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There’s no right way to handle a global pandemic and there are a lot more pressing issues, but when it’s your job and it’s your life you have to worry about football
- Paul Thirwell, Harrogate Town assistant manager
The 106-year old club from the fashionable spa town in North Yorkshire – voted the happiest place to live in Britain for three consecutive years between 2013 and 2015 – were flying high in England’s fifth tier after enduring a torrid start to the season.
Harrogate’s timely run of eight wins in 11 games gave them genuine hope of reaching the EFL for the first time in their long history - only three years after turning professional.
But as manager Simon Weaver – who answered an advert for the job in the Non-League Paper 11 years ago – discovered to his chagrin, a week is a long time in football.
And on that fateful Friday the 13th when English elite football was postponed, Harrogate’s crunch meeting with Solihull Moors fell victim to coronavirus.
What followed was a four-and-a-half-month period of agonising waiting, heart-wrenching tragedy and spine-tingling glory.
Proud To Be Town is the first full-length documentary to highlight the profound impact of the pandemic on football, in an intimate portrayal of Harrogate’s journey through lockdown as Weaver tries to guide his club through an unprecedented period of uncertainty.
Filmed and produced in lockdown, while adhering to social distancing and remote ways of working, the latest production from the award-winning BT Sport Films team uniquely features self-shot contributions led by the manager, along with his family, players and other key figures from the club.
As the virulence and menace of the virus became alarmingly palpable following an exponential rise in hospitalisations and fatalities, concern replaced optimism for Harrogate, who estimated that the difference between promotion and another season in the National League was worth £1.6million.
With no end in sight, clubs from England's fifth tier voted to end the season at its current point with promotion and relegation outcomes under ‘careful consideration’ on Wednesday 22 April.
In March, English leagues from the men’s seventh tier downwards were ended immediately and all results expunged.
The dreaded phrase ‘null and void’ began to creep into everyday footballing parlance and there was a growing feeling that Harrogate’s moment in the sun would be snatched from their grasp.
“The club, while it is 106 years old, hasn’t had previous glories,” said Irving Weaver, club chairman and Simon’s dad. “We’ve got Leeds United going into the Premier League and York City, with their loyal base always taking it away from Harrogate.”
The club was locked in a perpetual state of limbo, with Weaver Jr and staff relying on hearsay for the latest news. “We fiercely thought this is our time, so when lockdown happened it hit us hard,” reflected the dejected manager.
After a bleak few months, consumed by worry and punctuated by home schooling, the manager revealed to his staff – after receiving ratification from the National League – that the play-offs were to go ahead. Harrogate, at long last, had certainty.
Proud To Be Town also explores the human side of a pandemic that shows no regard for hope and aspiration.
Club physio Rachel Davis, appointed de facto ‘Covid Officer’ during the slow return back to the training ground, spent what was scheduled to be her wedding day completing risk assessments.
For goalkeeper James Belshaw, who played such an influential role in the club’s surge up the table, his life was turned upside down in lockdown. His grandfather, who contracted asymptomatic coronavirus in hospital, passed away from prostate cancer. Belshaw and family had to spend their final moments with him on FaceTime because they weren’t permitted to visit the hospital.
The film also offers a compelling insight into the life of a lower league manager. For Weaver, a rare example of a dynastic coach, his remit extended beyond his usual brief to psychologist, negotiator and strategist in lockdown.
The 42-year-old could ill-afford to take his eye off the day job, though. He faced something of an injury crisis ahead of the semi-final against Boreham Wood – so much so, he turned down an all-expenses paid friendly against Scottish giants Celtic for fear of more injuries.
The last-four clash wasn’t without its logistical difficulties (Harrogate were banned from using their own changing rooms for the biggest game in the club’s history) but Jack Muldoon’s 65th-minute glancing header was enough to send the Yorkshiremen to Wembley for the first time.
The final pitted Harrogate, a family-run club not averse to welcoming only a few hundred supporters though the turnstiles at the turn of the last decade, against Notts County, a club with a distinguished history and enviable infrastructure.
A particularly poignant scene follows Weaver and his wife Sally, who couldn’t contain her emotion as the enormity of the occasion began to take hold, walking down an unrecognisably empty Wembley Way on the morning of the final.
The boss challenged his charges to think bigger in a rousing pre-match speech, to free themselves from the shackles of debilitating inferiority complexes, to forget about the ‘little old Harrogate’ moniker and to impose themselves on their opponent.
It had the desired effect.
They stormed out of the blocks with goals from George Thomson and Connor Hall giving them a 2-0 half-time lead. “It’s two but it could be four or five,” exclaimed BT Sport’s Matt Smith.
County were reinvigorated in the second half and pulled one back almost immediately after the restart, but Jack Diamond sealed Harrogate’s place in League Two by guiding home Muldoon’s cross with 20 minutes left.
Football League stalwart and consummate professional Jon Stead spent a heart-breaking moment of reflection with a cardboard cut-out of his late friend Jordan Sinnott in the Wembley stands amidst the celebrations.
It was a dream realised. 365 days after Harrogate began the 2019-20 season, they ended it with promotion at Wembley.
But for their larger-than-life captain Josh Falkingham, it was just the beginning: “I want one more promotion now, I do want one more promotion!”
Simon Green, head of BT Sport, added: “This is not just the story of one club. It reflects aspects of almost every football club in the country amid the Covid-19 pandemic. This film is a unique collaboration between BT Sport Films and Harrogate Town AFC.
“A large proportion of the film was self-shot by members of the team and club staff on phones and tablets, who enthusiastically recorded their experiences of lockdown, getting back into action and making their historic bid for promotion. We are grateful for the club’s collaboration.
“We were honoured to be part of the journey with this inspiring group of individuals, not least the film’s author, manager Simon Weaver.”