Harrogate Town 1-1 Hastings United
FA Cup 2nd Round Proper Attendance: 2,986
Harrogate is Yorkshire once removed. I was at University with a girl from Harrogate, though it wasn’t until the end of the second year that I knew it. “We county folk have to stick together hey Glen?” she’d said, “but I’m not from Cambridgeshire” I replied. Harrogate, you see, has no accent. It sits in Yorkshire’s weak middle, a pocket of the county where they vote Tory unashamedly and favour Union over League. All tweed and tea-rooms, quilted gilets and gin-seng. Whilst most towns grow around churches, castles or railways, Harrogate appears to have been built around a branch of Marks and Spencer.
I had hoped to reach the town early and seek out the FA Cup of my childhood; ‘good luck’ displays butchers shop windows, newsagents wearing club scarves and florists decked in yellow and black bunting. That’s how I planned it. But a combination of night-shift work and an ITV induced early kick-off mean that ten minutes before kick-off, rather than watching Tony Gubba interview a policewoman, I’m walking through a housing estate, cheers, air-horns and the team-line-ups carrying over hedges and garages. “And we have a fourth official today,” announces the man on the PA with the pride and surprise of a grandparent telling you they’ve just got the internet.
If the girl selling programmes is any indicator Harrogate may also lack the county’s thrift, as she puts £10 worth of change on my palm, before picking which coins to take back from me. I make it in with a couple of minutes to spare and the ground is packed. Properly packed. From hoardings to sky a wall of faces, the four sides of the field looking like an extended game of Connect Four. I seek the best vantage point left available on a step to a backdoor of the clubhouse and thumb through the ‘souvenir programme’. “The training in the gym saw the lads ooze desire. They certainly didn’t hold back,” says gaffer Simon Weaver. What goes on in the gym, stays in the gym.
The most literal of balloon releases greets the teams, black and yellow spheres disappearing over the roof of the changing rooms and out the ground as quickly as possible. The pitch has passed a late pitch inspection. It was touch and go, but they eventually deemed it muddy and bobbly enough for all available Cup clichés. There is still time for brief adjustments though and kick-off is briefly held up as the referee points to a sandy patch in midfield and an old man in flat cap and wellies, wielding what looks like a gate on a stick, trudges on from the past to level it out, before putting it to his shoulder and disappearing off into the crowd.
The higher ranked team, backed by the larger support, it’s perhaps no surprise that Harrogate apply the game’s early pressure. They even have the ball in the net inside the opening ten minutes as striker Paul Beesley meets Hastings keeper Armstrong-Ford in a hefty 50/50 and gets to his feet to turn in the loose ball, but the whistle had sounded and rather than see his name in lights, Beesley sees it in the ref’s notebook instead. Eventually the pony-tailed Armstrong-Ford gets gingerly to his feet. “Are you alright Princess?” calls out a Town fan from behind the goal.
Armstrong-Ford will be limping from that challenge for the rest of the game, but within minutes he’s hurled his battered body crucially into two further one-on-ones. The latter is the home side’s best opportunity from prolonged early pressure; a ball over the top from Dave Merris releasing Beesley. From behind the goal I can see the whites of the striker’s eyes, wide in fear more than focus, an inner monologue presumably screaming “Don’t fuck this up, don’t fuck this up, don’t fuck this up”, but at the crucial moment the ball gets away from him and Armstrong-Ford is there. His bravery doesn’t extol him from stick from the home fans though; “Movember’s over son, get a shave” yells one as he gets to the feet.
Though Harrogate are on top, both sides have begun at a frenetic pace, each wanting to get forward at every opportunity so when the ball squirms free of the middle, whoever it falls to invariably has space in which to break. And each time the ball lands at the feet of a full-back or winger with grass in front of them they are greeted by a huge roar of encouragement; Harrogate hasn’t seen noise like this since that Christmas the delicatessens ran out of Goose Fat. In front of me the home fans try to unsettle Armstrong-Ford, but their heckles get lost in pleasantries … “My gran could kick further than you!” “…and she’s been dead two years” “She’s in a nursing home actually” “Is she, how’s she doing these days?” “Yeah not too bad actually, I went up there with Simon and…” their chat gets lost beneath another roar as the ball ricochets of a midfielder’s shin to the feet of a full-back in space.
The pitch is already heavy, the ball hanging and bobbling amongst mud-spattered socks in midfield; the patch of sand levelled at kick-off is now playing an effective Makelele role for the visitors, sitting in front of the back four, stifling attempted attacks through the middle. Town’s best option appears to play through the impressive Dwayne Samuels out wide. The impressive right full-back is regularly finding space to angle probing balls into the danger areas; one such pass reaching Beesley who flashes a shot just wide.
Hastings’ key man Bradley Goldburg operates on the same flank as Samuels, and he finally gets the better of his man half an hour in. His near-post cross is blocked and as the ball spins loose the ground goes quiet, the vast majority of those present drawing in breath, expecting it to be turned home, but to collective exhaling three yellow and black bodies are slung across the face of the ball, and the follow-up is blocked. “Come on United!” urges a Hastings fan near me, clapping his Man United gloves together. Hastings first real spell of pressure flattens the atmosphere, and keeps Town penned in their third of the field, a first chant of “United” is audible from the far end of the ground. “You’re sitting back… shite!” screams an exasperated home fan next to me, leaning his entire upper body forward to deliver each syllable.
