What promotion to the Football League would mean to Harrogate Town owner Irving Weaver
His team were on their way to Wembley - the home of football - for the first time in their 106-year history, but, more importantly, their dream of promotion was still alive.
Earlier this summer, it seemed as if Town’s hopes of securing another first, a place in the English Football League, had been cruelly snatched away from them by Covid-19.
The 2019/20 season was in danger of being declared null and void and the promotion play-offs scrapped.
All the hard work that had gone in to taking Harrogate to second place in the National League standings, just four points behind leaders Barrow with nine matches left to play, looked to have been in vain.
That a U-turn was eventually performed and the green light given for play-offs to go ahead meant that Town’s fate was at least back in their own hands. Victory at the weekend now leaves them just one more win away from League Two.
“I just felt relieved when the referee blew for for full-time, you’re never, ever certain of anything in football at 1-0 until the final whistle sounds,” Weaver revealed.
“I was glad that the journey hadn’t come to a full stop when we were so close to Wembley and that we were still in a position to go on and realise our ambition of getting promoted to the Football League. At one stage during lockdown, we thought it was all over.
“Real joy followed that. There were a few butterflies and a swell of adrenaline. I was just so thrilled that we’d come through the semi-final and immediately you’re looking forward to what will be a really enjoyable weekend, making the trip down to Wembley.
“But, as sad as it is to say, a feeling of disappointment came next because our supporters hadn’t been able to share in the experience.
“It was strange without them, and if Saturday goes to prove one thing, it’s that football certainly isn’t the same without fans.”
The absence of supporters at Wetherby Road for what was billed as the biggest game in Town’s history was due to the fact that, like most sports, football is holding fixtures behind closed doors to stay in line with Government social distancing measures aimed at preventing the spread of coronavirus.
Those who would normally have packed themselves into the CNG to watch first-hand were still able to tune in via their televisions, though their experience simply will not have compared to the real thing.
To say that the atmosphere inside the ground was eerie would probably be an over-exaggeration, though there was without doubt an unnatural feel to the occasion, particularly given the magnitude of the game.
“You miss that instant roar and the encouragement the supporters provide, the atmosphere that they create,” Weaver added.
“The first 20 minutes, we were electric. It’s as good as I’ve seen us play and if we’d had the crowd in then they would have lit the place up.
“You think back to the National League North play-off final here against Brackley. What a fantastic day with a full house,and that’s the big regret, that all these people who are so invested in this club have missed out on another experience like that.
“I do feel sorry for them, and it will be difficult again at Wembley because they’ll be missing out on another special afternoon, but hopefully if we can win, then at least they’ll have the prospect of league football to look forward to next season.”
That Town are just one more win away from achieving Football League status is quite something when one considers the state the club was in when Weaver took over in 2011.
Prior to his arrival, they were attracting crowds of around 250 people on their way to a 12th-placed finish in English football’s sixth tier.
Their financial plight was so precarious that Bill Fotherby - the man whom preceded Weaver at the Harrogate helm - wanted to take the club down two divisions in a bid to cut costs.
The transformation both on and off the pitch under Weaver Sr and his son - first-team manager, Simon - cannot be understated.
The club switched from part-time to fully professional in the summer of 2017, and promotion to English football’s fifth tier followed immediately. Their home is also now almost unrecognisable from 10 years ago.
“There have been highs and lows, but that’s just football,” Irving Weaver added.
“The first year was so difficult, we just couldn’t catch our breath, but I think there’s always been some kind of progress since then.
“There was the FA Cup run in 2012, promotion from National League North, hosting Portsmouth earlier this season. The ground is starting to look like a stadium now and we’ve also grown the fan-base.
“If we can win on Sunday and make it into the Football League then wow, it would be beyond description. We’d be absolutely blown away.”