On Sunday at Wembley Stadium, Notts County will face Harrogate Town in front of the BT Sport cameras and little more than a few hundred ambassadors, journalists, broadcasters and extra special privileged folk in attendance at the famous arched venue as both sides fight for a place for Football League status in the National League playoff final.
For Neal Ardley’s Magpies, a win will see Notts return to the Football League at the first attempt after just one year outside, the first in County’s 158-year history.
For Harrogate, their path has been ever-so different never having had football league status.
100 years ago, back in 1920 they became founder members of the Yorkshire Football League and came fourth in a division where Bradford Park Avenue Reserves were champions in its first ever season.
After flirting with the West Riding League, the Midland League, the Yorkshire League again before the Northern League, West Yorkshire League and Northern Counties East League, Harrogate Town eventually made their highest step up the football pyramid when reaching the Northern Premier League in 1987.
After winning promotion from the NPL First Division to the Premier Division in 2002 the club became founder members of the Conference North in 2004 eventually going professional as recent as 2017 before winning the playoffs in 2018 and joining the National League where they have played for the past two seasons.
The Sulphurites rise in recent years has largely been down to one family, Manager Simon Weaver is one of the countries longest serving bosses with nine seasons at the club and has led Harrogate to its highest ever position on the football ladder following a sixth place finish last season to end the premature 2019/20 campaign in second spot of the fifth highest league in England.
A former-no-nonsense defender, Weaver played for the likes of Lincoln City, Scarborough, Tamworth, Boston, and at both the start and end of his careers with Ilkeston, a player who had separate spells under Keith Alexander and one that ‘knows the leagues’ he’s been in, you can see why he has achieved so much with Harrogate.
Simon isn’t the only Weaver at Harrogate either, father Irving is Club Chairman and since the family partnership has been in effect the club have grown from strength to strength over the years which has included major improvements to the clubs impressive now all-weather surfaced Wetherby Road Ground.
Should Harrogate gain promotion to the Football League at the hands of Notts County they will have to rip up their 3g pitch and go back to grass after only installing it four years ago. There might even be time constraints with the new season on the horizon but it would no doubt be a welcome problem to have for a team that have only just started thinking about playing league football over the last couple of years.
Familiar names these days with the club include a former Notts County striker in Jonathan Stead. The Yorkshireman played 162 times for the Magpies and now aged 37 he could be used to break the hearts of those who used to support him in black and white.
Most likely Stead will start as substitute at Wembley on Sunday but Harrogate have plenty in attack to alert Notts from the off. Jack Muldoon scored the winning goal in Town’s semi-final win over Boreham Wood and is no stranger to the county of Nottinghamshire, enjoying a fantastic spell at Worksop Town six and seven years ago. It was with the Tigers where Muldoon earned a move to Rochdale and after spells at Lincoln and Fylde he has been a regular hitting the target for Harrogate since 2018.
Partnering Muldoon is likely to be Mark Beck, a 6ft5in striker with an eye for goal. Notts defenders will be in for a busy day dealing with pace and strength on the vast and lush Wembley pitch.
As a team, Harrogate can be likened to Notts County for the way they play, direct and attacking with quality to score goals, they defend well by not over complicating things and have ferocity in midfield with the likes of Josh Falkingham and George Thomson snapping at opponents heals.
Defensively the key could be for County winger Cal Roberts to get at Harrogate’s right footed left back Warren Burrell, a former youth player with Mansfield Town that usually defends the opposite flank, but fine margins may decide the destiny for two well matched sides. A set play, an error, even penalties perhaps?
It won’t be easy for Notts to overcome a side that finished above them in the table, but if they do it will mark a fabulous first season return and welcome back to Wembley after 25 years absence. A repeat of Ascoli and the Anglo Italian Cup win of 1995 will do very nicely indeed, whilst for Harrogate, history on the upward march could be made again for this fabulous little but ambitious club. Let’s just hope Town’s history is not made on Sunday and instead Notts can make their own, by returning to the football league at the first attempt.
*Main image @HarrogateTown jubilant celebrations after reaching the National League playoff final.