After seeing off Baldock Town in last seasons FA Cup Preliminary Qualifying Round, they faced an Essex derby against neighbours, Grays Athletic, in the First Qualifying Round. After a 2-2 draw at Mill Field, it was to be Grays that would advance in the replay, seeing off the Hawks with a 4-2 victory on the 3G pitch at The Harlow Arena.
Harlow spent the majority of the season inside the divisions top two, scored over a century of goals and notched up 103 points – but they didn’t go up.
Needham Market, the Hawks’ nemesis for the majority of the campaign, pipped them to the post on the final day and won the league, whilst Thurrock advanced to the play-off final days later, knocking out Harlow in cruel circumstances.
In other news, Ray Dyer, fan for over three decades and Club Secretary for the last five, has departed the club for pastures new, whilst Phil Tuson, the Hawks’ programme editor, has also stepped down from his position.
Harlow faced Needham Market in a titanic title-deciding clash on the penultimate weekend of the season, and Phil Tuson himself takes up the story…
”Saturday, 18th April saw Harlow travel to Needham Market for a title showdown with the Suffolk side, with an estimated 400 fans following the Hawks for the fixture. A crowd of 972 watched, as Needham raced into a two goal lead. A win for Needham would have clinched the title, whilst any other result meant that the title would be decided on the final weekend of the season.’
‘At half time, it looked like the Hawks’ title hopes were over, as Needham threatened to run away with the game. However, the game was not lost as Alex Read returned to action as a second half substitute, making an instant impact when he headed home minutes after coming on. All of a sudden, Needham started to look vulnerable, especially the ‘keeper, who looked like a rabbit caught in the headlights. It looked like Leon Antoine had equalised, but a raised flag put pay to that, whilst at the other end, Needham missed a couple of golden opportunities to finish the game off, playing now on the counter attack.’
‘With the clock running down, Craig Pope reacted first in the box to slam home an equaliser, sending the travelling support wild. With the last attack of the game, another substitute, Billy Jones, saw his effort go agonisingly wide – and so, we had to settle for a share of the points.”
That result meant that Harlow would need to win at home to Thamesmead Town (which they did, 2-1) and hope that Needham Market slipped up at Chatham Town to have a chance of securing the title. However, Needham romped to a 5-0 win, meaning that the Hawks would have to settle for the dreaded play-offs.
With home advantage, most expected Harlow to advance to the play-off final, but they were on the wrong side of a seven-goal epic, as their season came to a crashing and disappointing end.
In a tie that saw the away side take the lead after 20 seconds, two red cards and chances galore, it was to be Thurrock that would net the final and decisive strike in extra time.
Ian Barham, Press Secretary at The Harlow Arena, explained how missing out on the league title and then promotion through the play-offs was an extremely bitter pill to swallow, after such a fantastic season: ”Looking back on it now, it’s still incredibly hard to see that after 46 games, we finished with 103 points – 13 points ahead of the next best side – but we didn’t get promoted. Thurrock were 19 points behind us at the end [of the regular season], but they performed in the play-offs – that’s what matters.’
‘Straight after the game, it hurt a lot, and there were plenty of us complaining at how unfair the play-off system is. But, we knew the rules at the start of the season and we have to deal with the consequences. We did get off to the worst start in that game, conceding within 30 seconds! It was a fantastic game to watch – a dream for a neutral – and the second half could have seen either team win it. Unfortunately for us, they came out stronger in the first period of extra time and we couldn’t come back from that, despite throwing everything at it. It was still a great season for us, it just didn’t have that dream ending that we would have liked.”
The main reason for Harlow’s near-success last season was hot-shot striker, Alex Read. In the 2013/14 season, Read notched a whopping 52 (fifty-two) goals in all competitions, breaking the club record in the process and followed that up with another 42 last season. Despite genuine interest from a number of clubs higher up the pyramid, Tuson claims that Read is happy playing his football in north Essex: ”Alex Read has been scoring goals at Step 4 of the non-league game for several years now, but since his move to the Harlow Arena, his strike rate has been quite incredible.’
