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League Two

Feature: Harrogate Town - Dare to Dream

21 December 2020

For over a century, achieving promotion to the English Football League would have felt like a distant dream to those associated with Harrogate Town.

It’s a town that, until recently, was perhaps better known for its tea rooms than the club’s first-team dressing room, something which makes their debut campaign in Sky Bet League Two after 106 long years one of the game’s true fairytale stories...

Sometimes, all it takes is one individual to come in and turn fortune on its head and, luckily for Harrogate Town, that man was Irving Weaver.

Weaver replaced former Leeds United Managing Director Bill Fotherby as the club’s owner in 2011 and, soon after, his plan started to take shape. Despite his work playing a huge part in helping the club to its current position, the 71-year-old is the first to describe it as a team effort, and certainly has never forgotten his humble beginnings.

“The deal for the club was concluded on 31 May; we went straight into a pre-season and I got a note to say that only seven people had signed up as season ticket holders for the upcoming season,” Weaver recalls, discussing his first few days at the club.

“I remember printing the books off at home on my printer, cutting them up, putting them in an envelope and sending them off myself.”

At this point, Irving’s son, Simon, was already in place at the club. He took the managerial vacancy in 2009, two years before the takeover was completed, a post he still holds today.

Harrogate were handed a reprieve at the end of the 2009/10 season, with Farsley Celtic dropping out of the Blue Square North after being placed into administration; but Fotherby, who had just moved into his 80s, knew things had to change.

“Bill actually approached Simon and mentioned that he was going to speak to me about taking over from him. I am not sure why he thought I was the man to step into his shoes, but there you go,” Weaver explains.

“I was hesitant about getting into football at the start because, as a corporate businessman, you know about all the pitfalls that can come with football finance and uncertainties – but there was an interest from my side and I did want to help Simon.

“He was in total shock and wasn’t sure it was going to work, because football is a cruel game, but it has come together quite nicely and it is a bit of a family thing.”

Working with family can have its challenges, but the Weavers have pulled it off perfectly. Their working relationship grew stronger after narrowly missing out on promotion from the National League North in 2016. The decision to turn full-time was a decision that they did not take lightly. Their attitude became ‘win or lose, we do it together’, and from that the Harrogate express train began to gather speed.

A new 3G pitch was laid after a side of the ground fell away due to its clay foundations, a fine metaphor for the rebuild taking place all around the club, one which led to them becoming National League North Play-Off Final winners.

However, the jewel in the crown would come on 2 August 2020, under the famous arch at Wembley Stadium, as Irving watched his son and his team put Notts County to the sword in another Play-Off Final.

Next stop, EFL.

“To a certain extent, I think he feels that responsibility even further; that we are all pulling together,” Weaver adds, when asked about his family ties.

“The longevity and sustainability has filtered through to the lads in the dressing room too. He has had to scrap to get where he is today, certainly in the early stages of his managerial career, and I am very proud of what he has achieved over the years. My wife and I have been supporting my son for 30 years, and to do it with him that day was a moment I will never forget. All those years, standing in the rain on a cold Tuesday night, they were worth it to see him have that moment as a manager.

“I know you have to have an element of professionalism on that kind of occasion, but it was a father and son duo who had just won a Play-Off Final, and it was just a very emotional time for us all.”

The arrival of COVID-19 had, at one stage, threatened that dream day at Wembley, but Harrogate’s is a story written in the stars, as Weaver recalls fondly.

“The momentum we had towards the end of the season was incredible, I think we went 10 games without a loss from November through to the start of things winding down, and I think we could have caught Barrow because they still had to come to our place and play us.

“Luckily, we managed to get that glory day at Wembley, which was amazing.”

All club owners have a vision, all have aspirations and targets, but what makes the Harrogate tale all the more more special is that Weaver only wanted to go full-time to ensure his club would have a better chance of surviving in the National League. Never in his wildest dreams did he think that they would be competing against former Premier League sides such as Bolton Wanderers and Bradford City just years later.

But football gives anyone and everyone the opportunity to dream, whether you are an owner, a manager, a player or a fan. It would take a brave person to guess what the next chapter has in store for Harrogate Town but, as far as their owner is concerned, he’s just enjoying the ride.

“I wanted to do things properly; I didn’t like the idea of losses and I did not like the idea of panning into an easy rise. I wanted to win hearts and minds, and build a supporter base of continual support,” he concludes.

“Our thinking over the years has not been ‘let’s get to the EFL’, so I cannot say we
are going to get here or there in a certain amount of time. Momentum is everything in football, and I think getting the crowd back will do us the world of good.

“I would say this season is one of those wait-and-see things in life. We know they say there is a 46-point target in League Two, Simon and I aren’t looking at that and thinking 'that will do'.

“I don’t want to get relegated, because I am having a fantastic time.”

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