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As #Project650 draws near Simon Piper looks at our opponents Harlow Town

Hawks scrap for survival

Once-famous FA Cup giant-killers, whose story includes near extinction in the past, are the next guests at Longmead, in the Bostik Premier on Saturday (March 30, kick-off 3pm).

The visitors are digging deep to avoid demotion this term and life has rarely been dull for football lovers in one of England’s post-war, trail-blazing new towns.

Teams promoted to a higher level for the first time, or after a lengthy absence, often enjoy a promising debut, or return, then struggle in subsequent seasons. And that has been the case for the Hawks.

A few years ago, the Essex side enjoyed the first campaign back in the Isthmian Premier, following a 10-year absence, and at one stage had an outside chance of 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.

Indeed, a 3-0 win over Tonbridge at Longmead, as the campaign moved into the closing weeks, damaged the Angels’ aspirations – the faithful of West Kent will be hoping there is no repeat performance.

The early promise has since faded. This season (2018/19), like the previous, 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 the Bostik set-up during recent seasons, helped partly by a move into a different home, more than a dozen 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.

The current stint at “step 3” has lasted three terms so far and followed promotion courtesy of play-offs at the end of 2015/16. The Hawks had finished third in Division One North, before beating Cray (by 3-0) at the semi-final stage and Hornchurch (3-1) in the final. A large crowd of 1,600-plus witnessed the excitement at the Arena.

The Hawks are currently in peril, perched somewhat precariously at second from bottom in the new-look 22-team league. They are four points adrift of safety before the crunch clash against Tonbridge.

Concluding positions in the Bostik Premier since the return have been 10th out of 24 in 2016/17 and 21st out of 24, a year later.

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. Saturday’s guests are fairly typical and an example, perhaps, illustrates 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.

He netted the consolation in the 1-5 mauling at Merstham last Saturday (March 23).

Details of the visiting playing staff and management can be found in Matt Davison's article in the matchday programme.

The crucial Bostik Premier clash between Tonbridge Angels and Harlow Town, at Longmead Stadium, on Saturday March 30, is a 3pm kick-off.

There is a large and free-of-charge car park at the ground.

A traditional match preview of the vital tussle will appear on this website tomorrow (29th March).

Published Thursday 28th March 2019