Harrogate Town now face ‘first real test of season’

Simon Weaver believes that his Harrogate Town players are facing their biggest test of the season to date as they look to arrest a worrying nose-dive in form.

The Sulphurites began 2021/22 like a house on fire, tasting defeat in just one of their opening 11 League Two fixtures, the last of which saw them smash six past Scunthorpe United.

Second in the table and within touching distance of top spot following that 6-1 success on October 9, they have gone on to lose three of their last four, dropping down to seventh position in the table.

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And speaking after Saturday’s 1-0 home defeat to Bristol Rovers, Weaver admitted that his side need to show a bit of character if they are to get their season back on track.

“This is the first real test of the season, the last few games haven’t gone our way and we’ve got to show more and fight back,” he said.

“This is League Two, there will be defeats along the way. It’s about showing character, we have to get back on it. We have to keep working at it and working at it and something will drop. It’s a case of sticking together.

“It happened last year. Sometimes when teams get used to you and familiarise themselves with your tactics, League Two can often just become a battle.

“All we can do is come out fighting, we’re not far off it are we? We’ve lost narrowly again, but we’ve showed enough in the opening weeks of the season to be able to say, we have got the players, we have got the personalities, let’s roll our sleeves up and show a bit of character.

“It’s a better time now to show character than when you are flying.”

While the character of Weaver’s squad has very rarely been in question during their rapid ascent from the sixth tier up to League Two, they looked uncharacteristically flaky in surrendering a two-goal half-time lead at Hartlepool last weekend and looked completely devoid of belief or intent for much of Saturday’s loss to Joey Barton’s Rovers.

But Weaver insists that his players do possess the mental strength and attitude required to turn things around.

“The players have got to accept that challenge, but yes, I back them,” he added.

“I think they are aware that everyone will be looking at them now and thinking ‘oh, hang on, they’re having a bit of a hiccup’ –but that happens in sport, at every level.

“We back these boys to the hilt, they’ve got us into a great position, and it is the first time now that it’s a test of character.

“I’m not a manager who will rip it up and change six players because we are still right up there, we’re in a great position. If we start learning from where we’ve gone wrong now, we can get into an even better position.

“We know what we are about. We won’t scramble heads by over-complicating things, this is about us going again, getting the energy levels up.”

Town performed okay during the opening 45 of Saturday’s clash with the Gas without really ever getting out of second gear.

But, they did not turn up after the interval and, having fallen behind on 64 minutes when Nick Anderton netted with a scruffy close-range finish, they never really looked like getting back in the contest.

Weaver attributes his side’s lacklustre response to that set-back to a lack of confidence, adding that in situations where they are not at their fluent best, Town have to learn to grind out a result.

“We’re asking players to be brave and get on the ball, but it is not always easy,” Weaver added.

“Sometimes they retreat within their shells and that can happen, we haven’t had the results recently. So, when we’re not fluent it’s important that we keep that rearguard safe.

“If it’s not happening for us, we need to show an appreciation of that and snap and snarl and be first to the ball, stay in the game, make sure we don’t concede and value a point.

“But people started to get disappointed too quickly at 0-0, which they needn’t have done because we weren’t losing the game at that point.

“It’s self-inflicted really. We didn’t come out firing, we were a bit timid.”

The game’s only goal arrived when Glenn Whelan’s lofted diagonal from the right was met at the far post by Alfie Kilgour, who helped the ball back across goal for Anderton to turn in from inside the six-yard box.

Town had plenty of numbers back, but their defence looked all at sea, much to their manager’s annoyance.

“I’m frustrated and I’m annoyed with the goal we conceded because we had eight versus four in the box,” Weaver continued.

“We’ve got people retreating to the line and not going to the player, and as we always say, it’s not the space, it’s the man who scores.

“Between everyone in there, they’ve not seen the threat of the man in the six-yard-box. We practice it every week but this goal was down to individuals switching off. The reactions are just slow at the minute at key moments and it has cost us the last couple of games when we have been right in those games.”

Harrogate Town: Oxley; Burrell, Smith, Hall, Page; Thomson (Power 69), Falkingham, Pattison, Diamond; Armstrong (Martin 72), Muldoon (Orsi 69). Unused substitutes: Cracknell, Sheron, Kerry.

Bristol Rovers: Belshaw; Anderson, Harries, Taylor, Brown (Anderton 46); Coutts, Whelan, Evans; Thomas (Collins 90), Pitman (Kilgour 10), Nicholson. Unused substitutes: Ward, Westbrooke, Martinez, Langlais.

Referee: P Wright (Merseyside).