In 1879, with a long sport-less winter looming, a group of players from Scarborough’s cricket club decided that the Northern seaside town needed a football team. After a brief foray into ‘rugby football’, Scarborough Football Club played its first match of association football on the 6th November 1880, chalking up a 2-1 win on home turf: the town’s cricket ground.
They had a stint playing at the town’s multipurpose Recreation Ground, before moving into the Athletic Ground in 1898 where they would compete in the Northern League Second Division. The NLSD was soon replaced with a single Northern League division and the club would potter on for the next 70 years, playing through two World Wars and a number of regional division reshuffles with little consequence.
In 1968 they became a founding member of the Northern Premier League and began a period of cup success that would become their calling card in the second half of the century, winning the FA Trophy in 1973, 1976 and 1977.
The Trophy enjoyed a more lofty reputation in those days, helped in part by the globetrotting perks that a win ensured. The Anglo-Italian Cup had been downgraded to a semi-professional concern in 1976 and as such included the winners of Wembley’s non-league showpiece. Scarborough’s success saw them qualify on three occasions and they managed some impressive results despite the generally higher standard of the Italian entrants.
There was a famous win over Udinese, the Seadogs dispatching Le Zebrette (The Little Zebras) 4-0 at the Athletic Ground. In 1977 they beat a Parma side whose squad included an 18-year-old Carlo Ancelotti, and they enjoyed guest appearances from England internationals Gordon Banks and Alan A’Court in a game against Monza.
They also reached the third round of the FA Cup twice that decade, and generally had a pretty good time of it in the build-up to their centenary in 1979.
1980 saw yet another non-league reshuffle with the introduction of the Alliance Premier League, a single national league that sat just below the Football League, and Scarborough pushed for promotion to the league for the first time in their history. They managed a third-placed finish in 1981 but largely flattered to deceive and attendances fell as the team drifted to successive mid-table finishes.
This would change with the introduction of a 38-year old Neil Warnock in 1986, bringing in nine new first-team players for what was already the third stint of his burgeoning managerial career. He was in for a very tricky first season as the man who had brought him to the club, Barry Adamson, died unexpectedly. But Warnock spurred his team on in their former chairman’s honour, going 22 games unbeaten to finish as champions and secure league status for the first time in Scarborough’s 108-year history.
Speaking recently, Warnock described that promotion as the finest achievement of his early career, adding: “We were 50-1 outsiders to go up but these lads had a great spirit.” He would stay at the club for another season, steering them clear of relegation before leaving for Notts in November 1988.
His replacement, Colin Morris, steered the club to sixth that season despite mounting financial issues. In need of a quick cash injection, they became the first English football club to allow stadium sponsorship as the Athletic Ground was renamed the McCain Stadium, known locally as the Theatre of Chips. They also re-established their penchant for cup exploits in 1989 with a 3-2 League Cup victory over Chelsea and suffered a narrow 1-0 defeat to eventual winners Arsenal in the competition’s 1992/93 edition.
However, their league finishes suffered and any progress was curtailed by the frequent rotation of managerial duties. After the termination of Ray McHale’s four-year spell with the club in 1993, Scarborough would employ Phil Chambers, Steve Wicks and Billy Ayre in less than two years. In December of 1996, with the club bottom of the football league, Ray McHale was reinstated to make it four consecutive seasons in which the Seadogs had changed manager mid-season.
McHale’s second spell lasted a comparatively epochal 18 months before he was replaced by Mick Wadsworth in the summer of 1996. Things seemed to be on the up as he led the side to Scarborough’s highest ever league finish in 1998 but were comfortably beaten by Torquay in the Third Division play-offs.
The season after saw the club mired in a relegation dogfight, stranded at the bottom for most of the year until a late revival under new manager Colin Addison. But while their form had improved, so did that of the teams around them and they struggled to move away from the drop. Clawing themselves off the bottom in their penultimate game, their survival hung on the final day’s game against Peterborough United and their rival’s result.
After already beating Halifax Town and Plymouth Argyle that week the Seadogs were confident but fatigued and needed three points to guarantee safety against a Posh side with future Premier League stars Matthew Etherington and Simon Davies in their ranks.
Relegation to the non-league would be disastrous for a club with such shaky finances and the game started poorly with a Richard Scott opener silencing the near 5,000 home fans. The mood soon lifted as the home side equalised and the news filtered through that their nearest rivals, Carlisle United, were behind in their game.
The second half at the McCains Stadium played out without further score and, with Carlisle having now equalised against Plymouth, there was an agonising wait for confirmation of Scarborough’s safety. As the full-time whistle went, Scarborough fans took to the pitch in pre-emptive celebration, but play continued at Brunton Park.
The Scarborough players had retreated to the dressing room, where goalkeeper Tim Parks remembers the wait for news: “The scores were level at Carlisle and there wasn’t long left so we thought that was that”.
And there was not long left, the game was deep into stoppage time when Carlisle were awarded a corner and flooded the Plymouth penalty box in search of a winner. It was at this moment, with seconds remaining in an exhausting season, that Parks remembers the crushing blow:
“Then someone said ‘Carlisle have scored, Jimmy Glass got it”.
