The FA Cup First Round: Harrogate Town vs Portsmouth
Something fundamental is changing within football, and its quiet disappearance is barely remarked upon. Artificial pitches are changing the non-league game. Slowly but surely, the mud is drying up. Harrogate on a wet Monday evening like this in November would have looked very different, five or ten years ago. Harrogate Town, however, have a 3g artificial pitch installed now, so despite the fact that the ground was being absolutely battered by rain, which was blowing horizontally across the pitch, the ball always rolled true, and the players remained resolutely clean. Damp, yes. But also clean.
It’s tempting to say “non-league gonna non-league” about the power outage that knocked power from the entire ground on two separate occasions last night, but this was reported as having been a National Grid issue rather than anything that the club could have considered responsible for. The first outage came before any of the crowd had been let into the stadium. The second, however, came after they had and it is to the credit of all concerned that it was treated with such good humour. As BT Sport repeatedly told us throughout the opening stages of the match, the referee had already confirmed that the match would be abandoned if there were any further outages.
At the turn of the century, Harrogate Town were in their fourteenth consecutive season in the Division One of the Northern Premier League, a division which they’d hardly set alight since joining upon its formation in 1987. There must have been something in the water in that division at the time. The first champions of this new division were Fleetwood Town, while Accrington Stanley finished in fourth place. Both are in League One now.
Harrogate were promoted in 2002, and the non-league football shake-up which created the National Leagues North and South in 2004 saw them placed in the National League North. Two seasons ago, they were promoted through the play-offs into the National League. Last season, they finished sixth, and were beaten in the play-offs by AFC Fylde. Money has been put in, but the club has ridden its luck since winning that Northern Premier League Division One title all those years ago, and the ground is attractive, modern and quirky, having two small stands on one side.
But of course Harrogate Town are thoroughly modern. You can’t make the progress that they’ve made over the last twenty years without being thoroughly modern. Now, there are different ways of doing this, but both professional and semi-professional football have little time for tribute acts amongst their ranks. Harrogate, however, have embraced it. Whether I like it or not, 3g pitches are the way of the future, so I’d better get used to them. The days of mud may last the rest of my life. somewhere or other. It’s seems difficult to believe that anything like every club will ever be able to graduate to this sort of playing surface. But the uptake has been rapid, and it’s only going to grow further in the future.
Their goals are on wheels, because of course they are. They’re essentially box goals with the rear supports as part of the overall structure. So this is how the goalpost evolves, then. The large, L-shaped stanchions of the 1930s through to the 1960s started (not exclusively – some clubs never took them) dismantled throughout the 1950s, 60s and 70s, but the rise of the box goal approached a flood at around the time of Euro 96, when the FA got rid of their famous old goalposts, which were first introduced in 1939.
These were superceded at many grounds throughout the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s by D-stanchions, but when Wembley went to box goals in 1996, the Premier League soon followed. There are no L-shaped stanchions above the lower-to-middle ranks of non-league football, and the box goal reigns supreme, with bar annoying bar around the base and that weird feeling of functionality over form in game that otherwise worships spectacle. And being on wheels is the next stage of that evolution. They’ll change again in a few years, hopefully to something that you really want to belt a football into. Something that feels like a velvet glove rather than a dried pea bouncing around inside a tin can.
Kick-off was put off until twenty to nine. As has been the case with so many of the league vs non-league games this weekend, the League club got through by just having a little more nous than the National League team. Portsmouth had a rickety enough defence to turn any Harrogate possession into a half-chance, and their goal came after their defence momentarily treated the ball like a cartoon bomb, with its fuse fizzing rapidly down. But Portsmouth came back. They were just that inch better, and this was especially noticeable in attacking positions. Two beautifully taken goals hauled their backsides back into the lead, but the game’s goals dried up after just eighteen minutes.
But make no mistake about it, this was a match between two sets of professionals. Harrogate Town turned professional in 2017. But professionalism has long been a majority position in the National League, to a point that it’s tempting to wonder whether it’s really even “non-league” in any meaningful sense any more. Regardless of this, of course, Portsmouth’s players are held to a higher standard than Harrogate’s, and so far this season they have not been performing to the standards expected of them. It’s not difficult to see how they’ve got themselves into trouble against other League One teams this season.
Tonight, though, they walked under the ladder and, whilst the bucket water balanced precariously on a plank did wobble slightly early on, Portsmouth didn’t stumble and soak themselves. The result went their way and the two goals – a curler from the edge of the penalty area and a thirty yard drive – were both beauties, but taking the match as a whole, there was much to be underwhelmed by in their performance.
Harrogate Town could yet be a League club next season. They’re currently in seventh place in the National League, but they’re only four points off the top of the table. Last night, though, they didn’t quite have enough throughout the match, only in fits and starts. But improving consistency is possible. A match which might not have even started and which certainly might not have finished probably isn’t the best place to examine their strengths and shortcomings, though, and that really applies to both clubs in the wind and rain of North Yorkshire last night.