Harlow Town are the best team in non-league football at the moment.
Having played eight games in the Ryman League Division One North, the Hawks sit at the top of the pile, having won seven of them, drawing just one, scoring twenty-three goals in the process.
A narrow 1-0 victory over fellow promotion contenders Soham Town Rangers aside, Harlow’s road to the summit has been relatively simple. A 3-1 victory at Redbridge on the opening day was followed up by a victory of the same scoreline at home to Romford, before thumpings were handed out to Great Wakering Rovers, Waltham Abbey and Burnham Ramblers 4-1, 4-2 and 4-2 respectively.
Even at this early stage of the season, Danny Chapman’s men look certainties for promotion to the Ryman Premier Division at the end of the season. But what about the FA Cup?
After their 3-0 Preliminary Qualifying Round win over Spartan South Midlands League Division One side Baldock Town on August 31st, the Essex side now face a First Qualifying Round tie against Grays Athletic on Saturday September 13th. The Blues, members of the Ryman Premier Division, hold home advantage as well as the advantage of being a tier above their opponents, so will start favourites. But, given their early season form, the visitors will be confident of claiming a victory.
Spencer Knight, Harlow Town’s assistant manager, spoke of his sides confidence heading into the game: ”Our aim before every game is to go and win it. We never set up to contain the opposition and look for a draw. Our main strength is our attacking play – the fact that we are currently the top scorers in non league football bears this out. We will certainly respect Grays but will not be in awe of them. We will go there full of confidence and I expect us to put up a great performance and win the game. If the game does end in a draw, we will prepare for the replay in exactly the same way and we may even practice some penalties just in case!”
If they were to gain promotion this season, Harlow would be facing teams like Grays in the Ryman Premier week in, week out. Speaking on the standard of the league, Knight said: ”The standard is as you would expect from this level, I think. You have part time players earning a small amount of money to play and you generally get what you pay for with footballers.’
‘We try to be as professional as we can in our approach to the game and we have a high standard that we like our players to achieve. Harlow is a club geared for a higher level off the field, so our job is to get a team capable of delivering it on the field. There are some good players playing at this level – experienced players drop to this level as their career winds down, whilst every season, young players who have been released from pro club academies start again and try to climb back up the ladder.”
Harlow Town played their first match on the 18th October 1879 when they met Saffron Waldon. The club started out as Harlow, before the suffix ‘Town’ was added many years later.
18th October is also the date that Harlow moved into their current stadium – originally known as Barrows Farm, but now going under the name “The Harlow Arena”. The move happened in 2006, after the club moved from it’s previous home at the Sportcentre, where they had played since 1961.
Since the move, crowds have steadily improved with an average now of around 200. With regards to rivals, the club’s supporters tend to see neighbours Bishop’s Stortford as their main rivals, however the rivalry is somewhat weak, due to the two teams rarely meeting. Although, when they have met, the games are always very well attended and there is never much love lost between the fans. The Hawks also have derby games against Ware, Hertford and Cheshunt. More recently, Waltham Abbey have become rivals, with the high volume of ex-Harlow players in the Abbey side adding a bit of spice to the tie.
The Hawks have lived the FA Cup dream on several occasions, none more so than in the 1979/80 season when they reached the 4th Round Proper before bowing out to Watford, in a 4-3 defeat. Both Southend United and Leicester City were beaten in home replays on the way to the 4th Round. Since then, Harlow have appeared in the First Round Proper on four occasions, with the most recent coming in 2007/08, when they lost 2-0 at home to Macclesfield Town. The gate of 2,149 is the current record for the Harlow Arena.
When asked about Harlow’s FA Cup ambitions this season, Knight stated that ”every season a handful of clubs from around our level make it to Round One and beyond – why not us? That is certainly the message we will be giving to the players and that this competition is a great way to raise the profile of the club, as well as them as individuals.’
‘The aim for the FA Cup is to enjoy it and to go as far as possible. If we were to be fortunate enough to get past Grays, we would be hoping for a home draw and we’d take it from there.”
To get to this stage, Harlow defeated plucky Baldock Town 3-0, but Knight and his fellow back-room staff were not too happy with the performance. ”We were a little disappointed with the performance, to be honest. It was one of our poorer displays so far this season, but the main thing, of course, was to make it through the tie. It is sometimes difficult for players when you play against opposition from a lower level and that is one of the reasons you see so many ‘shocks’ in the FA Cup. That will probably be the last time we are favourites to win for however long we last in the competition, so that will no longer be an issue for us.”
When asked whether the early sending off of Baldock’s goalkeeper, Nick Stilwell, changed the outlook on the game, the assistant manager added: ”Our game plan was the same as it always is and the goalkeeper being dismissed didn’t change that. We should have retained possession a lot more against the ten men, but in fairness to Baldock, they worked extremely hard and made it difficult for us to play. Our superior fitness told in the end with the two late goals giving the scoreline a more flattering look.”
The man to watch among the Harlow ranks is Alex Read. The 26 year-old centre forward has already bagged ten goals and four assists this season; that’s preceded by a magnificent 52 goals in all competitions last year for the beaten Play-Off finalists. Knight sung his praises when asked about the key man in the Hawks’s squad, as well as commenting on a couple of ex-league players: ”Alex Read is certainly one of the players to grab the headlines in our squad with over 50 goals last season and better than a goal a game so far this campaign.’
‘We have a few ex pros in the ranks, with goalkeeper Ed Thompson having a long spell at Dagenham and Redbridge and midfielder Jamie Smith having appeared for Brighton in their League One promotion season.”
The FA Cup allows teams from Harlow’s level and beyond to realise their dreams and face the big boys of the Premier League in later rounds, and the Hawks’ assistant boss would like a short trip to North London for his dream tie: ”As a Tottenham fan, it would be easy to say that the dream would be to get to Round Three and draw Tottenham away. That would be special, but I think the ultimate dream would be to play Arsenal at the Emirates in front of a sell-out crowd (unusual for Arsenal as there are always so many empty seats!) and to knock them out with an injury time winner. If I’m taking it to the extreme, then I would play in the game and get the winner!”
Of course, the FA Cup also offers the smaller clubs a bounty of prize money for winning their ties. The Essex club received £1,925 for beating Baldock in the previous round, but as far as what the club would do with the money goes, Knight was keeping his cards close to his chest: ”I’ve been assured by the club that as part of my deal when I arrived as Assistant Manager in the summer, all FA Cup prize money will be paid directly to me. Therefore, I’m working especially hard with the lads to get as far as we can in the competition.”
In that case, I’m sure we can come to some sort of arrangement, Spencer…
Harlow Town travel to Grays Athletic in the FA Cup First Qualifying Round on September 13th, 3pm kick-off.
Grays Athletic ground-share with Aveley FC, so if you wish to head down for the game, set your sat-navs to the postcode RM15 4SJ.
(With thanks to Phil Tuson for the history!)
Find out how it finished between Harlow Town and Grays Athletic HERE.
Article featured on Harlow Town’s website: http://www.harlowtownfootballclub.co.uk/news/mark-litchfields-fa-cup-journey-continues-on-saturday-1289792.html
Check out the full FA Cup journey here: https://marklitchfieldblog.wordpress.com/fa-cup-20142015/