A full year since the National League began, it has finally ended. Harrogate Town have reached the Football League for the first time in their history with a win against Notts County in the play-off final, sealed with goals from George Thomson, Connor Hall and Jack Diamond to complete a fine performance under weighty pressure.
“It’s unbelievable to actually hear [that],” Simon Weaver, the Harrogate manager, said. “[It’s] a combination of a lot of hard work by a lot of the people behind the scenes as well as the people on the pitch, so I’m just delighted for everyone involved.”
Even as empty seats surrounded the players for as far as they could see, it was difficult not to feel the scale of the occasion in the surrounds of Wembley.
They could not have arrived at this moment under more contrasting circumstances. Harrogate, a family‑run club who have been professional only since 2017, arrivedat the front door of the Football League after an arduous ascent up the leagues. Notts County, meanwhile, have such a long and distinguished history that this was an attempt to immediately return to where they feel they belong after a traumatic relegation.
Despite Notts County’s greater experience, it was Town who burst into the match, pressing with energy and verve as they opened up the County defence at will. Statistically the second best of the National League, that defence has been one of the most impressive sights in non-league football this season. On Sunday, it was a mess.
Within five minutes, the suffocating pressure told as Ryan Fallowfield drove down the right flank before rolling a perfect, low ball to Thomson at the near post and he coolly slid home.
And 23 minutes later Thomson whipped in an excellent free-kick from the edge of the area which Hall slipped into the net with the tip of a toe.
Despite a wretched first half, County’s second-half response was admirable. Callum Roberts immediately dragged them back into the match, scoring a beautiful free-kick, and then they roared into gear, chasing after an equaliser with all their might. In the end, it did not come.
Diamond kept his cool and stylishly converted a Jack Muldoon cross to practically confirm Harrogate’s promotion.
Weaver admitted later that he had never imagined taking his team into League Two: “Maybe in my wildest dreams, but I think it was always a case of block by block and it was never going to be quick because of where the club was situated at the time,” he said.
It is a win that will now change everything for Harrogate, including their playing facilities. They must tear up the synthetic 3G pitch at their CNG Stadium and install grass to meet League Two’s guidelines. With such a short interlude between seasons, they will have to start the coming one playing elsewhere.
Yet after a day, a win and a performance that will live in their history for ever, that was far from anybody’s minds. When Weaver started at Harrogate in 2009, he did not see a penny for months and his team’s weekly wage bill was a meagre £1,600. However, he was driven by a passion that endures. He is now the longest serving manager in all professional leagues and, incredibly, his team are in the Football League.
“We weren’t great,” he said. “No training pitch. It was very difficult but it makes it all the more rewarding coming to this point in time where hard work has paid off.”