Harrogate Town opinion: Watching the Sulphurites has become fun again - and we should savour the feeling
This season has seen Town make small strides both on and off the pitch, the icing on the cake being an enjoyable Christmas and New Year period that saw us sneak into the top half of the League Two table.
Force of habit still had me checking the gap to the bottom two, yet 19 points would indicate that I should be concentrating on the mere two-point gap to the play-off places. Old habits die hard.
Following a pre-Christmas victory at Grimsby, the Boxing Day home fixture against Accrington Stanley offered a neat sense of symmetry on more than one count.
George Thomson’s injury-time winner neatly avenged Accrington’s 98th-minute winning goal at their place earlier in the season, and brought back memories of our last-gasp victory last Boxing Day against, yes you guessed it, Grimsby.
It was an entertaining and even match that could have gone either way as Town shaded the first half and Stanley the second. That it didn’t go the way of the visitors was down to three James Belshaw stops that drew "oh wows” from my mate Ian stood next to me, and a team that doesn’t know when to give up.
The visit of Tranmere Rovers the following Friday, whilst yielding our only defeat of the holiday period, followed a vaguely similar pattern.
Town could have been out of sight by half-time but for the visiting keeper, Rovers not having a shot of any note before bossing the second half and scoring twice. Even then, a curiously out-of-sorts Josh March missed two gaping opportunities to equalise.
A decent point at Morecambe should have been three, if not for a 92nd-minute leveller, and so we welcomed Doncaster Rovers in our first home fixture of the new year.
It was another open game which either team could have won, but Town’s defensive resilience and newfound sharpness in front of goal secured a well-deserved victory.
For long periods before and after the break, Town players couldn’t get near the ball as the visitors stroked it around. Frustrated with yet another slow start to the second half, we were shouting for the manager to “change it!”
Thankfully he ignored us (let’s face it, he knows what he’s doing by now) and kept faith with the players he had on the pitch.
The one substitute he’d been forced into using, a lively James Daly – who replaced injured goal-scorer Sam Folarin, eventually converted a Kayne Ramsay cross at the far post, before man-of-the-match Abraham Odoh picked the ball up on half way and barrelled an unstoppable 20-yarder past the keeper out of the blue.
My mate Ian wasn’t here to shout "oh wow!”, so the entire home support did it for him.
What can we surmise from all this?
Firstly, it’s a great time to be a Town fan. We’re playing some decent football and starting to create more chances going forward. In the periods when we’re not, and we’re not going to have things all our own way in this division, we look defensively solid for the most part.
If the defence has been consistent this season, we had struggled to score goals up until the Wrexham game at the end of November, and I would point to the second half of that match as a turning point.
It’s no surprise though if you factor in the disruption from ‘the Luke Armstrong saga’ and the fact his replacement March is not yet fully up to match fitness, and no coincidence that performances have improved now Armstrong’s departed.
We have much to look forward to once March is fit, but what a shift the often unsung Jack Muldoon has put in spearheading our 4-2-3-1 formation.
Put plainly, after a difficult losing spell at Wetherby Road, juxtaposed with some great away performances where the team had to dig in deep, watching Town has become fun again.
The players have blossomed into a competitive League Two outfit that can more than match most teams in the division. I could name names: Ant O’Connor has been an inspired signing in central defence, Thomson is having maybe his finest season at Town… but I would just end up mentioning everyone.
To be able to bring on Josh Falkingham, Warren Burrell and Levi Sutton to hold on to what we had against Doncaster, with at least five senior players out injured, is testament to the strength of the squad. That we’re not having to urgently enter the loan market in January speaks volumes.
Following understandable and well-documented growing pains, the club’s now adapting to League football off the pitch too, with the newly-opened bars, hospital end turnstiles, larger main stand and relocated Town store amongst the improved facilities. This is a club pulling in the right direction.
The Wrexham game was a further turning point with the christening of the new away terrace. We’ve had 3,000 plus attendances ever since, with more home fans attending too.
Whilst our stadium and crowd sizes may be scoffed at by fans of the perceived bigger teams in the division, it’s an absolute joy to witness the growing atmosphere in our compact ground on match day and to be able to stand on terraces to watch in over half of it.
Compare and contrast this with the lack of atmosphere and rows of empty plastic seats at some of the regulation, cavernous, all-seated stadia we visit.
Fortunes can turn in the blink of an eye, just ask Forest Green Rovers, so I wish to take a quiet moment to appreciate what we have and how far we’ve come. Fingers crossed things will continue in this vein.