Part of the Harrogate family... how Town stole our hearts
Founder of the Wolves fanzine '˜A Load Of Bull', Dave Worton followed his beloved Wanderers all over England. That was before he stumbled upon lowly Harrogate Town. Now he and daughter Molly are regulars at the CNG Stadium and this is their story of how Town stole their hearts.
Maybe I was listless, possibly looking for excitement. Or more likely avoiding a mind-numbing trip to Ikea.
Whatever the reason, I can’t specifically recall what motivated me that particular weekend, just over two years ago, to visit Harrogate Town’s Wetherby Road ground for the first time in a while.
Being a lifelong Wolverhampton Wanderers follower, moving from the Midlands to Leeds in the early eighties, I’d had a somewhat minor relationship with Harrogate and local non-league football in general.
I’ve fond but faint memories of getting the train from Burley Park to watch Town on Tuesday nights in the late 1980’s, when Wolves weren’t playing of course, and then attending occasional matches over the next decade.
I moved to within a chant’s reach of Wetherby Road in 2004 but rarely ventured into the ground unless Town were in the First Round of the FA Cup or if the gates happened to be open when I sauntered past fifteen minutes from the end of the game.
This particular Saturday, just over two years ago, I went because Town were playing FC United of Manchester and I thought it would be interesting to watch a match in front of a big boisterous crowd.
I got what I expected alright, but not quite in the way I’d expected.
True, FC United bought a large, loud following swelling the crowd to four figures, but they were thrashed 5-0 by a buoyant Town side playing great football and, get this, roared on by their own vociferous support.
Things had changed.
Gone were the 200 or so stoic regulars huddled under the Wetherby Road stand on a rainy Tuesday night.
They were still there of course, but now supplemented by a noisy Kop in the end behind the goal and a vibrant family-friendly atmosphere.
Even the shirts were brighter than I remembered. I was immediately hooked. As was my daughter.
The conversation pre-match had gone something like this: “Do you want to go to the football match?”
“No, not really, dad, it’ll be boring.”
“Well I’m going anyway, see you later…”
Moments later came the crucial response... “OK, I suppose I’ll come as I’ve nothing better to do”.
Ninety minutes of football later and she was leaving the ground with a scarf around her neck and asking: “Can we come to the next match? When is it? How does the new offside rule work?”
The answers were: “Yes”, “Next week” and “Nobody’s got the foggiest idea”.
My footballing mojo was back, previously beaten into submission by a Chinese corporation owned professional club constantly changing managers in a fit of pique and deluded sense of entitlement.
I’m talking Wolves, but I could be talking Leeds and any number of others.
We attended until the disappointment of the end of season play-off semi-final defeat to Fylde and then became fully fledged Yellow/Black Army conscripts in the 2016/17 season.
Molly cottoned on fairly quick in announcing our own local lad made good Jack Emmett as her favourite player, her decision made one whole season before I too realised he was my favourite.
The season ended in anti-climax as Town slipped out of the play-off positions but it had still been a season of improvement off the pitch, with the average crowd nudging towards 1,000.
The real change came this season, with the club going professional for the first time in their history.
Everything suddenly seemed to step up a notch, both on and off the pitch. The promise of a full-time contract allowed Town to attract great players such as Josh Falkingham and George Thomson from Darlington and FC United to supplement the young, hungry nucleus of an already strong squad.
Meanwhile our songsmiths in the crowd kept pace admirably, composing gems such as “He’s only four feet two but he’s better than you” (Josh Falkingham) and “There’s a star man playing on the right, his name is Georgie Thomson and his boots are dynamite” (guess who).
Warren Burrell, our talisman, even had a banner dedicated to him.
I just wish someone would work out a better song for our hero Emmett.
You just don’t get this kind of entertainment in the money-grabbing, penalty-diving Premier League.
The players played some spell-binding football at times, notching 100 league goals in the process and only failing to score in a match twice.
“It was just like watching Brazil” remarked one fan I met on his way back from the Stockport game early in the season.
This, bizarrely, was the only time Town didn’t win in the first seven matches.
Highlights included a trip to Southport on a filthy Tuesday night. Free beer, pizza and chips on the coach (don’t expect this every time prospective away trippers) preceded a 4-1 victory in the pouring rain during which the 30-strong away following didn’t stop singing for the whole 90 minutes.
FC United were duly dispatched again, 6-0 this time. Then there was York. Twice.
Who would have believed that little old Harrogate Town would become North Yorkshire’s top team, doing the double over their larger neighbours in the process.
Both matches remain etched in the memory.
An unsegregated 2800 at Wetherby Road in September and a 2-0 win, followed by an even better match at Bootham Crescent when Town took an unprecedented 515 supporters and Jake Wright became a new folk hero.
We just lost out to Salford for the title, but gave them a run for their money, clawing back an eleven point deficit at one point.
All of this excitement has led to a steady increase in crowds to a season’s average of over four figures.
No one knows this more acutely than my daughter and I, as we’ve been playing ‘Predict the Crowd’ since we started attending, and we can no longer cheat by counting heads during an extended injury break.
I once got the crowd figure spot on during an early game and my daughter must have thought I had psychic powers of perception.
She now knows it was just a fluke.
The crowd hit 1,170 for the end-of-season match against Curzon Ashton when Town had already secured second place and rested a few players.
Four years ago it may have attracted 300 odd. But there were no Curzon hoards to swell the crowd here, it was almost entirely Town fans, and maybe a few disaffected Leeds fans.
The attendance was rewarded with a five-goal haul for Dom Knowles to take us to the aforementioned ‘hundred’ for the season, two of them dispatched in added on time.
I’d seen Steve Bull clatter in the majority of his 306 goals in thirteen years at Wolves, but I’d never seen him do something like this.
Wolves may have emerged from the chaos of the last few years and run away with The Championship, and I’d enjoyed watching from afar, but Harrogate Town had stolen my heart.
A capacity 3,000 crammed into Wetherby Road for the play-off final, general sale tickets disappearing within 24 hours.
Two more goals from Knowles and one from the National League North Player of the Season, Joe Leesley and we’d done it, we’d reached the top tier of non-league football.
A tier above York City. Two firsts for little old Town.
The thing I love most though about Town is the togetherness of the club and supporters and the air of continuity, having had the same manager for seven years.
“That’s because while his dad’s the owner, he’ll never go anywhere” said the few doubters when we lost out to Salford for top spot.
Fair point, but that’s not a negative in my book.
Simon Weaver has the top job on his own merits and, as far as I’m concerned, as long as he wants it.
Irving Weaver came in after his son, not the other way around, and I, for one, am glad he did.
The club is well run and looking towards steady progression and consolidation both on and off the pitch with the move to full-time football and plans to develop the ground into a 5,000 capacity stadium.
Trouble is, all this talk of steady, gradual progression may go out of the window if this team keeps performing the way it has done this season.
Bring it on, I say.
We’ve already got our season tickets.