Football League hopefuls Harrogate Town have only won three league titles in their history and goalkeeper Ash Connor was a major part of the most recent.
The Golcar United joint manager is perhaps remembered by many strikers who have gleefully scored past him over the years(!), but he started his Non League career with Harrogate and kept 19 clean sheets in his first season as John Reed’s unstoppable side cantered to the old NPL Division One title in 2002. Harrogate finished ten points clear of second placed Ossett Town.
Reed’s men broke every record going – 16 to be precise – to make chairman Bill Fotherby’s dream of promotion come true. It is an achievement that constantly overlooked because of the Weaver Family’s success over the last decade.
Connor played 141 times for Harrogate from 2001 to 2004 (before he was replaced by Paul Pettinger who Non League Yorkshire ironically interviewed last week).
This is Ash Connor’s Harrogate Town story:
“When you’re younger you think you’re going to win the league every season and I’m sure that it was the only league I won in my whole career. It was my best season (2001/02), 100%. Nothing much happened after that! I signed for Ashton after leaving Harrogate and we got relegated.
“Reedy and Bill (Fotherby) had big ambitions for the club and that was the selling point.
“At the time three or four Non League clubs wanted to sign me. I remember speaking to Reedy and Ian Marshall who helped him and the selling point was that they wanted to get promoted.
“I remember one of the pre-season training sessions when the fixtures had come out and the lads were just full of confidence. One of the lads actually said ‘don’t worry lads, we’ll be promoted by Christmas and put the fixtures back now’. To be fair they weren’t far wrong because we were never knocked off top spot after Christmas.
“I had joined from Rotherham after getting released. I was there for three seasons and it was probably the best Non League club I have ever played at. I enjoyed every minute of it. Reedy was a great manager and we were quite successful too.
“Reedy was an absolute winner and very organised. I was between 19 and 22 and pretty quiet in the changing room where we had some pretty big characters.
“He’s a motivator and in that first season Neil Aspin worked closely with him. Reedy could get you going before a game and I remember him once asking me if his speech had made the hairs on my neck stand up after he finished.
“He’d ask how big you’re b******** were. He was very successful as a manager and another one he used to do was knock on a cupboard in the changing room and say how many of his league titles were in there.
“Reedy lives and breathed Non League football and he’s had a fantastic career. He was probably the best Non League manager I worked for. I’ve played for some good ones like Gerry Quinn and Eric Gilchrist as well.
“People loved to play for Reedy. I loved my time with Harrogate under him and when he asked me to go to Ossett Town to play for him I half wish I had, but it was a bad time as we had just started the project at Golcar United.
“As you get older you get wiser and I remember one story with Reedy. When I signed for Harrogate I was 19 and had just been released from Rotherham and I still wanted to get back into the professional game.
“I spoke to Reedy six or seven times during the summer and I never made a decision about signing. I ended up signing and I obviously had a great start to my Harrogate career and I remember him pulling me saying ‘the chairman wants to put you on contract’.
“He made me an offer and there must be have been clubs watching me and someone had put a seven days’ notice in.
“It got towards the end of those seven days and Reedy pulled me into the away changing room and said ‘Ash you need to sign or Bill Fotherby is going to get a new goalkeeper’. I was like ‘alright Reedy, where do I sign’.
“I was 19 so I panicked. I probably got a lower deal than what I could have got!
“I didn’t have many dealings with Bill Fotherby, but we used to train in his garden! It wasn’t a garden, it was a massive field at the back of his house.
“But the dealings I had with him were great. Every time you walked into the ground he’d shake your hand and after every win he’d come in the changing room. He was a great character.
“The first season we won the NPL Division One title, the West Riding County Cup and we had a good run in the FA Trophy as we played away at Doncaster Rovers. So we had some great games.
“I think we have still got some of the records from that season as well! The stats speak volumes.
“We got the club’s best points (86) total, best goals difference, least goals conceded in a season, most league wins (25), consecutive league games without defeat (24), most clean sheets in the league (19), consecutive league wins (9), six league defeats and there were many more records.
“Because of the 19 clean sheets, I think it is fair to say it was my best season. I’ll take the credit for them! I don’t think It got close to that again! On a serious note we had a great defence in front of me. Neil Aspin, Mick McNaughton, Peter Atkinson, Stevie Ball, Dave Merris – all great players.
