Sunday, 7 August 2016

Ground 308: Station View, Harrogate Railway

When workers from Starbeck's LNER loco shed formed a side to play in the 1935-6 Harrogate & District League, they probably never envisaged twice being the televised picks in the world's most famous domestic cup competition.   One-time British Railways National Cup winners, the club was hard hit when the sheds closed down and the workers moved elsewhere. "Dr Beeching nearly killed us,"  Mick Gray, a Station View fixture now for over 40 years, told The Guardian before Bristol City's visit in 2002. "There were 1,000 railway employees in Starbeck during the war and they had a penny a week docked from their wages. All that went in the 50s. But we've picked up since."

Eight games and six victories had brought Railway to the second round proper, Sky forking out £100,000 for live coverage and the ground - built with a £1,500 LNER loan that was taken back from the workers' pay - adorned with portaloos and three temporary stands.  "I can't stop smiling," said manager Paul Marshall, who'd very nearly been ousted when the team won just two of his first ten games and were hammered by a combined score of 16-0 in back-to-back matches with Liversedge. "We've just had heaters put in the changing rooms but we'll probably take them back out. We want to make things as uncomfortable as we can."  A crowd of 3,500 fans packed the place, there was a Cup Fever beer, inflatable sheep in the goalmouth and a small scale pitch invasion when Steve Davey scored in the midst  of a 3-1 defeat to a side that played just the five divisions and 128 places higher up the pyramid. "A team of superstars," hailed the manager post-game. "We can't top this."

Perhaps not, but five years later they did manage to equal it, beating neighbours Harrogate Town in the final round of qualifying before exiting 3-2 to Mansfield Town in a game that went out live on the BBC.  Chairman Rob Northfield, an ex-Orient youth player who'd made his cash giving motivational speeches to businesses, did the pre-match teamtalk.  "The manager said it was Churchillian, but I would call it simple common sense," he told the local press. Substitute Danny Davidson scored twice and Scott Ryan hit the bar. "Mansfield nervously booked their place in the third round," thought the BBC.  "For the final minutes the professionals were hanging on,"  The Guardian wrote.  

In between their two cup runs, Railway had also gone up to the Northern Premier League, reaching a high of eighth place in 2014-15 before plummeting back into the Northern Counties East. Only a wretched New Mills side - 42 games, three wins and a goal difference of -130 - kept Harrogate off the foot of the division, Lee Ashforth's team shipping 115 goals and finishing 12 points adrift of third bottom Scarborough Athletic.  "It hurt.  Everyone felt it," one club official admitted.  More positively, the summer break saw the return of Northfield - "Great people, great values and we are going to have some fun along the way," he explained - and, while some of last season's team have opted to stay in the NPL, there are five new signings including Jordan Hendrie, who moved from FA Cup opponents and fellow NCEL Premier side Albion Sports. “I’d like to think that this year won’t be another relegation fight and that we’ll be in the top half of the table," Ashforth told Non League Yorkshire pre-game. "I think we have to set our expectations high and take it from there."

The last time I was in Harrogate it was cold and dank and the queues for the tills at Poundworld matched the bedraggled line of tourists outside Bettys Tearooms.  Today it's sizzling in the beer garden of Hales' Bar, whose gas-lit Victorian interior was, topically enough, used for interior shots in the filming of Chariots of Fire.   One stop back towards York or a 40-minute stomp across the 200-acre grassland of The Stray, Station View is in the terraced streets of urban Starbeck, next to a level crossing, the eponymous station and a branch of Tesco Express. 'Match Today!' promises a board on a grass verge, attempting to lure passing trade away from the Morrisons down the road.  'The dream that won't fade' and 'Railway live FA Cup dream' read the faded clippings on the clubhouse wall, a signed Bristol City shirt hung across the middle. The pitch slopes from the far touchline to the turnstile block side, where a massive colour picture of captain Danny Stimpson is attached to the gate.  There's a corrugated stand with plastic bucket seats, its back painted in the club colours of red and green, placed several metres behind a goal and a smaller, smarter flatpack construction - "Looks nice from here but the views are terrible," a spectator confides as we enter - set back from the dugouts. A few steps of terracing are sheltered by some trees; the Railway Buffet (hotdogs and bottled water already taped off the menu) is in a corner next to a skip, a toilet portakabin and some wrought iron gates that open into a gravel car park. Most of the travelling supporters opt to stand in the sun between the away bench and a TV gantry designed like the base of a scaffold with a hole in its plywood floor. "Beautiful surface," says one  as the players jog out from the two-storey clubhouse, built with cash raised by flogging off land to a care home.

"Come on, boys," claps Kully Sandhu, Albion boss for three decades and several divisions since their days in the Bradford Amateur Sunday League.  His side - weakened by six summer departures with four going to neighbouring Eccleshill United alone - still look lively; Danny Facey, capped twice by Grenada and returning after a season in the Evostik with Brighouse Town, shuffles through tackles but can't beat Jake Lofthouse in the Railway goal.  Midway through the half, the home number 9 collects a short throw on the turn, accelerates into the middle and slips the ball in front of Harry Brown, who wallops it from 30 yards out off the underside of the bar and straight into the corner of the net.  "Corker!" one spectator shouts. "What a belter," claps a  second.  The tannoy has no sooner finished the slightly belated score announcement when Facey taps in a leveller.  "Gotta get tighter," a defender reckons. "Switch on."  Moments later, Facey evades a challenge and is felled by Lofthouse, who gets a yellow card and then turns the penalty away with a dive to his left. "He'll learn from that," says an Albion fan at half-time.  "Aye, learn how to take penalties hopefully," his mate jokes in reply.

"Don't know what that routine is all about," grumbles one of three old blokes from the main stand as the Railway players warm back up by running down the side of the pitch. There's someone reading a paperback in the front row while others finish off their pie and chips or chat about Leeds United's prospects in the Sunday game at QPR.  "Too wide," yells one of the old men as a pass is hit from one side of the slope to the other. "Get it out wide," shouts his mate simultaneously.  Both teams have shots cleared; "A proper cup tie," tweets the Railway account.  Late on, with Albion looking the likelier to score,  a forward is pulled to the ground in the penalty area but the ref waves play on.  "You're a disgrace to your flag, you knobhead," someone shouts at the linesman. "Does it go to extra time or straight to a replay?" says a bloke taking photos.  The whistle blows, the teams congratulate each other and both sets of fans head  back to the clubhouse.  "Is your dad not here today?" an Albion supporter asks Hendrie, shaking hands as he comes off the pitch. "See you on Wednesday, mate."

Admission: £5
Date: Saturday August 6th 2016

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