Football is back

Midway through the first half of City’s friendly at Wetherby Road, a Harrogate Town midfielder hit a long ball that rolled straight through to Donovan Ricketts. With the striker still chasing through, Ricketts sold him a dummy and dribbled the ball around him before clearing up field. Football, at least as we know it, is back.

Barely two months since the disappointing 2006/07 season ended with a 2-2 draw against Millwall, unfamiliar faces lined up with familiar as the Stuart McCall reign began with a 1-0 win. The goal came after 14 minutes from the head of the ever reliable captain David Wetherall. Some can point to irony that it was the previous manager who scored the goal to mark the start of the new boss’ time in charge. Stuart will have seen it as a clear signal that his captain will be one of his most reliable players in the coming months.

No disrespect to Harrogate Town, but I do enjoy these trips to non-league grounds. It’s great to see the enthusiasm and hard work from the people who run the club, but there is often an air of comedy about the whole experience. Whether it’s paying for three people at the turnstiles with a £20 and £5 note (tickets £8 each) and been told they didn’t have any change (I was owed a £1) – so instead the gateman only charged us £20, there seems to be a great collection of characters around the ground.

Making our way to the main stand for a seat (a wise decision given the torrential second half downpour) we were stopped by an elderly gentleman who asked us for an extra £1 each to sit here. For a minute I wondered whether he was on the con, but handed over our extra £1s anyway. I guess that made up for being undercharged at the turnstile!

The crackling tannoy system played ‘Life is a rollercoaster’ by Ronan Keating prematch and we soon realised, as the next record kicked in, that they were in fact playing the Irish singer’s full album (not that pre-match music at Valley Parade is usually any better). We were then treated to a display from a local group of young cheerleaders who sang about how they rule this town and only seemed to know four songs/routines. They were happy to repeat their four dances again and again like a CD stuck on repeat.

Meanwhile the front row of the stand was filled with excitable parents capturing the whole performance on camera. They were the only ones to join in the audience participation moments and you got the impression they were not regulars down at Wetherby Road. Another elderly gentleman walked to the front and seemed full of pride as he watched and applauded the cheerleaders. He looked like he might be Bill Fotherby, the former Leeds Chairman now in charge at Harrogate. He turned to us under whelmed supporters in the stand and, in a Brian Potter-esque way, excitedly exclaimed how he had never heard so much noise in his whole life.

Fortunately the game soon started. City’s first half team came out on the pitch quickly followed by Stuart and Wayne Jacobs, who both naturally received a great reception from the large contingent of City fans. Being half deaf, I stood little chance of hearing the tannoy announcing the City team so struggled to work out who some of our trialists were. One familiar face was Paul Evans, who fired over the free kick that Wetherall scored from to put us in the lead. A bloke a few rows in front stood up shortly after and started loudly cheering for Town, before just as suddenly stopping and sitting back down.

“How old is the number 9?” asked the wife referring to new signing Barry Conlon. “28 I think.” “No he is not, he looks 52!” Soon after Conlon was presented with an excellent chance after a cross was floated towards his ageing forehead. His header ended up going well wide, almost threatening the corner flag. “Look’s like we’ve signed another three goals a season forward.”

Among the first half trialists was Simon Johnson, who showed some skill but was easily knocked off the ball. Number Two Darren Williams looked useful, although the last right back we had called ‘Darren’, who also used to play for Sunderland, still prompts horror flashbacks. The number 8, who I later find out is Scott Phelan, could be worth a contract. The half closed with Harrogate putting in plenty of effort and The Don looking much calmer than towards the end of last season.

Queuing up for an ice cream at half time, a clap of thunder boomed over and it began to rain. Someone joked about dropping ice cream on the blue Bentley parked by the Ice-cream van, until someone else pointed out that it belonged to Mark Lawn. Now what was the name of the last City owner who drove a Bentley? We paused to watch Jacobs bark instructions at the subs warming up before another clap of thunder hurried our retreat back to the sheltered stand.

As we walked back, I realised that former City players Mark Prudhoe and Chris Wilder (now Halifax manager) were walking past the opposite way. Just as I tried to pluck up the courage to ask Mark what he is up to these days, my friend accidentally backed into our former keeper almost knocking his coffee all over him. As he looked slightly menacingly at my clumsy friend, I realised the moment had passed.

With the exception of Ricketts, a completely different team kicked off the second half. These included more trialists and another returning former player, Paul Heckingbottom. The second half team have to endure a torrential downpour that at one stage put the match into doubt. I was left wondering when, if ever, was the last time that City had played a pre-season friendly that was abandoned through bad weather.

Adapting to the conditions better than most was Omar Daley, who showed off his electric pace and went on a couple of mazy dribbles. Daley carried on where he left against Millwall last May, playing up front to decent effect. Eddie Johnson was also back in midfield, suggesting his temporary switch there last season could become a permanent one. City knocked the ball around well at times with some promising moves breaking down. This will only improve with each game.

Harrogate, whose players were clearly up for putting one over their more famous neighbours, pressed hard but second half defenders Mark Bower and Simon Ainge impressed. As the match wore on, some of the Harrogate tackles got harder and the game ended with Craig Bentham squaring up to one player after been unhappy at the strength of one challenge.

It wasn’t a great performance, there is clearly work to be done and tough decisions to be made over which trialists to offer deals. But, as the rain eased off and we disappeared into the Harrogate night, I was left with a satisfied feeling about the ten months ahead for City.

Football is back.

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