“Neil Aspin was the stand-out signing that season and there was a lot of fuss made about him and rightly so. He was absolutely brilliant for us in the season we won the league. There was Michael Ord and Colin Hunter, a great player who had ability to win a game on his own.
“Iain Dunn was a key player and it was funny him being in the team. He was a great guy and Dunny was my hero growing up as I’m a Huddersfield Town fan and I ended up playing in the same team as him. I used to go watch Huddersfield a lot when I was younger and Dunny was in one of the promotion teams. I wasn’t starstruck though! But to play alongside someone I had grown up watching was great.
“The dressing room was great and there was great togetherness. The stand-out character was definitely Robbie Whellans. He was an absolute winner. He was the captain too and he had a great season. I remember the two young kids he brought on the coach to away games because they’d fight like mad. Robbie and Ian Blackstone had a really good partnership and they were good mates too. That showed in the dressing room because they were big characters. I don’t think opposition defenders were a fan of Ian though.
“The whole team was together because you knew if someone made a mistake someone would get you out of it. I’d like to think others will say the same. It was a great group.
“We lost the first game of the season to Lincoln and then our next defeat was against Radcliffe in March-time so we went on a great run.
“I remember the Belper promotion game and that we won 4-3, but I don’t remember much of the game. I remember more about when we won the league after drawing 0-0 with Witton.
“It had been a funny scenario after we beat Belper to get promoted. The next game was Ossett Town and they were up there with us and we obviously needed to beat them to win the league. But we drew 1-1 so it went to the next game. The biggest crowd of the season at that point had turned up – 750 – the trophy was there for us to collect and we went and drew!
“The next game was Guiseley and we just needed a point. We lost 2-1 and I think Guiseley scored the winner in the 94th minute or something stupid.
“We weren’t playing particularly badly, it was just one of those things. We just didn’t the luck.
“Between all this we had the West Riding County Cup final and we beat Farsley Celtic 4-0.
“We then played Witton and got the point to get us over-the-line. We had gone on that massive unbeaten run and at this point we couldn’t buy a win in the league! I don’t think we won many after the Witton game either!
“We still had another two great seasons after the title win. The third one was when you had to finish in the top 14 to get into the Conference North for the following season and we did that easily.
“My second season went well as we finished sixth. The first game was against Altrincham away and we beat them 4-0. Then we beat Stalybridge 1-0 so we started off well.
“We tailed off a bit, but we still finished quite high. There were some good teams in it that year and Accrington Stanley actually won it.
“We beat them in the FA Cup and eventually got to the FA Cup First Round. Bill and Reedy were over the moon. I remember going to Wisbech in the fourth qualifying round because it was quite a trek. Then we went to Farnborough in the first round and we got absolutely battered didn’t we. We won the County Cup again as well, beating Farsley 3-1.
“During my last season with Harrogate people like Mark Atkins and Glen Naylor signed. I played up to October time and I got quite a bad injury. I ruptured my thigh. As I was coming back I kept telling Reedy I was fit. I remember arguing with him as he said I wasn’t fit. He was right, but I ended up going on loan to Spennymoor for a month. We had some killer journeys to Barrow, Burscough, Whitby and the home ground was absolutely miles away from my home in Huddersfield. I remember Reedy phoning me to go back and the first game was against Spennymoor away from home. So I ended up going back again and we beat them 5-1. But the goalkeeper who had been playing for us while i was at Spennymoor swapped because he was playing for Spennymoor!
“When Paul Pettinger joined the following summer, Reedy suggested sticking it out and competing with him. But I lived in Holmfirth and Ashton was 20 minutes away and I knew I was going to play.
“They’ve done well since I left and it is now a massive Non League club. I think they’ll end up in the Football League in the next few years.
“The last time I went there was when I was with Ashton United (2004/05). and they beat us 5-1. So I haven’t been back for 16 years! I always say I’d like to go back to see what it is like.
“There is also a lot of the title-winning squad I haven’t seen for 16 or 17 years and we haven’t really have a reunion. It is a shame we haven’t because the season we had was such a great season.”
Ash Connor was interviewed by James Grayson
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NLY Community Sport, run by James Grayson and Connor Rollinson, has always had combatting social isolation at the top of our objectives when running our Disability Football teams so when the green light to return is given, our work will play an important role in reintroducing our players, who have disabilities and learning difficulties, back into society.
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