeding weeks. The opening ten minutes were somewhat frantic as both sides struggled to get rid of the rustiness of not having played for three weeks. Railway settled first and took the lead in the 13th minute when Michael Duckworth broke down the right past his defender and crossed to the near post where Jon Maloney headed home. However, the lead lasted just three minutes as a stunning Chris Baguley strike ripped past Railway keeper Craig Parry to level the scores at 1-1. The score changed again in the 19th minute as the Trafford defence was split by a mis-hit pass from Liam Gray which fell to Andy Jackson, who lobbed the advancing Aaron Tyrer to restore Railway’s lead. Once again Trafford responded and just four minutes before half-time, were level at 2-2 with a goal from Jamie Baguley. So honours even in what was an entertaining opening forty five minutes.

Railways were quick to start in the second half and within a minute of the restart were back ahead, as Michael Duckworth drilled one past Parry to give the home side a 3-2 lead. Trafford fought back, but Railway looked the more likely to score as the game went on. Wayne Harratt thought he has sealed the points with a header, but was ruled out for off-side. So a win for the home team which see Railway in 12th position and continues their recent revival.

On my way out of the ground I noticed the club flag displaying the Railway badge which features not trains, but a beaver. A symbol representative of all those who worked so hard on the railways down the years, but also a fitting tribute to those today who work so tirelessly to keep Harrogate Railway Athletic going, both on and off the pitch.

The official website of Harrogate Railway Athletic FC can be found at: http://www.pitchero.com/clubs/harrogaterailwayathletic/

2010/11: Pre-season – The Non-League Option

When I lived in London, I would regularly watch around 50 games a season. As well as watching my beloved Fulham, I spend many a Saturday at Plough Lane watching Wimbledon in the Southern League and Tooting & Mitcham in the Isthmian League. It was a chance to watch football without stress, it was cheaper and invariably had a sense of a greater belonging – a friendliness. That is not to say that the football was any less committed, that supporters were less fanatical or rivalries were less intense. I didn’t feel that I was being taken advantage of or being bombarded by advertising and merchandising. Many club officials and those working in the bars and refreshments areas were volunteers and so provided an honesty and integrity when attending the games. Two stand-out memories from those days occurred at Plough Lane and showed a career on the rise and one on the way down. In a London Senior Cup tie in 1978/79 season a 17 year old Dave Beasant played for Edgware Town against Wimbledon. He had a stormer of a game and was later signed up by the Dons on the way to a long and event filled career. A couple of years earlier, Geoff Hurst, cut a rather sad figure leading the forward line as player-manager of Telford United. Not a great memory of England’s 1966 hat-trick hero.

Since coming North I still get around the Non-League circuit and I’ll add a new ground to those visited tonight when Wakefield host a Leeds United XI. Yorkshire is blessed with a full range of clubs up and down the Non-League ladder. In the Conference Premier, York City are the flag bearers for the White Rose County, whilst a division below Guiseley and Harrogate Town look to continue their progress through the Leagues. FC Halifax Town, Bradford Park Avenue, Ossett Albion, Ossett Town, Harrogate Railway, Garforth Town, Yorkshire Amatuer – are all clubs in Yorkshire who would welcome extra spectators to their clubs. A special mention for Farsley AFC (previously Farsley Celtic) who have emerged from their troubles and start life again this season. Sky would have us believe that football doesn’t exist outside of the Premier League. Many fans know this isn’t true. The fact is football exists outside of the 92 clubs as well. If you are looking for a different experience and  when your team are away and you can’t get tickets, why not get along to a Non-League game?