Date: 23-04-24 The 23-24 season in review By Harry211

23-04-24. Opinion. The 23-24 season in review

At Barnet FC on Saturday, as the fourth goal went in against Kidderminster Harriers, it was easy to recall the celebrations of twelve months ago. The jubilation spoke of a side on the way up, returning to their natural level with a popular manager going into his fourth season at the helm.

However a year on that optimism looks like something that defined the Harriers’ relegation season; naivety which created months of inertia that the club scrambled furiously to undo. It flowed from the boardroom to the manager’s office and onto the terraces, best summed up by Richard Lane saying pre-season that this club should be aiming to emulate Wrexham AFC and Notts County and get promotion. Naivety comes from a combination of generosity and inexperience, and should only be criticised if it carries on despite clear evidence. Lane and others did change tack, but this season seemed to represent a real loss of footballing innocence for the Harriers’ owner.

Russ Penn
Russ Penn …
Gone in the New Year

His manager, Russ Penn, had only made light additions to the squad during the close season. Crucially Kyle Morrison opting to join Solihull Moors was a big miss, but otherwise nine of the side who won promotion last season started against Woking FC on the opening day. Those players, however, were nine of the squad who nearly led Harriers to mid-table obscurity before that unthinkable run and playoff victory.

There was a claim that the promotion had come too early and had caught Penn and his assistant Jimmy O’Connor by surprise, but the intervening three months before the new season began seemed to pass the club by.

Once the season was underway and the club had sank to the bottom of the table, there were some odd decisions on display as Penn began to repeat his panicked attempts to find any solution to Harriers woes. Caleb Richards, ‘Mr Consistent’ over the last few seasons, spent a period on the bench while new signing Sammy Robinson was played out of position and Ashley Hemmings was briefly frozen out. Only those in training knows what goes on behind the scenes but, from the outside, it looked like they were desperate moves that didn’t work.

Poor recruitment continued. Kieran Phillips was shut out without getting a run in the side and it seemed to be a season too soon for Gerry McDonagh. Meanwhile Gold Omatayo looked poorer every week after his big-money move from AFC Fylde. Some things are beyond your control though, long-term injuries to Shane Byrne and Joe Leesley made Penn’s life harder, but for the factors under his control things should have improved.

In the stands too, as successive defeats failed to dampen the optimism of fans, competitive performances created a misleading feeling that the team would splutter in to life and start firing. However they never did. Harriers were seven points adrift by New Year and Russ Penn and Jimmy O’Connor were gone shortly after. Then came the shock arrival of Phil Brown, which appeared to herald an improbable comeback, but it overlooked a much bigger, and unseen factor: The arrival of his friend Dean Holdsworth as Director of Football.

Phil Brown
Phil Brown …
Will he really be our saviour?

Holdsworth, who appears to have stayed behind the scenes apart from some school visits, was the reason for Brown’s appointment. More than that it was the acknowledgement by Lane that the owner needed more footballing expertise at the club – no doubt hoping it may come with some investment attached. 

There was, and rightly remains, a lot of scepticism around Holdsworth’s appointment but the addition of some serious footballing experience looks a shrewd move by the Harriers owner.

Holdsworth brought in his former Bolton Wanderers teammate Brown, dressed in his signature red gingham shirt and navy blue blazer. Nobody would have predicted his appointment before it happened, or at least until he was pictured at Hartlebury services, and he went on to give fans’ hope that survival was possible. Four wins on the bounce gave a sense of marauding optimism and destiny.

Of course, this was typical Harriers, lulling us in to a false sense of security before coming through in unbelievable circumstances. I bought fully into it and we were rewarded with sensational away victories that will go down in Harriers folklore. However, despite his experience, perhaps Brown fell in to this naivety and the good start was followed by some dreadful Harriers home performances against fellow strugglers Dorking Wanderers and York City.

The showings in both games were worrying and made no sense after the Harriers had showed quality and endeavour to beat Oldham Athletic. Either Brown got caught in the fairytale, or was he too clever by half? Harriers’ lack of attacking intent in both home games made you think that Brown had written them off as ones not to be lost, rather than matches to be won, as part of a wider game-by-game plan.

As is often the case, when Harriers’ relegation was confirmed three weeks ago it was with a whimper and not a bang. Paul McCallum’s winning goal for Eastleigh FC took his tally to 31 for the season. Harriers have only scored 40 since the opening day; a statistic that on its own tells its own story.

Amari Morgan-Smith
Amari Morgan-Smith …
Swept the board

Yet, unlike the club’s last two relegations, it didn’t come during a spell of off-the-field decline. In fact the opposite. The average attendance at Aggborough this season has been the sixth highest in the league and there is still buckets of goodwill from fans. Meanwhile off-the-pitch the situation looks more stable than it has done for years.

The next question is over Phil Brown’s suitability for the job next season. An announcement could come this week as all the signs are that a deal is close. Brown has clearly fallen in love with the town and the club, and vice versa, however the run in only saw one win in ten games. Home form has not improved from the dark days of the Penn era in the league below.

The football at times has been turgid and flat. Brown has no experience in the league below. There are as many reasons not to appoint him as they are to appoint him. In football the next appointment is always the most important one – but you feel that if the club can bounce back at the first opportunity, it has such potential to do well. The sky’s the limit, but we will just have to go below ground first to do so.

Players of the Season

Phil has kindly given fans three choices on the forum, and for me it’s Amari Morgan-Smith, Jack Lambert and Reiss McNally. Morgan-Smith has won the fans’ player of the season, for both the Official fans vote and for the Harriers Online poll, and he seemed to embody a ‘never say die‘ spirit within the side working endlessly to chase defenders and get goals but, sadly, without consistent support from his colleagues.

In his debut season Jack Lambert showed endless endeavour and willingness to create opportunities, run with the ball and try something different to turn games around. It didn’t always work, but you have to admire a player in a relegation battle who actively wants the ball – they are very rare.

Reiss McNally was a player born anew under Phil Brown and became one of the side’s most impressive defenders – alongside Alex Penny who became a revelation in his own right. All three – and Penny – deserve huge credit.

Moment of the season

The Harriers taking 700 fans to Oldham Athletic and spoiling their generous charity day out. There were more fans at Boundary Park that day than were at Dean Court to see Manchester City beat Bournemouth. If only those who are in charge of football in this country appreciated the rude health it’s in, and its precarious nature. That afternoon it felt like Harriers’ survival was the most likely it had seemed all season.

Moment to forget

Dorking at home. The worst Harriers game I’ve had the ‘pleasure’ to see in more than twenty years. They could still be playing now and neither team would have scored. It only just beats the awful Ebbsfleet Utd away defeat on August Bank Holiday weekend, which had no redeeming features at all.

Photo’s © Various