Monday 17 October 2022

Riding The Railway to Harrogate for a Footballing Double Header

The 251 in attendance to watch Harrogate Railway Athletic v Selby Town was at least double what the Rail usually attract. Maybe it was down to the fact that your £5 entry also got you into the adjacent beer festival or maybe it was the fact that League Two Harrogate Town had a 12:30 kick-off at home which therefore produced the chance of a Harrogate double header? Both may have contributed but the latter was why I was there, the former just a bonus. 

I’ve been meaning to visit Harrogate for quite a while now, to be honest, ever since the FA Cup exploits of this spa town’s two football sides captured my imagination some 20 years ago, in fact. I first became aware of the two Harrogate sides in the 2002-2003 season when the then both non-league sides reached the First Round proper of the FA Cup and I watched a feature on them as part of the BBC’s Football Focus programme. That season Town would finish 5th in the Unibond League Premier Division which back then was the second tier of non-league football whilst two divisions lower Harrogate Railway finished 10th in the Northern Counties East Premier Division. But despite their clear superiority in terms of league positions, it was actually the Rail and not Town who made it through to the Second Round. Whilst both faced tough away trips to opposition one level higher than them, Town lost 5-1 at Farnborough whereas the Rail won 2-1 at Slough. The Second Round would see the Rail pitted against Bristol City at their Station View home. Over 3,500 spectators made the most of additional temporary stands and the Sky Sports TV cameras also turned up as the Rail lost 3-1 against a side who would go on to finish third in what is now League One before losing a play-off semi-final.

Twenty years ago I was still in my teens and making 150-mile round trips to watch random non-league sides was not something I did. Nowadays, however, I am sad enough to undertake such adventures and with the town gaining more footballing prominence in recent years due to Harrogate Town’s promotion to the Football League such a trip has definitely been on my radar. When I came across the chance to see both sides at home in one day then how could I resist?

Harrogate’s main railway station sits on the York to Leeds line and is about a 20-odd-minute walk from Harrogate Town’s Wetherby Road, now Envirovent Stadium for sponsorship reasons, and some 30 minutes stroll from the Station View home of Harrogate Railway Athletic. It is about a 25-minute amble between the two. What I do not work out until I see a sign advertising my arrival in the Starbeck area of the town followed by a railway crossing shortly afterwards, is that Station View is only a few minutes walk from Starbeck Station. This is one stop closer to York on the local rail line. None of this had occurred to me when booking my trip but it does make my journey home ever so slightly easier.

The town of Harrogate is, of course, a picturesque settlement famous for its spa water as well as Betty’s Tea Rooms. I’m sure the local tourist board could advise about the above and so much more in greater detail but with myself arriving on a day trip from Newcastle with two football matches to pack in I do not have time for much sightseeing. A little look online beforehand, however, found me a second hand book store, of which visiting such establishments has almost become a bit of a hobby of
mine, and a highly reviewed sandwich shop. Arriving one hour and 45 minutes before the first match kicks off I do not have time for much else.

Having spent longer than expected looking at books I turn up at Wetherby Road for my first match, a large carrier bag of literature in hand, some 25 minutes before kick-off. After a quick bag search, I am able to enter the ground through turnstiles opposite the brewery sponsored Black Sheep terrace for which I hold a £20 ticket. 

Having in the end not bothered with the sandwich shop I opt for a giant ‘Frankenfeast’ hot dog inside the ground which is more than satisfying and far above the quality of a lot of footballing food options I’ve come across elsewhere. 
I am able to move freely around the ground and with the sun in my eyes for the first half I move behind the goal for the second. The ground has covered terracing at both ends with a mismatch of terraced and seated stands along both sides of the pitch, again all covered. The nature of the ground and its differing stands give it a bit of a haphazard look. But with a recent rise through the divisions and new stands no doubt needed at minimal cost to keep the stadium up to standard for each new level of football, this is hardly surprising. The above does actually give the venue a bit of charm, however, and I quite like it.

