FORMER York City defender John McCombe will tackle his old club this afternoon desperate to be a champion for the first time in his career.

McCombe, 32, has previously won promotion by securing third-place finishes in League Two with Hereford and Port Vale.

But he will return to Bootham Crescent this afternoon with a free-scoring Harrogate Town team, who remain one win behind National League North leaders Salford with three weeks of the regular season left to play.

With only one automatic place up for grabs, both clubs are chasing elevation into English football’s fifth tier for the first-ever time, rather than fighting out in the revamped six-team, play-off system.

McCombe moved to Wetherby Road in February from cash-strapped National League outfit Chester who, due to a clause in his contract that determined the 6ft 2in centre back would be given a new deal for next season on reaching 30 games, made it clear he would play no further part in their campaign.

He has relished the new challenge of helping Harrogate go on and enjoy a historic campaign and admitted: “I’ve had a couple or promotions before but, if I can go up with Harrogate, it would rank right up there, especially if we win the title, because I’ve never done that before. It’s an exciting time for the club.

“I used to come and watch Harrogate when Dave McGurk was playing for them and there would be 250 or 300 people, but we’re getting four figures now and the academy is growing as well. We’re in a good position just behind Salford going into the last five games of the season and, with our superior goal difference, we’re trying to finish top of the league by winning all our games and seeing where that takes us.

“Today’s game is made all the more special for me because I’m coming back to a place where I really enjoyed my time playing and we’re expecting a tough match, because York have got good players who have played at a higher level and could cause us problems, but we are a confident team and know we’re good enough to get a win.”

McCombe warmed up for this afternoon’s derby clash by scoring against Blyth Spartans during Easter Monday’s 5-1 victory and admitted he should have got off the mark before, given the standard of service provided from set-pieces by a team that have plundered more than a century of goals in 2017/18.

“It was good to get a goal, but it was my first of the season, which I’m disappointed with, because I normally get five or six,” he reasoned. “Hopefully, I can get a few more now before the end of the season as the quality of deliveries from both sides of the pitch from our wingers Joe Leesley and George Thomson is really good, whether that be from corners, free kicks or in open play from crosses.”

But another familiar face for City fans – former loan striker Jake Wright – could be a bigger goal threat, having bagged a brace against Blyth following his permanent move from Sheffield United.

“He’s had to be a bit patient, but has started the last couple of games and been brilliant,” McCombe said of the 21-year-old marksman. “He scored a couple of good goals against Blyth and can be a real handful.”

City, meanwhile, will be without their injured 25-goal talisman Jon Parkin, who scored before laying on the winner for Aidan Connolly when he lined up against then Macclesfield defender McCombe during last season’s FA Trophy final victory at Wembley.

On Parkin’s absence, the ex-Mansfield and Huddersfield sentinel confessed: “I’ve played against him a few times and he’s a really good player.

“It’s always going to be a bonus if a team you’re playing is without somebody who has scored as many goals as he has this season and had the career he has had.”

Having tasted regionalised football for the first time in his career, McCombe went on to reason that both he and his old club might have under-estimated the footballing challenge at sixth-tier level.

“After that Trophy final, I thought that York would be at the top of this league, but things don’t always work out like that,” he added. “It can be quite hard to get used to a level down and adapt to things changing on and off the field.

“It’s the first time I’ve played in National League North and the standard of players at Harrogate are a lot better than I thought it would be. They could definitely play in the division above.

“We have a lot of players who were part-time, but are working hard to get where they want to be after going full-time. Some of the teams we’ve come up against have also been a bit better than I thought, although I do think you can see a gap between the full-time and part-time teams.”

Despite Parkin’s aversion to artificial turf because of the aggravation it causes his knees, the experienced McCombe does not mind the home playing surface either at Harrogate, where promotion could yet be decided in a play-off system weighted towards higher-placed sides.

“The 3G pitch isn’t a problem for me,” he declared. “They’ve got better and better over the years and Harrogate’s is probably the best I’ve played on.”

Away from the non-League scene, McCombe has also been delighted to see former City team-mate Nick Pope earn an England call-up after a string of impressive displays for Burnley and believes he won’t let the country down if he makes the World Cup squad.

“I remember telling Russell Penn that I though Popey would go on to play in the Premier League,” McCombe revealed. “He was a great keeper with the right attitude and has risen to every challenge that has been put in front of him.

“He came to us in League Two and has done well as he’s moved up every league. The next challenge is to play for England and I think he will do well if he gets that chance, because he has been psychologically strong whoever he has played for and I believe that mindset means he wouldn’t be fazed by playing in a World Cup.”

Elsewhere, Dan Parslow has won The Press Player of the Month prize for March.

The 32-year-old finished four points ahead of nearest rival Aidan Connolly.

Parslow earned three points towards the standings as our man of the match during last weekend’s 1-1 home draw against Chorley.

The other Press points went to Adriano Moke (two) and Aidan Connolly (one) as our second and third-highest rated performers respectively.

Moke also received the two bonus points on offer towards the standings after topping our Twitter man-of-the-match poll.

Latest Press Player of the Year standings: Parkin 31, Connolly 25, Parslow 18, Bartlett 17, Moke 16, Newton 16, Law 15, Bencherif 13, Almond 12, Heslop 11, Ferguson 10, Worsnop 10, Whittle 9, Morgan-Smith 8, Pattison 8, Burn 5, Smith 4, Rankine 3, Rowe 3, Correia 2, Kempster 2, Martin 2.

The Press Player of the Month for March final standings: Parslow 10, Connolly 6, Almond 4, Ferguson 3, Bencherif 2, Bartlett 2, Moke 4, Law 1.

Goals: Parkin 25, Newton 8, Connolly 6, Morgan-Smith 5, Heslop 4, Burn 3, Almond 2, Kempster 2, Moke 2, Own Goal 2, Parslow 2, Rankine 2, Correia 1, Felix 1, Ferguson 1, Gray 1, Law 1, Martin 1, Rowe 1, Smith 1.

Assists: Connolly 9, Newton 8, Almond 8, Heslop 5, Parslow 5, Ferguson 4, Gray 4, Law 4, Morgan-Smith 4, Parkin 4, Martin 3, Moke 3, Whittle 3, Bencherif 1, Correia 1, Felix 1, Kempster 1, Pattison 1, Peacock-Farrell 1, Worsnop 1.

Bad boys: Heslop two red, three yellow; Rowe five yellow; Bencherif one red, three yellow; Brown four yellow; Burn, Newton both three yellow; Ferguson one red, one yellow; Connolly, Wharton, Worsnop all two yellow; Parkin one red; Gray, Law, Moke, Smith, Whittle all one yellow.