Railway's unusual motivation to rise above their station

Harrogate Railway have a chairman whose specialisation is inspiration, and a manager with faith in the passing game. Jon Culley reports
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The Independent Football

If it takes a particular human chemistry to create a successful football club then maybe the explanation for the second appearance in five years of tiny Harrogate Railway in the first round of the FA Cup today lies in the team talk the players will absorb before they attempt to fell the relative giants of Droylsden on their sloping pitch.

Part of it will involve an address from the chairman, which at most clubs, if the players were frank, would be seen as a cue for iPods to be turned up and attention switched off. But not at this club. In the dressing rooms at Station View, home of the Unibond First Division North club, every player hangs on every word.

It is not surprising. Rob Northfield made his fortune as an inspirational speaker, running a hugely successful franchise for Dale Carnegie Training, and now delivers seminars in motivational skills to business leaders and others under the banner of his own company, 2 Inspire. His methods seem to have benefits for football players, too.

The manager, Vinnie Brockie, was sceptical at first when Northfield, chairman only since last April, asked if he could say a few words. "I didn't really know what to expect," he said. "But the lads have taken a shine to him. He is a real enthusiast and what he says to them is quite inspirational. It seems to lift the mood."

It has not been to their disadvantage in the Cup, clearly. In a run beginning to rival 2002, when they reached the second round and a televised home tie with Bristol City, they have already caused upsets by knocking out Blue Star North sides Harrogate Town and Leigh RMI as well as Unibond Premier team Matlock Town.

Droylsden, newly promoted to Blue Star Premier – otherwise known as the Football Conference, one level below the Football League and three above Railway's current station – represent the biggest test so far but a repeat of their fourth qualifying round form against local rivals Town, who had been unbeaten in 16 matches, might be enough to pull off another shock, especially against an opponent with only one win in 18 league games so far.

In some ways, Brockie and Northfield could not be more different. While his chairman's wealth meant he could afford, effectively, to retire five years ago at 49, Brockie still turns out at seven o'clock most mornings to eke out a living as a labourer for the house-builder George Wimpey on sites around Leeds.

The 38-year-old Scot left home as a teenager without skills, made a couple of appearances for Leeds United and was establishing himself at Doncaster Rovers in the early 1990s when a knee injury forced him to quit.

"I continued to play non-League, a lot of the time for Guiseley, but started to work for my coaching badges straight away," he said. "I do some coaching for Leeds City Council as well. But I have to have a job. Fortunately, my employers are OK about letting me work around the football."

Assistant to the previous manager, Martin Haresign, at Station View for 18 months before Haresign left to concentrate on his business commitments, he was asked to take over last February.

In other ways, though, he and his chairman are cut from similar cloth. Born in Stepney, Northfield also aspired to play football, turning out for the youth team at Leyton Orient. Billy Jennings, a hopeful East Ender from the same era who went on to enjoy success with West Ham, remains his best friend.

"I always loved the game and when I was able to retire I decided I wanted to put something into a football club," he said. "My first club was Guiseley, who were down on their luck and heavily in debt when I became involved, and we won a trophy in the first season. But I left after 15 months when my mother died.

"I wanted to look then for a club closer to my home in Wetherby and I offered to help Harrogate Railway. They were not in debt, having made money from their last Cup run, but were getting to a position where it was becoming difficult to pay the bills."

Much has changed, in fact, since the heady days of 2002. The triumph of reaching the second round of the Cup was somewhat soured by a bonus dispute, prompting some players and staff to leave, and the team of today, as well as playing in a higher division after promotion in 2006, is an entirely new group.

"It is a young side," Brockie said. "Lee Ryan is 28 and Ryan Haigh 27 but the others are largely between 19 and 24. They are all part-timers. Lee and his brother Scott Ryan are both waiters, Ryan Haigh is a civil servant, Danny Lowe is a manager for a tool hire firm and we have a couple of students at Leeds University.

"We play with a lot of energy and enthusiasm. A lot of teams at this level play long ball but I encourage my team to pass it. I was fortunate to play under Billy Bremner and Dave Mackay at Leeds and Doncaster, who were both tough men but loved the game and encouraged us to play as well as to be competitive."

Curiously, it was not Leeds that Brockie wanted to be paired with in the first-round draw but Wycombe Wanderers. "I went to school with their manager, Paul Lambert, but have not seen him since," he said.

Railway normally play before 100 spectators or fewer but the derby against Town attracted 1,300 and there are hopes for a similar turnout today, when Brockie admits he will know little more about the opposition than many in the crowd. "I've got a few contacts who have been able to fill me in but I haven't had the chance to watch them myself," he said.

Brockie claims that the Station View pitch's lateral slope should not be a significant factor, even though Dave Pace, the manager of Droylsden, from suburban Manchester, described it as "horrible" after carrying out his own reconnaissance at Railway's recent league match against Wakefield.

"I'd love to be drawn against Manchester United or even our neighbours City but we will not get ahead of ourselves," he said. "We have to get past Harrogate Railway first.

"We should have enough quality [to come through] but we have to have the right attitude. After playing at places such as Oxford United, Torquay and Rushden, going to a ground like this one will be a shock to the system and the message to my players will be not to let the surroundings unsettle them."

Brockie will hope they do. "They are three divisions higher than us but if we approach the game in the same manner as the earlier rounds we have a chance," he said.

And, if the chairman has anything to do with it, if they do fail it will not be for lack of self-belief.

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