ork has resumed on bringing Harrogate’s Wetherby Road stadium up to Football League standards but who pays for the new Family Stand, and who plays in front of it next season, are only two of the uncertainties that surround the North Yorkshire club. Their day of reckoning is approaching.
Harrogate were second in the National League when the remainder of the season was cancelled on 22 April because of the coronavirus pandemic. Last Friday League Two clubs voted to curtail the rest of their season but to retain automatic promotion and play-offs but, crucially as far as Harrogate are concerned, suspend relegation to the National League. The decision has not been ratified by the EFL board and will be discussed at its meeting on Wednesday.
The repercussions of League Two ending without relegation may not be so costly for the National League leaders, Barrow, who, while also fretting over what comes next, could take the league position created by Bury’s expulsion in August. For Harrogate, however, there is only doubt over the second promotion spot and no clear route out yet. The EFL board’s decision will have profound consequences.
“We were four points behind Barrow and due to play them at home a few weeks after the pandemic erupted, but what might have happened is just words now,” says Harrogate’s manager, Simon Weaver. “It’s not a Liverpool situation with one team 25 points clear; it is four points. We were relishing that battle with Barrow but if the play-offs are out of the question then the best two teams should be rewarded.
“I don’t want to see clubs relegated but if you are promoting teams on a points-per-game basis then you have to relegate too. I do believe that success should be rewarded after 80% of games have been played. If clubs are promoted from League Two but not relegated then there are spaces available. But you have to be consistent across the board in terms of promotion and relegation. It means as much to fans of Harrogate as it does to fans of top clubs in the Premier League to see fairness applied.”
Weaver had taken Harrogate close to a second promotion when the National League season was abandoned. He has devoured the EFL’s rules and regulations, and every statement regarding resolutions, ever since.
“We are confident that two clubs will go up because of the EFL rulebook and the agreement that was made with the league several years ago,” he says. “The rulebook states that the second team to go up is either the runners-up or the winners of the play-offs, but the chances of the play-offs taking place are slim.” The National League has said the play-offs are “under careful consideration”.
Weaver continued: “We are also looking at the levels above and Greg Clarke [the FA chairman] stated last Monday that the FA would veto attempts to alter the courses of relegation and promotion. If they are going to decide seasons based on sporting merit then you’d like to think that doesn’t stop at our level. We are a professional league too.”
Harrogate’s ambitions for the Football League are mired in uncertainty. The new Family Stand will increase the capacity to more than 5,000 and meet the Football League’s minimum requirement for League Two of 1,000 seats. But a £400,000 Football League grant for the redevelopment is only payable on promotion. To dig or not to dig is also a question facing the Harrogate board.
“We receive the Football League grant only if we go up,” says Weaver. “But we can’t not do the work. We need to meet all the criteria to go into the Football League and that will also involve digging up our pitch because it is 3G. Do we wait to dig it up or gamble on laying a new grass pitch that will be ready for next season now?
“And sooner rather than later we have to plan for the players we need. Fortunately, we planned ahead with player contracts. We only had four players out of contract and one of them has re-signed. It wasn’t nice to have to release the other three via a Zoom call but at least it wasn’t 11.”
The price of promotion, and of being denied it, is stark to a club of Harrogate’s size. “We received £90,000 for winning promotion to the National League,” Weaver says. “For promotion to the Football League we are looking at around £1m, including the £400,000 grant for the new stand. Forgive the pun but it would be ground-breaking for us. Plus we would have extra revenue from the capacity increase and TV money. This is massive for us and a massive decision. We need it to be positive.”