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Tuesday, 28 January 2014

True Football Stories, Part 2: Harchester United

Some or all of these men may kill each other

It’s now been seven bewildering years since Harchester United’s light went out. Rob MacDonald pays tribute to perhaps the greatest dream team of them all.

Has ever a team burned so violently and tragically as Harchester United? As rich in history as the vibrant purple that adorned their La Viola-inspired kits, perhaps the most remarkable factor was that the club only truly existed in the national consciousness for a fleeting ten years. But what a ten years – seemingly a lifetime’s worth of ups and down compressed into a relatively tiny space, like a neutron star, or a tin of corned beef.

It was Sky who really put Harchester on the map – in every sense, as prior to that point it hadn’t been made up, which meant no one could live there and it certainly could not support a professional football club, a bit like Milton Keynes, or ‘Port Vale’. But somewhat unbelievably, the club had existed before that, first as amateurs for a fleeting but successful period between 1895 and 1898 and then as professionals from their election to the Football League (and subsequent title win) in the 1898/99 season.

Harchester was, is and may still be (but isn’t) near Tamworth in the West Midlands. The region was famous in the latter half of the nineteenth century for its naturally-occurring dragons, who were to be the victims of numerous and some might say slanderous accusations of spreading disease – a mysterious condition that left sufferers on fire – among local cattle, much like the badgers of today, were badgers to have lighters, opposable thumbs and an appetite for steak. The fateful dragon cull of 1894 led to a boom in business for local entrepreneur Sean Creamer, owner of the Dragon Leather Tannery, and it was from this prosperous and preposterous environment that the new Dragons arose, ironically and literally from the ashes of actual dragons.

But what is Harchester United? For over a century, it was a club like any other. Fleeting glimpses of success down the years included three Second Division titles and a First Division title in 1985/86, achieved under something of a storm as the Dragons controversially replaced Liverpool in the history books for no apparent reason other than a convenient backstory. Thankfully Liverpool retained their humility in defeat, and it survives to this day.

Sadly, the same cannot be said of Harchester. As great a metaphor for modern football’s failings as there has ever been, their decline began shortly after the Premier League’s inception, their rolling stone gathering so much moss that by the end, it resembled one of the Green Giant’s testicles. Plagued by boardroom wrangling, mental illness among its playing and executive staff and a scarcely believable number of corpses, theirs is a stark warning against the trappings of excess.

Perhaps the club’s greatest ever player, Karl Fletcher is the most fitting case study. Mainly because his was a life and career that Diego Maradona would have thought ‘a bit much’. A 235-goal hero to the Dragons faithful, ‘Fletch’ not only fired the club to FA Cup glory in 1999 having come through the youth system, but, following several unhappy months in Spain following his ‘big move’ to Real Mallorca, returned to the Dragons Lair for a stormy second spell during which he had an on-off affair with the club’s chief executive, was accused of murder, saved the club from a conspiratorial relegation plot, racked up huge gambling debts and moved to Saudi Arabia.

Back again for an unprecedented third spell, arguably his least successful, he failed to assist in the signing of Gabriel Batistuta’s cousin and was then murdered by having his head hung on a changing room clothes peg, though it was never proven if the two events were related, if Batigol’s cousin was actually any good or if his tragic death was a result of under-pressure manager Don Barker mistaking him for a jacket.

Unbowed, Fletch famously returned from beyond the grave – a measure of the man – to haunt the club’s troubled striker Jason Porter. The popular line on this particularly insane occurrence is that he was serving as some kind of spiritual guidance to Porter, though speculation remains rife that Fletcher was trapped in an abusive relationship with Derek Acorah and was trying to seek help. Sadly, he chose to haunt an idiot. Truth is indeed stranger than fiction, but Fletcher was forever immortalised on the Harchester terraces, pre-demolition, through this affectionate albeit rather insensitive refrain:

Karl Fletcher, whoo-oh-oah
Karl Fletcher, whoo-oh-oah
He had JT on toast
Now he’s a f*****g ghost

Karl Fletcher, whoo-oh-oah
Karl Fletcher, whoo-oh-oah
Watch out for Don Barker
He thinks you’re a parka

Karl Fletcher, whoo-oh-oah
Karl Fletcher, whoo-oh-oah
He won us the first leg
And now he’s on a peg

*minute’s applause*

Harchester United remain a lesson to us all. A lesson in continuing to believe that salvation lies on the pitch, when everything off it is going to shit. A lesson that managers under pressure may well become deranged, murder your star striker then drive their car into the team bus. A lesson that an unhinged goalkeeper may well take your entire team hostage at half time in a crucial game, but armed police will kill him in the most brutal penalty shootout ever faced by anyone. A lesson that even after ALL that drama, your club, players and fans can still survive significant mental scarring sufficiently to somehow attract players good enough to go unbeaten in the 1996/97 Premier League season and win the title (Manchester United being stripped of their crown for forcing Eric Cantona to retire).

Seven years on, I hope we can each find one of those messages that resonates. Hopefully, for everyone, it’s either the first or last one. Football is indeed a game of extraordinary highs and tragic lows – yet Harchester United – perhaps the greatest dream team of them all – serve as an enduring reminder. The club might be dead, along with most of its players, staff and everyone else, but its remarkable story will echo down the ages.

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