Disbelief turned to confusion for Parks: “Well that can’t be right”, the veteran stopper recalls thinking, “he is in goal… It was another five minutes before I found out it was true”.
While Jimmy Glass’ last-minute heroics for Carlisle United is the stuff of folklore and Danny Baker-fronted VHS videos for most football fans, for Scarborough it was devastating.
“Relegation”, says Parks, “even at that stage, felt like the beginning of the end for the club. Some can cope with being relegated from the League but I did worry about Scarborough.”
The first relegation in their 120-year history came at the hands of an on-loan goalkeeper as they slipped out of the Football League with the final kick of the season. They would never return.
There can’t be many examples of a club who suffered their first relegation in their second century in existence. Perhaps that is why Scarborough found it so hard to bounce back from. Their first season in the Conference saw them finish fourth, but with a points tally that was as close to Northwich Victoria in 18th as it was to the singular promotion place. The chairman, John Russell, resigned and he and his wife relented both their roles as directors and controlling stake as the club went into Corporate Voluntary Arrangement (CVA) to help sort out their spiralling debts.
The club was bottom of the Conference on Christmas Day 2001. New owners Malcolm Reynolds and Philip Webster turned to Russell Slade for saviour and the new manager duly delivered, taking 39 points from the final 19 games to cruise to a 12th-place finish.
By Christmas of 2003, they were back up to fourth position and it appeared that Slade, despite operating on a shoestring budget, could be the man to return them to league football. However, events off the field destabilised the club as Webster, who had also overseen a period of financial turmoil while a director at Hull City, was sentenced to three and half years for conspiring to cheat the Inland Revenue in regards to the sale of a nightclub.
Slade could see no light at the end of the tunnel and as the club was forced to enter administration he tendered his resignation. In what was supposed to be his final game, a tearful Slade was presented with a petition from adoring fans calling for him to stay. The following Monday morning he announced that he would be continuing as manager, but it did little more than delay the inevitable.
Fans were under no illusions that he was likely to leave at the end of the season but he did conduct an ode to the club’s cup heritage as a parting gift. A run to the FA Cup fourth round helped to lift spirits and fatten the bank balance, and culminated in a narrow 1-0 defeat to Chelsea at the McCain Stadium.
As expected, Slade left to join league side Grimsby Town and, as expected, the club’s precarious finances soon toppled over as both Reynolds and Webster were banned from company directorship. The club’s owners admitted continuing to trade while the club was insolvent, taking “an unreasonable risk”.
This led to compulsory relegation in 2006 and yet another CVA, as the club fell to the Conference North and were hit with a ten-point deduction for the upcoming season. New chairman Ian Scobbie tried unsuccessfully to sell the ground to help shift some debts and with no funds available manager Mark Paterson was tasked with steering a 15 man squad (6 of whom were teenagers from the previous season’s youth team) through a tough season.
He managed, just about. A 1-0 win away at Hucknall on the final day ensured they finished clear of the relegation places but had little bearing on their long-term prospects. As the final whistle was blown on their 128-year history, the travelling Seadogs fans poured onto the pitch in a final gesture of defiance, thanking the team for their efforts and savouring the final moments of something that had been so important, but which would soon be no more.
“We’re Scarborough ‘till we die”, they sang, young and old alike. “We know we are, we’re sure we are, we’re Scarborough ‘till we die”. The fans were on the pitch, but they knew it was all over. It was now.
In the summer of 2007 a group of Scarborough FC supporters formed The Seadog Trust, seeking to establish a new football team for the Northern seaside town. The trust’s chairman, Simon Cope, described it as “the start of a new chapter in the history of football in Scarborough.”
They continued the use of the red kit, nautical nickname, and official logo from the deceased club, but, forced to start in the bottom rung of the non-league ladder, could not afford to take up residence in their former lodgings. The Athletic Ground would remain unused, derelict and vandalised until its 2011 demolition while the new club were forced to play at ‘nearby’ Bridlington Town’s ground; 20 miles and 40 minutes away.
They began their journey in the Northern Counties East League Division One, winning promotion in their second season and doing the same in 2013. There was progress on the pitch but the team struggled to reconnect with the town, with only around 400 hardy fans making the trip down the coast to Bridlington.
But in 2015 ground was broken on a new football ground for the town of Scarborough, an artificially-turfed community hub named the Flamingo Land Stadium. Sponsored stadium names are usually sneered over but when built to service the memory of a club who were the first to have one, it seems oddly appropriate.
Back in their rightful place attendances soared to 300% of the previous season’s and the team thrived on the newfound momentum. On the 28th April 2018, eleven years to the day since Scarborough FC went out of business, Scarborough Athletic secured a third promotion in ten years to leave the club just below the league in which their predecessor was snuffed out.
That most recent promotion was the work of manager Steve Kittrick, whose time at the club also included the stadium move and whose famous quotes are daubed on the walls of one of the town’s pubs, alongside some words from Muhammad Ali and Martin Luther King.
Standing on the pitch after securing promotion, speaking to local press with a beaming smile, Kittrick clearly understands how important this club is to the town. Scarborough Athletic has a sense of belonging that belies the phoenix club’s infancy but trumpets the town’s proud footballing heritage.
“This is a proper football club”, said Kittrick. “A proper football club, with history.”