Harrogate Town documentary provides true perspective and drama in age of ‘all or nothing’ football films

Alex Pattle
·6-min read
Harrogate Town coach Simon Weaver celebrates promotion to the Football League with his players (Getty Images)
Harrogate Town coach Simon Weaver celebrates promotion to the Football League with his players (Getty Images)

“I was walking up and down, then sat on the edge of the bed and Sally said: ‘Why aren’t you getting changed?’ And I said: ‘Because something in me doesn’t feel right about putting the lads on the coach.

“‘We’re hearing reports on elderly people going into hospital and dying, are you going to risk that?’”

On Friday 13 March – of all dates – Harrogate Town manager Simon Weaver was forced to call off his side’s National League game at Solihull Moors.

The club were the first in the country to abandon a fixture due to coronavirus, a decision made when Weaver realised defender Warren Burrell and goalkeeping coach Phil Priestley were showing symptoms of Covid-19.

“We had to call it, and if people gave us stick, they gave us stick,” Weaver says in Proud To Be Town, a new documentary by BT Sport that premieres today (Friday 2 October) and covers the club’s journey through the pandemic and to Wembley Stadium for the National League play-off final.

Weaver speaks following his side's National League play-off semi-final victoryGetty Images
Weaver speaks following his side's National League play-off semi-final victoryGetty Images

“I actually remember speaking to my dad and he said: ‘Do you realise the whole of football’s watching now, because the game’s been postponed and everyone wants to know why?’ And I said: ‘I know, but I think there’ll be more than just Harrogate Town doing it over the next weekend.’”

The National League season, and English football in general, was quickly suspended as the true effects of the virus took hold, infection rates and fatalities rising swiftly and starkly across the country as businesses folded and families grieved.

Harrogate, meanwhile, found themselves helplessly drifting through a murky uncertainty around their future. The summer months would either see the second-placed side rise to the Football League for the first time in their 106-year history, or that history would be all that remained of a club facing the same fate as so many teams: an end to their existence.

“We were scoring goals aplenty – the fluidity in the team, the confidence was there for everyone to see, and we fiercely thought: ‘This is our time,’” Weaver recalls. “So when lockdown happened, it hit us hard.

“If we stayed at National League level, we'd have the National League grant, which is £90,000. If we went up to the Football League, the carrot was £1m. Also, we’d get a grant for the new stand that was worth just under £600,000. So, you’re talking in the realms of £1.6m.

“All throughout lockdown, the players and the staff were looking at me for reassurance and – for most of the time – I didn’t have a clue what was going on, and what the decisions were going to be about our future.

“The one thing I did know was that we deserved our shot at promotion.”

The decision was made for football in England to resume, giving Harrogate a lifeline. They would not get the chance to usurp National League leaders Barrow, however, instead being forced into the play-offs by a second-placed finish determined on a points-per-game basis.

“The reaction, I'll never forget, was an absolute tumbleweed, flat as a pancake,” Weaver confesses about the moment he told his players they would be forced to partake in the knockout format of the play-offs.

“It just made me realise that they’d really expected to hear news better than that, and that they’ve been flattened by it.”

Goalkeeper James Belshaw adds: “Let’s be honest, not playing a game in four of five months to playing the biggest game in the club’s history… play-offs were a lottery.”

“I think the next day after I’d slept on it and woke up, you automatically switch to: Right, play-offs, we’ve got a huge chance,” striker Jon Stead says. “We've got a chance of going up.”

For all the pressure on the pitch, there was plenty off it, too. Club physio Rachel Davis was appointed Harrogate’s Covid officer, a role for which there was precious little preparation.

“I didn’t apply for the role, I didn’t submit my CV for this one,” Davis says. “And although I’m a physio and I have a medical background, it’s not something you get taught at university… and all of a sudden I get asked every question. ‘Can we do this, should we be doing that? Is this OK?’ And I’m like: ‘I don’t know!’”

Davis even had to postpone her wedding due to the impacts of coronavirus.

“I traded South Africa and the Seychelles for a three-night trip to Cornwall, so… But never mind.”

Harrogate striker Jon Stead in action against Southend UnitedGetty Images
Harrogate striker Jon Stead in action against Southend UnitedGetty Images

Somehow, everyone involved at Harrogate Town was able to maintain focus as a play-off semi-final against Boreham Wood arrived in late July. A 1-0 win saw the club progress to the final, where Notts County awaited at Wembley.

“After all the turbulent time in the lead-up to the final, from not knowing in lockdown what was going to happen in life – never mind football – to suddenly getting light at the end of the tunnel,” Weaver remembers, “to suddenly wake up and have a bright blue sky, I just thought: ‘If ever there’s a day when we’re going to go up to the Football League, it’s going to be now.’”

The weather had indeed tipped off Weaver, who saw his team emerge 3-1 victors under the Arch on an August afternoon, historically becoming a Football League side at long, long last.

“I’m by no means ashamed of saying that my promotion from the National League to the Football League is the biggest achievement of my career, and I don’t shirk away from that one bit,” Stead readily admits, proud to have completed the feat with Harrogate rather than any other side.

“Honesty is a key word I think for this club, ‘cause trust me, I’ve been around a lot of clubs and there’s not much honesty that flies about from top to bottom.”

Honesty is something that comes through in the documentation of Harrogate’s travails and triumphs this year.

And in an age of sanitised series that portray the predicaments of top-flight clubs as ‘all or nothing’, Proud To Be Town paints a healthy dose of perspective on to football’s filmic landscape.

Proud To Be Town, the next instalment in the award-winning BT Sport Films series, will premiere on BT Sport 1 on Friday 2 October at 10pm, and available to watch at any time on the BT Sport app, BTsport.com, BT TV on-demand from Saturday 3 October.

Read more

Harrogate promoted to Football League for first time with play-off final win over Notts County