This was a trip down memory lane. As a student in York, back in the mid-90s, I found myself watching Harrogate Railway from time to time. A heavy home defeat against Selby Town on a grey February day springs to mind. Back then, we were still in the era of dial-up and web rings, so information about the scarce before you arrived, consulting a paper map to find your way. The Rail’s big attraction was that the ground is next to the railway line and thus easy to find; not such a consideration in the SatNav era.
Today it’s easy to look up recent events at Station View online. Sadly, the club websited suggested that things were not going well. When the manager’s pre-season pep talk focuses on how hardly anyone would take the job and laments the fact that the money, fanbase and prestige of recent years has evaporated, you know a club is facing tough times. For Harrogate Railway Athletic, once moderately famous as the lowest-ranked club to reach the FA Cup Second Round, the rise and fall has been alarmingly swift.
My 1990s trip gave no hint that by 2002, having managed a promotion to the Northern Counties East League Premier Division (step 5 nowadays), the Rail would play Bristol City at Station View in front of a 3,500 crowd and a global TV audience. A 3-1 defeat against the leaders of England’s third tier was no disgrace; the team was on a high. By 2006 the club were upwardly mobile, reaching the Northern Premier League (then Unibond, now Evostik) for the first time. In 2008, the TV cameras were back for another big cup tie against Mansfield, and another battling display against professional opponents. The problem, of course, was that too many fans made their one-and-only, once-in-a-lifetime visit to Station View for one or other of those games. Across town, Harrogate Town have moved up to the National League and gone full-time, suddenly bossing a once unthinkable rivalry with the fallen North Yorks giants York City. In suburban Starbeck, Harrogate Railway flirted with greater heights before crashing, Icarus-like, back to Earth.
Railway always tended to be closer to the relegation zone than the promotion race in their NPL seasons, but managed a best-ever finish of eighth in 2015. That saw nearby Tadcaster poach the management team – and move up the leagues – while the Rail slumped. Relegated in 2016, the team had two more tough seasons near the foot of the NCEL Premier. In the last three seasons, they conceded 377 league goals. Grim stuff.
In my student days, the ground was visible from trains on the York-Harrogate branch line. Today that’s no longer true. New building, new housing, work on-going, has filled in the land between Rail and tracks. Someone, presumably, is benefiting handsomely. It doesn’t seem to be the football club. There’s a new stand, compact and tidy, between the dug-outs. Not much else seems to have changed. The temporary stands that accommodated those FA Cup crowds are long gone, the slope that tests the judgement of corner takers remains. The welcome is friendly, the clubhouse – shared with the Harrogate Pythons rugby club and their somewhat confusing avian crest – is close enough to Starbeck to serve as a local watering hole complete with TV sports even when there’s no game. Those are the obvious bright spots, but the club still has no budget to offer its players. Despite the happy image of non-league football as a world unsullied by commercial considerations, it’s clear that the Rail are going to struggle against teams with the financial clout to lure players into their club.
Incoming manager Bryan Davey is resolutely upbeat. His programme notes talk of stopping the rot of recent years and rebuilding from scratch with a core of local, loyal talent. But he also admits that the league is probably too competitive for them right now and the game proves his point. Railway start brightly, forcing a couple of corners and giving Staveley Miner’s Welfare something to think about. But the visitors score from their first meaningful attack and the belief drains from Davey’s raw team. A substitute breaks off from his warm-up to chat with a friend and admits that the team is ‘full of holes’. It finishes 5-0, Staveley also hit the woodwork twice. The long-suffering home support, reluctant to blame hard-working players, points the finger at the officials. Staveley, FA Vase semi-finalists in 2012 but down in lower mid-table last season, cruise to a first league win of the season. Harrogate Railway remain winless.
Station View, Starbeck, England
Aug. 18, 2018. Northern Counties East League Premier Division
Harrogate Railway Athletic 0 Staveley Miners Welfare 5 (Claxton, Basterville 2, Davies, Bell)