English National League Groundhopper

Groundhopper: Missing out on glory in North Yorkshire

"It wasn't going to be the easiest of matchdays. With the game being played in midweek, I had to book some time off work. Meanwhile, getting back home on the cheap meant I'd have to get the first train back from York at 3:50am..."

A few people may have noticed the National League is pretty lopsided this season – and that’s not a reference to Salford City’s budget either. It’s the noticeable north-south divide when looking at the footballing map that grabs my attention. Fourteen of the 24 clubs that make up the league are located south of Milton Keynes – with five of these based in London and three sat on the English Channel coastline. Elsewhere, the likes of Gateshead, Hartlepool and Barrow pose difficult ventures in the opposite direction.

Being a Wrexham fan based in Shropshire, it’s made following the Reds trickier. Last season, we had Tranmere, Chester and Macclesfield nearby. But with two going up and one going down, the groundhopping opportunities have dried up. North Yorkshire’s Harrogate Town are our fifth-closest rivals this term and it’s for that reason that I earmarked them as an essential away day.

It wasn’t going to be the easiest of matchdays. With the game being played in midweek, I had to book some time off work. Meanwhile, getting back home on the cheap meant I’d have to get the first train back from York at 3:50am. But, thankfully, I wasn’t going to be alone. My girlfriend, Saffron, couldn’t resist seeing the mighty Reds take on fellow early season high-flyers Harrogate either, and also looked forward to exploring the historical city of York with me until the wee hours of the morning.

Highlights

Away crowd

Last season, Wrexham fans were packing out away ends across the country. This year, however, they’re making them swell. We’ve already taken over 1,000 to Solihull Moors and averaged 300 at the teams in the south of England, which often makes up a third of the overall attendance.

At Harrogate’s CNG Stadium, there were 700 of us behind the goal – a figure I’m sure would have been more if the game had landed on a weekend. But it’s still a very impressive turnout, especially for a midweek encounter and on the back of a 3-0 defeat in our previous game at Sutton United.

Wrexham supporters were in a jovial mood too. They backed the team throughout and exchanged some great chants between the cluster of vocal Harrogate fans in the main stand. There was even a few verbals shared amongst themselves and the Harrogate players. All in good fun, of course, and it made the occasion a lot more enjoyable.

A good point

The home side came into the fixture on the back of a 3-0 defeat themselves – at home to table-toppers Leyton Orient. That was their first defeat of the season so far and it was easy to see why they’d done so well.

Their pressing caused Wrexham all kinds of problems in the opening exchanges. We couldn’t string any passes together. The team in yellow and black were like wasps, buzzing around us whenever we were in possession and forcing us to make mistakes.

Matters weren’t helped by the referee either. Some of the decisions he gave were questionable but it was the ones he didn’t give that were unbelievable. Dominic Knowles, in particular, took out Shaun Pearson every time he jumped to head the ball. I wasn’t surprised to later learn Knowles had 39 fouls to his name already this season – 20 more than any other Harrogate player! Clearly the referee saw him in a different light to his fellow officials.

Things did eventually settle down, both in terms of action and dodgy decisions. Then Wrexham actually turned the screw in the second half and should have won the game. Harrogate had goalkeeper James Belshaw to thank for saving a number of clear-cut chances. But it was still a good point against a promotion rival.

Disappointments

Fondop miss(es)

Mike Fondop-Talom was an absolute revelation at the beginning of this season. Five goals in six games put him amongst the division’s top goalscorers and helped us achieve our best ever start to a National League campaign. But after netting a beautiful chip against Bromley last month, ‘Big Mike’ has found the goals harder to rack up and the bench more of a familiar surrounding.

He did return to the starting line-up in North Yorkshire and looked the most threatening player on the pitch. However, there were a number of opportunities that he could have done better with, including a miss from Paul Rutherford’s cross that was begging to be put away. Being right behind the goal, I was just waiting to see the net bulge. It was agonising to see the ball go wide instead.

That wasn’t the only chance he spurned either. Wrexham’s number nine was twice put through on goal but his shots found the gloves of the on-rushing Belshaw. The Harrogate stopper received the man-of-the-match award at the end of the game having saved a further effort from Luke Summerfield’s free-kick, but I feel like Fondop missed the chance for us to take a massive three points home.

Overall

I travelled to the CNG Stadium expecting to see a physical team that used their artificial surface to slow the game down, soak up pressure and hit deadly counters. I couldn’t have been more wrong.

Harrogate are a very good attacking side that pass remarkably well on an unpredictable 4G terrain. The first half an hour really put us on the ropes and if we didn’t have such defensive cover in our team – like the holding midfielders Akil Wright and Brad Walker – then I think we could have been a couple of goals down by half-time.

We didn’t know how to handle their high-pressing tactics. But, thankfully, they dropped off their intensity and we could impose the same tactics on them in the second half. And it almost worked; a lot of mistakes were made in the final third that we should have taken full advantage of.

Having said all that, a point against a very good team isn’t bad. We’re still in the mix at the right end of the league, while we’re starting to learn and gel more on the field. I also rate Harrogate as a club. Besides the plastic pitch, their facilities are some of the best I’ve seen in non-league and their fans are a good bunch. I’d happily visit again in the future.

Best Of The Rest

Before going to Harrogate, Saffron and I met up with some friends in York. It was a chance to explore the city and go inside some of the places we wouldn’t have access to at night. Our reckoning was that we’d leave enough things to explore whilst waiting for our early train after the match.

However, things didn’t go as great as we’d hoped. York does have many beautiful landmarks and is full of history. But it’s also very expensive. York Minster, for example, costs £11 to look around and a further £6 to climb to the top. Elsewhere, the castle is £6 entry, its adjacent museum is £10 and York Museum is £7.50. Add that on to the prices we paid just to get to York and it all seemed very steep.

It meant that when Saffron and I returned to the city after the game, we had nothing left to explore. We’d walked the city walls, marvelled at the cathedral and castle, and enjoyed the museum gardens during the day. The five or so hours we spent waiting for our train were, therefore, pretty boring.

Seeing the River Ouse and the street which inspired Harry Potter’s Diagon Alley in moonlight were cool experiences. But York wasn’t big enough to go back and explore, and it left us feeling like the city had been well and truly ticked off any future itineraries.

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