Harlow Town 1979-80

Being dismissed by Brian Clough did as much harm to Harlow Town as it had done to Jan Tomaszewski. Jon Spurling recalls the Essex club's FA Cup heyday – and decline

With its modish housing estates, flourishing light industries, new-fangled dry‑ski slope, award-winning Henry Moore sculpture on the walk into the town centre and upwardly mobile football club, a 1980 government white paper cited Harlow as “one of the main successes of the New Town programme”. Twenty-three years on, the “chronically underfunded” town with its “shabby” housing estates was in serious trouble. Local youths had removed the head from one of the figures in the Moore sculpture and the ski slope was dismantled. Harlow Town FC had also fallen into serious decline; their Sportcentre ground was ramshackle and decent players were prised away by rival clubs. Rarely had the fortunes of a town and its football club been so tightly entwined.

Former manager Ian Wolstenholme once muttered about the “chameleon-like existence” of a club which, having once been known as Harlow and Burnt Mill, only added the “Town” suffix during the 1950s. Although Essex-based, Harlow spent time in the East Herts, London, and Athenian Leagues during the post-war era, while garnering several Essex county cups. The club had a penchant for doing the unexpected on the big occasion; goalkeeper Norman Gladwin scored Harlow’s first ever competitive goal at the Sportcentre, a Tottenham XI were held to a draw as the club unveiled a new stand in the early 1970s.

By their centenary season in 1979-80, Harlow were an established force in the Athenian Premier League and steady progress through the qualifying rounds of the FA Cup, including victories over Margate, Lowestoft and Hornchurch, prompted a club director to boast in the local press: “Big things are in store for this club. We’re aiming for Alliance Premier League status.” Directors were keen to point out the talent coming from the town’s local leagues, most famously Tottenham’s Glenn Hoddle – “an example of how far talented young stars can go around here”.

Leytonstone/Ilford then Essex rivals Southend succumbed to high-octane successes to thrust Harlow into the third round proper for the first time. Manager Wolstenholme appeared distinctly underwhelmed at the prospect of a trip to Second Division ­promotion-­chasers Leicester City, predicting “a tricky tie, against a well organised side with well organised players”. In the event, Harlow striker Neil Prosser’s 89th-minute equaliser set up a replay at the Sportcentre, with his team having dominated most of the match.

Despite the Filbert Street crowd sportingly applauding Harlow’s players at the end of the game, conventional wisdom held that Harlow’s chance had passed. Alluding to the industrial action which swept across the steel industry, the escalating Afghan conflict and the increasing numbers of unemployed, Forest manager Brian Clough whined: “January is always a grim month. Look at what’s going on in the world if you want proof. And on top of that, not a single non-League team will be in the FA Cup Fourth Round.” Old Big ’Ead was referring to Yeovil’s, Altrincham’s and Chesham’s demises, and Harlow’s predicted capitulation, but the record 9,723 crowd which packed the Sportcentre on January 8 didn’t share Clough’s pessimism.

Former Harlow full-back Roy Austin recalls “a misty night, with thousands of Harlow supporters slithering and sliding down the grass banks in the stadium”. Several years before Johan Cruyff adopted the practice, Leicester boss Jock Wallace opted to play an inexperienced Gary Lineker on the wing. Austin was presented with the task of marking the Foxes youngster: “We were both quite nervous,” he recalls, “and I don’t think either of us went past one another all game.” The decisive 41st-minute goal was scrappy, with company accountant John Mackenzie toe-poking a shot past Leicester keeper Mark Wallington. The scuffed effort crept a few inches over the line, Tommy Williams hacking it clear just too late. Despite incessant Leicester pressure in the second half, Harlow clung on, with Wolstenholme gushing praise about how his young side “cut off the supply from Eddie Kelly in midfield”.

His collection of grizzled former pros, tradesmen and white-collar workers were immediately granted small-town hero status. Nationwide’s Sue Lawley insisted on referring to Harlow rather patronisingly as “a super little team” during her interview and Ernie informed Eric on Morecambe and Wise that “Harlow are far better than Luton”. The boys shook hands with assorted car dealers and Essex business types, and were kitted out in some rather fetching Burton’s suits. With strikers Prosser and Mackenzie tipped for greater things by the media, Match of the Day cameras focused on the side’s fourth-round clash with Watford at Vicarage Road. Seemingly down and out, Harlow fought back from 4-1 down, with John Mackenzie’s two late goals seeing the Hawks edged out in a seven-goal thriller.

Hornets boss Graham Taylor suggested that Harlow “would be back next year”, but the club’s subsequent decline was almost terminal. Conspiracy theorists claimed that directors scarpered with the profits from the FA Cup run and the Sportcentre (“always too open, with no real atmosphere,” according to Roy Austin) fell into disrepair across the next decade. Forced to sit out the entire 1992-93 season due to crippling debts, Harlow were relegated by two divisions. A subsequent appearance in the FA Cup first round brought little respite, with the side humiliated 7-0 by Peterborough, and ambitious plans for relocation to a site on Roydon Road were scrapped amid talk of council intransigence and locals’ indifference.

But now, as part of the Gateway project – a £42 million scheme designed to help regenerate the town – the club have finally moved to a new 4,000-capacity ground at Barrow Farm, with the possibility of future extensions “if things go according to plan”. Though in time-honoured Harlow tradition, aspects of the move immediately failed to go according to plan: Linfield beat Harlow at the Sportcentre in a pre-season friendly that was supposed to herald the new era at Barrow Farm and the ground still wasn’t ready for the start of the season.

Club officials have spoken of their aim for Conference football within five years. Harlow folk heard it all before, in the early 1980s. But at the time of writing, the team is top of the Ryman League Division One North, beating Ware 2-0 in the first Barrows Farm match in October. Better still, repentant thieves returned the stolen head from the Henry Moore sculpture. Good omens, indeed, for the town and its club.

From WSC 238 December 2006. What was happening this month