There have been several changes at Harrogate Town’s CNG Stadium this season. A vast overhaul of the playing staff, a refurbished corporate facility, and an eradication of chips to name but a few.
Yet, the biggest notable change centres around the pitch.
After last year’s troubled season, which caused a fixture backlog and several ‘home’ visits to York, Doncaster and Starbeck, the levelled surface can now be considered “one of the best in the league”.
For most of the 2012/13 season, the pitch was a cause of embarrassment during one of the most historic years in the club’s history.
The shock run to the FA Cup second round pushed it under the spotlight. And it crumbled.
Its transformation has been a tiring process for head groundsman Jim Hague. But the results of his hard labour, along with several other volunteers, and chairman Irving Weaver’s investment have given him a sense of pride each time he prods the turf with his pitchfork.
“To play football, to pass the ball about. You need a good surface,” he said.
“This is what our manager wants, our chairman wants, and this year we have given that.
“You can’t compare it from last year to this year.
“As it is at this moment in time, I’m quite proud of it. I think it is one of the best pitches in the league.”
Hague knows only too well the pitch the players need.
At 14 and a half years old, the youngster tied his laces and pulled on the yellow and black shirt for the first time. Twenty-eight years later, at 42, he made his final appearance.
The former forward broke Town’s all-time goalscoring record, amassing 136 goals in 396 games. His collection of memories, also put him third on the all-time appearance list for the club. He still racks up the count now, heading to every match home and away as a supporter.
After retiring four years ago, he took on the pitchfork role at Town full-time.
But while he never envisaged such a role, the daily challenges have proven enjoyable exercise.
He added: “It’s just something that I liked doing. I have always been involved at Harrogate Football.
“I was just helping around the ground and it evolved. Irving said he wanted a handy man and I was there. I really enjoy it.”
The pitch’s transformation has been a long time coming.
Harrogate Town president George Dunnington explained how plans started in the 1980’s, when the dream was making the pitch spirit-level.
He knew the slope that had adorned the Wetherby Road ground would cause issue for future progress. But change was always prohibited by cash.
“Money, money money,” he mutters. “That’s what always held it back.
“We were aware that we had to do something to progress because there was a dramatic fall from the goalpost.
“If we hadn’t levelled it the Conference would have put pressure to get it done.
“I always said ‘you have to speculate to accumulate’. We have, and it’s working.”
In May 2012, the club set about levelling the pitch. Taking soil from one corner, and shipping it across to the other – the cut and spill method as it’s officially known.
However, the construction work did not go swimmingly, or as swimmingly as the club hoped. The summer rainfall of 2012 wreaked havoc and a lake formed on the pitch to take all the fresh grass seed out of place. Two weeks later, there was still no sign of freshly grown turf emerging.
Every pre-season home fixture had to be cancelled and the season start came months too early.
“If there had been an alternative, we would have played away all season. But we couldn’t we had to do the best we could,” added Dunnington, Town’s former chairman of 19 years.
Hague reflected: “What compounded it, the first game was a Tuesday. We came, the pitch was all prepared. Two hours before it started raining and it poured down. It wasn’t ready to play on and it chewed it up. We had another home game on the Saturday, again two hours before the game it poured down.
“It ended up like a paddy field, and it was like that all season. We couldn’t recover from it.
“We couldn’t use any machines. We had to do everything by hand. I had to call on several people to come and help me. They were working all the time during the week to try and get the pitch ready.
“The tractors just sat in the garage.”
Every home game became a challenge. Postponement, after postponement created a mass fixture backlog which ultimately put paid to the club’s play-off bid.
Town’s FA Cup run put further pressure on Hague and his team of volunteers to make sure the games were playable.
Covers were rented until the end of the season, while sand filled the boggy areas.
“We just wanted to get games on because we were so far behind,” said Dunnington.
Hague added: “Last year it was never ending. I was absolutely drained each week.”
Further pitch work this summer has replaced drainage systems, and the club have reaped rewards from their investment.
No matches have been called off this campaign, and the pitch has survived the latest bout of heavy rainfall without a churned up patch in sight.
“This year, once it has been slit and the water goes through, it’s far easier,” Hague said.
Dunnington concluded: “For me the dream in 1980 is today.
“Some things we never thought would happen, have happened. That pitch is what we dreamt of. And it’ll only get better.”