The Yorkshire phoenix clubs rising from the ashes

It’s 8 May 1998 – the final day of the season in Division Three, the Football League’s bottom tier. Scarborough have drawn against Peterborough, a result which should save them from relegation to non-league. Fans storm the pitch in celebration.

All eyes turn to Brunton Park where Carlisle, who need to win their currently goalless tie against Plymouth. The Cumbrians win a corner and on-loan goalkeeper Jimmy Glass scores a thumping volley. It’s their fans’ turn to invade the pitch. Scarborough are relegated, starting a terminal decline.

Football is a fragile thing. Away from the glamour of the Premier League, clubs collapse with an alarming regularity, often through random events like Glass’s freak goal. And Yorkshire has seen more than its fair share of crashes in the past 15 years.

Scarborough is famous for the 1995 collapse of the Holbeck Hall Hotel, but the football club’s demise was less sudden. A young Neil Warnock had overseen Football League success in the 90s, but their return to the Conference at the turn of the millennium was followed by another relegation in 2006.

Saddled by debt and bottom of the seventh tier in May 2007, the Seadogs planned to sell their flaking McCain Stadium to raise money, followed by a move to a community stadium. However, the council were unable to sanction the sale, since a covenant limited the site to sporting activities. Scarborough couldn’t pay their debts and the club collapsed.

The early years were torrid. Two competing phoenix clubs appeared and Athletic, the side backed by most from the original club, were forced to play in faraway Bridlington – causing attendances to nosedive. Despite that, Athletic saw steady progress off and on the pitch, with promotions in 2009 and 2014.

After the original club’s liquidation, the council sold the old site to Lidl (oddly enough, a supermarket well-known for not stocking McCain’s oven chips), freeing up funds for a new community stadium situated a hundred yards up the road.

Trevor Bull, Scarborough’s chairman, described the new Flamingo Land Stadium as the “holy grail” – a springboard for further growth, with the club finally based back in their namesake town.

“I saw my first game in 1967,” Bull tells The Set Pieces and he’s determined to maintain the “same ethos” as the previous. Bull has no personal fortune and Scarborough are fully owned by their fans, who are flocking back to the club following their return to the town.

Attendances have more than doubled since the move, forcing further expansion of the ground. Bull is keen to take things slowly – the fate of rival phoenix Scarborough Town, who folded in 2013, is a stark reminder of the economic peril inherent in non-league football – but he’s optimistic “The next step is the National League North,” he declares defiantly.

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Cast eyes 85 miles to the west and Scarborough will find a blueprint to follow. Although the story is all-too-familiar, with Halifax Town AFC’s demise after running out of money also faintly ironic considering the club shares a name with a bank.

With a board of honest local businessmen, Halifax had enjoyed on-pitch consistency in the Conference, even reaching the 2006 play-off final under a young Chris Wilder. However, a 10-point deduction in 2007-08 presented a more serious challenge. Against all the odds and on a shoestring budget, Wilder guided his side to survival in 2007-08 with a final-day victory over Stevenage.

The ensuing scenes, however, resembled the fateful end of the Great Escape. Having escaped Stalag Luft III, the side were captured by the Germans and executed, as HMRC sprang an £800,000 fine upon the club – although it’s important not to compare the taxmen to the Gestapo in this instance. The fine was unpayable, a deal with a consortium fell through and the club was left on the brink of collapse.

“I think it was quite humbling for Halifax to have to start again after they went bust in 2008… the club’s collapse was hugely traumatic for the supporters,” recalls Halifax Courier journalist Tom Scargill.

Club stature is one of those questions that’s both an enjoyable topic and totally unanswerable, but Halifax were undoubtedly a sizeable fish as a founder member of the third tier in its 1958 recreation. Administration was a tough pill to swallow and attendances quickly dipped as the club fell to the eighth rung of the football pyramid.

Yet the West Yorkshire side have swiftly returned to their roots. Since reforming, they’re now back in the National League and with the same stadium, The Shay. Even their name has barely evolved; previously Halifax Town AFC, they’re now the strikingly alike in being called FC Halifax Town.

One thing that has changed is the office. No club staff remain from the prior regime and Halifax’s rebirth has been a clean slate that takes advantage of their strong support.

“The club’s supporters are incredibly loyal and passionate,” Scargill adds. “They took 10,000 fans to Wembley and have played in front of anything from 4,000 to 7,000 fans for big games at The Shay during my time.”

“Promotion [to League Two] would be like coming full circle and putting the club back to where the fans feel it belongs.”

Not all phoenix clubs in the region enjoy such storied histories as Scarborough and Halifax, though. North Ferriby are different – smaller and less urban. North Ferriby itself is a large village on the north side of the Humber and the team had been a small local side for decades. Yet promotions in 2013 and 2016 propelled the club to the National League and to the FA Trophy final in 2015, where they beat Wrexham at Wembley.

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This meteoric rise was matched by an equally rapid fall. Achievements on the pitch had driven the club into debt and the National League proved a step too far. A double relegation followed, with Ferriby returning to the seventh tier.

Form was abysmal, with the club propping up the table. New chairman Carl Chadwick’s grand plan for recovery including renaming the ground after his own business – the catchily named Chadwick Joinery and Builders Stadium never did catch on – and plotted to move the club a Dunswell, a suburb in Hull some 12 kilometres away.

“The club was a desolate place,” claims Jack Salt, who runs Ferriby’s social media. “There was no togetherness, no communication and no care paid to the ground… the owner did not care about the place, the club or the fans.”

In 2019, Ferriby folded, unable to pay pitch-related debts. Even then, the winding-up amount was pathetically small – a mere £7,645.25, with the inclusion of pence particularly telling.

Reformation came quickly, though, and things are already looking up for Ferriby. “The difference between then and now is unbelievable,” continues to Salt. And he’s not wrong.

The club sit near the top of the table in the Northern Counties Eastern League Division One, and there’s a strong community feel, different to the wrangling of the past few years. The ground has improved too, according to Salt, with new changing rooms installed over the summer

Riley, a teenage fan, exemplifies this. TSP meets him outside a chip shop in Featherstone, home of Wakefield AFC, on a grey Saturday. Somewhat fittingly, Featherstone’s ground recycles two of Scarborough’s former McCain Stadium stands.

A Hull fan originally, he lost interest under Assem Allam’s chairmanship and turned to Ferriby instead – despite living more than 10 miles away in Beverley. Few non-league sides have a catchment far beyond a five-mile radius, but this doesn’t seem to be an issue for Riley, decked out in Ferriby colours.

There’s something about the club that draws in people like Riley – there’s a real buzz and something of a travelling contingent that few clubs at their level have. Ferriby have only recently reformed, but progress is swift, and they too are on the up.

Football doesn’t really do finality. There’s always another match, another season, as David Mitchell surmised when he screeched “the football will never stop” in the famous Mitchell and Webb sketch. Clubs going bust is one of the few lines you can draw, though – a sign that something has irrevocably changed.

Yet Scarborough, Halifax and North Ferriby are doing their best to combat that. With fan-led engagement and an embracing of their roots, all three demonstrate that committed supporters can overcome poor administration. It’s a message that’s relevant across the football pyramid.

The Yorkshire phoenix clubs rising from the ashes
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