Thursday, 30 July 2020

Notts County v Harrogate Town: Two Sides With Very Much Contrasting Histories Set to Face Off for a Place in the Football League

Notts County are the oldest professional football club in the world and a founding member of the Football League who last season were relegated from the league for the first time in their history. Harrogate Town, meanwhile, only turned professional for the first time three years ago and having never played in England's top four divisions reached the fifth tier for the first time only two years back. These two teams meet this weekend in the Vanarama National League Play-Off final with a place in the Football League at stake and the contrasting histories of both sides could not be starker. But all that goes out the window when the pair enter the pitch on Sunday afternoon to fight it out for a place in League Two. History counts for nothing on the day.

Thanks to COVID-19 the National League season ended early. Whereas the Premier League and Championship did eventually play out their remaining fixtures other leagues in England didn't follow suit. The National League did not completely null and void things, however, with the league table settled based on points per game (PPG) pre lockdown, promotion and relegation kept in place, and play-off games to be staged. This has culminated in Sunday's match between these two contrasting sides which sadly for fans, as you'd expect, is being played behind closed doors. Nonetheless, televised by BT Sport, it should still be a fascinating match to watch.

Having finished as high as sixth last time out in their first National League campaign, recently turned professional Harrogate Town started the 2019-20 season hoping for more of the same. The club, it's fair to say, were feeling rather ambitious. Formed in 1914, Harrogate Town have had a mostly uneventful history that has seen them go largely unnoticed in the backwaters of non-league football, indeed they did not reach the first round proper of the FA Cup for the first time until 2002 when they featured alongside near neighbours Harrogate Railway Athletic. In recent years, however, the club have been transformed.

When Simon Weaver was appointed player-manager of the club, aged 31, in 2009 little did he know that three years later his own father would become owner of the club. In 2012 chairman Bill Fotherby handed control to businessman Irving Weaver and the club have never looked back! Irving made his fortune in housebuilding and has on several occasions featured in the Sunday Times Rich List. In the first five seasons of the new father-son duo the club three times finished in the top ten of National League North including a semi-final play-off defeat and reached the second round of the FA Cup for the first time in their history. 

The pair's sixth season in charge, however, was to be the most successful in the club's history to date as they finished second and gained promotion to the National League via the play-offs. The club had turned professional at the start of that season wanting to be more than also rans in the division and it paid off. As well as paying their player's full-time wages there has also been money spent off the pitch with ground improvements needed to match the club's ambition. At the club's Wetherby Road home, currently known as the CNG Stadium for sponsorship reasons, developments have included replacing a 350 seat stand with a larger covered structure that can seat 880. This will help the club meet League Two criteria should another promotion happen. Four years ago a state of the art 3G pitch was also installed.

Last season Harrogate lost 3-1 to AFC Fylde in a play-off eliminator and as this season got underway they were looking towards another strong finish. Town did not get off to the best of starts, however, losing five of their opening ten matches, but a nine match unbeaten run that included six wins saw them climb the table. Only four defeats followed in the club's remaining matches pre lockdown which saw ten wins and four draws. From these matches, there were just two defeats and one draw after Christmas as an impressive start to the second-half of the season saw them in second place when COVID-19 brought the league to a halt. The club also reached the semi finals of the FA Trophy for the first time but COVID also put that competition on hold as well, indefinitely, and it has yet to resume. Their semi final opponents were due to be none other than Notts County.

Manager Weaver, who describes his side as "fast moving" and a "good passing team", can be pleased with his team's performance this season and has himself been rewarded with Manager of the Month awards in October and February. 30-year-old right-back Warren Burrell, meanwhile, was named the leagues Player of the Month for February. Burrell who has made over 200 appearances for club scored a hat-trick in a match against Aldershot Town in December 2018, rather unusual for a defender. Football is a team sport, however, and the whole squad has played their part in the club's success from goalkeeper James Belshaw who has kept 14 clean sheets in the league this season to centre forward Jack Muldoon who has 13 league goals to his name this term. Jon Stead a man who made his name at Blackburn Rovers and numerous other league clubs has this season also been playing for the club after joining last year from non other than Sunday's opponents Notts County. Stead is a famous name for a club like Harrogate but has only found the net 7 times this season, however, having featured only semi-regularly. That is something which shows just how strong the side has been. 

