THE HISTORY OF HARROGATE TOWN AFC
The demand for a first class ‘Association’ team had been growing for a number of years as the last century dawned in fact, as far back as 1907/08 a club was registered under the name of Harrogate Town but got no further and in 1914 at the Harrogate Rugby Union club’s AGM it was unanimously decided to adopt the ‘Soccer code’ which had been the idea of a Mr. W. Oddy and a Mr. C. Leng ex Chairman of the Rugby club who converted to the soccer code and the code was adopted at a public meeting at the YMCA rooms. The Rugby club did continue though. On Tuesday evening 28 July 1914 a meeting was held at the County Hotel, Skipton Road, Harrogate as the club had now been formed as Harrogate AFC and had secured admission to the Northern league at Redcar on Saturday 27 June 1914 and were to play their home games at the County ground (the Harrogate Rugby Union’s ground) in Claro Road, Harrogate (a housing estate today).
The fixtures were prepared and the first match was to be played at Bishop Auckland on 5 September 1914. However, two hours before kick-off a telegram, stating that Harrogate would not be arriving, was received by Bishop Auckland due to the outbreak of the First World War as most of the team and the Secretary had joined the Regiments.
After the War a meeting was held at the Imperial cafe (now Betty’s) on Parliament Street, Harrogate on 19 May 1919 (2019 was Betty’s Centenary year) by Frederick Hammond Breare (son of the Harrogate Herald/Advertiser owner who had been Treasurer of the 1914 Association football team and later became Secretary of the 1919 side) to consider re-forming the club and all interested were invited and the club were formed again to play in the West Riding league for season 1919/20 and the first competitive game was at the Starbeck lane ground (the lane to Starbeck, Knaresborough Road where caravans and park homes now stand) on Saturday 30 August 1919 against Horsforth with a 3.30pm kick-off. In those days it was 5d (2p) into the ground and 1s 3d (7p) in the stand. The result was a 1-0 victory for Harrogate and the scorer was L. Craven with a header. Also that campaign Harrogate won the Whitworth Cup Final 4-0 against Ripon City, the first ever trophy won by the new Harrogate AFC. In 1920/21 they joined the newly formed Yorkshire league but also continued with a team in the WRL, the Reserve side and had to leave their Starbeck lane ground after one season as house building was order of the day according to the Corporation. All was not lost though as the club had been given prior notice the previous season and the committee under Chairman Mr. C.H.J. Marsden (1919-32) decided at a meeting on 8 December 1919 to purchase a six acre plot of land at the club’s present site, then known as ‘Wetherby Lane’ and the local public were asked to buy shares in the new company at £1 a share and after obtaining the 3,000 required the ground was purchased. The first Yorkshire league game played at the new ground Wetherby Lane (now Road) was on Saturday 28 August 1920 with a 2-1 win against York YMCA. The club played in amber and black and were nicknamed ‘The Sulphurites’ by supporters because Harrogate is a Spa Town with ‘sulphur water.’ The Dictionary states sulphur: a pale yellow non metallic element used in black gunpowder, perfect for today’s colours. They also played a few friendly’s including a game against Liverpool Reserves at Anfield which Harrogate won 4-1 and a game at Sheffield United winning 2-1 in front of 15,000. After his brother diede in 1920 Robert Ackrill Breare became Secretary from 1920-1932.
For 1921/22 they joined the strong Midland Counties league playing against the likes of Nottingham Forest, Sheffield Wednesday and Barnsley Reserves but for only one season with the Directors getting little support from the Harrogate public so just continued playing in Yorkshire league. Harrogate’s first major trophy came when they won the West Riding County Challenge Cup beating Fryston Colliery 3-1 at Elland Road, Leeds on 9 May 1925 and 1926/27 saw them claim the Yorkshire league Championship and WRCC Cup defeating Selby Town 2-1 in a replayed Final also at Elland Road and in fact they were the first side to win the double in the Yorkshire league. In that WRCC Cup replay the local paper’s report of the winning goal by Bob Morphet was priceless. ‘As Morphet gathered a pass from Jack Smith and crashed the ball home hats, sticks and umbrellas were flung in the air as respectable law abiding citizens among Harrogate folk became raving lunatics for the moment.’ In 1931/32 they joined the Northern league again and actually played for just one season the club’s last before folding due to lack of money and support and Wetherby Road ground was eventually sold to the Harrogate Borough Council in 1936 and there was no actual ‘Town team’ from 1932 until basically after the Second World War but the ground was still used by Leeds United ‘A’ team for 1932/33 in Yorkshire league, Bradford City ‘A’ team 1935/36 in Yorkshire league and the Council made the enclosure into a sports field for elementary school children and the youth of the Town and of course local semi-finals and Finals were played there too so at least it kept the ‘builders out.’
