Talk of the town

A former Leeds chairman, an FA Cup run, a mass walkout; football is the talk of the tea shops. Mark Douglas puts down his scone to tell the Harrogate story

When the time comes to draw up a list of history’s most defiant gestures, it is fair to say the mass walkout of Paul Marshall and his Harrogate Railway first-team squad in February 2003 won’t be muscling out Nikita Khruschev’s shoe-banging rage at the UN in the Cold War’s frostiest days. Given that the repentant players were back at the club’s Station View ground within a few days, it probably ranks with John Gummer feeding his daugh­ter a beef burger. Nevertheless, Mar­­shall’s anger, provoked by the offer of a “disrespectful” £200 bonus for the team’s stellar efforts in their historic FA Cup second-round defeat to Bristol City, does at least draw attention to the crossroads which Harrogate’s football clubs are at. After decades of struggle, Railway and higher-placed rivals Harrogate Town find themselves with the finance and impetus to make a mark on the football world, but a strong conservative streak threatens to undermine the recent success and banish them to football’s backwaters.

This is in part motivated by the accepted local wisdom that Harrogate, which an Independent sports writer quipped is so tough “that the tea-shop owners go round in pairs”, is not a football town. Despite birthing the careers of John Scales and Andrew O’Brien, any volume on the North Yorkshire spa-town’s football suc­cess would make for a brisk read. Until recently, that is, when ex-Leeds United chairman Bill Fotherby breezed into Harrogate Town, talking boldly of league football and implementing a “professional set-up”. Many were sceptical, noting the promise of former chairman Mau­rice Hammond, who injected capital in 1998 but faded into the background when it became apparent that gates of under 200 were something of an occupational hazard. The gusto with which Fotherby has set about his task, though, has forced even the most ardent cynic to take note. Drawing on contacts from his tenure at Elland Road, the new chairman appointed several full-time officials, and the club’s first full-time player/coach in the shape of ex-Leeds man Neil Aspin. Success on the field followed, and promotion to the Unibond Prem­ier League last season represented the club’s best ever return, with attendances and turnover quadrupling to boot. This success even prompted an application to the proposed Conference division two.

Not that Fotherby and company have had it all their own way. A plan to revive the hoary issue of merging the town’s teams was rebuked in no uncertain terms by Railway, prompting Town managing director Nigel Pleasants to call any future co-operation “dead in the water”. Even years of languishing in the Northern Coun­ties East League have failed to erode the fierce independence of the smaller club, who cling fiercely to their traditions. Set up by the workers in a local railway marshalling yard, who contributed a penny of each week’s pay to buy their current ground, the club is run by a closed committee who have presided over the distribution of the FA Cup windfall. Indeed, even with Foth­erby’s ambition, both clubs are largely run by the same voluntary board members of 40 years ago, some of whom refuse to countenance the idea of a merger. This despite the pressing example of Rush­den & Diamonds, the Northants clubs who were galvanised by a local businessman and toasted league football within nine years of their amalgamation.

Local experts remain unconvinced. As a former manager and director of both clubs, Alan Smith is in a better pos­ition than most to judge. Smith, who once played for Bradford City, returned to Harrogate in the early Eighties and fondly recalls one of the first floodlit matches at Town’s Wetherby Road ground, a 6-0 beating by a Manchester United side with Peter Beardsley, Ray Wilkins and Mark Hughes. In short, when Smith speaks, Harrogate’s Town and Railway listen, and at the moment he is sounding a cautionary note. “A merger has been talked about for years. There is opposition from die-hards but in the end finance is an important issue and the clubs might be forced to working some­thing out.”

In the wake of the messy fall-out from the FA Cup adventure, his words serve as a timely reminder. “It could be the last chance for success. Railway’s Cup run was unbelievable and there are not many Bill Fotherbys around. He is looking to take Town to a higher level, but on their crowds they would struggle to survive in a national conference. It might not be the last chance, but there won’t be many more like this.”

From WSC 194 April 2003. What was happening this month