View From the Press Box: Privileged to be part of Harrogate Town's journey to Wembley
Harrogate Advertiser sports editor Rhys Howell looks ahead to Harrogate Town's National League play-off final against Notts County.
Two things really stand out when I think back to Saturday’s National League play-off semi-final clash between Harrogate Town and Boreham Wood.
The first is how nervous I felt during the hour I spent inside the CNG Stadium immediately prior to kick-off and then throughout the course of the 90-odd minutes of football.
Second, is the intensity at which Town began the match and the quality of play Simon Weaver’s men served up during the opening half.
You would think that how well Harrogate performed would have helped the nerves that a supposedly-impartial journalist shouldn’t have been suffering with in the first place, but alas that was not the case.
Perhaps my glass is always half-empty, but although impressed by the speed, accuracy and slickness of their passing game and the way they pressed the Wood off the ball, the longer the first 45 went on without Town scoring, the more convinced I became that they were going to be made to pay for not making the most of their spell in the ascendancy.
I’m certain that I will not have been alone in those thoughts. How many times have football fans seen teams play well, but fail to take their chances, and ultimately end up suffering as a result?
By the interval, my mind was made up. I was certain that for all their attractive play, the team in yellow and black - who had not capitalised when they were on top - were bound to end up losing out to a scrappy set-piece goal at the other end.
Boreham Wood barely had a kick until about the 40th minute, and I knew that they were far too good a side to not come into the contest at some point.
Having ended the first period by missing a couple of half-decent chances, they were undoubtedly on top during the 15 minutes immediately after half-time.
The momentum of the game had changed. I had wondered how long the Town players could sustain the tempo they had operated at for the beginning of the match, and all of a sudden they seemed to be near enough stuck inside their own half.
It’s obviously easy to say with the benefit of hindsight, but I really should have known better.
I have written and spoken at length this season about how Simon Weaver’s team has learned during the last 12 months how to win ugly, to grind out results, to find a way to get the job done without necessarily being at their best.
There was a time when I felt that Town used to have to out-football opponents in order to beat them. They have much, much more about their game these days.
They’re also far better defensively and have demonstrated on numerous occasions this term that they have the character, nous and resolve to see out close contests.
It ultimately didn’t matter that they didn’t have the goals to show for their superb first-half showing, Town still had enough in the locker to win the match.
The game was very much in the balance at 0-0 on 64 minutes, but the hosts scored at a great time, and although Wood created two decent opportunities to equalise, I felt that Harrogate’s game-management was pretty good and they were never under real pressure for an extended spell.
Did that ease my nerves? No, not really. I’m not sure what is going on in terms of feeling physically uncomfortable so worried was I about the outcome of this fixture, but I’ve definitely got caught up in this club’s success story over the last four years.
Unprofessional though this may be, I've definitely become invested in Harrogate Town and there have been a few occasions, particularly during big games, when I've found myself out of my seat and basically celebrating goals in the press box.
Sat as I was behind Boreham Wood owner Danny Hunter and a couple of the visiting team’s other officials, I managed to keep myself in check when Jack Muldoon broke the deadlock on Saturday.
Whether I’ll manage to maintain a handle on things at Wembley this weekend remains to be seen, though one thing I won’t lose sight of is how fortunate I am to actually be able to attend the final.
Thousands of true Town fans won’t get that privilege, but hopefully something I write or Tweet from the home of football will resonate with the odd reader and give them some sense of what it was like to be there.
As far as my thoughts on Harrogate’s chances of beating Notts County go, I really think it’s so tough to call.
Town were definitely the favourites against Boreham Wood. Not by a lot, admittedly, though you had to fancy them.
On Sunday, it’s almost too close to say one way or the other, but what I am certain of is that if the men in yellow and black start the game like they did last time out then they’ll be almost impossible to stop.
On another day they could have been two or three goals clear by the 35th minute, even Wood manager, the extremely-likeable Luke Garrard, admitted as much post-match.
I don’t feel that there is much between the two sides, but I’ve not seen a team at this level operate at such high-intensity as Town do when they’re right on their game.
I’ve been covering Hull City’s shambolic fall out of the Championship in recent weeks and, although I know we’re not comparing apples and apples, the contrast between the football on show in East and North Yorkshire is frightening when you consider how far apart these two clubs currently sit.
I am of course aware that Weaver trains his players hard, but I genuinely cannot comprehend how he got a first-half showing as good as that out of them on Saturday. It was something to behold, and let’s hope for more of the same on Sunday.
This club deserves promotion to the Football League. I’m certain that they’ll hold their own when they eventually get there.
Whether that will happen this weekend, we’ll have to see, but regardless, I feel privileged to be going to Wembley and to have been able to be part of the journey these last few years.