Why it should come as no surprise to see Will Smith and Connor Hall flourishing already at Harrogate Town

Will Smith, left, and Connor Hall have quickly formed a more-than-useful partnership in the centre of the Harrogate Town defence. Picture: Matt Kirkham
Will Smith, left, and Connor Hall have quickly formed a more-than-useful partnership in the centre of the Harrogate Town defence. Picture: Matt Kirkham

The sale of Callum Howe to fellow National League promotion-hopefuls Solihull Moors on the eve of the new season was not widely regarded by anyone associated with Harrogate Town as a positive move.

At 25, the big centre-half was approaching his peak and had been one of the star performers in a team that finished in a play-off spot in their debut season in English football’s fifth tier.

A huge presence at both ends of the field, Howe netted nine goals from defence and his departure appeared a huge blow.

Yet, his exit has in fact allowed a new partnership to blossom at the heart of the Harrogate back-four, and Simon Weaver’s men arguably now find themselves better off.

Had Howe remained at the club and stayed fit, there is a good chance that ex-Barnsley under-23s captain Will Smith would have found his opportunities limited.

As it happens, he’s been thrown in at the deep end alongside Connor Hall - the man signed this summer to partner Howe - and has swum rather than sunk.

Remaining with the aquatic analogy, one could even say that, one unconvincing performance against Solihull on the opening day aside, Smith has taken to senior football pretty much like a duck to water.

He’s generally got better with each game, culminating in a trio of consecutive Harrogate Advertiser man of the match awards in his last three outings.

Next to him, Hall has been equally impressive.

Slightly older than 20-year-old Smith at the age of 26, this is also Hall’s first-ever campaign at National League level.

The speed at which the duo have found their feet and formed an understanding has been impressive and while perhaps a surprise to some, the man who recruited them insists that he is not shocked by what he’s seen thus far.

“I thought there was every chance that we would see them flourish this quickly, I honestly did,” Town boss Simon Weaver said.

“Having seen them a lot more than most people prior to bringing them to the club, you’re able to see the way that they move and how they read the game.

“It’s been a stuttering start from us. Perhaps some of the players ahead of them weren’t doing it during the first 10 games and so the defence couldn’t press high in certain games .

“We’ve been searching for some form, but those two [Smith and Hall] have been a constant throughout, so that’s a real testament to their character and professionalism.

“If they can do that during a difficult spell then we were confident that they’d flourish during a good spell.

“Players need a run of games particularly when they’ve got the potential to really grow. We’re glad that they’ve been able to grow through a testing period and now we’re seeing it come to fruition.”

The notion that the Town defence marshalled by Smith and Hall is improving with each game they play is supported by statistics.

They’ve kept three clean-sheets in their previous four outings and the only goal they have conceded during that period was a long-range screamer scored by Maidenhead United’s Shamir Fenelon.

That takes the team tally to six shut-outs in their opening 14 fixtures, five of which have come during their last eight matches.

They did ship four goals in one match away at Torquay United last month, but three of those strikes hit the back of the net when Town were down to 10 men following a controversial red card for Jon Stead.

And when you compare this term’s defensive record to that of last season when Howe and the vastly-experienced Kelvin Langmead were in situ and the team was flying high at the top of the table, there is no difference. The first 14 fixtures of 2018/19 also yielded six clean-sheets.

“They’ve been immense really. That’s six clean-sheets now and they can be proud of their efforts,” Weaver added.

“They’re hardly putting a foot wrong. They’re right on it at the moment.

"They've given us greater mobility across the back-line so we can squeeze higher, so we can press, and that's a big part of our game. We want to set our stall out from now on and say [to the opposition] 'you're really gonna have to work hard to stay with us' and it starts with the back-line squeezing up and spreads throughout.

"The difference between a lot of defenders at this level and those who can go on and perform higher is the degree of concentration for every moment in the game and at the minute these two are not being found wanting in that respect.

"It's exciting working with potential isn't it, particularly when you know there doesn't have to be a shelf-life at the top of this level for them with us because they can take us to the next level because there is ability and mobility aligned with attitude.

"We're excited that they're our players."