‘In the 2013-14 season, he broke the clubs scoring record with 52 league and cup goals, adding a further 42 last season. Read missed seven games towards the end of the season due to injury and would surely have been close to his previous years total. The club brought in the much travelled former Colchester United striker, Jamie Guy, to plug the gap and managed to maintain their title challenge, winning six of the seven games that they were without Read.’
‘During his time at the club, there has been several seven day approaches from clubs playing higher up the pyramid, but it would appear that Read is enjoying his football at Harlow and is happy to stay at the Arena. Long may it continue!”
Despite Harlow being able to hold on to Read, many players have come and gone from the club since their FA Cup defeat last season.
”Of the team that took on Grays Athletic last September, only three of the players remain with the club – defender Layne Eadie, midfielder Fabion Simms and Alex Read. Of the starting line-up that evening, only goalkeeper Dean Driscoll and James Smith departed before the end of the season, whilst only two of the six substitutes saw the season out’ said Phil. ‘During the close season, another seven of that squad departed, whilst in the last week we have lost Dave Cowley to league rivals Thurrock. Cowley had taken over as captain following the departure of Smith in February.’
‘In January, fans’ favourites Junior Dadson and Leon Antoine returned to the club to boost hopes of promotion. Experienced ‘keeper, Andy Walker, was brought in from Thurrock for the run in, whilst Craig Pope joined from Sudbury and is the most recent player to wear the armband.’
‘This season has seen a host of new arrivals, including the former Premiership defender, Ibrahima Sonko. Recently, defender Ben Glasgow returned to the club, thus bringing the number of players who featured against Grays up to four.”
In amongst all the comings and goings, Harlow Town celebrated their 135th birthday last season, with one of the crowning moments coming at Southend United in the Essex Senior Cup. With the Shrimpers expected to brush aside their opponents, the Hawks upset the odds, winning 4-2.
”The 18th October last year was quite a day actually, for three reasons’ said Ian. ‘It was 135 years to the day since our first game, it was eight years since we moved into our new stadium and our Club President, Ron Bruce, was acknowledged by the Isthmian League for his 25 years of service to the league. How did we celebrate? With an entertaining 5-2 win over Wroxham!’
‘The Southend game was a fantastic night. You never know what you’re going to get when you face one of the big teams, but they had a fairly strong line up, with half of them having first team experience. You tend to go to these games hoping to frustrate them for an hour or so and try and nick something near the end – we were absolutely on fire that night, though. We’d taken quite a few fans as it was quite a big game and we’re pretty noisy at the best of times. There were a lot of young Southend fans there, too, quite close to us, so the atmosphere was really good. The best thing is we thoroughly deserved the result. We hadn’t put 10 men behind the ball all game, or changed the way we played. We went out there and gave as good as we got and scored some brilliant goals in the process.”
And so, to the current campaign. Both Phil and Ian hope for one thing – to go one better than last seasons heartbreak: ”This year is going to be tough’ said Ian. ‘There are high hopes following the last couple of seasons, where we’ve got into the play-offs. It sounds like a cliché, but every year it seems harder and harder to get out of this division. We’ve seen three teams come down from the Ryman Premier and there are sides such as Sudbury, Thurrock, Cray Wanderers, Heybridge Swifts, Aveley and Wroxham who will all fancy their chances of challenging at the top.’
‘We’ve also seen Phoenix Sports come up from the league below – they dominated it last season; they only lost one league game all year. We’ve retained large portions of our squad, though and although we’ve had a bit of an inconsistent start to the season, I’m hopeful that we’ll start to string some results together as the team beds in. I think if you were to offer me a play-off place again now, I’d take the gamble and hope we can go that step further this time round. A little run in one of the cups would be nice, too…!”
”The aim for this season has got to be to win the league’ added Phil. ‘However, with extra competition from the likes of AFC Hornchurch, Bury Town and Witham Town (all relegated from the Premier Division), it may well be that a place in the play-offs is our best chance of promotion. As last season proved, it is not always – in fact, hardly ever – the best two teams in the league that are promoted.
The Hawks began the season with just one win in their opening five games, but have won the last three on the spin, including a 5-1 thumping of Southend Manor in the FA Cup Preliminary Qualifying Round. They will host Bedford Town in the First Qualifying Round.
Next Up: Grays Athletic