By Chris Bailey
HAROLD Wood is a century-old institution in Essex but the club was forced to, quite literally, rise from the ashes after an arson attack destroyed their clubhouse in 2005.
It left members questioning whether the show could even go on, but on it went – to even greater heights than before – and there was even a royal day out.
The club can trace its roots back to 1896 and when local landowner Edward Bryant donated a field to the local council in the Thirties, the community hub – Harold Wood Park – was born.
Senior and youth football teams also called the area its home and it took the combined strength of all three set-ups to respond when disaster struck more than a decade ago.
And after a herculean effort, chairman – and until this season captain – Tom Clarke says the club is flourishing in all forms and formats of the game.
“We were facing real problems, three years changing in and out portakabins, there was no bar or a real social space – I’m not quite sure how we did it,” said Clarke.
“When your clubhouse is burned down, you think ‘where can we possibly go from here?’ But great possibilities have come from that, things that we would never have even thought of before.
“Over the years we kept all the teams running and if anything we laid the platform for a few more extra teams. So not only have we now got brand new facilities which were far better than we had before, but on the field we’ve moved forward as a club.
“Even though the first team got relegated this summer, all the 2s, 3s, 4s and 5s all got promoted – it was very much one of the most successful years we have ever had.
“The Harold Wood academy used to include nine to 16-year-olds, but now we’re going all the way from the age of six right up to adults. We also have several girls teams and our women’s side has links with Essex, who some of our members have played for.
“We also have teams for people with learning and physical disabilities, and some of that is down to the fact that we have mod cons at our new facilities – catering for wheelchairs for example. We’ve had great support from Essex with this.”
Harold Wood is not a traditional powerhouse in Essex club cricket though long-time county wicket-keeper Barry Hyam, along with brother Matt, have both left their mark.
Yet Clarke insists it’s the unseen faces rather than any reliance on star power that has seen the club grow – and it’s not just the senior teams that reap the benefits.
“We’ve had a couple of big charity events. In August this year we walked from the Oval to our ground, which is 24 miles away and we’ve also played outside Buckingham Palace,” added Clarke. “We don’t charge our disability section membership fees and that’s something we wanted to continue to do as prices naturally go up as things cost more.
“It will also help reduce membership fees for our academy.
“It’s really been about raising the profile of the club and for youngsters, as there’s been a bit of a lull in participation and that’s from speaking to many clubs in the area.
“We’ve also just managed to secure a grant from Sport England for new practice nets which have been left behind with everything else that’s been going on.
“We haven’t had any huge names come through the ranks, Barry Hyam kept at Essex for a long time and is now their academy coach.
“He played with us for several years. His brother, Matt, has been a big part of our club – he set up our youth system initially and is one of our heroes, he now helps out with Essex’s cricket board.”
Nevertheless results on the field are not just a secondary concern for Harold Wood and since rising through the ranks, the first team are yet to establish themselves at Premier League level after falling back down to Division One this year.
But it’s been quite a journey for the club so far, with Clarke insisting that the team will emerge all the stronger for their experience up against some of Essex’s county cricket stars. “The first team had back-to-back promotions in 2012 and 2013 and then the standard steps up a lot,” Clarke said
“We were playing the likes of Jamie Porter and Dan Lawrence, who have both done incredibly well after breaking through at Essex, and Nick Browne who scored 1,000 runs for Essex this season.
“It’s great to have them recognised by the county and it goes to show that our younger players have a lot to aim for and can inspire to the highest level.
“None have quite broken through into Essex yet, but I believe it’s only a matter of time.
“The ambition this season was to get the second team promoted as there’s a six or seven league gap between them and the first team. So the first team’s relegation isn’t the end of the world and they’ve been so strong over the last few years – it’s had a knock-on effect to the rest of the club.”
Clarke’s dual-role as chairman and captain may have come to an end but the 33-year-old’s commitment shows no sign of waning.
Clarke added: “I’ve been at the club since I was 15 and on the committee since I was 18, and I’ve had lots of different jobs like team and fixture secretary. I’ve been the chairman since 2011 and became first-team captain in 2012, although that wasn’t in the plan – it just happened. I have a long-suffering wife!
“I’m definitely not the most talented player at the club but I’m one of the most organised and it helps to have someone who knows the club inside out.
“The captaincy is not something I’ll be retaining next season, so I can focus on the background stuff more.”
This piece originally featured in The Cricket Paper on Friday October 9, 2015