Whilst noble in principle, the Abercrombie Report could hardly now be described as having been an unqualified success. The report, which advocated the mass decampment of a million and a half people from the overcrowded East End of London, led to the creation of such wonders of post-war architecture as Stevenage, Welwyn Garden City, Hatfield and Harlow. The development of Harlow Town Football Club through the county leagues, into the Athenian League and finally into the Isthmian League in 1974 mirrored the initial success of the town, and its decline during the 1980s was almost eerie in the way that it matched the physical decline of an area that had suffered in the long term as a result of the enforced financial restraints of post-war British town planning.
To say that Harlow’s impact upon the FA Cup was sudden and unexpected would be something of an understatement. They had joined the Isthmian League in 1973 when the league expanded to two divisions, but had finished fourth from bottom in their first season and hardly set the world alight in the years immediately in afterwards. In 1979, however, they suddenly and unexpectedly came to life. Under the careful managership of Ian Wolstenholme (who had saved a last minute penalty for Enfield at Wembley in the 1967 FA Amateur Cup Final against Skelmersdale United), they won the Isthmian League by fourteen points in 1979, but even this didn’t give too much indication of what was to follow. The following season, Harlow would equal the record, set by New Brighton in 1957 and equalled by Blyth Spartans in 1978, of playing in the most different rounds of the FA Cup in one season.
Starting at the Prelminary Round stage in August 1979, Harlow Town played as many matches to get to the First Round Proper as a Premier League club would get to the final itself. None of these matches were walkovers, either. Lowestoft Town, Hornchurch, Bury Town, Harwich & Parkeston and Margate were overcome to set up their first ever appearance alongside the clubs of the Third and Fourth Divisions of the Football League. If they had been hoping for a glamorous draw, they were to be disappointed. They were drawn against Leytonstone/Ilford, who were top of the division below them. It was a tough, tough draw. Leytonstone had only merged with Ilford at the end of the previous season, and were on their way to winning the Isthmian League First Division by a similar margin to the one that Harlow had won it by the season before. Two years later, they would win the Isthmian League Premier Division – automatic promotion would be introduced with the Conference in 1986, and Leytonstone would miss out on promotion in 1989 on account of the condition of their stadium. Leytonstone/Ilford now make up the “Redbridge” part of Dagenham & Redbridge. Harlow overcame any First Round nerves to win by two goals to one.
In the draw for the Second Round, they finally got the draw that a team had already got through six rounds of the competition might expect – an away Essex derby against Southend United. Harlow drew the first match 1-1 at Roots Hall, bringing their Football League opposition back to their Sportcentre stadium, where a goal by PE teacher Micky Mann was enough to earn them a 1-0 win and a place in the Third Round. In the next round, with media interest reaching a fever pitch, they drew a Leicester City side away from home who, under the gruff Scot Jock Wallace, were top of the Second Division and contained a young Gary Lineker playing, somewhat inexplicably, on the wing. They went a goal down in the first half at Filbert Street, but Leicester failed turn almost complete territorial domination into a further advantage and, two minutes from time, Neil Prosser levelled for Harlow to take Leicester back to the Sportcentre for a replay. A huge crowd of over 9,700 turned out for the replay along with, for the first time, BBC television cameras. They were rewarded with the shock of the round. Five minutes from half-time, John McKenzie poked a shot over the line by just enough for the referee to give a goal, even though it was scooped away by a lunging defender on the goal line. Harlow clung on to record a remarkable 1-0 win, and set up a Fourth Round match against Watford.
Harlow were now official media darlings, and a crowd of over 24,000 turned out at Vicarage Road for the Fourth Round match. The game started much as the match at Leicester had, with Watford pressurising to little effect, and Neil Prosser gave them a 1-0 half-time lead. Their luck finally ran out in the second half. Graham Taylor’s Watford team were in the middle of their rapid ascent towards the First Division, an FA Cup final and UEFA Cup football, and the home side scored four quick goals to race into a four goal lead. Even this wasn’t quite enough to make the game completely safe. John McKenzie scored twice to pull the score back to 4-3 with six minutes to play, but this time there was no way back and Watford held on to win.
Harlow Town’s decline was rapid. Hamstrung by their FA Cup run, they finished in mid-table in the Isthmian League Premier division in 1980 and, the following year, they finished in the relegation places and only stayed up when Dagenham and Enfield were invited to join the Conference. Meanwhile, they made the FA Cup First Round in 1981 and 1982, losing to Charlton Athletic and Barnet. Relegation followed the following season. By the early 1990s, and with dark rumours circling that the directors of the club during more successful times had made off with the majority of the profits from the cup run, they were in a very bad way. The Sportcentre had fallen badly into disrepair, to the extent that it no longer met Isthmian League minimum standards. The club had planned to build a new stadium, but building work stopped when the money ran out. In 1992 they made a further FA Cup First Round appearance away against Peterborough United, but lost 7-0.
At the end of the 1991/92 season, with the club having groundshared for most of the previous season, the club dropped out of football altogether. It seemed likely that they would never resurface, but in the summer of 1993 to businessmen put up the money to pay off the worst of the club’s debts and re-enter them into the Isthmian League, whilst also spending the money required to bring the Sportcentre back up to standard. The club made rapid progress under the managership of Eddie McCluskey (manager of the great Enfield side of the late 1970s and 1980s), earning two successive promotions to put them back in the Ryman League Premier Division. After thirty-one years in the Isthmian League, they transferred into the Southern League for the 2004 and 2005 seasons, and in 2006 they left The Sportcentre to a new stadium at Barrows Farm. In 2007, they were promoted into the Isthmian League Premier Division, where they remain today.
Twenty-eight years on, Harlow Town are back in the FA Cup for only the second time since the glory days of the early 1980s. Harlow have beaten Aveley, St Albans City, Crowborough Athletic and Burgess Hill Town to get this far, and on Saturday they entertain League Two club Macclesfield Town at Barrows Farm. They may not end up as the cause celebre of the 2009 FA Cup but, settled into a new ground and having consolidated their position in the Ryman League Premier Division, the future looks brighter now for Harlow Town than it has done for a generation.