Roughly 85 miles south of Harrogate it has also been a fairly successful season for Notts County but for this newly relegated side they probably demanded nothing less. The contrast in stature between themselves and Harrogate is crystal clear. As founding members of the Football League, Notts County, formed in 1862 and the world's oldest professional club, were old First Division regulars for much of the leagues earlier years but have spent most of their history since in the second, third, and fourth tiers. The club last made it to the top flight in 1991 but lasted just one season with relegation seeing them miss out on a place in the newly formed Premier League. Although County are hardly one of England's biggest names when compared the giants of the Premier League, indeed their only major silverware came in the form an FA Cup final victory in 1894, the club spent 131 straight years in the Football League before relegation from England's top four divisions last season. That is a history Harrogate Town can only dream of. 

In 2018-19 the club got through three managers en route to their relegation in what was an arduous season for all involved not just on the field but also off it. The club were suffering from financial troubles and towards the end of the season players and staff went unpaid. County's parent company Paragon Leisure Group owed just under £7.3m to Paragon Interiors which was a loan used by owner Alan Hardy to purchase the club in January 2017. Things were not looking good. 

A week before the new season started, however, Hardy, disliked by many supporters, sold the club to two Danish brothers who run a football analysis company. This was welcome news for all and secured the club's long term future.

This season under the stewardship of manager Neal Ardley Notts County started off in very much indifferent form but eventually began to steadily rise up the table before finally reaching third position in their penultimate match pre lockdown. This was a position they remained in when the final PPG table was calculated. Playing a style of football pleasing on the eye, key to the club's steady rise up the table has been their strike force. Regularly playing up front alongside either Kristian Dennis or Wes Thomas, Kyle Wootton has netted 13 times in the division whilst Dennis and Thomas have 12 and 10 league goals respectively.

County are nicknamed the Magpies and play in black and white a colour adopted by Italian giants Juventus in 1903 when an English club member named John Savage was asking around for spare shirts and ended up at Notts County. Juventus invited County to face them in the opening match at their new stadium in 2011 and more recently even offered to help the club out during their financial troubles. County's famous friends finally offered to reciprocate that football strips gesture after a local MP wrote to them for help but County could not get out of a pre existing contract with kit supplier Puma.

In the week prior to last Saturday's play-off semi finals the players at Harrogate Town had a rather famous visitor from the footballing world. England manager Gareth Southgate has lived in the town for many years now and made a surprise visit to the club ahead of their big semi final game against Boreham Wood. Harrogate won the match 1-0 and a talk from the Three Lions boss had evidently contributed towards their victory: "He gave us some tips on set-pieces, and we scored the goal that won the game from a corner, so there you go," revealed goalkeeper Belshaw. 

It was Muldoon who headed home to secure Harrogate the win with his 65th minute goal being probably the biggest in the club's history. But of course, the fairytale is not complete yet. 

With Harrogate having secured their place at Wembley attention turned to Meadow Lane home of Notts County for the second of the two semi-finals as the hosts faced Barent. A goal from Dennis eight minutes before half-time gave the hosts the lead whilst ex Newcastle United youngster Callum Roberts doubled County's lead 14 minutes into the second-half as County won 2-0. Dennis headed home from six yards out following a great run and cross by Jim O'Brien before Roberts side-footed into the bottom corner at close range having first beaten two defenders.

As for who will win at Wembley on Sunday, well, because of the league finishing early and that FA Trophy tie seemingly postponed indefinitely Harrogate Town and Notts County have only met once this season and it was County who came out on top. County's 2-0 away win took place way back in August last year and probably gives little indication as to what might happen on Sunday. Also, despite that defeat, Harrogate actually ended up finishing their league campaign three points ahead of County with a game in hand which also put them comfortably ahead of their opponents in the PPG table. Based on all the above one would suggest we could be in for a close affair. 

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