Harrogate Town fans left 'disappointed' and 'angry' by FA U-turn on FA Trophy final

"I wait all my life to see Town at Wembley and, unbelievably, we make it twice inside a year but then fans aren’t allowed to go."

Thursday, 18th March 2021, 7:34 am
The only Harrogate Town supporters allowed inside Wembley Stadium for the club's last visit were cardboard cut-outs. Pictures: Getty Images

On August 3, 2020, for the first time in their 106-year existence, Harrogate Town played a game of football under the famous arch at the home of England’s national team.

That fixture – the National League play-off final – was unquestionably the biggest in the club’s history and Simon Weaver’s players did not disappoint, rising to the occasion to beat Notts County, the oldest professional football club in the world, to seal a maiden promotion to the EFL.

It’s not an exaggeration to say that the Sulphurites’ rise into League Two has a bit of a fairytale feel about it. The line about Harrogate being better known for its famous tearoom than its football team has been done to death over the last year or so, but its overuse doesn’t render the words inaccurate.

Harrogate Town's players celebrate taking an early lead against Notts County during the 2019/20 National League play-off final, a game that took place in front of a near-empty Wembley Stadium.

Town are indeed a small club in terms of history, stature and their fanbase when you compare them to almost every other side in the EFL.

Their progress over the last three years has been spectacular, though Covid-19 has ensured that their supporters have only been able to view the more recent – and most exciting – chapters of their unlikely story from a distance.

“Every fan in this country dreams of watching their team at Wembley and I’m no different,” said long-time supporter Katherine Swinn.

“I’ve been supporting Town for over 30 years and for most of that time we’ve never looked like we would get there.

“Like a lot of supporters, I was devastated, disappointed and upset that I was unable to go and support my home-town team at Wembley on what turned out to be an historic occasion when we beat Notts County to reach the Football League for the first time.

“These are the sort of occasions where memories are made. It’s one where you wanted to be able to say ‘I was there’. Missing out on seeing my team promoted to League Two will always remain a regret and a disappointment.

“The priority was of course the result and, like other fans, I was deliriously happy and celebrated our win, but play off-finals at Wembley are occasions for supporters. Watching it on the TV was just not the same.”

Not only did their fans miss that 3-1 triumph over Notts County on a beautiful, sunny afternoon, but they’ve also had to forego a host of other historic firsts over the seven months that have followed.

Town’s EFL debut saw them beat Tranmere Rovers in a dramatic Carabao Cup penalty shoot-out, before they travelled to Southend United a week later to make their League Two bow.

A 4-0 rout ensued, meaning that the Sulphurites finished the opening weekend of 2020/21 top of the table.

Not long afterwards, Weaver and his men visited West Bromwich Albion in the second round of the Carabao Cup, going head-to-head with Premier League opposition for the first time ever.

The first Football League fixture ever to be hosted at the club’s Wetherby Road home took place on October 17. Harrogate beat Barrow 1-0, just five days on from turning over Yorkshire rivals Bradford City by the same scoreline at Valley Parade live on Sky Sports.

All of the above, plus plenty more besides, took place without a single supporter being present to share in the experience.

The end of national lockdown and the Government’s decision to hand North Yorkshire tier two status meant that a limited number of spectators were briefly permitted to return to the EnviroVent Stadium in December.

But, while those lucky few hundred who were allowed through the turnstiles were doubtless delighted to be back, there wasn’t a great deal for them to get excited about.

Town barely created a decent chance, let alone looked like scoring a goal during two drab 1-0 defeats to Forest Green Rovers and Salford City in front of crowds of 410 and 495 people, respectively.

On December 29, the club’s biggest gate of the campaign finally witnessed a player in yellow and black ripple the back of the opposition net when Connor Kirby headed home Ryan Fallowfield’s right-wing cross within a minute of kick-off against title-chasing Carlisle United.

