Why winning promotion at Wembley would be particularly sweet for Harrogate Town striker Jon Stead
A former England Under-21 international, the veteran striker played and scored goals in the Premier League for Blackburn Rovers, Sunderland and Sheffield United, racking up more than 500 apperances across all of English football’s top four tiers.
He played a big part in helping hometown club Huddersfield get promoted out of League Two back in 2003/04 and was also a member of the Bradford City team who stunned Jose Mourinho’s Chelsea in the FA Cup five years ago.
One thing Stead had never managed prior to joining the Wetherby Road outfit was a Wembley appearance, and at 36 years of age he feared that the chance had probably passed him by.
Fast forward to the end of February this year and with Town pushing for the National League title and looking nailed on to finish in a play-off spot at the very least, hope of realising that long-held dream was reignited.
Then, when Harrogate beat AFC Fylde 3-2 in the quarter-finals of the FA Trophy, Stead and his team-mates were all of a sudden looking at two potential trips to Wembley.
Covid-19 would of course intervene, and with the football season suspended and talk of 2019/20 being declared null and void, the now 37-year-old's chances of a date at HA9 appeared to be evaporating.
The National League did however eventually manage to return in time to hold its play-offs, and Saturday’s win for Town against Boreham Wood means that it is a case of game on for Stead.
“Everyone is very excited at the prospect of going to Wembley,” he said.
“Personally, I was worried that I was going to reach the end of my career having never played there. When you get to 36, 37 you don’t expect to get those kind of chances, but a few months ago it looked as if we might be going twice.
“To then go from two potential Wembley trips to it looking like there’d be none because of the situation with the global pandemic was really disappointing, so really I’m just very grateful to actually get the opportunity.
“If I set foot on that turf on Sunday it will be a magical moment and I’ll cherish every second.
“I definitely think that things like this do mean more to you towards the end of your career, because after this season, I’ve got another year with Harrogate, but then probably not a lot else in terms of playing.”
Assuming that he features in Sunday's clash with Notts, then it also be the first time that Stead has played in a play-off final.
"This match is right up there with one of the biggest of my career," he added.
"It's a massive occasion for the club and for me - I've never played in a play-off final before.
"We've just got to treat it as another game and approach it the same as we would any other, but it's hard because of the magnitude of the occasion and the fact that the club his making history all the time at the moment.
"Coming second in the National League was historic because it is Harrogate's highest-ever league finish. Then, on Saturday, we made it to Wembley for the first time in the club's history.
"If we win on Sunday then obviously we'll be making more history."
Securing promotion at Wembley would undoubtedly be a huge moment for everyone involved at Town, though in Stead’s case, success this weekend might taste that little bit sweeter.
Having endured a difficult time following the death of his close friend Jordan Sinnott –an ex-Terriers team-mate – in January, he feels that play-off glory would help take the edge off what has been probably his most challenging season in football.
“It would be a nice way to end what has been a difficult year,” Stead added.
“I sorted out a couple of cut-outs of Jordan and put them in the stand at the CNG Stadium for our semi-final and it was good to feel his presence, so he’ll be coming down to Wembley this weekend.”
In terms of Sunday’s match being extra special for Stead, he also has the added incentive of trying to get one over his former club.
Having spent four seasons with the Magpies, he still has plenty of friends at Meadow Lane, but insists that all pleasantries will be put to one side until after the final whistle.
“I wish County and their fans all the luck in the world, but not on Sunday,” he said.
“As a footballer you have to be loyal to the badge on the front of you shirt and my focus is purely on Harrogate Town.
"Because of the size of the club and their rich history, I think that there will be more pressure on Notts this weekend.
"There are no pre-conceived expectations of us, it's just a case of going out and trying to replicate what's got us this far and trying to finish the job. The shackles are off as far as I'm concerned."