The game: Harrogate Town v. Boston United.
The ground: The CNG Stadium.
The conditions: sunny, after snow; ground liberally dusted like a Betty’s Victoria Sponge.
Having decided, after a period of reflection, that my non-league football experiences were a bit too London-centric, I yesterday boarded a train to the farthest, harshest north – to Harrogate. Arriving in the civic town centre and almost instantly stumbling into Betty’s Tea Rooms, I soon realised that this experience was perhaps not to be as harsh as I had imagined. Wiping away the crumbs of a delicious ‘fat rascal’ and draining the dregs of my Earl Grey, I set out on my pilgrimage to the Wetherby Road and The CNG Stadium, home of Harrogate Town; my pilgrimage coincided with that of some actual ‘Pilgrims’ – the players, staff and fans of Lincolnshire’s finest, Boston United.
Queuing for a ticket outside the stadium, there were a few pessimistic grumbles amongst the home fans; with Boston sixth in the table and Harrogate hovering just about the relegation zone – and in poor form – there was definitely cause for concern. Once the game had begun, this concern quickly vanished. On a pitch dusted by snow, Harrogate started well. Though nobody seemed sure of their feet, Town’s players were still much the sharper; wide man Ryan Fallowfield made most of the early running, while midfielder (and new signing) Cecil Nyoni seemed to be everywhere at once in an athletic, combative start. Their sharpness paid off when, in the eleventh minute, after a good passing move, Fallowfield was given the freedom of the right wing; speeding past the covering defender and into the box, he neatly set up Harrogate’s Andy Gascoigne to curl a first-time strike past the away keeper, Joel Dixon. One-nil Harrogate.
The Pilgrims tried to establish some possession after this, yet were constantly hustled off the ball by Harrogate’s midfielders – Nyoni especially. The home team were pressing from the front, too. In the nineteenth minute, Harrogate striker Paul Clayton won the ball out on the left before swiftly going on the attack; he raced past the panicked-looking Boston defence, round Dixon and possibly just over the by-line, before cutting a pass back for the incoming Fallowfield to smash into the net from three yards. Neither the referee nor the linesman saw anything wrong with the goal, and so it stood; two-nil Harrogate, with the home side pretty much rampant.
After seeming almost shocked to see their side playing so positively, the Town fans now got into their stride; chanting, jumping and banging on a massive great drum, they seemed quite pleased by events on the pitch. Harrogate continued to boss the game, though Boston had their first real chance in the twenty-third minute, full back Liam Marrs making a run on the right before firing low at advancing Town keeper Peter Crook; the ball squirmed under Crook’s outstretched arm, yet he did enough to keep it out. The game gradually slowed down on the increasingly choppy pitch, both teams exchanging half chances over the next twenty minutes; self-assured Harrogate forward Jordan Thewlis shone in this period with his persistent running, even if he couldn’t find a third goal to finish off the contest.
Then, right at the end of the half, Boston had a sudden burst of energy. First, Pilgrims’ striker Mark Jones stung Crook’s palms with a vicious drive; the home keeper managed to push this away to his right. From the resulting corner, the ball was almost scrambled into the back of the net, but not quite. The away fans behind the goal were adamant it had crossed the line, but the referee disagreed; no goals for Boston at the stroke of half time, but a sign that they did have some fight left in them.
The early part of the second half saw the away side play some better stuff. Controlling the midfield adequately, successfully establishing time on the ball, they seemed somewhat renewed by the break in play; by the fiftieth minute, Crook had already been forced into a couple of neat saves. Harrogate seemed content to play on the counter, and this almost paid off in the fifty-sixth when, after some quick passing, Town defender Luke Shiels crossed for Paul Clayton to head hard at the Pilgrims’ keeper; Dixon held onto the ball and saved well, however. The pitch was deteriorating badly in the slush and the game slackened accordingly, Boston’s increasing influence bringing little by way of opportunities. Thankfully, there was absolutely no slackening from the stands; with a rousing chorus of ‘Let’s all go to Betty’s’ reminding me to revisit that warm, cake-filled emporium before my departure, the home fans were distraction enough.
In the sixty-third minute, Harrogate should have put things to bed. Breaking fast, the home side manoeuvred the ball to scorer Fallowfield, almost on the penalty spot; from there, he blazed high over crossbar. This was the only real chance of the next twenty five minutes. As Boston maintained some measure of composure, as Harrogate countered on occasion – usually via speedy substitute Dominic Rowe – the game seemed to be moving toward a relatively comfortable home win. Nyoni continued to impress, inspiring the home defence with more by way of robust tackling, while Paul Clayton won every header – defensive and offensive – that he was asked to. With commitment like theirs, there could only be one outcome, surely.
As in the first half, Boston left it late to produce some drama. From an eighty-eighth-minute corner, Mark Jones put a precise header into the back of the home net. The tension was palpable; having gone from entertaining themselves by celebrating pretend goals to seeing their side concede an actual one, the Town fans banged their drum in trepidation. Clayton was now back in the home box, thumping away Boston long balls; Nyoni was now tackling like a madman; in the ninety-second minute, rapid Rowe even had a chance to finally finish the game off when put through one on one with Dixon, only to skew his finish wide of the post. Luckily for him, a last, arduous minute passed without Harrogate conceding.
The home team deserved the much-needed win, despite making it difficult for themselves at the end. In celebration, then, it was back to Betty’s for an Eccles cake and a slice of Victoria Sponge; well, that was certainly my celebration.
Result: Harrogate Town 2 Boston United 1.
My MoM: Ryan Fallowfield got a goal and an assist, Paul Clayton an assist – plus kudos for his tenacity – but new man Cecil Nyoni was the key player; imposing himself on the midfield while full of defensive discipline, he took the game to Boston.
Best fans: Town. Banged their drum all day. Pretended to score a remarkable number of goals. Shared my taste for baked goods, in the main.