Pitch improvements have helped Harrogate Town rediscover their swagger on home soil

Harrogate Town look a different animal compared to this time last year - particularly on home soil.

Tuesday, 19th October 2021, 2:42 pm
Harrogate Town – and top-scorer Luke Armstrong in particular – have been on fire in front of goal this term, helped in part by the quality of their pitch. Pictures: Matt Kirkham

The Sulphurites made a bright start to 2020/21 - their first-ever season as a Football League club - flirting with the play-offs for a period before eventually going on to finish 17th in League Two.

Having thrashed Scunthorpe United 6-1 in their last Wetherby Road outing, they currently sit second in the table despite a disappointing 1-0 loss at Colchester on Saturday.

It is obviously far too early to gauge whether they will be able to sustain their current form, but the signs are certainly positive.

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Alex Pattison has already bagged five goals from midfield.

Key to their success during a run that has seen them lose just two of 14 matches in all competitions has been the impact of their summer signings.

Striker Luke Armstrong has seven goals in 12 appearances, attacking midfielder Alex Pattison has scored five already. Jack Diamond, back for a second spell on loan from Sunderland, has added a different dimension to the Harrogate attack with his pace and willingness to run at defenders out on the left flank.

At the other end of the pitch, goalkeeper Mark Oxley has made a near-faultless start between the sticks.

There is however more to it than the fact that Simon Weaver’s new recruits have hit the ground running, indeed the physical ground which they have hit is nothing like the surface Town had to work with last term.

Forced to replace their 3G pitch with natural turf in order to be permitted entry into the Football League after securing promotion at Wembley in August 2020, the new grass didn’t have enough time to properly take root before the EnviroVent Stadium hosted its first-ever Football League fixture, against Barrow on October 17 last year.

Despite the best efforts of the club’s hard-working ground staff, the newly-laid surface cut up badly over the course of that match and continued to do so over the weeks that followed.

By the time that winter arrived and temperatures dropped, the existing had divots solidified and a bobbly, uneven pitch riddled with bare patches and covered in parts with sand was in no way conducive to the brand of pass-and-move football that had become Harrogate’s trademark in recent years.

Pragmatism prevailed and Weaver’s men reluctantly adapted to the circumstances and began playing in a more direct fashion, thus negating the unpredictability of the turf, a prospect that could hardly have been more different from the artificial carpet which they had become accustomed to.

They would however struggle for fluency at home throughout their maiden EFL campaign, drawing a blank in 12 of the 24 matches staged at Wetherby Road.

Discounting a 4-1 win over minnows Skelmersdale in the FA Cup, Town managed just four goals in their first eight home outings (at the EnviroVent Stadium) of 2021/22.

Compare those numbers with this season – the pitch having been re-laid during the summer and given sufficient time to bed in – and the contrast is stark. Back to playing on a lush, true surface, the Sulphurites have looked slick and exciting as an attacking force, bagging 19 times in their opening eight games.

“We can put water on the pitch and play fast, slick football and we never had that opportunity last year after the first few games,” Weaver said ahead of Tuesday's meeting with fellow high-flyers Tranmere Rovers.

“It’s an amazing pitch to play on and suits the way we want to go about our football.”

Five-goal Jack Muldoon echoed his manager’s comments, adding: “The pitch is absolutely beautiful isn’t it. There’s a massive difference compared to last year.

“Last season we had to play route one football. It’s a scruffy way of playing, sometimes it is effective and it kept us in the league, but you’re seeing the results now when we are getting the ball down.

“We are like the red arrows sometimes getting forwards with four of us sprinting past defenders, so it makes a massive difference having a lovely pitch. Credit to the staff involved.”

Town's showdown with fourth-placed Tranmere kicks-off on Tuesday at 7.45pm.