Sport

Harrogate won the National League play-offs after a team talk from Gareth Southgate


Irving Weaver is considering a question most football club owners never have to face: would he ever sack his son?

‘If things went wrong, I think we’d both say, “Hands up, we have made a mess of this”,’ replies the Harrogate Town chairman, whose son Simon is the manager. ‘I would be mindful that we have both failed and I would have to move on as well and find somebody to take the club over.’

Fortunately, failure is not something the Weaver family are familiar with.

Harrogate Town owner Irving Weaver with his son and manager Simon Weaver

Harrogate Town owner Irving Weaver with his son and manager Simon Weaver

Since Simon became boss in 2009, and his dad Irving took over as owner two years later, Harrogate have turned professional, increased attendances almost tenfold and climbed two divisions, reaching the Football League for the first time in the club’s 106-year history last month. The Weavers have weaved their magic.

‘Nothing has changed in our father-son relationship,’ admits Simon, who is the longest-serving manager of a club in England’s top four divisions. ‘I have always wanted to make my dad proud but with that brings pressure because I also don’t want to let him down.

‘We are very close. We haven’t had any blow-ups, we have just had dead straight chats. We have a shared vision. He is brilliant to work for.

‘There will be shouts of nepotism. That is the easy angle and that will never stop for as long as I am the manager at this club. But that just serves to fire me up every single day. I want to do well for myself but also for my dad.’

The Yorkshire club will replace the synthetic pitch in front of a new 900-seater stand

The Yorkshire club will replace the synthetic pitch in front of a new 900-seater stand

Released by boyhood club Sheffield Wednesday without playing a first-team game, Simon spent his career as a centre half in the lower leagues.

But even Harrogate came as a shock to him when he was first appointed there, as they had just finished ninth in National League North and were struggling financially under the ownership of Bill Fotherby, the late former Leeds managing director.

‘It was quite daunting at first because we were nowhere, it was dire straits,’ the 42-year-old says. ‘There were no existing players at the club. Everyone had been told they were free to leave because of budget cuts.

‘We had to beg, steal and borrow. The first conversation I had with a player, he ended up putting the phone down on me. Trialists occasionally stayed at my house.

‘I once got a student out of lectures to help me out the next day and be in nets away at Fleetwood. I stopped paying myself for six months because I needed that money to spend on someone else for the team.

‘Back then, the Football League didn’t even cross my mind. People would have said I was in cloud cuckoo land thinking up such a thing.’

Victory in the National League play-off final at Wembley was a game changer for the club

Victory in the National League play-off final at Wembley was a game changer for the club

It looked even more of a distant dream at the end of his first season in charge. Harrogate finished bottom, only avoiding relegation to the seventh tier because Northwich Victoria were demoted for failing to pay debts.

By 2011, their plight had become so precarious that Fotherby wanted to take the Sulphurites down two divisions to cut costs. That was when Weaver Snr stepped in.

‘I had a discussion with Simon and he was worried about nepotism, he was worried about it being strange,’ says Irving (below), who made his money with the family housing business, now known as Strata Homes.

‘But I have an older son, Andrew, who has done well working for me in the business having been given the opportunity, and I couldn’t deny Simon his.

‘He is a really good lad. He is passionate, he is considerate. He had been there for two years in difficult circumstances and he never lost heart, never lost the changing room.

‘I said, “Right, this is going to be unique, it could go horribly wrong, but we will leave it in a better place than where we found it”. It is not something I would have done if I wasn’t inextricably linked.’

Ahead of his first campaign, Irving remembers printing season tickets off at home because there were just seven of them. He also recalls a Tuesday night game in November when there were 180 fans.

Well-heeled Harrogate is better known for its tourist traps than its football club

Well-heeled Harrogate is better known for its tourist traps than its football club

Last season their average gate was 1,550 and building has finished on a new 900-seat Family Stand, taking the capacity at the EnviroVent Stadium to 5,000 to meet EFL requirements.

Harrogate’s success story, though, has been one of shrewd investment rather than lavish spending. Simply by changing their pitch to a 3G surface and letting it out to the community made the club £200,000 a year, although EFL rules mean they have had to switch it back to grass.

‘For Simon’s career, there is no point in me splashing the cash,’ adds Irving, sitting with Sportsmail in Harrogate’s newly-finished stand. ‘Where is the credibility? Most of his team have come through from National League North. It is a good story.

‘Since we went full-time in 2017, Simon has taken them up twice in three years, which is staggering. He has earned his spurs. I can say it now without it being about father and son. It is evidenced. I think next year will just reinforce it.’

Simon describes his dad’s arrival as a ‘game changer’ but the game that really changed it all for the club was last month’s 3-1 win over Notts County in the National League play-off final at Wembley.

To get there, Town beat Boreham Wood 1-0 in their home semi-final, having been inspired by a surprise team talk from another manager who resides in Harrogate — England boss Gareth Southgate.

‘I first met him at the gym,’ explains Simon. ‘I asked him for a coffee and I nudged my way in there! We have got a friendship now and he is a nice guy.

‘Before the semi, we went to see him at a hotel in Harrogate as a surprise for the players. It was a break from the norm for them and we really appreciated it.’

Despite being home to the England manager, well-heeled Harrogate is better known for its tourist traps than its football club. But the team was the talk of the town last month when they paraded their play-off trophy.

Local resident Gareth Southgate gave a team talk before semi-final win over Boreham Wood

Local resident Gareth Southgate gave a team talk before semi-final win over Boreham Wood

‘The level of interest in Harrogate has exploded,’ says Simon. ‘Thousands turned out for the open-top bus parade. It was amazing to see so much yellow and black throughout the trip.

‘The fans missed out on the biggest day of the club’s history, but we can’t wait to have them back with us and share these experiences in the Football League for the first time together.’

It is not known when fans will be allowed back in grounds. Regardless, Harrogate will play home games at Doncaster until October 10 while their synthetic pitch is replaced. But there is still excitement about the start of the season at Southend on Saturday.

‘The players only had two weeks off after the play-offs but there isn’t any hangover, there is a real buzz about the place,’ adds Simon. ‘Right now we are on the crest of a wave and the lads are desperate to make an impression in the Football League.’

Should Simon make an impression in League Two, the only way he and his father would part ways is if he is poached by a rival.

‘I would not say to him, “I am in your way”, that would be wrong,’ adds Irving.

‘But we are enjoying this ride. Let’s see how far we can take it.’

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