The Harrogate YMCA had been playing football on West Park Stray since 1908 but in 1935 there were problems. Apparently you had to be a member and a number of up and coming talented local footballers who, wanted to play football for the YMCA were not apparently willing to join the Association. This problem was eventually solved when John Thackrey (Chairman), Harry Lunn (Secretary) and George Squires (groundsman), who were members, got together and decided to form their own football team and in so doing took a good number of the YMCA team with them. They had a meeting at the YMCA (Belvedere) on Victoria Avenue and decided to call themselves Harrogate Hotspurs and join the Harrogate league for 1935/36 playing on the famous Christ Church Stray for two seasons and changed at Christ Church School. They became so good they joined the West Riding County Amateur league for 1937/38 (playing at the Old Showground down Knaresborough Road) presently Shaw’s trailer park (caravans and park homes) and during the War years they ground-shared at Wetherby Road and after the War continued playing on the ground as they became the new ‘Town team’ after a lengthy amount of time awaiting acceptance from Harrogate Council to their application but Hotspurs put forward that, ‘a pitch on the Stray is not likely to appeal to County competition organisers.’ Of course the Council had initially contemplated selling Wetherby Road because of expenditure of money in necessary repairs to the ground which the football club would now pay. For 1946/47 Hotspurs joined the West Yorkshire league and there first ever game as the new Town team was a 2-1 defeat at Wetherby Road to Leeds UYMI on 31 August 1946 when George Smith scored that first goal. In 1948/49 Hotspurs changed their name to Harrogate Town because the title ‘Hotspurs’ gave no indication to other teams that they were meeting the senior club in Harrogate. 1949/50 saw the largest ever crowd at Wetherby Road when 4,280 crammed into the ground to see the Whitworth Cup Final against Harrogate Railway Athletic a 3-0 defeat and is still the highest crowd ever seen on this ground. Town joined the Yorkshire league again for 1957/58 under Jack ‘Boss’ Townrow a former Chelsea and England International and he was relatively successful in the early 1960s when they finished runners-up and WRC Cup winners for 1962/63 season as a semi-professional outfit. Before that though, a new clubhouse and changing rooms were built and opened on Wednesday 31 August 1960 by the Mayor of Harrogate and until 2019 was called the 1919 bar.
Under Peter Gunby, Town had a successful side in the early 1970s winning the WRC Cup in 1973 and under Alan Smith Town were the last winners of the Yorkshire league Division Two for 1981/82 season as for 1982/83 the Northern Counties East league had been formed with the Yorkshire and Midland leagues joining forces. The introduction of the football pyramid was a wonderful progression for non-league football. Harrogate had played in the Yorkshire league for many seasons but could never achieve anything higher than being Champions of Division One and playing against only Yorkshire opponents. With the introduction of the NCE League they were by 1985 able to play further afield visiting Derbyshire, Nottinghamshire and Lincolnshire. Forming the pyramid towards league football was an exciting prospect for many clubs who made sure their grounds were adequate for the upward climb including Harrogate Town under head Groundsman George Dunnington (who was also Chairman now life President) and his band of willing volunteers, including John Walker who followed the club for 70 years and been a volunteer for 55 years. Alan Smith (George’s son) who became player/manager for 1979/80 and was there for 20 years, invited George to the ground to help out and floodlights were installed in 1982 when they played and beat Accrington Stanley in an F.A. Cup replay and in the November of 82 Leeds United Manager Eddie Gray sent his entire first team to play and switched on the lights before a crowd of 2,000 and Manchester United came in January 1983 witnessed by another 2,000 crowd at Wetherby Road. Town of course were now playing in the Northern Counties East league Division One but gained promotion to the Premier Division for 1986/87. Secretary Roy Dalby persuaded Chairman George Dunnington that it would be in Town’s best interests to join the new Division One of the Northern Premier league for 1987/88 which they did and in November 1990 they saw the official opening of the new impressive 350 seat cantilevered grandstand when league side York City sent their first team and Geoff Butler was the Architect of this stand and has followed the club for over 60 years, as a volunteer.