The home side cease sitting back, and break forward to win a corner. The six yard box is crammed full, so from my vantage point it is hard to see where the heads of players end and those of spectators begin. The delivery clears everyone, but Shane Killock hooks it back into the mix and Tom Platt is the first of the scrum to meet it, nodding it over the line to send a hitherto sleepy retirement town batshit crazy. Arms flail. Scarves twirl. And the wall of faces that framed the field until now bounces, turns and spreads to cover all available concrete, like liquid poured into a football ground mould.
As the players return to halfway an ‘Up the Town’ banner is unfurled, a question mark away from inviting 2,900 people on the lash. Rather than settle the hosts, the goal, and the subsequent roar of the large crowd only encourages them to look for more. Chib Chilaka is a constant threat, strong in body and fleet of foot; he picks his way through two men then hurls himself at the advertising hoardings in an effort to cross from the byline. His ball into the side-netting still brings a cheer. The Town fans are now in full voice “…go get your fathers gun, and shoot the Railway scum” sing a group near me, like a drunk Dr Beeching letting lose.
Half-time comes too soon, bringing warm applause and a chance to catch breath, not to mention the odd experience of previous match highlights played over a tannoy. A group of Hastings fans by the Main Stand have a life-size Marilyn Monroe cut-out decked in a United scarf propped against the fence. As I pass them the tannoy encourages people to show their appreciation for the ground staff who have “worked tirelessly all week to get the pitch in this condition”. “Bloody hell,” says one of the visitors, “what did it look like last Saturday?”
I use half-time to seek a different vantage point and head round to The Hospital End, a flat expanse of tarmac which doubles as a car-park for lesser fixtures. The groundsman’s tractor is parked at the back of it and an older Town fan is perched on the bonnet. “Decent view?” I ask, “Aye,” he replies, “best in the ground… though I’m not sure I can get down again”. Long shadows stretch out across the field, hands shield eyes in the Main Stand rows of people saluting the field, giving it the appearance of a Grandstand at a military parade. In the corner of the field I find a spot behind a well-spoken old man who goes “Hello… Hello… Hello” on every home attack like he’s been caught unaware by an answer machine.
Chilaka is first to bring the crowd back to life, beating his man with a neat drag-back and step-over that brings genuine gasps of amazement from a group of young boys by the fence. The first half was undoubtedly Harrogate’s, but the second will be almost all Hastings. A shot from Dee Okije flies just over; the ball wedging itself beneath a roof-top advertising hoarding to bring welcome media exposure for AC Jackson Roofing. Despite the excitement of the game, and the roars of the crowd around them, Hello Man and the gentleman next to him are engrossed in a chat about local cricket; “True, but in the Bradford and District League you’ll… “YEEEAAAHHOOOOOOOOOHHHHH!” “…overseas players to play, you see”.
There’s a rare chance for Harrogate as Chilaka slaloms through the right channel, but his shot only succeeds in scattering the queue at the Hog Roast stall (this is Harrogate). Minutes later comes the first, and only, bit of handbags of a game played physically yet fairly throughout. Beesley tries to haul back his man, hanging off him like a spurned lover in a soap opera, until he’s thrown to the turf himself. Other players swarm over whilst the referee stands at the centre, blowing shrill blasts on his whistle like a Victorian policeman until the crowd disperses.
“Computer says two nil” Hello Man is saying to the guy next to him, and it is just as he is voicing the word nil that the ball comes back off the post at the other end of the field from Goldburg’s effort to be slotted home by Jamie Crellin for the equaliser. Subs tear onto the field, players embrace fans across the hoardings, odd pockets of cheers go up around the ground. “Oh dear,” sighs the woman next to me. The tension is all too much for one Harrogate sub as he hops over the hoardings to my left, picks his way through the crowd and jogs over to the corner of the Hospital End to take a piss by the hedge. Ah, the magic of the Cup.
Level again Hastings have the chance to win the game in the final ten minutes as the ball is cut back across the six yard box for Zac Attwood, but with the goal gaping he can only cushion the ball to Craig MacGillivary in the Town goal. Attwood still has his hand over his face as play swings down the other end for Harrogate have a golden opportunity of their own. Chilaka meets a hanging cross from the left, but to an “Oooooh” audible from York Minster his header comes back off a combination of the inside of the post and the goalkeeper and Hastings scramble it clear.
With time running out set-pieces are now taking an age. Not due to time-wasting, but as a result of leaden limbs sapped of any pace or power by pitch and passion. There is still urgency in the crowd though as the man behinds me jogs off out the gate to find a ball that’s flown over the stand onto Wetherby Road. Harrogate look to break, but the attempted long ball ricochets off the back of a team-mate just getting to his feet. As another Town player goes to tackle he gets a boot stuck in the mud and topples over. It’s all starting to get a bit slapstick.
“I don’t know what’s worse, losing, or a replay,” says a woman to my left, to collective bemused stares. In one last push Harrogate see a late header cleared from beneath the bar, possibly by one of their own players, and the final whistle sounds soon after. At the far end of the ground Hastings fans celebrate the draw, both teams huddle up either side of the halfway-line, in the corner a man is helped from a tractor.
Outside three guys in Santa suits unchain their bikes from a lamppost, whilst a parent passing them explains why they didn’t play next goal winner to his young son. As the crowd traipse over The Stray and back towards the centre, a couple of Saturday League games silhouetted in the reddening sky receive an unprecedented attendance boost. “Fancy a trip to Hastings for the replay?” A lad asks his mates behind me “No chance” “Where is it like?” “No idea”