Harrogate Town are the latest football club to go under the microscope in a brand new documentary Proud To Be Town.
The new film from BT Sport, which airs at 10pm on Friday 2nd October, focuses on the then-National League club as their spectacular promotion push was put on ice due to the COVID-19 outbreak.
Harrogate were eventually handed a place in the play-offs despite the rest of the league being cancelled, and they succeeded in reaching the English Football League for the first time in their history.
RadioTimes.com spoke exclusively to Town boss Simon Weaver about lockdown paranoia, turning down a proposition from Scottish giants Celtic and how the Premier League can support lower league clubs going forward.
Speaking about the emotions of lockdown, he said: “Hopefully people enjoy it [the documentary] because they can relate to all these situations, whether it’s home-schooling, the walks with your family, the pressures of not knowing when there’ll be light at the end of the tunnel.
“Yet among all that confusion, you’re allowed breathing space for the first time in many years of your grown-up life and to take it all in, those precious times with your family. I was quite emotional watching it.
“It was such a rollercoaster of emotions because we had a chance of thinking, ‘Actually, we’ve got a chance of going up second here,’ to then thinking, ‘All could be lost here, it could be null and void.’
“I went out for a walk one day and I thought, ‘No, put my phone to one side, go out with my family.’ We walked like four miles, quite a long way for them, and then we’ll have fish and chips on the way back.
“Then I got back and I must have had 20 phone calls because the players and staff were all reading something on the BBC website that League Two were looking at ways of not relegating, so they were panicking – ‘This is it.’
“There’s so many dips in fortune and disappointments, then finding out there’s play-offs, then suddenly, ‘Right, resetting, we’ve got to go again here.’ The players inspired and led us really because they just came back in remarkable fitness shape and took it by storm.
“It’s still only penetrating my brain that we’ve done it and gone up. No matter what happens now, we’ve achieved something and that feeling of grinding, grinding and really grafting, to thinking you haven’t done it, to, ‘Oh, we have’ – it’s quite something to take in really.”
Weaver recalled a story about having to reject a proposal for a friendly clash with Scottish Premiership champions Celtic, much to the bemusement of his players.
“We had such a thin squad that we were turning down friendlies, we couldn’t really prepare in the orthodox way with hard training followed by cutting your teeth in 11 v 11 situations.
“We turned down, of all teams, Celtic. And the players were all looking at me… And I was like, ‘Four defenders in the building, what do you want me to do?’
“It was about trying to keep them buoyant while knowing that all the pressure is on two games and the whole season rests on this.”
A glamour friendly with Celtic would, ordinarily, have been a terrific opportunity for a League Two team to boost their income, but with fans yet to be allowed in stadiums to watch matches, finances are a hot topics among the lower leagues.
The glitz, glam and multi-billion-pound TV deals of the Premier League are in a different reality to the third and fourth tiers of English football, with talks ongoing between the leagues with regards to a ‘rescue package’ to be paid by the top flight in order to stabilise the lower leagues.
Weaver has called for patience in negotiations despite a number of clubs facing severe hardship, but believes the football pyramid should be valued and protected by the clubs above who are fed by it.
“It’s dangerous for all League One and League Two teams,” he said.
“If you don’t have people through the gates and you’re paying people the full whack of their contracts, which we have done. The contribution of furlough helps us no end and it’s what happens now, really, that the government in talks with the Football League and the Premier League – and that won’t be without conditions if there is a financial outlay.
“It’s very difficult to know what’s going to happen. You’re on a cliff edge, as all clubs are. We’ve worked so hard to be in this position without being able to have fans through the door, so it’s a battle.
“We’re working hard on streaming, we’re still trying to get sponsorship money in for that, and we’re not overly spending like some clubs do to really chase the dream.
“The pyramid has to be looked after because players and coaches all have ambitions of being higher. You look at the example of Jamie Vardy and think if it wasn’t for Stocksbridge Park Steels he wouldn’t have had a pathway.
“Rick Parry is a very good chief executive and he’s in talks, so I don’t want to be the one who jumps the gun and says, ‘They’re not doing enough.’ We’ve got to be patient as we were in lockdown.
“We shouldn’t undervalue the structure of English football that has been there for so many years and propped up and fed the upper tiers of the game. We’ve got to have faith in the powers that be to find a way really and help fund and subsidise until we’re out of this mess.
“People are still allowed in pubs, pubs can still be full – and even if it’s table service – they’re inside breathing that same air. They can be watching the television game, and yet can we manage a way where people are logical and stagger people into a football ground and have a certain percentage in.
“They can do that and that’s why, probably, talks between the EFL and Premier League are protracted because they could pay £250million out then the next week the government roll out a scheme of 25 per cent, 35 per cent fans.
“I’m sure it’s all a process because everyone will want to keep the pyramid in tact but perhaps, from the government side, we can push for social distancing but for support to return.”
Proud To Be Town, the next instalment in the award-winning BT Sport Films series, will premiere on BT Sport 1 on Friday 2nd October at 10pm. It will be available to watch at any time on the BT Sport app, BTsport.com, BT TV on-demand from Saturday 3rd October. If you’re looking for something else to watch check out our TV Guide.