From the Terraces: So many highlights during Harrogate Town's debut EFL season
Harrogate Town supporter Dave Worton's final fan column of the 2020/21 campaign.
Matters in life are rarely played out in black and white, contradiction and shades of grey often abound, and so it proved with the season just ended.
It’s been both an enjoyable and frustrating season for Harrogate Town fans. We’ve proudly watched on as our team successfully cemented their historic place in the Football League and returned from Wembley with a trophy for the second time in ten months.
Unfortunately we’ve had to do it from socially distanced living rooms for all but two home matches in December.
Viewing week-in week-out, as consumers on a screen, has unavoidably morphed us all temporarily into armchair supporters, and that’s something we match-goers don’t sit easily with.
That special bond we have with the club and the players has been sorely tested to breaking point. The sense of being part of something special, of something unique and thrilling and yes, sometimes boring but always real, has been lost to Covid-19.
Perversely, thanks to the wonders of modern technology I’ve managed to watch nearly every kick of the ball this season, something I wouldn’t have been able to do if life had been normal, yet I find myself yearning for slightly less access-on-a-plate.
I want to have to make the effort to watch Town, to set the alarm clock to meet up with a coach load of likeminded souls on the way to Exeter.
Or just to be able to stroll up to the stadium again at twenty to three, with the tannoy blaring over an expectant crowd. It’s about the whole day out, the different people you meet, the things you see and hear and, yes, the match.
We learned that the marvellous picture Barry Parker paints on the radio, of balls being hoofed into adjacent car parks and buses trundling past the field of play, is not the same on TV.
Being able to watch every blow on the screen has only made me yearn for the day when I’m stuck nervously at home, unable to attend, and solely reliant on Barry for information. So what if he gets a couple of the players’ names wrong, listening to the radio has always been about painting an imaginary game in your own head anyway.
With the advent of larger Football League stadia, we may struggle for so many ‘and he’s lashed the ball high into Sainsbury’s car park’ moments, but it’s a compromise I’m happy to make.
If the last year’s taught us anything at all, it’s that there’s no certainty where Covid is concerned.
The welcome sight of fans being allowed back into grounds for the final matches of this season gives us all hope that things will return to something approaching normal come the start of next season. It’s worth remembering that we had the same hopes for the season just ended, and look how that one turned out.
But hope we must, that we will see crowds back in some form at the start of the new season. Whether they will be reduced capacity, masked and/or socially distanced, and whether away fans will be allowed to travel, will depend to a large extent on what happens in the next few weeks, as the successful NHS vaccine rollout comes up against the imported Indian variant and any other mutation that cares to rear its ugly head.
If the Government does proceed as planned with returning life to normal this summer, Town fans will be dreaming of visiting all the grounds missed last term.
On the pitch, we saw shades of grey too. The team had the advantage of hitting the ground running, having trained in the summer in order to win the National League play-offs barely two months before. Confidence was at a high and fitness levels at a peak, and it gave us an initial advantage over teams who hadn’t played competitively since March.
Yet the intense summer also had its negative side in the run-up to Christmas. As players began to tire and injuries started to bite, results took a worryingly downward turn and had us all looking anxiously over our shoulders at Grimsby and Southend.
Matches were nearly always tight, but we looked toothless. It took an inspired bit of dealing in the transfer window to bring in players that freshened us up in an attacking sense.
There were far too many highlights to list them all, whether it be the opening day romp down at Southend that took us briefly top, that vital 1-0 away victory over Nigel Clough’s Mansfield, or the satisfaction of our ‘tin-pot’ team turning over ‘promotion-certainties’ Carlisle at the third attempt, following an abandonment and a power cut.
If I had to choose though, I’d plump for a run of three home matches near the end of the season, when we thrillingly took our first-ever point from Leyton Orient in a pulsating 2-2 draw, did the double over Bradford and watched, mouths wide open, as our second string put five past second in the table Cambridge, whilst only conceding the four.
The Bradford match, in particular, had it all -a dominant Town first 45 followed by a strong second-half comeback from the play-off chasing Bantams, only for Josh McPake to nick it one minute from time in glorious, see-saw fashion, sealing Town’s place in the division for another year into the bargain.
Now, just imagine the scenes if Wetherby Road had been packed to the rafters with fans.
Though Covid has rendered football a bit of a holding pattern for supporters in general, the most vital thing was that Town stayed in the Football League so we can see them play there in the flesh.
Missing two Wembley finals is one thing, but being one-season wonders in the Football League, and not being able to go, would have been almost unbearable.
It’s been an incredible achievement to climb out of two brutal divisions with only one automatic promotion spot and four automatic relegation places. We’re now in a division where, if a Salford or Leyton Orient is running away with it, there are still another three promotion places up for grabs and only two relegation slots.
Having just watched the marvellous Newport v Forest Green play-off semi final, I find myself wanting some of that excitement for Town again next season.
It’s a tough ask, and ‘mere’ consolidation would define success, but Town should look to Newport, Forest Green and Morecambe as role models for their own way forward.