Harrogate Town determined to make the most of what's left of their home advantage in play-off clash
Simon Weaver’s team finished 2019/20 second in English football’s fifth tier and now find themselves just two wins away from securing a first-ever promotion to the Football League.
Capturing the division’s runners-up spot ensured that the Wetherby Road outfit would enjoy home advantage at the last-four stage of the play-offs, though they will not be able to count on all of the traditional benefits a team usually derives from playing a game in their own back yard.
Social distancing measures aimed at preventing the spread of Covid-19 dictate that the fixture must take place behind closed doors, meaning that Town will not have a partisan Harrogate crowd behind them, or that much-vaunted 12th man to rely upon for additional inspiration.
Nor will they have a changing room to use before or after the match following the National League’s decision to award use of both the home and away facilities to the visiting side.
As a result, Harrogate will change inside the CNG Stadium’s bar, in quarters that have undergone something of a makeover during the last couple of weeks, but hardly make for the ideal surroundings when preparing for undoubtedly the biggest game in the club’s history.
Yet, although Weaver described the prospect of delivering his team-talk to a backdrop of pint glasses and pork scratchings as “a bit Sunday League”, neither he nor his players are seeking excuses to hide behind.
Crowd or no crowd, changing rooms or clubhouse, Town are up for this contest and determined to deliver.
“I know what’s at stake, I know how big this game is, I don’t need a big crowd in the ground to make me aware of that,” said club captain Josh Falkingham.
“Of course it will be strange without the fans, and we wish they could be there with us. I think it will be a factor, but it shouldn’t make too much of a difference.
“We can’t use these things as excuses. We’re good at home, we have a great record here and we train on our pitch every day, so that’s still an advantage.
“At the end of the day, it’s about who turns up, and we’ve been doing everything that we can over the last month to make sure that it’s us who does.”
Falkingham’s midfield partner Lloyd Kerry echoed his skipper’s sentiments.
“It’s going to be different, and having your own supporters behind you does help in terms of the buzz inside the ground and the adrenaline,” the ex-Sheffield United trainee said.
“But, it’s a big game, and the TV cameras will be there, so those factors help get the adrenaline pumping anyway.
“We’re one win away from Wembley. If you can’t get up for a match like this, then what can you get up for?”
Home advantage or not, manager Weaver believes that his squad is altogether better prepared for the rigours of a play-off campaign than they were at the end of last season.
Town finished 2018/19 sixth in the National League, but were beaten 3-1 away at AFC Fylde in a play-off eliminator.
And as disappointing an experience as that was, the Harrogate manager is certain that his side learned plenty from it.
“I think that the experience last season will help the lads a lot going into the Boreham Wood game,” he said.
“We didn’t start particularly well at Fylde and found ourselves 2-0 down quite early on. It’s the kind of occasion that your players need to relish, but I just felt like it passed some of them by.
“This time I think we’re in a better place mentally and the excitement of what’s at stake should really be driving us forwards. There’s a place at Wembley waiting for the winner.
“We’re also better off for the experience of finding ourselves 18th in the league in September and then reacting with such strength.
“I feel like we’re ready. We can’t wait for the game now.”
Excited as Weaver and his men are by the prospect of today’ semi-final showdown, they know they are in for a serious examination of their promotion credentials by the Wood, who set up their trip to North Yorkshire by beating FC Halifax Town 2-1 last week.
“I rate Boreham Wood. They’ve got a good manager in Luke [Garrard] and really play to their strengths,” he added.
“Their front-three are all a threat and they know what they’re doing from set-pieces.
“In the second half of their win over Halifax they showed exactly what they are capable of.
“We know the system that they’ll play and we’ve done some defensive work on keeping our shape, trying to stop crosses into the box, and on set-plays, but other than that, the way in which we play won’t be any different to usual.”
As has been the case throughout his time in charge of Town, Weaver remains adamant that concentrating on their own game will be key to his players’ chances of getting the right result.
He continued: “We have to concentrate on ourselves, on delivering a good performance.
“We need to take advantage of our own strengths and play our game.
“Last time we met Boreham Wood we lost to a late goal, but played very well. We need more of the same, though we have to be more clinical in their box.”