Harrogate Town have been a League Two side for two years now, having been promoted for a second time in two seasons in 2020 thanks to a play-off final win that saw them reach the Football League for the very first time in their history. That promotion came the same season as they won the FA Trophy final at Wembley defeating Concord Rangers 1-0. Last season the club reached the Third Round of the FA Cup for the first time in their history but as a league club, they now enter in the First Round proper so that run was perhaps not as impressive as previous ones had been. In 2012-13, having been through several qualifying rounds, they reached Round Two but having defeated Torquay United in Round One lower ranked Hastings United then defeated them on penalties after a replay away from home. This meant they missed out on a Third Round tie with Championship side Middlesbrough.

Much like their opponents today Hartlepool United, Harrogate are struggling at the wrong end of the table. But with their manager Simon Weaver the son of club chairman Irving, you would think his job might be a little safer than most in his position. 

The 2,075 in attendance includes a large away following comfortably in or close to the mid-hundreds but those away supporters see their side 2-0 down at half-time. A late goal back is not enough for the visitors as Harrogate Town in their usual black and yellow striped attire win 2-1. I’ll be honest, I leave feeling the match was a rather poor affair between two rather poor sides.

Having stayed right til the end in the hope of some late drama that sadly never materialises it is a quick turnaround and a brisk walk to the Station View home of Harrogate Railway Athletic for the visit of Selby Town. Whether attending the second match or not most fans seem to leave at full-time but those who stay will get to watch Harrogate Town Women v Chester-le-Street Town ladies face off on the same pitch from 3:15pm. This is the second part of an alternative double header for those who fancy it. Possibly this is the reason the men’s game kicked off at lunchtime. Alternatively, it could be down to the fact that Hartlepool have made just a 60-mile trip to be here today so the match could arguably be considered a derby and this might have caused the start time to be moved forward on police advice, who knows?

On to Harrogate Railway Athletic though and established by workers from the nearby London and North Eastern Railway depot in 1935, the same year that their rivals across town were formed, they have been a prominent feature on the local non-league scene ever since. 

The club reached the second round of the FA Cup again in 2007-08 but a 2-0 home victory over Conference side Droyleden was followed by a 3-2 home defeat to Mansfield Town, this time live on the BBC with 1,486 present. By this time the club were playing in the First Division of the Unibond League having been promoted in 2006. But relegation back ten years later was followed by another demotion in 2018-19 and the club now ply their trade in Division One of the Northern Counties East league, the tenth tier of English football.

The Station View ground has a rather tiny basic seated stand near the halfway line on the far side of the pitch with terracing to its right and a grassy bank to its left, There are also stands further round behind the goal, more on them soon. There is a rugby pitch behind the other end and next to it a two story clubhouse building which presumably both the rugby union and football clubs share. It seems to be a fairly modern affair and the venue feels very warm and welcoming inside. For today's match, a marquee cum very small beer festival has been placed along from the clubhouse and is doing a roaring trade with its, albeit rather small, selection of real ales plus ciders and lagers. I end up enjoying a pint myself.

The aforementioned stands behind the goal consist of a covered seated stand which sits next to an adjourning covered terraced area and looks, if truth be told, a little ramshackle or a least the corrugated roof does. The seated stand also comes complete with overhanging trees and on my visit a plethora of autumnal brown and red leaves blowing about in the wind. A man sat behind me in the first half claims the red seats come from Middlesbrough’s old Ayresome Park ground which was demolished in the mid-1990s. To the left of the stand in the corner of the ground sits a small refreshments hut selling burgers, chips, and hot dogs, plus teas and coffees, but my ginormous sausage from the first game has filled me up and further food is not required.

I must also add that upon entering the ground I am able to pick up a matchday programme. This is something I take for granted at Harrogate Town with them being a Football League side, but an increasing number of non-league clubs have gone digital only on the programme front to save costs. It seems some groundhoppers get angry about this and refuse to attend a game if they know a paper programme is not available. But although for me there is far more to a football match than a paper match programme it does always warm me greatly to see a paper version still available.

