BILL FOTHERBY, Mr F or Mr Fotherby as John Reed would say, left an indelible mark on anyone he met and by his own admission he made things happen.
For Harrogate Town Fotherby certainly did. He took over at the struggling NPL Division One club on the 1st March 2000 and turned them into one of the top Non League clubs in Yorkshire. His success, sometimes sadly overlooked, laid the foundations for the Weaver Family who have taken Harrogate to unprecedented heights.
The former Leeds United managing director, with Leslie Sliver and Howard Wilkinson, spearheaded the Elland Road club’s rise from the old Second Division to being First Division champions over three seasons in the early 1990s and he was determined to bring success to Harrogate.
Fotherby’s first crucial decision was appointing legendary Non League boss and serial promotion winner and very successful Goole AFC boss Reed as his manager in 2001, after initially making him Mick Hennigan’s assistant. Fotherby and Reed transformed Town’s fortunes over the course of almost four years – winning the title, two West Riding County Cups alongside an FA Cup First Round appearance and two top six NPL Premier Division finishes.
Their relationship became fractured after Reed’s sensational decision in January 2005 to leave promotion-chasing Harrogate to take over at Stalybridge Celtic who were 18 points adrift of safety at the bottom of the Conference North. Reed pulled off the great escape which remains one of Non League Football’s most remarkable stories.
Time proved to be a great healer as they repaired their friendship and still saw each other regularly until Fotherby passed away last year.
In his interview with Non League Yorkshire, Reed, who has managed over 2400 games and won countless titles and promotions, talks about his relationship with Fotherby and explains why his happiest time in football was managing Harrogate Town. He also briefly discusses winning the NCEL Premier Division title with Hatfield Man (with a side containing a 16-year-old Craig Elliott) in 1996, as well as his plans for the future.
John Reed’s Harrogate Town Story:
“Up to Mr F passing away last year, I used to go see him every month at his house. We used to reminisce all the time about the Harrogate days. He said that he got more pleasure of being chairman of Harrogate Town than he did at Leeds. It takes some believing when you think of the signings he made for Howard Wilkinson and all the European games and the titles they won during his time there, but I know what he achieved with Harrogate Town meant everything to him.
“I put my time with Harrogate Town up there right next to taking Bridlington to Wembley. With Harrogate we won the title for Mr Fotherby and two West Riding Cups. He always wanted to go to the First Round of the FA Cup and we did that for him. He was the best chairman I worked for and I loved every second of my time there.
“Mick Hennigan had tried to get me to go and I had said no because I was at Goole having a fantastic time and I had won two league titles and three cups.
“I always remember getting a call from Mr Fotherby who I knew because of his association with Leeds United and the charisma of that man just on the phone was unbelievable. He said ‘I know for a fact I can get you to come to Harrogate if you meet me’. Cut a long story short we met at Ferrybridge Services and two hours later I had agreed to be Mick Hennigan’s assistant manager. I used to call him Mr Fotherby or Mr F, I never called him Bill because of the respect I had for him. Without a shadow of doubt he was the best chairman I ever worked for. By a million miles.
“He had big ambitions and it makes feel so proud here sat in my back garden because we won the league title in 2002, something Mr F wanted to do, and it is the last time Harrogate Town won a league title.”
‘People used to say Bill Fotherby’s a bulls*****r, but one thing about Bill Fotherby is he makes things happen. Look at my CV, look at my track record – it’s tremendous’. Bill Fotherby’s quote to reporter Wendy Walker of the Yorkshire Evening Post in April 2002 after promotion was won after a 4-3 win at Belper.
“I think that quote is absolutely true because he used to make things happen and I can relate to that.
“The season we had was very similar to my only season with Bridlington because we did win the league title fairly comfortably. We broke loads of records along the way too.
