Sunday 2 August 2020

Entering the Football League for the Very First Time: The Story of Harrogate Town and Their Historic Rise to England's Fourth Tier That Was Sealed With a Wembley Win Today

The town of Harrogate in North Yorkshire is famous for, aside from being close to the city of York, two things: Its spa water and Betty's Tea Rooms. Both are famous throughout the country something the town's football team is not, perhaps until now that is. There were wild celebrations and a good old sing song with Sweet Caroline blasting from PA at Wembley Stadium this afternoon as Harrogate Town Football Club defeated Notts County to claim a place in the Football League for the first time in the club's history. 

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 culminated in Harrogate Town's big day out at Wembley which sadly for their fans, as you'd expect, was being played behind closed doors. Nonetheless, televised by BT Sport, it was still a joyous occasion for the town and its team.

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, although with such pitches not allowed in the football league it will now have to be replaced by a grass one.

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. 

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 was not complete yet. There was the small matter of a date at the home of English football in the play-off final. 

Notts County would be the opposition in the final and contrasting histories of the two club's was stark. 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. This is a history Harrogate Town can only dream of.

At Wembley, it was a dream start for Harrogate who were in front after just five minutes when Ryan Fallowfield teed up George Thomson who was able to turn the ball home. Harrogate dominated the first-half but only went in 2-0 up at the break when perhaps they should have had 4 or 5. Connor Hall tapped the bell into the net to double Harrigate's lead but a panicky start to the second half saw Notts County find a way back into the match. A superb free-kick from Callum Roberts found the net and it was game on. That Harrogate held onto their lead was a miracle in itself as County began to completely dominate and were soon looking rampant. But whilst Harrogate had missed several gilt edged chances in the first-half it was County who were missing the chances in the second. In the end, County would definitely rue those missed chances as Jack Diamond sealed Harrogate's place in League Two by smashing the ball home Jack Muldoon's cross with 20 minutes left.
It had taken 106 years but when the final whistle blew at Wembley just before five o'clock this afternoon Harrogate Town had achieved something improbable and for many unexpected - They had reached the Football League for the very first time. It was the club's second promotion in three seasons and brings the prospect of playing inside England's top four divisions for the first time in their history after what was definitely an afternoon to remember for the club and all associated with it. Now to tear up that synthetic pitch!

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