That night was a freezing cold one, though atmosphere inside the ground was electric. Football was back and the fans were a part of it once again. Sadly, it didn’t last.

Before the contest had even reached the 10-minute-mark, referee Martin Coy decided that the same playing surface which he had deemed playable less than a quarter-of-an-hour earlier had suddenly become unsafe.

With Town leading 1-0, the match was abandoned, meaning that the goal which supporters had just celebrated so wildly would count for nothing and technically never actually happened. You really couldn’t make it up.

New lockdown measures introduced at the start of January mean that spectators haven’t been allowed back inside football stadiums since, but, until last week, Harrogate’s followers have always had something to cling onto.

Despite everything they’ve missed out on, Sulphurites’ fans believed that, once some kind of normality returned, they were still destined to get their day in the sun.

That hope stemmed from the Football Association stating clearly its intention to ensure that the final of last season’s FA Trophy would take place at a time when supporters could attend the fixture.

Originally scheduled to be played on September 27, Non-League Finals Day was postponed when the Government issued revised guidelines regarding the staging of sports events last summer.

So, Town’s showpiece showdown with Concord Rangers of National League South was shelved following an FA statement which said: “We understand how important it is for the participating clubs’ fans to be able to attend and therefore will rearrange at a date to be confirmed.”

It was there in black and white. The game’s governing body understood. There was still a day out at Wembley to look forward to somewhere down the line.

Except that, as of March 9, there wasn’t anymore.

Without consulting any of the four teams set to contest last season’s FA Trophy and FA Vase finals, the FA announced out of the blue that: ‘Despite our best efforts to accommodate limited spectators, a suitable date was sadly not available and both the FA Vase Final and FA Trophy Final will be played behind closed doors.’

The date selected for these matches to take place is May 3, a fortnight before spectators are allowed to return to sporting events in this country.

“It’s so frustrating. All of the fans I’ve spoken to are just so disappointed by the decision,” said Jordan Ford, chairman of Harrogate Town Supporters’ Club.

“We’ve missed the play-off final and so many memorable moments in the Football League, but being able to be a part of the Trophy final would definitely have gone some way to making up for what we’ve missed out on. It would certainly have helped the fans, it would have been something to look forward to during what are tough times for everyone at the moment.

“We’re not going to get the play-off final back, but the chance to go and watch your team at Wembley doesn’t come around very often and this would have been such a memorable occasion.”

Dave Worton, author of the Harrogate Advertiser’s weekly fan column and his own book about the club’s recent successes, has been unable to make sense of the thinking behind the FA’s decision.

“To rearrange the final for a date only two weeks before fans are allowed to return to stadia smacks of running a marathon, only to give up just before the finish line,” he said.

“It also flies in the face of everything the FA originally said about the importance of fans at the event, and makes it appear insincere.”

For Swinn, the fact that hope was snatched away at that last minute really rankles.

“When the announcement was made I, like many other supporters, was upset and disappointed, but most of all, I was angry,” she added.

“ We had hope for six months and then that was taken away.

“I wait all my life to see Town at Wembley and, unbelievably, we make it twice inside a year but then fans aren’t allowed to go.

“These occasions are about the fans. What about the supporters who may never have the opportunity of seeing their team play at Wembley again?

“We all know these are unprecedented times but to be let down by the FA is unfair in my view and heartbreaking for the fans.”

Having picked upon such "strength of feeling", another Town fan and season-ticket-holder has organised a petition aimed at persuading the FA to re-think their decision on holding the Trophy and Vase finals behind closed doors.

"This is a double-whammy for our fans," said Phillip Holdsworth, Harrogate Town's Supporter Liaison Officer.

"I was talking to other supporters about the new date for the final and there was a real strength of feeling that the FA's decision was totally unfair.

"So, I sat and thought long and hard about what I could do, and I realised that one thing would be to start a petition. Hopefully it makes a difference."

Whether it actually will remains to be seen, but Harrogate's fans aren't going to give up on their Wembley dream without a fight.