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.

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