TT No.121: Andy Gallon - Tue 5th March 2013; Harrogate Town v Colwyn Bay; Conference North;              Res: 1-2; Att: 215; Admission: £12; Programme: £2.50 (44pp); FGIF Match Rating: ****.



Matchday images (13)


Most football grounds (traditional ones, that is, not modern stadia) developed piecemeal. Bits were added, here and there, to accommodate larger crowds as clubs grew haphazardly from often-humble beginnings. Frequently, the result is an aesthetic hotchpotch. Sometimes, this is all good. An uncoordinated jumble of stands and structures can have tremendous appeal. Not, unfortunately, in the case of Harrogate Town. Their Wetherby Road ground displays all the signs of unplanned development. Trouble is, none of its constituent elements are very attractive. Put them together and, well, what you get is an unsightly mess.


On to more practical matters: Wetherby Road’s pitch, relaid last summer, has been the centre of attention this season. Even after chatting to a club official, I’m not clear if the contractor who did the work messed up or the wettest summer in a century meant there was no chance of starting 2012-13 with a decent surface. So bad did the situation become, Harrogate, falling behind with their fixtures as postponement followed postponement, were forced to switch one game to the Keepmoat Stadium, Doncaster, and another to Bootham Crescent, York. I must say, the pitch wasn’t as bad as I expected. Yes, it’s a bit threadbare and has been patched up with segments of fresh turf, but a fortnight of dry weather gave the groundsman an opportunity to roll it. And roll it. And roll it. The ball doesn’t bounce very high, but, for the present, at least it’s playable. Harrogate’s strategy is to get through the season, by hook or by crook, then reassess. Laying new turf seems inevitable. Suing the contractor for compensation is a possibility.


Wetherby Road’s location, on one of the busiest routes into and out of Harrogate, is a marketing man’s dream. Unless you’re the sort of driver whose vision never deviates from the way ahead, the ground is unmissable. The public face of the club is fairly appealing. Pillars at the main gates are topped by cute footballs. Signage, including ‘Match Today’ boards, abound. A shame, then, Harrogate is not a football town. This is the Home Counties in Yorkshire. Abode, in the main, of the wealthy and the retired. The club have never been well supported and tonight’s attendance of just 215 is pathetic, frankly, for Step Two. Other than directors and officials, nobody trekked over from Colwyn Bay and, on an evening when the world stopped (yeah, right) while Manchester United’s strolling mercenaries faced their Real Madrid counterparts, the crowd undoubtedly represented Harrogate’s hardcore support. It’s not often you watch a game witnessed by so few people under sixty-five. Town’s fans are literally dying off.


The best thing I can say about Wetherby Road internally is that it has cover on three sides. Two cantilever stands, modern and characterless, fill about two-thirds of the far touchline. In the narrow space behind the goal at the bottom end, a muddle of buildings is crammed. These are flat tops (never a winning design) and house the social club and dressing rooms. The oldest part of the ground appears be the near (or Wetherby Road) side. A rickety cover sheltering a few shallow steps of terracing runs almost the length of the touchline. Thoughtlessly positioned dug-outs partially obscure the action for spectators. Close to the main entrance, in the corner of the ground nearest The Stray (Harrogate’s priceless green lung), is an uber futuristic office. All dark shades and flamboyant glazing, it looks completely out of place in this setting. Open hardstanding extends the width of the near end. Wetherby Road is hopelessly landlocked and only here is there any room for further development. But, given the size of Town’s gates, the ground is perfectly adequate for the club’s needs. In well-heeled Harrogate, the site must be worth a fortune. Going forward, selling up and moving out of town might be the best option.


This game appealed to me because, even as late in the season as March, there was something on it for both teams. Harrogate, fifth at kick-off, have high hopes of making the play-offs, whilst Colwyn Bay, third-bottom but improving under new manager Frank Sinclair, are anxious to avoid a return to the Northern Prem. I’m pleased to report a tale of the unexpected. I feared the worst when, following two Bay blunders (one from ex-Chelsea player Sinclair), top scorer Dom Knowles swept the hosts ahead within 75 seconds. His low drive found the net off a post.


Bay, though, weren’t about to roll over meekly. Shelton Payne equalised in the 11th minute with an exquisite 18-yard curler past dodgy keeper Craig MacGillivray before the speedy wide man, released by a wonderfully flighted Jason Lampkin pass, outpaced Dwayne Samuels down the left wing, got to the byline and pulled the ball back for unmarked one-time Manchester United reserve Mike Lea to poke home the visitors’ second from eight yards. How cruel can football be? In different circumstances, Lea could have been playing Real Madrid at glitzy Old Trafford rather than scratching about on a fogbound Yorkshire mud heap in front of virtually no-one.


Now the Welshmen had something to defend, they put the shutters up. I was amused to read Harrogate manager Simon Weaver’s comments in the match programme about his team’s win over Histon the previous weekend. The successful tactics he described were exactly those employed by Colwyn Bay. “We let them have the ball in areas of the pitch where they weren’t hurting us,” he wrote. “And we pressed them as a collective unit from a slightly deeper position.” For Bay, it worked a treat. Come on, they invited Harrogate, let’s see what you’ve got. Not much, was the answer. Town struggled to plot a way through the massed ranks of light blue and claret. When they did, Bay keeper Chris Sanna pulled off some fine saves - three in one-on-ones. Nothing seemed to run for Harrogate, whose frustration was amplified in stoppage time when substitute Paul Bolland saw a 20-yard volley take a deflection and bounce to safety off the crossbar.


With Harrogate due at play-off rivals FC Halifax Town on Thursday night, and hosting runaway leaders Chester FC this weekend, their promotion dreams could be shattered inside a single week. No bad thing: not even the most one-eyed Town fan could see his team as an asset to Conference National. Do you know, I’m not even sure the Wetherby Road (or CNG Stadium) faithful are that bothered. Shrugs all round. The sort of reaction this blandest of grounds would prompt from the discerning hopper. I cannot recall a bunch of spectators so lacking in fire and brimstone. Mind you, the announcement at the final whistle of Manchester United’s Champions League exit cheered them up no end. As, on arriving home, doubtless did the hilarious spectacle of a red card precipitating the descent upon The Puce One of a seasonally appropriate red mist. Some contrast to the Colwyn Bay contingent, however, whose passion was obvious throughout. I hope the Seagulls stay up. On this evidence, they deserve to.

contributed on 06/03/13