Recently-promoted teams often struggle in the second season at a higher level and that has been the case for the next visitors.
The Essex side enjoyed the first campaign back in the Bostik Premier, following a 10-year absence, and at one stage had an outside chance of possibly finishing in a play-off berth. The eventual position of 10th in the 2016/17 final table represented a decent effort for a club relishing a renaissance after a period of struggle.
This year involves a relegation fight, but for battle-hardened Harlow loyalists such an outcome would be fairly low down the scale of potential catastrophe – very-survival has been at risk on occasions.
In the past, off-field problems, such as major issues with the semi-derelict former Sportscentre ground – used from 1960 for nearly half-a-century – a homeless spell, occasional ownership shenanigans and sometimes perilous financial position almost killed the club.
The Hawks, however, have been flying high in recent seasons, helped partly by a move into a different home, around 12 years ago. Initially known as Barrows Farm, the stadium now also boasts a state-of the art-“3G” artificial pitch (installed for 2013/14). Attendances have climbed since football started being played in the far more salubrious surroundings of the Harlow Arena (from 2006).
The side soon secured promotion to the Isthmian Premier but, after a mid-table finish one year, relegation soon followed.
Rewinding the history segment further, the old venue, a decrepit, largely concrete, carbuncle was hardly going to attract many people, especially newcomer residents lured to the area by the-then government’s post-war, new-town dream. It had the distinction of being the country’s first purpose-built sports centre, but like much architecture of that particular age soon became life-expired.
By the early 1990s, the once model for the future, at Hammarskjold Road, had become so dreadful the ground “no longer met league requirements”. Town used the pitches of other teams to finish the 1991/92 campaign and subsequently endured a season sitting on the sidelines (1992/93). An upgrade allowed a return, but on the lowest rung of the Isthmian ladder – at the time Division 3.
The sizable population, of a community that expanded exponentially, had never really shown much affinity for the local football flag-fliers. That said, a famous FA Cup run in the late-1970s, conjured-up a giant-killer tag and, for a while, things looked promising.
Harlow captured national attention during 1979/80 with a terrific run in England’s favourite footballing knockout contest. It involved reaching the Fourth Round Proper, having started “on the road to Wembley”, as the saying goes, at the Preliminary stage of the competition. Wins over Lowestoft, Hornchurch, Bury Town, Harwich & Parkeston, Margate, Leytonstone-Ilford, Southend United and, eventually, Leicester City, provided a fourth round tie away to Watford.
The triumphs over the Football League opposition were both by 1-0 in replays at the Sportcentre. Perhaps the unconventional facilities and ambience helped unsettle the full-timers on the night!
The BBC “Match of the Day” cameras were at Vicarage Road as Harlow eventually bowed out, following a 4-3 defeat to Graham Taylor’s Hornets.
Potential was never fully realised though, until recently, and the upturn in fortunes coincided with the move into a new home, suggesting the old depressing venue was a significant part of the problem.
Returning to the current era, the Bostik Premier is tough and even strugglers have players on the books with experience at a higher level, often playing alongside younger colleagues that could follow the footsteps. Tuesday’s guests are fairly typical and some examples, perhaps, illustrate the point.
Matt Foy, a forward, joined the Hawks on work experience terms from Cambridge United in February 2018. The striker progressed through the youth ranks in the university city, before signing a professional three-year contract. The marksman, who has made an invaluable contribution since his arrival, also had loan spells at St Neots and Lowestoft.
The experienced category could include Robbie Martin, a defender/midfielder described as a “compact and well-balanced player” who is equally at home in the middle of the park or at the back. The 32-year-old signed in August 2017. He started with Watford and subsequently starred for several sides including Maidenhead, Hornchurch, Braintree, Havant & Waterlooville, St Albans, AFC Sudbury and Enfield Town.
The team’s talisman is almost certainly prolific marksman Alex Read. The ex-Aveley ace has been at the Arena for five seasons and smashed the club’s goal-scoring records.
Any spectators with a preference for watching former top flight players might be intrigued by the possible inclusion of a veteran centre-half. It was around a decade ago, but Ibrahima Sonko did ply his trade in the Premier League for a while, with Reading and Stoke City. The defender later went on loan to Hull and Portsmouth, before being released by the Potters and joining Ipswich Town for 2011/12. The next few seasons were spent playing in Turkey, in the shirt of Akhisar Belediyespor. The 36 year-old joined the Hawks in August 2015, following the stint abroad.
Obviously, selection of any of the above depends on circumstances and the line-up chosen by visiting manager Danny Chapman. The Town boss is a stalwart and guided the team through the most successful spell for Harlow in several decades.
The once-defender notched up more than 200 appearances for his current employers and enjoyed two spells as a player, between 2003 and 2008 and then, again, from February 2010. He took the helm a year later and masterminded promotion via the Isthmian Division One North play-offs at the end of 2015/16.
On Saturday (April 14th), he watched his side beat county rivals Brightlingsea Regent by 2-0.
The Angels are a bit “hit and miss”, as the saying goes, with recent 2-1 triumphs over championship chasers Billericay and Dulwich, but defeats inflicted by Wingate & Finchley and Enfield Town. Also, the expensive Essex outfit later exacted revenge in the return fixture, just after Easter.
The Bostik Premier match between Tonbridge and Harlow on Tuesday evening (April 17th) at Longmead Stadium, Darenth Avenue, is a 7.45pm kick-off.
Updated 12:31 - 18 Apr 2018 by Jim Rowe