Wakefield AFC find top form to beat leaders Harrogate Railway Athletic
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Tuesday evening’s visit of Dronfield to Belle Vue transpired to be the perfect preparation for the weekend journey to the table toppers and probable title challengers, writes Austin Ainsworth.
In what was a dominant 4-0 win 17-year-old Oliver Rodriguez shone on his first start, which was capped with a fine goal and striker Jake Morrison made a timely return from injury as a second half substitute, celebrating it with his 41st goal in just 44 Wakefield appearances over three seasons.
Unsurprisingly, Wakefield manager Gabe Mozzini’s starting line-up against Harrogate was almost identical to that previous match; Mason Rubie the only new addition as – after a first clean sheet of the season – goalkeeper Henry Kendrick and the back four kept their places. Ashley Flynn also retained his position up front, with Morrison still deemed only fit enough for the bench.
Wakefield’s starting 4-3-3 formation was, on paper, consistent with what is their usual set-up, but at times their tactics were worlds apart from the norm.
Perhaps with the opposition and prior record in mind – two losses to Harrogate in both fixtures last year – unusually for Wakefield they gave up plenty of possession and territory to the home side; but balanced that with resolute defending, a rarely seen sharpness in the tackle, ultra-aggressive pressing at the right moments and rapid counter attacks.
The tactics worked as they created the best goalscoring chances of the game and saw their own goal rarely threatened.
Wakefield did not have to wait long to see the fruits of their labour, with centre-back Jack Durkin opening his official Wakefield AFC account in the seventh minute.
The goal came from a free-kick that Harrogate failed to clear, with Durkin holding his high position at the back post as the ball came back in from a wayward defensive header.
His touch was perfect as he killed the ball and then drilled a shot to the far post which deflected in off Harrogate’s Harry Croft on the line; the referee awarding it as an own-goal but, with the shot clearly on target, one that should be credited to the Wakefield man on appeal.
Harrogate almost found an immediate route back into the game when their overlapping winger Luca Bolino was given the ball down the right. He cut in and beat goalscorer Durkin on the dead-ball line, before squaring to Lucas Umpleby who was just two yards from goal.
However, Wakefield left-back Jack McGahan showed great awareness and determination to race back and somehow block the shot off the line.
Wakefield never really looked back from that and Railway would not go as close again, as Wakefield’s game-plan continued to reap chances.
Rodriguez, so effective on his full goalscoring debut against Dronfield, continued to threaten on the wing and he could have doubled Wakefield’s lead 15 minutes in.
Billy Mole had initially sprung Wakefield’s counter with a crisp long ball into Flynn’s feet. He turned and played Rodriguez into acres of space down the right. Perhaps keen to gift Flynn a chance of his long-awaited first Wakefield goal, the winger attempted a difficult pass back inside to the striker rather than take what appeared to be his own better chance to score.
Mole, as always, was at the heart of the action both defensively and offensively, and he had his own chance to score on the half-hour mark after some fine interplay between him, Aaron Pilkington and midfield lynchpin Jaydan Sandhu.
Having initiated the attack, Mole was given the ball back 20 yards out before his fine, curling shot rattled the crossbar.
The second goal did come just before half-time with perennial assist-maker Mason Rubie adding to his 10 goals for the club with a fine strike from the edge of the area.
Morrison replaced Flynn at half-time and, following two early long-range attempts on goal by Rodriguez at the half’s start, the striker nearly made it three when he showed trademark strength and pace down the channels to meet a fine pass from Mole, before firing just wide.
Wakefield keeper Kendrick was not solely a spectator in the second half as he was forced into a fine save, low to his right, to deny Harrogate’s Umpleby a goal from a well taken free-kick.
Mole was arguably Wakefield’s star performer on the day and, having already tested the Harrogate goalkeeper with a fine solo effort moments earlier, he made it 3-0 in the 68th minute.
With his back to goal, he controlled a driven pass from Pilkington well, before slipping his marker and turning into the penalty area on to his left foot. Like a man with all the time and space in the world, he picked his spot and simply passed the ball beyond the reach of the stretching hand of the goalkeeper.
The goal, his third of the season, puts him back level with his long-term striker partner Morrison on 41 goals for the club. When they play together one, if not both, usually finds the net and the stats serve only to underline how important it is for the club to keep them both fit this season.
As the game moved in to the last 20 minutes it was obvious there was no way back for Harrogate, with their frustrations boiling over when their defender Croft was shown a straight red card for an off the ball moment with Rodriguez, in which he kicked him from behind in full view of the referee.
That served only to open up more space for a vibrant Wakefield, who continued to create opportunities; the best when Morrison touched and turned quickly to fire off a shot in the area just before full-time, only for Harrogate ‘keeper Jonathan Dash to deny him with a fine save, low to his left.
The result moved Wakefield up to tenth after five games, while Harrogate remain top, having played more games than those around them.
However, the effect on the league table so early in the season will likely pale into insignificance for Wakefield compared to the immeasurable benefit it will have on confidence and optimism for the long season ahead.
The standard has now been set, and the challenge is to meet that standard every match.
The next opportunity to do so will be in another first for the still fledgling Wakefield side, when they make their debut in the FA Vase away to Droylsden in a first round qualifying tie on Saturday.
Nostell MW continued their fine start to the season with a 2-1 win at Selby Town.
Liam Owen opened the scoring with a first minute penalty and Jordan Kershaw hit the winner in the second half after Selby had equalised.
The result lifted Nostell up to second ahead of their FA Vase tie at Bottesford town on Saturday.
Horbury Town came from behind twice to earn a 2-2 draw at home to Retford United with goals from Daniel Ward and Ben Agu.
They host Goole in a FA Vase first qualifying round tie this Saturday.