Harrogate Town opinion: Not keeping the ball in midfield is the root of Sulphurites' problems

Harrogate Town supporter Dave Worton's latest weekly fan column.

By Rhys Howell
Wednesday, 9th March 2022, 5:47 pm
Updated Wednesday, 9th March 2022, 5:48 pm
Harrogate Town supporter Dave Worton, left, and his daughter, Molly, outside the EnviroVent Stadium.
Harrogate Town supporter Dave Worton, left, and his daughter, Molly, outside the EnviroVent Stadium.

After the thrills and spills of three consecutive away games in which Town hit three goals in each to varying degrees of success, it was back down to earth a week ago at Barrow where goalmouth action was as scarce as hens’ teeth in the first 75 minutes.

I always look forward to the trip to Cumbria, however dental pain put an end to any such aspiration. Let’s just say this is the only time I’m going to publicly admit to being grateful for toothache.

The following Tuesday evening saw a visit from a Port Vale team seeking to get back into play-off contention.

Sign up to our daily Harrogate Advertiser Today newsletter

Having had a temporary cap placed on a crumbling filling by the dentist earlier in the day, I was in a decidedly better mood as I’d received a message from my old Wolves supporting buddy Johnny Phillips.

He was in town to cover the match for Sky Sports and we arranged to meet early at the ground.

Just as I was pondering how to gain access to the TV gantry perched on top of the stand, I encountered him climbing gingerly down the access ladder from my vantage point on Wetherby Road where I’d been accosting a steward over the fence.

We arranged to meet for a coffee and a chat at the Kop tea bar. Sky were paying of course, and that’s when the trouble started. It was brilliant to catch up with him, but the hot coffee went straight to my nerve endings and stayed there for much of the evening.

Town weren’t at their free-flowing best, but it was a decent enough game, and the players did well to dig in for another point against a team that dismantled them in the Potteries earlier in the season; a match that gave my daughter Molly a migraine into the bargain.

Needless to say, I went home in agony and my wife blamed it on the football.

However, another emergency visit to the dentist after a largely sleepless night revealed he’d picked on the wrong tooth.

The culprit was the tooth next to the one he’d capped the day before, it being cracked and infected at the root, and it was going to have to come out. Hence the reason for a gaping hole where a column should have been from me in this very publication last week.

Antibiotics being the wonderful things they are, I experienced no similar problems at the Hartlepool match at the weekend. All the pain was brought on by the action on the pitch.

Town started well enough, dictating play with the full-backs camped in the opposing half, taking the lead through Luke Armstrong as Pools initially seemed content to sit back.

Just as it looked as if this would turn out to be one of our better performances of the season, we were rocked by a brilliant equaliser at the Kop end, as Hartlepool began to bare their teeth.

Luke Molyneux exploited space Lewis Page had vacated and left a struggling-for-match sharpness Lewis Richards for dead, cutting inside onto his left foot before letting fly from twenty-odd yards.

“That’s going in ...” I said to my daughter with some certainty as I watched the ball leave his foot and arrow past a helpless Mark Oxley.

Now, before you think I’m some sort of visionary, I said the same thing five minutes later as another dangerous shot whistled past the post and into the crowd. I was so, so convinced it was going in, that I found myself visually checking the net for holes.

The visitors were cleverly exploiting the cavities to be found on the edge of the area in front of and to the side of our three central defenders, where we were badly needing the injured Josh Falkingham and out-of-favour Lloyd Kerry to fill the gaps, and I was relieved when half-time arrived.

“Five goalkeepers wouldn’t have stopped that one,” said a friend at the interval, commenting on the equaliser.

The situation only proceeded to worsen thereafter as Hartlepool dominated and Town went into ‘pull-everyone-back-and-hack-the-ball-out-to-no-one’ mode for long periods.

The problem with 3-5-2 is that it so easily turns into a deep-lying 5-3-2 under pressure, and then eventually becomes a 5-5-0. It was only a matter of time before the visitors went ahead, teasing our defence and taking the lead via David Ferguson’s drilled shot from the edge of the area.

Town eventually woke up with the introduction of Simon Power and a long overdue formation change to 4-4-2, and Hartlepool were forced to hang on for the last 15 minutes, substitute Calum Kavanagh spurning two gilt-edged chances from six yards out that looked easier to score. We wouldn’t have deserved it, but another point towards mathematical safety would have been nice.

There were obviously mitigating factors with the injuries to three key central midfielders. While George Thomson and Alex Pattison are both quality players, neither is renowned for his defensive-holding qualities, and I found it strange that young loanee Josh Austerfield sat it out on the bench in favour of a third centre-back.

Having watched Town chase the ball an awful lot recently, I’d argue we don’t need to play three centre backs or strengthen the attack, the root of the problem lies in the lack of decent midfield possession.

We need to relearn the basics of moving the ball through and across the midfield spine of the team. Everything will flow from that and your opponents can’t threaten you if they don’t have the ball.

Hartlepool proved this point with some decent, incisive midfield incursions on Saturday, now it’s over to my dentist to continue the trend.