Harrogate Town returned to action for the first time since Boxing Day due to two postponed games, losing 2-1 to a promotion hunting Cambridge side in a fog engulfed Abbey Stadium.
Town have been busy so far in the transfer window, their signings numbering at five with three of the new boys, Josh March, Josh McPake and Mitchell Roberts all making their debuts in the starting eleven. Fellow new recruits Hondermarck and Williams made the bench with news that Brendan Kiernan, Aaron Martin and Ryan Fallowfield would miss the game due to positive COVID-19 tests. As for the home side, Cambridge were unchanged from their 2-1 win at Grimsby, seeking to further consolidate themselves in the playoff places.
The game started as one heavily focused on long balls and aerial battles, with no side really having a clear-cut chance for the opening few minutes. In the 10th minute, a free-kick was won by Harrogate who, amongst the confusion, took the play quickly, the long ball finding the debuting Josh March who managed to knock the ball down to Jack Muldoon who slotted it home for his tenth goal of the campaign.
The game would remain Town’s to win, especially in the first half. The 15th minute saw Josh March go agonisingly close with a shot that would rise just over the Cambridge bar, United being the lesser side for the first thirty minutes. Cambridge seemed to have a particular focus on the right-wing, no doubt to try and unleash Wes Hoolahan, but struggled to find him with the repeated attempts at long balls down that flank. United’s opening issues were less to down to a stellar Town performance and more so down to poor coordination on the offensive.
The grasp that Town held in the first half an hour gradually slipped from then on, Cambridge edging ever closer to beating James Belshaw with brilliant moves that faltered only in the final third. Town defenders were increasingly called into use, the backline blocking several shots from United and dealing with the subsequent corners that followed them. Regardless of this pressure, however, the home side would fail to register a shot on target in the first half, rendering their attacking moves hopeless.
Half time: Cambridge 0-1 Harrogate
It was less so the brilliance of Town than it was the lapse of concentration from United that resulted in the Harrogate goal. Taking nothing away from Town’s alertness or Muldoon’s finish, the game has otherwise been a battle of long balls and empty possessions, most moves culminating in failure. The last fifteen minutes saw a shift in momentum, Cambridge easily being the better side, their attacks nullified only by some solid defensive showing from the Town back four.
Second half begins.
The second half saw a continuation of Cambridge’s solidity in attack and defence, with Harvey Nibs’ deflected effort going just wide in the first few minutes of the half. It was corners galore for United, who seemed destined to score. Town defended the corners solidly, but could hardly muster any sort of move past the halfway line. As the fog further shrouded the Abbey, Town made some changes in a desperate attempt to see out the game. Jay Williams came on for his debut in place of the injured Mitchell Roberts in the 54th minute, whilst Lloyd Kerry and Josh Falkingham came on for Conor Kirby and Ed Francis respectively in the 65th minute. Cambridge’s repeated attempts finally paid off when, after some brilliant intricacy down the left-hand side, Ironside finished off a driven cross, finishing it across James Belshaw’s goal.
Town would only crumble further from this moment. Lloyd Kerry was involved in a scuffle that saw him receive a straight red card in the 78th minute, and just three minutes later Cambridge would score again to see them take the lead in the tie. Hoolahan ended up with the ball at the edge of the box and drove it low into the bottom left corner. A deserved lead, but painful none the less for Town fans. Town would have a chance with the last kick of the game essentially, a 96th free-kick from George Thomson on the right-hand side, just outside the box, however, his cross would sail over everyone in the box, a harmless possession for Cambridge.
Full time: Cambridge United 2-1 Harrogate Town
It was interplay too fine for Town to manage throughout the game. The red card of Kerry demolished the gradually thinning hold Harrogate held on the match. Cambridge were the deserved victors against a Town side who worsened after their impressive opening thirty minutes. Town played in the same diamond system that resulted in their victory against Oldham on Boxing Day, with Burrell and Roberts seeming to play on inverted wings, Kirby and Thomson being as interchangeable as ever, Ed Francis holding down the middle of the park with Muldoon, McPake and March forming the front three. The charging runs of Brendan Kiernan were missed particularly today in a side that seemed to lack consistency in attack.
Man of the Match: Jack Muldoon.
A hard game to choose a particularly good player, but Jack Muldoon’s tidy finish that saw him rise to ten goals in the season, combined with a relatively solid performance on his part, is why he is Harrogate’s man of the match. Overall? Wes Hoolahan. Brilliant display that showed age is only a number. Scored a deserved goal too.
Town will play Carlisle in their next match, a replay of the game postponed in the first week of January. Town were one up within the first minute of the initial game before it was called off ten minutes in, energy they will hope to match in the replay. The loss saw Harrogate fall from 17th to 18th in the table, but Weaver’s side will hope to quickly shake the performance off and focus all their attention on the tie against promotion-chasing Carlisle United.