It seems there are several groundhoppers doing what I predicted and attending both games today as well as a few locals also doing the same. I get talking to father and son Gateshead FC fans who have travelled down from the North East like me. I seem to meet Gateshead fans wherever I go football watching these days and as a semi-regular at their International Stadium home, I am happy to chat about the Tynesiders with them.

The match itself sees the home side secure a comfortable 2-0 victory over opponents Selby in which they never really get out of second gear. An uneventful but nonetheless engrossing game. Wearing red shirts with green shorts the Rail are almost reminiscent of Portugal but there isn’t quite anyone with the skills of a Ronaldo or a Figo on the pitch here today!

I leave fulfilled with my afternoon's work having visited two interesting football grounds, both somewhat beguiling in their own way, all set in a delightful town that I would like to one day discover further.

Friday 14 October 2022

Lying on Their Deathbed in the City Where the Ladies Now Lead the Way on the Pitch - The Despairing Plight of Durham City AFC

When he first stumbled upon the city, American writer Bill Bryson wondered why no one had told him about Durham before. Captivated, no doubt, by the city’s steep lanes of quaint boutiques, delightful coffee outlets and elegant townhouses, as well as the city’s magnificent Cathedral as it towers above the tree-lined banks of the river Wear, and its UNESCO-listed Norman castle, he called it a “perfect little city”. 

Probably not on his mind, however, was the state of local football club Durham City AFC which, as I type, is worse than ever - and that’s both and off the pitch. Football League members for much of the 1920s, the club are nowadays a far cry from their former selves. The self-sufficient Northern League side that Bryson could have experienced had he ventured to their then Ferens Park home whilst writing his 1995 best seller Notes From a Small Island seems itself a distant memory let alone those Football League luminaries.

Any Durham locals who expect respectability from their football clubs are better off looking towards the city’s unaffiliated women’s team as they probably won’t find even an ounce of it at the once proud now somewhat ignominious Durham City. Durham Women FC currently sit 9th (out of 12) in England’s second tier Women’s Championship whilst in the men’s game Durham City sit rock bottom of the 11th tier Wearside League First Division.

You may not notice it as you amble through this grand settlement originally founded by St Cuthbert in the 7th century, but there is definitely trouble afoot in the city of Durham or rather grave difficulties at its once distinguished local football club. Right now Durham City AFC feels more like a patient on life support than a historic sporting institution.

This is partly a tale of two teams going in completely opposite directions, and Durham Women FC certainly deserve some fanfare, but mostly this is a sorry tale of a football club banished from their home stadium, an official Twitter account that looks more like a parody, 98 goals conceded in just 10 games so far this season, and that’s just the half of it.

Known as The Citizens, in 2009 Durham City were promoted to the third level of non-league football (7th overall), the Premier Division of the Northern Premier League. But when their major sponsor and backer pulled out and all of their key players left they finished rock bottom of the division the following campaign. Although it felt like they had hit an all-time low, three years later when former Newcastle United star Oliver Bernard purchased the club for a reported £25,000 it felt like the dawning of a new era - even if they had by then dropped into the 9th tier Northern League Division One.

Under the new ownership, I don’t think supporters were getting too carried away but there was definite optimism around the club. Bernard said all the right things and talked of making Durham a prominent feeder club for the North East’s big three of Middlesbrough, Newcastle, and Sunderland. Certainly, the idea of in the longer term reaching the higher end of non-league football did not seem too far fetched for a historic side that had once graced the Football League, albeit long before most were born.

Durham’s Football League adventure, which started just over 100 years ago now, was rather short-lived lasting just seven seasons between 1921 and 1928. Founder members of the old Third Division North, initially, the club played at a ground just north of the city’s medieval Kepier hospital ruins where a record attendance of 7,886 witnessed a 2-0 FA Cup defeat against Darlington in 1921. Two years later, however, Durham City relocated to Holiday Park a new football and later greyhound stadium on the western banks of the Wear closer to the city centre. Low attendances had in part contributed to the move but there was no long term improvement with the 7,182 who witnessed another FA Cup tie, this time against West Stanley, the highest they ever mustered at the now long gone venue and far from the norm. 