“We had two massive characters in Ian Blackstone and Robbie Whellans upfront. You’re going to laugh, but they called themselves Batman and Robin. Ian was 6ft whatever and Robbie Whellans would be lucky if he was 5ft 3. But what a partnership they had. They had scored millions of goals for Farsley and I remember Mr Fotherby saying to me ‘if you could have two players of out of any Non League team who would you get and who would excite you’? I said those two and he went and signed them. Nobody is daft and money is a big thing in football and I’m sure Mr Fotherby bent over backwards and gave them some decent signing-on-fees. But what a pair of signings because they must have got over 50 goals between them. They were absolutely brilliant.
“Mr F’s next biggest signing was Neil Aspin. Mr F got me in his hospitality thing and he said ‘John, how much would you like to work with a centre-half who has played over 300 league games and him be your number two’? I said I’d love it. I didn’t know Neil Aspin, but I knew of him and sure enough at the next training session he was there and the rest is history.
“Iain Dunn was another key player. He was a great player and obviously ex-Huddersfield Town and York. He was another fabulous lad and I think I have been lucky as a manager because I not only had good characters, I never had any problems with any players at Brid and Harrogate.
“That game at Belper where we won promotion, we were 2-0 down at half-time and I remember him looking at me and shaking his head. I shouted over ‘don’t worry Mr F, I’ve got it sorted, it will all change in the second half’. You’ll never believe this, but I took both full-backs off and I played three centre-backs and I played two lads as winger. I said ‘we had nothing to lose and we won 4-3. Mr F was over the moon.
“We got to the First Round of the FA Cup in my second season as manager and we lost at Farnborough. A funny story from that is that I made a statement within two minutes before we went out and I said ‘whatever we do, keep it tight for the first 20 minutes’. After 11 minutes we were 3-0 down.
“We won the County Cup two years on the trot against Farsley both times. 4-0 the first year and 3-1 in the second. They were two fabulous nights.
“Mr F used to give me so many compliments. He used to say ‘you’re the best motivator I’ve ever seen. Out of all the managers I’ve had, no-one comes close to you’. It was a very nice thing to say.
“Harrogate were a fabulous club and they’ve gone onto bigger and better things now. My achievements get forgotten about to be honest. Apart from people like yourself doing articles like this, who wants to know what Harrogate did in 2002. But what we did do is win a title and that’s the last time they won one.
“The club had had no success for yeas until Mr Fotherby got his claws on the club and within two years of taking over we had been crowned champions. A lot of it was down to him because he was the man who had to finance it.
“We didn’t get the crowds they get now. We were lucky if we got 350. It frustrated him massively. I worked with him for nearly five years and it was something that really got him down. ‘What do we have to do John’ is something he said a lot. I always said ‘what can you do? You’ve won the league, cups, what more do people want’? People just weren’t coming through the turnstiles. They certainly do now. They get about 1200 watching.
“People were sceptical about him when he first went there and I think there was a lot of things said about Mr Fotherby which were untrue. He threw his heart and soul into it.
“I have worked for 12 or 13 clubs in my career and the one thing about Mr Fotherby is anything he said he was going to do, he did it. That’s a fact.
“If he said ‘I’ll give you this for the players’. he delivered. I always said ‘you’re the delivery man Mr F’, everything you say you deliver on’. He used to always laugh.
“There’s that Gordon Strachan story about his contract negotiating with Mr F where he ended up owing Leeds money for five season tickets so it was always entertaining watching him negotiating with new signings. It was obviously a lot different from his days at Leeds. Any player I signed we used to take them into the hospitality and he always used to try and get them to sign for less than they wanted!
“It was the biggest budget Harrogate Town had ever had. Other clubs used to try and say they knew what it was by saying things like ‘I know for a fact your wage budget is £6000’. I used to laugh and say crikey ‘where have you got that idea’? It was something like £2500, but Mr F wanted to bring the players in we needed to win promotion.
“Scott Bonsall was another massive player for us. Mark Atkins, a friend of mine, he came in later on and got promoted to being my number two when Neil Aspin left.
