Harrogate Town opinion: Surprised, encouraged and proud after opening day
Harrogate Town supporter Dave Worton's first fan column of the 2022/23 campaign.
What a weekend that turned out to be.
I don’t think I could be any prouder of Harrogate Town’s players and of the way they dug in and fought for every ball against Swindon – very tough opponents with a proven history – before netting against the general run of play and going on to see the game out professionally right to the end.
Yes, the Lionesses thrilled us all in their game-changing victory over Germany on Sunday. Mind you, Town’s men were a worthy support act 24 hours earlier.
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I think it’s fair to say that not even the most optimistic Sulphurites fan would have dared dream of their team putting three without reply past a Swindon side fancied for promotion this term. Many fans I spoke to would have been happy to avoid defeat.
Barely 10 weeks earlier, the Robins had squared up to Port Vale in the League Two play-off semi-final, losing out only on penalties. Four weeks prior to that, they’d put four past Simon Weaver’s team at Wetherby Road.
Yet if our Wiltshire visitors turned up in North Yorkshire thinking they had this one in the bag as well, then the new-look Town had other ideas.
It’s a difficult third season in the Football League for our club. The majority of the squad that’s served us so well by bringing us up through the leagues has dispersed.
Changes have been sorely needed, but we’re a small fish in a big pond now, competing with much larger clubs in terms of spending power and support for the same pool of players.
With boss Weaver openly admitting that he lost out on some of his summer transfer targets, will our 11 signings – mainly a mixture of League Two players, young loanees and signings from the National Leagues – improve on last season’s squad?
I only attended two pre-season fixtures, the early defeats to Sheffield Wednesday and Rotherham, and came away feeling slightly underwhelmed and fearing for our lack of firepower.
I also couldn’t get my head around the formation, with one up front and seemingly three spaced out at the back. My early thoughts were that survival in the league this season would be a success.
There again, we were playing two very good teams and running out a fair few trialists, and I began to wonder whether choosing such challenging warm-up matches could be counter-productive for team confidence going forwards.
I needn’t have worried, as we then defeated Huddersfield, held Barnsley and played very well at Gateshead. I got to thinking maybe I should stay away for the sake of the team. I’m glad I didn’t.
The formation turned out to be a new 3-4-2-1 system, and it worked astoundingly well against Swindon.
I’ve long been a critic of the three central defenders we played for parts of last season because it often morphed into a cautious five at the back, with the entire team falling ever deeper and inviting pressure. This new system appears to be different.
Yes, we only lined up with one out-and-out striker in the relentless Luke Armstrong, but the emphasis is on Alex Pattison and Matty Daly to push forward in support and, to a slightly lesser extent, the two wide midfielders-cum-full-backs.
Huddersfield loanee Jaheim Headley in particular, played with no fear, combining controlled aggression with moments of pace and skill.
His fellow Terriers loanee Josh Austerfield looks to have blossomed also.
I still have minor reservations. In a difficult first-half spell, we struggled to gain possession and Swindon highlighted a possible weakness with long balls into the space behind our widemen.
But, the manager has tailored his acquisitions to players that fit the formation he wants to play. All of the back three are able to play in both central defensive and wide full-back roles.
We already know about Warren Burrell, but Miles Welch-Hayes adds pace and aerial aggression and I have it on good authority from a Rotherham-supporting friend that Mattock will do us a job here in either position.
I also feared we may fall back into the shape of last season when under that first-half pressure, but the players pulled themselves back up the pitch and Pattison and Daly’s superb strikes either side of half-time turned the match in Town’s favour and we then ran out comfortable winners.
Here again, it’s worth noting that the manager has bought in another central midfielder, Stephen Dooley, who admits to playing in this system with Rochdale last season. When we did have control of the ball, the players looked comfortable on it and it’s easy to forget that this was a team shorn of injured captain Josh Falkingham.
If the visitors had netted their fortunate spot-kick 20 minutes from time, things may have turned out differently, but Pete Jameson stepped up and made the difference.
Even though Ben Gladwin hit the base of Jameson’s right-hand post, the goalkeeper was so close to it that the rebounding ball struck his body and deflected away from the goal.
Whilst Weaver had a huge grin on his face walking around the pitch afterwards, Scott Lindsey, the Swindon manager taking charge of his first game, came out to melodramatically announce that his team’s defeat felt "like the end of the world".
Heaven help him if they lose at home to Salford next Saturday, he’s hardly left himself much room for manoeuvre.
We shouldn’t get too carried away by an opening-day victory, as we’ve also won our opening matches in the previous two league seasons and a lot will hinge on the players staying fit and being able to maintain this level of performance .
I am, however, still going to enjoy the moment and, if it is to be the end of the world as we know it, then I feel fine.