Poor crowds brought financial woes and this in turn affected the club’s ability to build a strong playing squad which itself impacted performances on the pitch. An 11th placed finish in that first season was the highest they would manage in their eight Division Three North campaigns and, along with fellow North Easterners Ashington, the club dropped out of the league in 1927-28 when a 21st placed finish (out of 22) was followed by a failed re-election bid. 

Being a Third Division side there was little in the way of star names at Durham during this period but one man who did make a name for himself was George Camsell. A Middlesbrough FC legend, many might not realise he also played for Durham City. Camsell scored 20 goals in just 21 appearances for the club before moving to the Boro where over a 14-year period he scored a club record 324 goals in 420 games. In 1926-27 he scored a then Football League record of 59 goals in one season, a record he would still hold to this day had Everton’s Dixie Dean not broken it the following campaign by going one better and netting 60 times. Camsell was also capped 9 times by England.

With their Holiday Park ground demolished in 1960, there is sadly little evidence left of this stellar era from Durham City’s past. If you were to visit today you’d find only the 207 room four star Raddison Blu Hotel with not so much as a plaque to commemorate the stadium or its former tenants of footballers and greyhound dogs.

The club would fold ten years after that Football League exit but was re-established in 1949 playing at Ferens Park until 1994 when a new ground was built. At Ferens Park a record crowd of over 7,000 saw a 3-0 second round FA Cup defeat to Tranmere Rovers in 1957-58. 

The club joined the Northern League in 1952, and although now covering the 9th and 10th tiers of English football the Northern League was, outside of the current structure, for many years one of the top amateur leagues in the country. The league’s top sides regularly competed in finals of the old FA Amateur Cup but although fellow County Durham sides Bishop Auckland and Crook Town won the competition a record ten times and five times respectively, Durham City, despite spending many years in the division, never reached the showpiece Wembley final although it was discontinued in 1974.

In total Durham would actually spend over 55 years straight in the league, albeit in 1983 becoming one of the first three teams to be relegated to the league’s new Second Division where they would spend numerous seasons. They did however finish runners-up 1970-71 and won the First Division title in 1993-94 and 2007-08. Unfortunately in 1994 they would miss out on promotion because their new ground was not yet ready and where they were currently playing was not up to standard.

Back to the modern day and back in the Northern League under the stewardship of Mr Bernard the club seemed on a steady footing for the first couple of years of his ownership albeit without causing too many waves. The first signs of any problems began to occur before long, however. 

A dispute with their landlord forced the club to leave their New Ferens Park home in 2015 and they were forced to groundshare with fellow Northern League side Consett. Continued troubles would see them later move in with another Northern League side in Willington who they apparently still owe £2,000 in unpaid rent having left without paying. As of this season, they are using a pitch in Houghton-le-Spring which although closer to their former New Ferens home than the other two is still outside of the city. Seven years on and they are yet to return home with the ground having had various temporary tenants in their absence.

On the pitch performances nosedived and the club were relegated to Division 2 of the Northern League in 2015-16 whilst last season’s relegation to the Wearside League would have almost certainly come a lot sooner if the two seasons prior to 2021-22 were not left unfinished due to COVID. That relegation last time out saw the club finish rock bottom of Northern League Division 2 and included along the way a 16-1 defeat away at Carlisle City whilst this season things have been no better with several 12, 13 and 14-0s and no doubt plenty more to come. After all, this is a side which now seems to currently consist of a bunch of very inexperienced kids. Baring all this in mind, it’s hardly surprising that one game in this current campaign reportedly saw no paying spectators whatsoever in attendance.

Financial problems seem to have caused the clubs’ alarming downfall and by 2020 it was reported that the club had debts of £150,418. How Durham City got into such an economic mess one can not be certain but rumours are that their debt consists of director's loans from Bernard that he now wants back.

