Wakefield AFC's promotion hopes suffer setback as they are knocked off top spot with surprise defeat

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Last year saw Wakefield AFC on a continuous upward trajectory in the NCE Division One, with a play-off finish in their first campaign at this level followed this season by a charge to the top of the table at the close of 2023.

​Having won all but four of their league fixtures since the start of October, Wakefield moved into 2024 with real aspirations of a title challenge, albeit with their gap to the sides below them reduced after their momentum had stalled recently with a loss and a draw either side of Christmas, writes Austin Ainsworth.

The visitors to the Be Well Support Stadium for Wakefield’s first game of the year were mid-table Harrogate Railway Athletic, who came into the game having failed to win any of their December fixtures; their form this season having deteriorated after narrowly missing out on promotion last year.

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Wakefield – 3-0 victors in the reverse fixture earlier in the season – should have had the edge going in to the game, but they were somewhat hampered by an ever increasing list of absentees and went on to suffer a 2-1 loss.

Wakefield number nine Jake Morrison is ready to pounce if the Harrogate Railway goalkeeper cannot deal with this cross. Pictures: Scott MerryleesWakefield number nine Jake Morrison is ready to pounce if the Harrogate Railway goalkeeper cannot deal with this cross. Pictures: Scott Merrylees
Wakefield number nine Jake Morrison is ready to pounce if the Harrogate Railway goalkeeper cannot deal with this cross. Pictures: Scott Merrylees

Manager Gabe Mozzini had to do without the key duo of Callum Charlton and Oliver Rodriguez on the left, while striker Ben Gelder was also missing with injury.

That meant a rare start for Edward Busfield in defence, with regular right-back Aaron Pilkington moving over to the left of the back four. Jake Morrison also made a welcome first league start since the beginning of October in attack, ahead of a midfield that included recent signing Joel Spence in his third game.

Morrison was at the heart of the action immediately, first playing Cameron Barnett in on goal for a one-v-one opportunity that the midfielder narrowly missed on the stretch and then seeing his own looping header fall just wide.

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Wakefield were sucker-punched in the 14th minute though, after Busfield’s attack down the right was halted when the referee gave a soft foul after he challenged the goalkeeper in the opposition box.

Mason Rubie takes on a Harrogate Railway defender.Mason Rubie takes on a Harrogate Railway defender.
Mason Rubie takes on a Harrogate Railway defender.

Before Wakey had worked out what had happened, the free-kick was taken short to Harrogate’s Daniel Hickey, who rode several challenges as he ran the length of the pitch before slotting the ball past Henry Kendrick in the Wakefield goal.

That would not be the first time warning bells rang for Wakefield in a first half in which they dominated, but in which they looked susceptible to fast and direct Harrogate counter-attacks, with the away side denied by a great save from Kendrick moments later when the Harrogate striker bore down on goal.

Nevertheless, Wakefield did continue to create chances and found the equaliser in the 21st minute through Barnett with his fifth goal of the campaign.

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It was an intricately crafted goal as Jaydan Sandhu and Mason Rubie played a corner short on the left, before the former threaded a perfect pass back through for Rubie to break into the left side of the area. The winger, on a red hot streak of goalscoring form this season, reverted to his more traditional role of creating goals as he drilled the ball back across the six yard line for Barnett to side-foot home.

Goalkeeper Henry Kendrick has to come to Wakefield AFC's rescue.Goalkeeper Henry Kendrick has to come to Wakefield AFC's rescue.
Goalkeeper Henry Kendrick has to come to Wakefield AFC's rescue.

After that it was Harrogate who had the better of the first half chances and, despite Wakefield’s superiority in possession, the away side would probably have been the happier of the two sides at half-time.

On the face of it, the second half was much more one-sided in Wakefield’s favour, with their command of territory and possession largely unchallenged.

However, as in the first half, there was a clear sense of something missing from their performance; their attacks often breaking down through wayward passing and jeopardy never far away with it all too easy for Harrogate to bypass the midfield with a number of counter attacks.

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The home side also failed to make their chances count as they rarely tested the Harrogate keeper, with two Sandhu free-kicks that shook the side netting and then the post the best of the second half efforts.

That failure to capitalise proved fatal as Harrogate were given the chance of an unlikely three points in the 83rd minute through the award of a penalty after Bradley Green went to ground after flicking the ball around the onrushing Kendrick.

Alex Clark made no mistake from the spot and it was 2-1.

There was to be no response from Wakefield, who were unable to muster another chance in the closing stages.

Mozzini’s disappointment was evident after the match, succinctly summarising the mood following the result by stating: “It is a game we need to learn lessons from and move forward.”

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That will be all the more important should Wakefield still harbour ambitions of automatic promotion this season, with the result leaving work to be done on that front as they now drop to third in the table.

They have a week to wait and prepare themselves to put things right, with their next match against 20th-placed Yorkshire Amateur on Saturday, starting a run of four away fixtures.

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