A professional approach in an amateur environment has set the benchmark for success now and in the future for Leeds-based Harrogate and District League outfit AFC Horsforth. Amitai Winehouse reports.
When you’ve represented a team at semi-professional level, a drop down to the second division of the Harrogate and District League might not compare.
This is not the case for Dan Sheard, assistant manager, treasurer and co-founder of AFC Horsforth, who have taken the division and entire league by storm this season.
Horsforth were founded in 2012 by Sheard and manager Chris Peachey, primarily in response to a lack of professionalism at other teams they had represented. They began in the Leeds Combination League on a Sunday, but chose to move at the start of the campaign.
Sheard said: “We took the decision to move to the Harrogate League, and it’s gone really well.
“We’re currently in the second division but we got to the semi-final of the League Cup.
“Chris and I have played junior football and amateur football together for a good 15 years.
“We played in quite a few amateur clubs that were badly organised, and so we thought we should make a club that’s run professionally from the top. We want to run it quite seriously.
“We’d had a few bad experiences playing for other clubs. The professional approach we have we think is one of the reasons we’re doing so well.
“The players buy into that, we’ve attracted a lot of players from some bigger clubs. We want to play well, we want to play proper football.”
Surveying the rest of the division, it’s clear that Horsforth’s footballing philosophy is working. They sit two points clear at the top of the table, despite having played two games fewer than their nearest rivals, FC No Curfew.
That is not the extent of Horsforth’s achievements this season, however. They reached the League Cup semi-final, competing against sides from all divisions in the league. In fact, en route to the semi-final, which they ultimately lost, they beat two Premier Division sides and two First Division teams.
Sheard was disappointed to go out of the competition, and said: “We believed that we could do it. We beat two teams from the Premier and two teams from the first division. The lads had a real confidence.
“We were disappointed on the day, we had a couple of individual errors. We took a step backwards in the pub after and thought to have a team from division two get to a semi-final is unheard of.”
While they sit atop the Second Division currently, Sheard admits that he is hoping that any potential restructuring of the division would reap benefits for his club in the summer.
He added: “We’re hoping that the committee in Harrogate will move us up a division.”
Should they have an opportunity to make that sudden leap to the Premier Division, the assistant manager doesn’t foresee them having any problems. In fact, he revealed that the club will not settle for a season without achievement.
Sheard admitted: “We set the highest standards. The aim at the start of a season is to win a trophy.
“We want to be a well run club, but win things as well. If we go into Division One next year, we’ll be drilling the boys to go up, absolutely. With the performances this year and the players we’ve got a hold of, we don’t see why we can’t.
“Even our pre-season friendlies are against teams in the higher divisions, because we want to keep pushing ourselves.”
The top tier of football in Harrogate is not where Horsforth see themselves ending up, however, with Sheard admitting that upcoming expansion, including a reserve side, will help the team rise through the leagues.
He said: “This year’s the first year of expansion. We’ve just taken over the running of the Old Ball Sunday League team.
“We know the lads, and we played in the Combination League with them. With the addition of a reserve side, next season we’ll have gone from one to three teams.
“Ultimately, we want to get as high as possible as we can be in the league structure. For example, if we wanted to move into the West Yorkshire League, we would need a reserve team.”
Both Sheard, a goalkeeper, and Peachey represented Guiseley earlier in their careers. While this represented the peak of their playing careers, Sheard is adamant that, for many reasons, his time in charge of Horsforth along with Peachey has been the best of his time in football.
He said: “In the first season we started, 2012, we won the League Cup. It was something we built ourselves.
“Another achievement was getting sponsorship from Subway – a huge company – this season.
“It helps that Chris and I have been best mates for the best part of 20 years.”
As for why a team from Horsforth plays in the Harrogate and District League, Sheard revealed that the decision to switch came, in part, due to a desire to play against teams that shared their footballing philosophy.
“The biggest thing for us was to join a league where good football would be played”, he continued. “We’d played Rawdon Old Boys a few times, we had a good relationship with them.
“We like the style of football they play. We thought the standard of football that they played was better, and we wanted to be able to play a passing style of football. As an example, No Curfew, who are second in our division, play good football. We’ve had a series of great matches with them, which helps justify the switch.”
That better playing style can only serve to benefit younger players coming into the side. Horsforth’s greatest footballing export is undoubtedly current Manchester City and former Leeds United star James Milner. AFC have a plan in place to create the stars of the future, and it involves their successful veterans.
Sheard revealed: “There’s a lot of senior players at the club who are interested in taking on junior teams. That was part of the plan from the start. We were sensible, and thought in five or so years we’d look into it. We’ve got three or four players who are nearing retirement, and they’re keen to get involved.
“The vision for the club is that if you’ve got a younger set-up you can bring players through. If we keep building, we’d love to have more young players.
“The average age of the team is probably about 23/24 at the moment. When we first started, the lads that are 20 now were 18. We are a younger side. We’re always looking to bring young players through.”
With a clear plan ahead of them and success already under their belt, there seems little limit to Horsforth’s aspirations.