Sedate Wembley atmosphere can’t hold back Harrogate Town when it matters most - Stuart Rayner
They got the honour of winning at Wembley, yet it was far from the full experience.
But it did not need fans in the stands to make Town’s players appreciate what they had achieved as they helped themselves to medals from a tray on a podium.
You could see from the way both sides played.
Six weeks from now Harrogate will be playing in the Football League for the first time. If there was only so much noise their excited squad could make on the grass, the noise in the pubs – not tearooms – and living rooms of the North Yorkshire town will have more than made up for it.
With no fans allowed, at times it felt like a kickabout on a pleasant August afternoon, yet the stakes were huge.
The pre-match national anthem was played without even recorded singing, Town manager Simon Weaver “stamping on” his emotions to prevent any waterworks. Neither manager wore a cup final suit, Weaver in T-shirt and tracksuit bottoms.
The players waited what felt like an eternity to kick-off before the sound system music was finally turned off. Once they rose from taking a knee, there was no roar from the terraces for the shrill blast of referee James Bell’s whistle to compete with.
But it mattered.
The 106 year-old Sulphurites have never played in the Football League. With their history, the Magpies almost expect to be in it. When it came to flags at a Wembley rapidly undressed from the previous day’s FA Cup final, they won easily.
Maybe they felt the pressure but County were never in the first half. Once they belatedly got a foothold in the game, the enormity of what they were about to achieve might have affected Harrogate until Jon Stead’s calm 37-year-old head ensured they did not blow their shot at history.
As Magpies captain Michael Doyle dwelt on the ball a fraction of a second in the seventh minute he was engulfed by a yellow-and-black swarm. Already 1-0 up, Harrogate were rampant.
Connor Hall added to George Thomson’s guided finish but Harrogate ought to have been out of sight by half-time. Aaron Martin hit the post and put a good chance wide.
“I wasn’t surprised how Harrogate started the game because they’ve got a reputation for that,” admitted beaten manager Neal Ardley.
Not the dominant team were allowed to be complacent.
“Switch on!” assistant manager Paul Thirlwell screamed when his players failed to carry out their first serious defensive work to his satisfaction.
At half-time the Magpies finally switched on themselves, testing Harrogate’s mettle when Callum Roberts curled a free-kick into the net almost immediately the game restarted and changing the game completely.
A substitution on the hour turned the tide back, Stead providing an outlet and, after some brilliant footwork near halfway, the pass down the line from which Jack Muldoon crossed for Jack Diamond put his team 3-1 up. With 71 minutes gone, it was game over.
A blow of Bell’s whistle shortly after Stead hit the post in added time brought a premature cry of celebration, quickly stifled, but it was not long before the party could begin, Thomson collapsing in a heap for his team-mates to gather around.
Stead sat amongst cardboard cut-outs behind the goal for a photograph but there were more familiar sights and sounds amongst the weirdness, the winners jumping up and down for the cameras singing the now-obligatory sporting event anthem of “Sweet Caroline”, then “We are going up!” with the well-cleaned trophy in their sweaty palms.
Weaver kept a social distance so he did not have to conduct his post-match interviews dripping in champagne. It took over an hour to get through them, some from distance at pitchside, then 25 minutes staring at a Zoom screen.
Atmosphere or no atmosphere, Harrogate winning promotion was big news.
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