We’re so grateful to celebrate one small step back towards normality

If you overlook an underwhelming, goalless, sodden, pre-season friendly at AFC Brighouse, Saturday was the day we got to see Harrogate Town in the flesh for the first time for nine long, long months.
Back at last: 
Harrogate Town fans Dave Worton and daughter Molly allowed back in their stadium following Covid-19 rules being relaxed. Picture: Tony JohnsonBack at last: 
Harrogate Town fans Dave Worton and daughter Molly allowed back in their stadium following Covid-19 rules being relaxed. Picture: Tony Johnson
Back at last: Harrogate Town fans Dave Worton and daughter Molly allowed back in their stadium following Covid-19 rules being relaxed. Picture: Tony Johnson

As fans, we missed the club’s first appearance at Wembley, a third of our first Football League season and a semi-final victory in the FA Trophy (the final is still to be played at some stage). Most of all, we had missed each other.

As Harrogate are Yorkshire’s only Football League side allowed to have fans back into the stadium, we were the story of the weekend with the football media, and our match against Forest Green Rovers was a test event for around 500 season-ticket deposit-holders.

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Of course it was not quite that simple, as Harrogate fans with season ticket deposits, who live in Tier 3 Leeds, for example, weren’t allowed to attend.

The club went the extra mile to comply with Covid restrictions. We had e-tickets, staggered arrival times, pink-vested Covid marshals and hand sanitiser. Most importantly, an excited Molly and I passed the compulsory temperature test. Phew. We’re in.

There were no programmes on sale and the food kiosk was shuttered. We were told to head straight to our place in the stand and stay there, a safe distance from the person or bubble next to us. Masks were to be worn at all times but singing, and shouting at the officials, was allowed.

We stood in the new ‘Car Park Stand’ adjacent to the even newer seated main stand, hosting non-cardboard fans for the first time. It was brilliant to see familiar faces, masks notwithstanding, even if we did have to keep our distance, and we tried to lift the team through the fabric.

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Masks were not ideal for cheering the team on, especially when our loudest singer’s glasses kept steaming up, and it was impossible to achieve the normal atmosphere, but it was good to hear some noise in the ground once more. There was even a tentative chant of ‘Can you hear the Forest Green sing?’ though away fans aren’t allowed.

Half-time arrived goalless. The bar was closed and we had to stay in position.

“Fifteen pints and just one Scotch egg,” shouted one wag to the staff member who would normally be pulling pints.

The other three sides of the ground sat empty aside from media and substitutes. Two cameramen scanned the empty Kop as Harrogate attacked it in the second half. In March, the Kop was busy and rocking as Harrogate took the lead against Bromley in the last match before lockdown. The atmosphere was euphoric when Harrogate scored, as grown men hugged and home fans punched the night air. There was none of that on Saturday as Harrogate hit another disappointing blank. Not that we’re allowed to hug and jump around with people outside our bubble anyway.

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On the final whistle, the disappointed players and staff came over to applaud us and we applauded them. We’ve missed them, and they’ve missed us.

It was a fairly even match against a competent, if not great, team in fourth place, and a massive improvement on the 5-2 drubbing by Scunthorpe United. The only difference between the teams was our vegan-friendly visitors, with a returning and much beefed-up Liam Kitching in central defence, always looked the most likely to score. They managed to do so, just the once.

Harrogate looked better on the ball than recently and gave it a real go towards the end without ever looking like equalising.

Our lack of a decisive edge against League Two’s better defences is a concern. We have to hope this is the start of Harrogate rediscovering their early-season swagger if a difficult first season in the EFL is to be avoided.

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All that was left was to wait, like schoolchildren in the playground, for the stewards to give each row the go-ahead to leave via the one-way system. Needs must as we all want to be back next match, safe and sound.

It’s not the full football-supporting experience, but a small step towards normality, and for that, my daughter and I are grateful. It beats a buffering streaming service any day.

Dave Worton is author of For The Love Not The Glory: An Unlikely Tale of One Man and his Daughter Following Harrogate Town into the Football League from www.ledastraypress.bigcartel.com.

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