“I think when you look back at the players we brought in, we maybe missed an opportunity to get to the Conference. At the time the NPL Premier Division was only one league below the Conference. So you could argue we underachieved. To be fair to Mr F he never set any targets and even he was a bit sceptical about getting into the Conference because there was only him putting the money in.
“If he had gone into the Conference with Harrogate whatever he was putting in with his own money would have quadrupled. If I’m honest I don’t think he wanted to increase the amount of money he was putting in.
“The ground was also an issue and we went to loads of sites when I was there. We went to the Showground, Claro Road, various other grounds. I’ll say this and I might get a bit of stick, but I think the council at Harrogate let him down terribly. Look at what he did at that club and how far he took them.
“It is unbelievable what has happened since the Weaver Family took over. Mr F didn’t have that kind of money to do what they have done. It is a Football League ground now.
“Leaving was the hardest thing I have ever had to do in football because he was devastated. But Stalybridge gave me an offer I could not turn down.
“I rang Mr F and said ‘I need to come and talk to you at your house’. He always said to me ‘I’ll know the day you want to leave’. I drove from Doncaster to Harrogate and when I got there he cried, he cried honestly. The drive home was horrendous.
“He didn’t speak to me for about a year. We drew them in the FA Trophy or FA Cup at Stalybridge and I remember him coming towards me without realising. We met face-to-face and I just grabbed him by his coat and said ‘come on Mr F, life’s too short, you’ve not talked to me for a year and look at those five years we had’. That’s when he came round and we became friends again.
“But people in your industry often say ‘what do you think do you was your biggest mistake in football was and the biggest mistake by a million miles was leaving Harrogate Town and Mr F’.”
The Great Escape with Stalybridge Celtic
“We were second or third in the table and everybody thought I was absolutely crackers to leave because Stalybridge were 18 points adrift with 17 matches to go.
“The local (Harrogate) newspaper portrayed me as a bit of a pantomime villain and gave me a bit of stick. The fans never did. But some of the stuff in the paper was right because would you leave a club that was joint top and go to the team bottom of the league who was 18 points adrift with 17 games to play? You’d go ‘the man’s a nutcase’.
“It was a massive challenge and I won’t tell lies, the money they offered was incredible. There’s no two ways about that.
“The first time I ever the chairman he said ‘I want you to get a team for next season in the league below’. I was like ‘what’s wrong with the league we are in? He said ‘Well have you looked at the table’? So I said ‘yeah you’ve got 17 games and I get you three players who will cost you another £1000, but I’ll be able to keep you up’. He just laughed, but he gave me the money.
“I can’t remember their names, but I brought in a goalkeeper, centre-half and a centre-forward.
“We played 17 matches and we lost one and we stayed up after beating Hucknall Town 2-0 at Stalybridge. About 2000 people came to watch it. Two older supporters bought me two bottles of whisky to say thank you for keeping the club up. They just said to me that I was crackers to take the job, but I always had belief that we would stay up =. I remember the first training session with Mark Atkins and I said to him ‘these aren’t that bad you know and if we get two or three players in and sort the team out with some kind of system and discipline we can stay up’.
“I always remember going to Bradford (Park Avenue) for one of our first games and we won 1-0. Scott Bonsall hit an absolute worldie. That win kick-started us.
“When I walk into Stalybridge’s ground now everybody says ‘here’s Reedy’. People don’t know, but on every lamppost in Stalybridge they put a picture of me in place of Steve McQueen on The Great Escape posters. It was unbelievable.”
Resigning 30 minutes after leading Hatfield Main to the NCEL Premier Division title in 1996
“It was a magnificent achievement. We won the Division One title in 1995 and then the Premier Division the following season and we were paying no near the £150s that were paid out in my time at Bridlington.
“I told the committee at Hatfield at Christmas (1995) to get the ground ready for the Northern Premier League because we’re going up. They didn’t believe me. They said we had no chance of winning the title.
