Harrogate waiting to usher in new era at rugby club

WHEN you have been waiting more than 15 years to move to a new ground, being told you need to hang on a few extra weeks is barely of relevance.

GROUNDS FOR OPTIMISM: Harrogate chairman James Smithies outside the clubhouse at their new ground on Rudding Park Lane. Picture: Gary Longbottom

Harrogate RUFC find themselves in that position today and there is no great drama.

Given, at the nadir of their search for an alternative to historic home Claro Road, they feared going out of business entirely, you can see why their delayed arrival at Rudding Lane is not causing too much stress.

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They were scheduled to play their first game at the new £3m site, on the east of Harrogate in Follifoot, on January 17.

But they have now decided, due to a few issues including the state of its primary pitch, that their opening fixture in all likelihood will be a National League Two North derby versus Hull Ionians on March 14.

So, the end – or should that be beginning? – is still in sight for one of the region’s oldest clubs.

“There’s no doubt the lift in the club is so much better now than three let alone five years ago,” chairman James Smithies told The Yorkshire Post.

“There was a distinct possibility we could have gone under and the reality is that 2005 to ‘10 was a seriously bad time for the club. It didn’t know which way it was going.

“But suddenly there is buoyancy; we are beginning to re-develop our sponsorships and get people in support of what we’re doing, partly because we’re playing good rugby as well.

“And moving to the new ground is going to be an interesting test. The club’s been going 143 years and been at Claro Road for more than 100 of those so it is a major move.

“Yes, we’ll have fabulous facilities but we have to now make those work.

“It won’t be straight-forward and a lot has to be done but there is a real opportunity now.

“I think we’ve weathered the storm; if we weren’t going to remain as Harrogate Rugby Club it would have happened by now.”

The story of Harrogate’s protracted ground move is a lengthy one.

Essentially, the club decided to sell Claro Road to developers Crest for £7.2m in 1999 on the understanding they would have support from Harrogate Council for a new site in the Crimple Valley area of town.

On that basis, it received a non-returnable deposit immediately of £600,000 from Crest to clear its then debts but it meant they had a specific time limit of 10 years to leave Claro Road.

However, the Crimple Valley plans were vetoed by the government and the same happened in 2003 when Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott ruled out an alternative move to Killinghall.

With time running out, Harrogate were unsuccessful in a bid to buy back the ground – “we got to 2010-11 and had nowhere to go” – but they did manage to renegotiate the deal with Crest.

It meant, however, instead of the original balance of around £6.6m they only received £2.5m.

Smithies recalled: “At the time, too, we were using (Leeds) Carnegie players to support the club which undermined quite a lot of what we’d done before.

“We have 800 members and 400 are kids so when your senior team starts importing players and not bringing local talent through, it’s not good business.

“I’m in my third year now but the guys who really started this ball rolling was my predecessor Paul Barnard who basically grabbed the economics by the scruff of the neck and said ‘this is how we’re going to get back on our feet.’

“And we are now solvent. Not wealthy but solvent.”

Smithies, who hails from Leeds but became a Harrogate fan when his full-back son Ed joined in 1999 and went on to make a club record 300 plus appearances, said director of rugby Mike Aspinall has been influential, too,

“His introduction has really turned us around on the playing side; Mike’s quite superb,” he said, ahead of today’s trip to Luctonians and having lost just twice in their last 13 fixtures.

“He’s not everyone’s cup of tea – he has very strong opinions – but he’s an excellent coach and good motivator while he’s done a tremendous job getting all our players back at Harrogate.

“It is very much Harrogate Rugby Club again, back to where it should be.

“I’d say we’ve got more players from the juniors section playing for Harrogate senior team now than we have for 15 years – the Minikins (Noel and Liam), Joe Rowntree and the like.”

However, Smithies knows the club – whose alumni include British Lions Simon Easterby, Peter Squires and Jeff Young – has to work harder still.

“There is not a big connection with the town at the moment,” he admitted. “We’ve employed Cicada PR to raise awareness in the town and I think it’s genuinely safe to say Harrogate as a club is, for all the wrong reasons, quite inward looking.

“There’s a lot of traditional people there who have been there forever and ever and what we aren’t doing is dragging in enough new people.”

The £3m new site should help do that and he added: “We’ve got 27 acres instead of nine and a half. It is going to be a facility we’ll look to sweat. There’s a 1st team pitch, 2nd team pitch, a training pitch and a large area which could easily yet be a cricket ground.

“We’re looking for other involvement as it will cost a lot of money to run that place compared to Claro Road. We’re booking weddings in the clubhouse and we need to generate more money.”

They are, in fact, still looking for up to £200,000 to complete the final payment to Crest having pressed on with more ambitious plans to build a larger clubhouse.

That appeal is ongoing and Crest are nearing the point where they will need Harrogate out of Claro Road as a housing development is in the pipeline.

But there will be no pressure; this old club has survived its major scare already and can now look forward with confidence.