Town spent many seasons in Division one of the NPL simply because the club could not compete with others due to lack of financial resources to pay quality players. Then in 1998 Town’s luck changed with the appointment of Maurice Hammond as Chairman. He injected the first real capital into the club but eventually left but thanks to his second in command Roy Abel, this man invited the next Chairman to join the club and February 2000 saw the arrival of Bill Fotherby, former Chairman of Leeds United and 2001/02 saw the club become Champions of NPL (Unibond) Division One by ten clear points under John Reed and coach Neil Aspin (former Leeds Utd) after playing 15 seasons in the league since its inception and win the WRC Cup 4-0 over Farsley Celtic. 2002/03 saw the club finish 6th in their first ever season of NPL Premier Division football, reach the F.A. Cup First round proper for the first time before going out 5-1 at Farnborough Town and win the WRC Cup again. A fifth place finish in 2003/04 secured the club a place in the newly formed Nationwide Conference North playing against teams from the Birmingham area for the first time and the inaugural 2004/05 Nationwide North season saw the club achieve more success despite the shock mid season departure of John Reed with Neil Aspin returning as the new manager and a 6th place finish was achieved. 2005/06 saw Town entertain a first Conference side in competition at Wetherby Road when Scarborough visited for an F.A. Cup fourth qualifying round tie when segregation took place for the first time and a league club was seen at Wetherby Road for the first time in competition when they played Torquay United in a First round replay on a Tuesday evening when 3,317 were attracted to the game which ended in defeat after extra time and the lottery of a penalty shoot-out and also that season Town made the Conference North play-offs but went out to Stafford Rangers away in the semi-finals. 2006/07 they missed out on the play offs by one point and also missed out again for 2007/08. At the end of 2008/09 manager Neil Aspin left the club to join FC Halifax Town and soon after Simon Weaver became the club’s new manager but with a tight budget to work with it was difficult and the 2009/10 season ended with the club finishing bottom of the pile. However, with Northwich Victoria demoted Harrogate escaped relegation through the back door with being granted a reprieve. In the summer of 2011 Simon Weaver’s father Irving Weaver (Strata Homes) became the new owner and later Chairman after Bill Fotherby had stopped funding the club. For 2012/13 Town reached the F.A. Cup second round proper for the first time under manager Simon Weaver before going out to Hastings in a replay missing out on a Third round proper tie at Middlesbrough and also finished 6th in the table. The summer of 2013 saw the pitch levelled, 2014 two new stands built on Wetherby Road side and at the Hospital end behind the goals with September 2014 seeing Centenary celebrations at Wetherby Road. 2015/16 saw them reach the play-offs again but lost to AFC Fylde in the semi-finals. For the summer of 2016 the club laid a state of the art 3G pitch to avoid weather disruption, they could train on it and hire it out. 2017/18 saw them as a full time professional outfit for the first time and it paid dividends with the full time training as they reached the Vanarama National league for the first time in their History by defeating Brackley Town 3-0 in the play-off Final at Wetherby Road before a 3,000 sell out crowd, thanks to two goals from Dominic Knowles and one from Joe Leesley. For 2018/19 in National league the club is now meeting teams in the South of England for the first time travelling as far as Dover and it was an unbelievable start to the season as Town were unbeaten in their first 11 games to top the table in September 2018. There is also Town Under-17s, Under-19s and ladies football run successfully by Jon Maloney and his crew. Work is still continuing at the ground with a new seated stand at the clubhouse end, new bar and changing rooms. For 2019/20 Town at last reached the promised land being promoted to the Football league for the first time in their history after beating Notts County 3-1 in the National league play-off final with a first ever appearance at Wembly and a second appearance at Wembley brought them the F.A. Trophy for the first time beating Concord Rangers 1-0 with both matches unfortunately behind closed doors due to the pandemic. For 2021/22 season Town reached their furthest in the F.A. Cup losing 4-0 at Luton Town in the Third round proper. Also just a footnote but four books were also written on the club by yours truly, Highlights 2004 which sold out, the complete record 2010, the Centenary book 2014 and Conference North to Football league 2020/21.
History researched, compiled and written by Phil Harrison Town club Historian