From the Press Box: Callum Howe's departure from Harrogate Town is bad news and the timing is even worse
Harrogate Advertiser sports editor Rhys Howell has his say on the latest goings-on at Harrogate Town.
My intention had been to write my first 'From the Press Box' column since May's National League play-off eliminator defeat to AFC Fylde in a couple of days time, once Harrogate Town had concluded their pre-season schedule.
I wanted to wait until after Saturday's final friendly against Spennymoor Town to assess what kind of shape the club were in ahead of their 2019/20 National League curtain-raiser at home to Solihull Moors.
My take was that Simon Weaver's men were in a good place and I was confident that they would kick-off the new campaign in positive fashion.
I don't think you can ever read too much into pre-season results, but you can certainly glean a lot from the mood around a camp.
A more tangible indicator is the strength, on paper, of the squad heading into a new term, as well as the nature of the business done over the summer.
Seven new players have arrived, and the group looks a stronger one to me.
Crucially the back-four has a more balanced feel to it with the addition of an out-and-out left-back (George Smith) and a left-sided centre-half (Connor Hall).
Brendan Kiernan brings pace and the ability to beat a man out wide, while Jon Stead and Sam Jones will score goals at this level.
Ex-Premier League striker Stead and midfield schemer Scott Brown also add a little extra nous and know-how.
Pretty much all of the boxes had been ticked. Town appeared well-set.
Better players had been recruited and none of the existing star performers had been poached.
But, then, Friday night brought news that centre-half Callum Howe had been sold to Solihull - the same team whom Town will face on the opening day- for an undisclosed, yet not insignificant amount of money.
With this development, two things changed. Both the timing of when I would pen my first opinion piece of 2019/20 and my overall assessment of the shape in which the club head into the season.
Good business it may have been - Howe was sold for a club record fee - but the 25-year-old’s departure is undoubtedly a blow.
Let’s start with the statistics.
Howe appeared in all but one of Town’s 46 league games last term, scoring nine goals.
He was a huge presence on the field, a massive threat in the opposition box and as good aerially as anyone in the division.
His levels dropped, along with the team’s, during the middle of the campaign, but Howe started and finished 2018/19 in fine form, earning him the club’s players’ player of the season award.
The fact that he made 49 appearances in all competitions during his one season at Wetherby Road also illustrates his value to the team.
Compare his departure to that of Dominic Knowles - equally as talented a footballer but perennially injured - and the reaction from supporters is markedly different.
And understandably so. He leaves a big hole and one that Town will need to fill quickly, ideally in the next seven days.
It’s clear to me that Howe’s exit is not one that Simon Weaver will have envisaged given the comments he made when discussing Kelvin Langmead’s transfer to Brackley last month.
Langmead was allowed to find pastures new because he was behind fellow central defenders Howe, Hall and Warren Burrell in the pecking order and was unlikely to get regular game-time.
Yet, things change quickly in football and ultimately Town decided that the offer from Solihull for Howe, which apparently increased time and again over the course of the close season, was too good to turn down.
There is the argument that football is a business and every player has his price, however, what you really have to take into consideration are the perils of trying to keep someone at your club if he doesn’t really want to be there.
At this stage I should state clearly that I do not know that Howe wanted to leave, however he was offered a three-year contract at Solihull, quite a thing in non-league football, so who could really blame him if he was tempted?
Assuming that he did decide that he would rather move to the Midlands than remain in Harrogate then what were Town to do?
Re-wind to February 2018 and the club knocked back a bid from Barnet, then of League Two, for Simon Ainge.
The defender-turned-goal-machine clearly had his head turned by the interest from above and was never the same player afterwards, eventually leaving for Wrexham on loan before the end of the season, his form having tailed off and resulted in him losing his place in the team.
Solihull are not, of course, in a higher division than Town, yet they are just as ambitious and Howe has already spoken of his intention to help his new club into the Football League.
I have not yet managed to ascertain whether Simon Weaver was in a position to try and ward off Solihull's interest by matching their offer to Howe, however the club have a budget and a wage structure and have always spoken in the past about the importance of sticking to both.
The former Lincoln City stopper moving on is not a positive development. The timing, on the eve of the new season, just makes things worse.
Had anybody asked me my view 24 hours earlier, I would have said that Town had a small but well-balanced squad capable of challenging for the play-offs once again.
And while one player doesn’t make a team, Howe was among a group of three or four players who I personally would have classed as near-enough indispensable at this moment in time.
For me, his departure puts a dampener on what has been a pretty positive summer as far as I am concerned.
I was worried a week ago when I noticed trialist Josh Heaton wearing Howe’s number five shirt in the friendly against Farsley Celtic, and, as it turns out, with good reason.
Whether Heaton, recently released by St Mirren, is the man to fill Howe’s shoes remains to be seen, but I certainly believe that Town will need to find a replacement of similar stature to the player they have lost if much of the good work they’ve done in terms of their close-season recruitment is not be undone.