Harrogate Edge Latest Battle Of The Happy Towns
County returned, after only a little over one month since their last visit, to the scene of their recent FA Cup Second Qualifying Round victory. And, just as had been the case five weeks earlier, this fixture, between - so market researchers advise us - two of the happiest towns in which to live across Britain, was settled by the odd goal in three. Unfortunately, on this occasion, the Hatters ended up without smiles on their faces - or, moreover, points in the bag - following a game which saw both teams rue several missed opportunities.
Lee Stevenson, who had not been available for Cup duty either at Harrogate back in late September or against Chester a week previously, returned to the line-up - as did Tunji Moses, who was handed a start for the first time since County's second home match of the season. They replaced Matthew Todd - still suffering from the injury that he had picked up early in the Chester game - and Jordan Fagbola, as Alan Lord opted to field a ‘diamond formation' between sets of three defenders and forwards.
Matt Heath, the former County player still on the hosts' books, was not to face his old club for a second time - having been loaned out to Harrogate Railway Athletic within the past fortnight.
Harrogate's new stand, at the hospital end of Wetherby Road, was officially opened, and well populated, for the contest. And it was the home side that started more brightly in front of what was, by far and away, Town's highest attendance of the season to date. Danny Hurst was required early on to react quickly after half-spilling the ball close to the feet of James Walshaw, before Adam Nowakowski headed a long ball narrowly wide of the County goal from just six yards out.
Jake Speight has been well known during his career for a consistent goal-scoring record against County. As it happened, he didn't add to that particular tally this afternoon. Rather unfortunately for the Hatters, however, he was able to claim an assist within a quarter of an hour - crossing from the right to the far post, where Walshaw was lurking to bundle the ball home and give Harrogate the lead, earning himself an eighth League goal in the process.
At this point, the County ‘diamond' was put on ice, as Moses dropped into the left-back berth. The game opened up, too, as the Hatters began to offer more of a threat. Harrogate's experienced ‘keeper, Phil Barnes, was called into action to cut out, at full stretch, a dangerous cross from Jamie Milligan, shortly before Stevenson rattled the underside of the hosts' crossbar with a shot that took a deflection en route.
The contest was still in its first third when County were forced into making a substitution. Hurst, having taken, and received treatment for, a knock in an innocuous-looking tussle with Speight, was clearly not long for this game - although he did do impressively well to keep out a piledriver of a shot from Craig Nelthorpe, immediately before hobbling off and handing the gloves to Ian Ormson.
There followed a series of chances for the home team ahead of the half-time whistle. First, Speight and Walshaw contrived between themselves not to make the most of a long ball that found its way behind the County defence. Shortly afterwards, Nelthorpe dispossessed Danny Gregson, before floating a cross that was skied over, from close range, by Speight - who, for good measure, proceeded to squander another opportunity by shooting wide after the Hatters had failed to clear their lines in defence.
Five minutes before the break, County made a second change - bringing Glenn Belezika into the back four, and moving Moses to play a holding position in front of defence. There was still time, too, for a Hatters half-chance, as Kristian Dennis turned in a low shot on goal following good work on the left flank by Stephen O'Halloran - but the increasingly effective Barnes was equal to The Menace's attempt.
HALF-TIME: Harrogate 1 (Walshaw, 14), County 0.
The early stages of the second half featured a neat Hatters move that culminated in a chip from Stevenson through to Dennis. Once again, however, County's top marksman was thwarted by Barnes who was first to the ball.
Nine minutes after the break, Harrogate doubled their lead. Nelthorpe's crosses from the left had already been causing County no small amount of difficulty, when he sent one in towards the far post. Ormson parried it out, but only as far as Lloyd Kerry who headed the ball into the net.
It was to the Hatters' credit at this point that a concerted effort followed on their part, as chance after chance rained in the home goal. Dennis saw a second low drive blocked by Barnes. Stevenson's cross from the right found Scott Spencer, who turned the ball just wide. Belezika beat his man, also on the right, before crossing to Dennis whose attempt was cleared. Stevenson unleashed a shot that took a deflection before, almost magnetically, finding its way to Barnes' gloves. Spencer, in a matter of moments, shot wide of the post and headed over the bar. And, if all that were not enough, Barnes made absolutely certain of having his name removed from all County fans' Christmas card lists by making a double-save from Dennis and Milligan, following another Stevenson cross.
Amid the sustained County pressure, Gregson was called into action to repel a rare Harrogate attack. The central defender was injured in the process, giving rise to the Hatters' third and final substitution of the afternoon.
Then, just as it appeared that County might fail to find the net for the first time in fifteen competitive games, Dennis, by way of signing off before his imminent three-match suspension, got himself onto the end of a ball in the Harrogate box and converted the chance. With six minutes of normal time, and, as it turned out, five additional minutes, remaining, the Hatters had given themselves a lifeline.
Regrettably, as darkness fell and the game was played out, there was to be no fairytale ending for County - and the smiling rights were secured by the happy Harrogatians.
FULL-TIME: Harrogate 2 (Walshaw, 14; Kerry, 54), County 1 (Dennis, 84).
Team: Hurst (Ormson, 29), Lees, O'Halloran, Churchman (Belezika, 40), Gregson (Woolfe, 74), Moses, Baker, Stevenson, Dennis, Spencer, Milligan.
Unused Subs: Lofthouse, Fagbola.