“I remember in the January saying to my assistant John Kirk ‘look at all these games at home and I tell you now if we do three of these big teams down here, we can win it’. And we did.
“We had Jason Miller, Dave Whiteman, Steve Codd, who used to be the Emley manager, played. We got him out of retirement to play. Gary Hurlstone got all the goals.
“Craig Elliott was only 16 and somebody recommended him to me and I brought him and later on took him to Harrogate Town.
“As a young boy he had a fantastic shot. You thought he was going to be a wonder boy. His left foot was like a firecracker. He scored goals for fun before he got a bad injury when he was playing for us at Harrogate. I don’t think he ever recovered.
“He’s now one of the up-and-coming managers, no question about that. I worked with him at Shaw Lane and he’s very strict. He makes vital decisions and he doesn’t mess about. Craig puts things right and he’s won two titles already in his career.
“We beat Denaby 3-1 at home on the last day and that won us the league and promoted us. At half-time we were losing 1-0. But in the second half we had a massive slice of luck as their full-back got sent off and we bagged three in the last 15 minutes. For a club like Hatfield it was an unbelievable achievement. People used to say we were the Dog and Duck. But you can say all you want because we won the Northern Counties East League Premier Division after just one season.
“Within 30 minutes after the final whistle the committee came into the dressing room and said ‘sorry the league won’t let us go up’. I resigned on the spot. How about that? Winning the title twice on the trot and then resigning straight after winning the second title.
“The club were just happy ticking over in mid-table. But when a team has slogged it out for 38 matches and won a league title it is almost unforgivable that the club couldn’t get things done to get the ground ready. They had no hindsight whatsoever and I just felt so sorry for all the lads.
“I had a big meeting with the players and I told them that I couldn’t stay. We had achieved so much by putting them into a league they had never been in before and that achievement had been destroyed.
“The club doesn’t exist anymore and it makes my achievements stand out even more. It is the same with Denaby United. It is quite sad. I won the league with Retford Town and they’re another club who have gone. That’s three clubs who I have managed who have gone out of business.
“I think Hatfield folded because of a lack of support. Hardly anyone watched them by the end. I drive pass the ground every day when I go to my parents as they live on Broadway where the ground is. The lights are there and the stands are still there. When I drive past I’m always thinking of games we played down there. It has so many memories for me and it is so sad.”
Contact with old players
“All my ex-players stay in touch with me. Even lads from the Bridlington and even earlier days stay in touch with me.
“It is amazing. My wife always says ‘I can’t believe all these lads, some from 30 years ago, still keep in touch’. I take that as a very nice accolade.”
“I want to get back into it. I’d love to work with Lee Sinnott again, but Lee’s limited with regard the jobs he can apply for as he lives in Hull. There’s not many clubs around that area.
“I said three years ago that I never want to be a number one again and I stand by that. I would only get back into it as a number two.
“I have throughly enjoyed being a number two and when you think I have managed 2400 games as a manager, I think that’s a enough for anyone.
“I have actually been offered two number one jobs since leaving Gainsborough, but I make it clear that I don’t want to be a manager again.”
John Reed was interviewed by James Grayson
If you have enjoyed this interview and the Non League Journey interview series, please consider making a donation to the not-for-profit organisation NLY Community Sport which provides sport for children and adults with disabilities and learning difficulties. CLICK HERE to visit the JustGiving page.
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.
We have six teams, a mixture of Junior and Adult teams – Nostell MW DFC, Pontefract Pirates, Selby Disability Football Club and the South Yorkshire Superheroes (Barnsley) – across Yorkshire.
Like most organisations, we have been affected financially by the Coronavirus and we have incurred losses which we cannot recover. We have not been hit as badly as other organisations, but we do need raise £2000 to put us back at the level we were at in mid-March and enable us to make a difference to our players’ lives in the future, without having financial worries.
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