A flick with the outside of the substitute’s right boot thudded the ball against the crossbar. Minutes later, Ashley Nathaniel-George scored for Southend United.
A match decided by one goal was about right with little between the sides in a lively game desperately short of quality. That was a concern given Southend are only the 91st-best team in this season’s leagues, and that Harrogate, whose play-off hopes effectively died with consecutive 1-0 defeats – their 13th and 14th by a single-goal margin this term – have top-10 aspirations.
“We need that spark,” admitted goalkeeper James Belshaw, still able to speak despite trying all afternoon to scream it into his players.
One got the impression a lot of Harrogate’s problems were in the mind, playing as they are for pride, not League Two prizes, and with a Wembley date in May’s FA Trophy final, but when he emerged from a half-hour inquest, manager Simon Weaver questioned if all his players were good enough to continue on the club’s remarkable journey.
When a small squad last ran out of steam, at the end of 2020, Weaver made seven signings. Two, Simon Power and Josh McPake, impressed on Saturday, but suffered hamstring injuries. McPake lacked the finishing to round off his good work and Josh March, loaned in January to provide that, has a knee injury.
“We’ve reached the end with a couple of players over the last couple of years and these will be defining moments – nine games that will see where we go with this group and how many we can be confident will take us on again as we strive for better,” warned Weaver, who spoke of measured post-match “home truths”.
“A few senior players came in, me included, said a few things but it was flat,” said Belshaw. “It’s felt like that the last couple of games.
“It’s all right saying at half-time we need that spark but it’s about doing it. Lads have probably left the door open for others.”
It was easy to see why the brief outbreak of football was rare on a sand-scattered pitch hastily laid when promotion forced the artificial surface to be ripped out.
“It’s difficult for me moving around the six-yard box when you’re trying to strike the ball and that’s why you can’t play scintillating football to cut teams open here, you have to win the war,” argued Belshaw. “If we have to go more direct and win flick-ons, play for seconds, play in their half and not let them have a free header or play out, that’s what we have to do. That’s League Two football.
“You’re not going to get someone who’ll take six players on and bang it in the top corner, you need someone who puts a challenge in, wins the first ball, then the second, and gets everyone up.”
That one move, though, suggested the players should trust the pitch and themselves more.
“We train on perfect 3G and pass it, pass it and pass it and take pride in that, then turn up here and it’s churned up by the end of the warm-up,” reasoned Weaver.
“Being a defender 15 years ago on much worse pitches, I thought it was harder to boom it.
“We were talking after the pre-match meeting to George Thomson and I said I wanted the lads to back themselves, play more, because they can do it even on that.”
“It’s head tennis all the time,” Thomson moaned at one point.
It is difficult to be too critical of footballers feeling the pace mentally and physically in this ultra-demanding season. Power and McPake’s injuries were probably an indirect result of fatigue, and not tracking Alan McCormack’s run led to the goal. They had been warned, not just by Emile Acquah’s miss less than 10 minutes earlier, but regularly by Belshaw.
Connor Hall blocked McCormack’s shot but Nathaniel-George, well denied by Belshaw early on, converted the loose ball.
“I don’t like using excuses like saying we look a bit leggy or have not had a proper pre-season,” insisted Belshaw. “In all walks of life people are just getting on with it.
“Mentally, I’m drained at the end of a game. It is tiring for players but it’s the same at all levels of football and we’ve got a squad capable of rotation. We should have more than enough in our changing room to win that game.”
Had Kiernan’s shot sneaked under the crossbar or Mark Oxley not brilliantly denied McPake with hands and feet in the first half, things might have been very different but the nagging feeling was that Harrogate should be better than relying on such tight margins against what still looks a Conference-bound team.
“We pride ourselves on an identity, an energy and an intensity,” said Belshaw. “We’ve not got a team of League One/Championship players so it has to come from young, hungry lads that have bought into what the club’s about, like myself and other players who want to take the club forward. I don’t want to be a mid-table League Two team.”
His is not a club that stands for standing still. Any player needing to find something extra would do well to remember that.
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