Harrogate Town v Forest Green Rovers - Simon Weaver delighted to welcome fans back

Finally, after 273 days without, supporters will return to watch league football in Yorkshire this afternoon.

Welcome back: ‘To have that emotional connection will be a real big tonic,’ says Harrogate Town manager Simon Weaver, who says Wembley celebrations, without fans were surreal.

Small numbers were allowed in at Northern Premier League level and below for a short time, but the rest of English football has badly missed those who do so much to make it special.

It has been a privilege to be at 48 behind-closed-doors matches since the pandemic shut the country down but they have been hollow, more like training-ground games.

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Only one Yorkshire ground will be allowed to open its gates today, for Harrogate Town’s League Two match against Forest Green Rovers, but if there could only be one, it is probably fitting it is there.

Harrogate welcome back fans today (Picture: PA)

Leeds United and Rotherham United fans have been denied the chance to properly celebrate promotions but even their achievements pale into insignificance alongside Harrogate winning a place in the Football League for the first time at an empty Wembley in August.

A small squad starting to feel the strain of this most demanding of campaigns – two wins in their last 11 matches in all competitions, nine goals conceded in their previous two games – could do with the fillip.

Only just over 500 fans will be allowed into today’s “test event” and even after that, Harrogate only expect to haggle the capacity in their 5,000 ground up to 800-850.

“Back in the day, 500 would have been a fantastic crowd for us and we’ve got roofs now so it will enclose the noise and it will reverberate,” points out Harrogate manager Simon Weaver. “It will feel like a big crowd for us after months of nothing.

“I feel sorry for the people at home who want to come but it’s a step in the right direction.”

Supporters will make staggered entries to the ground roughly every 10 to 15 minutes starting before 2pm, and staggered departures, too. E-tickets have been limited to season-ticket deposit holders but managing director Garry Plant says just about everyone has been accommodated for a moment of history no Harrogate supporter will want to miss.

“Not everybody that’s put a deposit down on a seat will get one, some will have to stand,” he explains. “There will be bubbled seating and the work this week has been tremendous in terms of ascertaining who’s in what bubble.”

Fans will follow one-way systems to seats in the new main stand or terracing on the car park side of the ground. They can leave to go to the toilet, but no food kiosks will be open. All will have to wear masks throughout but singing will not be banned.

“There’s no strict guidance and in all honesty, how are you going to stop it?” says Plant. “It’s the first celebration of an EFL promotion, really, and I challenge any authority to stop people singing.”

Weaver cannot wait to hear their muffled support. “We’ve really missed the fans and to have that emotional connection will be a real big tonic to us and I’m sure the fans as well. It’s exciting.

“Looking around Wembley with no-one around (when Harrogate beat Notts County in the Conference play-off final) was just surreal. It’s been wearing thin for us since, to be honest.

“You make your Football League debut with all the passion in the world but not being able to share it with the people who’ve supported you all their lives as a non-league team has been very sad. It’s an empty feeling.

“When we’ve played at the big grounds and someone’s cleared the ball and it’s taken ages to get it back it makes you think, ‘Oh God, this is hard work!’

“Noise, genuine enthusiasm and the emotional release will be great to have driving us on.”

In truth, Harrogate need that extra something. After a bright start, they are having their first tough spell in League Two.

“We beat Mansfield and had to make three changes to the back four for the next game,” says Weaver, whose side then lost 4-0 to Blackpool in the FA Cup, then 5-2 at home to Scunthorpe United on Tuesday. “It’s not a level where you can mask it easily. It’s been unfortunate but I have to say we’ve been fairly fortunate over the last few years in terms of avoiding big injuries.

“We’ll get numbers in in January and we’ll get people fit eventually. It’s just a case of digging in now. Mansfield was as big a win as the club’s had just because of the circumstances. It was only a game ago in league terms so we have to recover from Tuesday night and summon the spirit again.

“You’ve got to expect a dip, a stumble and a bump in the road at some time in order to bottom out and bounce back.

“I don’t doubt the character, I just think we’ve got a few out and two or three feeling leggy. You can understand them being jaded. I could have predicted it in a way and I also predict we’ll come out of it.”

If the players have had to dig in, so have those off the field.

“We’ve got all these protocols to follow to deliver a safe football match but at last we’ll have supporters back at the EnviroVent Stadium,” says Plant. “It’s been Herculean to get this on but we’re determined to do so. The announcement was a bolt out of the blue but it’s great.

“We have spent £2,000 on sanitiser this week. We’ve had to put in place fencing to help police the one-way system, there’s all the signage around the ground and we’ve had to put on extra stewarding. It’s been hard work but so worth it.”

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