Obviously, by last season the club had already turned into a shambles but things only got more ridiculous when a company known as Zenith Sports and Event Management became involved in the running of the club as of December 2001. This came with Bernard nowhere to be seen despite having not officially sold the club (although despite Bernard having previously been figurehead the records actually show his wife as sole owner). Chris Tanner the man behind the Zenith group became chairman of Durham City and under his stewardship, the club seemed more concerned with slagging off people on Twitter than anything else, whether it be the official account or other accounts believed to be run by himself. Also, with numerous club secretaries having come and gone since Tanner got involved one can only conclude that many cannot get on board with what he is doing. Maybe harassing people on Twitter is not the best way to run a football club… 

Local football supporter Dan Bell who recently produced a youtube video on the plight of the club recently uploaded screenshots to Twitter of angry inbox messages the club’s official account had sent him after his film was released. There’s plenty more too, with one surreal tweet amongst others seing the club respond to someone asking if there would be Twitter updates on one of their upcoming games by saying “no, not really necessary”. A look through the club's Twitter feed is certainly interesting but they recently made their account private so if you are not already a follower you’ll need to request permission to have a look. Very odd.

Who instigated the involvement of Tanner and Zenith is unclear, but barely anything is known about the company with little in the way of an online presence and some suggesting the company is just a figment of his imagination. Interestingly Tanner is seemingly based in Australia and it is unclear if he has ever set foot in the UK but it does look pretty certain that he has never been anywhere near the city of Durham. 

Tanner’s distant location also brought more drama recently when 12 players were released by the club via a tweet sent during the middle of the day down under. Time difference saw those unfortunate souls wake up to find out that during the night as they slept word had been put out that their services were no longer required. 

It would be hard for me to say too much more as such is the craziness of the situation at Durham City it can be hard to sort fact from fiction. But some facts do speak for themselves with the lack of a permanent home and those heavy defeats and relegations all there in black and white for everyone to see. Those realities on their own show that something has gone seriously wrong at Durham City AFC.

Of course, things are not all doom and gloom for football in the city with several other Durham clubs leading far more sensible lives. Alongside Durham City in the Wearside League are Durham United, a club founded ten years ago, and Durham Corinthians who came into existence six years later in 2018. United are, as of this season, partnered with Durham University as are Durham Women FC currently the most high profile club in the city.

Whilst clubs playing in front of one man and his dog in the Wearside League is, without being too impolite, not overly dignified the same cannot be said about Durham Women FC. Instead of playing what some might argue isn’t even proper non-league (the Wearside League is run by the Durham FA and sits below the main FA run national league system), Durham’s WFC actually play at the second highest level in the country albeit, of course, in the women’s game.

Created in 2014, the club came about thanks to a collaboration between Durham University, where our man Bryson ended up spending seven years as chancellor before having a Library named after him, and South Durham & Cestria Girls who had won the previous seasons, then third tier, Northern Combination Women’s Football League. The club were immediately awarded a place in the brand new second tier Women's Championship where they have remained ever since. The club finished as high as second in 2020-21 but unfortunately, there was only one promotion spot. 

Durham Women play at a university sports complex in Maiden Castle and their home is barely a 30-minute walk from the city centre and a very welcoming venue. The club have an exciting aura around them and one that the Durham City men’s team could only dream of right now. 

But as for the future of Durham City, there are many who hope for a much better one. One such example is Save Durham City AFC, a Twitter account continually highlighting the plight of the club. They are desperate to see the back of the current regime and some more appropriate people put in charge. Let's hope this pipe dream can eventually come true because as the Save Durham City Campaign despairingly reminded me when I spoke to them during my research for this article, the club is currently “a right old mess”. If truth be told they were probably being far too polite. 

If very dark clouds hang over the city’s cathedral spire as it branches out into the sky, or if meandering through the city the river Wear is getting choppier by the day, then that is at least all figuratively speaking. But on the football front, it aptly describes the dire times local club Durham City are going through right now.

I’m putting out an SOS for Durham City AFC - But will anyone answer the call and save the Citizens? Can we get Bill Bryson on the phone?