Saturday’s clash with Bristol Rovers was always going to be, in some way, about the return of James Belshaw in goal for me.
He played such a major role in Harrogate Town’s rise to the Football League that we fans were left upset and bemused when he was allowed to leave during the summer, and I never got a chance to pen something about his shock move as the off-the-pitch events happened so fast pre-season.
As expected, he received a warm welcome on his return, having since made Rovers’ number one shirt his own – but, we’ve both moved on and kick-off is where the love-in ends.
So I’d give anything to report that he endured a torrid afternoon, in front of another large crowd anticipating a strong Town performance against a struggling Joey Barton-led team, but our returning ex-goalkeeper can’t have had many easier days at Wetherby Road than this.
I’d been looking forward to the chance to sing “1-0 down and it’s all your fault,” partly in jest of course, but football often never pans out as you wish it to.
Three routine stops from long range efforts and a flying leap to tip away a dangerous Simon Power cross were the only times Belshaw was tested.
The game had hitherto looked to be heading to a goal-less conclusion, Town riding their luck on the few occasions the Gas threatened, with new goalkeeper Mark Oxley twice being pressed into flying saves and twice having to watch the ball narrowly miss his post and crossbar.
We would however eventually lose out rather limply to a scruffy second-half goal from substitute Nick Anderton.
Although we can be proud of the season so far, the team’s intensity has dropped off in October, Scunthorpe at home excepted.
Last week at Hartlepool, our early season luck finally ran out and the defence combusted, this week we just didn’t look like making Belshaw rue his return.
High pressing from the visitors led to Town hitting the ball high and hopelessly long towards Luke Armstrong for much of the first half.
A handful in the air he may be, but Armstrong’s strength lies in turning off the back of the last defender or getting on the end of a dangerous cross.
With both instances in short supply, and the towering visiting centre-backs gobbling up anything slung towards them in the air, it was no surprise we barely threatened.
I’m not suggesting for one minute that the players intend to go out to play this way, it’s just that we’re seeing less of the early season bravery on the ball and players running into dangerous forward space to make things happen.
Much of Town’s possession, when they did shun the back pass and all-too-predictable long ball, was sideways in front of the opposition. The more targeted long balls were either frustratingly over-hit or gobbled up by the third central defender, Belshaw.
It cried out for a different approach, for us to stretch the opposition more on the ground. Lloyd Kerry alongside Josh Falkingham in the central midfield role may have freed Alex Pattison to roam further forward and stretch the organised visiting back-line.
Our best attacking full-back, Ryan Fallowfield, wasn’t even on the bench. Power, Aaron Martin and Danilo Orsi came on too late to effect a change.
With such a fine start to the season, it’s no surprise that the manager’s stuck with a fairly consistent starting eleven. They’ve served us incredibly well, but we’re now maybe seeing signs of fatigue in some of that number.
I have no doubt this very competitive team has the quality to avoid the dire pre-Christmas slide of last season, and stay in contention for the play-offs at least, but the players need to know that their position in the team is under threat if performances dip.
Whilst Town have no God-given right to turn teams over in this division, Saturday was disappointing against the standards the players have previously set.
I’m still enjoying our journey in the Football League, just not quite so much this week.
And the lasting memory of this match will be a smiling Belshaw coming back to clap us stragglers in the Kop at the end, patting his Bristol Rovers badge as he ran towards the goal to pick up the towel he’d left hanging on the net whilst he embraced his old colleagues.
We wished him well in return of course, but please Town, let’s at least make him earn his money in the return fixture.