Football's coming home for Irving Weaver and Harrogate Town
Saturday, October 17, 2020 will go down as another momentous date in Harrogate Town’s history.
For the first time in their 106-year existence, the club will host a Football League (EFL) fixture at their Wetherby Road base when they entertain Barrow.
Having secured promotion to the National League for the first time in their history just over two years ago and twice qualified for the play-offs in that division, Town have gone into overdrive in terms of their progress during the last three monhs.
A century-long wait for a first trip to Wembley ended this summer before the Sulphurites went on to seal a first-ever promotion to the EFL when they schooled Notts County under the famous arch in early August.
Their maiden outing as a member of the EFL ended in a dramatic penalty shoot-out success at Tranmere Rovers, a win which set up a dream Carabao Cup second round trip to West Bromwich Albion of the Premier League.
Sandwiched in between those fixtures was Harrogate’s League Two debut, a visit to Southend United. Weaver’s troops routed the Shrimpers 4-0 to end the opening weekend of 2020/21 top of the table.
On Monday night, Town turned Bradford City over in their own back yard.
And now, having been forced to play their opening three ‘home’ matches as a league club at Doncaster Rovers’ Keepmoat Stadium while their artificial 3G pitch was replaced by natural turf, Harrogate are poised to finally deliver league football to a spa town traditionally better known for being home to a tea room.
Undoubtedly the main driving force behind the raising of the club’s profile, both on the football pitch and off it, has been the influence of the Weaver family.
Chairman Irving and his son Simon – Town’s manager – have overseen quite the transformation at Wetherby Road, though when he initially took over, the former never envisaged being able to lead a struggling sixth-tier outfit to such heights.
“It’s another big day for the club. We’re very happy to be bringing league football to Harrogate,” Irving Weaver said.
“Did I think we could take this club into the Football League when I first came? Honestly, no.
“Initially, in National League North it was about how we could build things so that we could enjoy being in that division and not worrying about falling out of it.
“We weren’t looking up at the National League for quite a while, but once the management team gained some experience and we began to move a few things forwards I started to think ‘maybe we can [go up].”
The decision to switch from semi-professional to full-time status in 2017 would ultimately prove the catalyst for the start of something special for Town and marked the moment that Irving Weaver’s mindset began to change from hopeful to confident.
“We changed to a 3G pitch, which helped with the style of football and then we took the decision to go full-time and as sure as night follows day, everything came together and we got promoted into the National League in 2018,” he added.
“Before our first season in that division I was wondering ‘can we compete?’ and the team just took the step up in their stride.
“Last season, there were some tricky away days, but after Christmas we never really looked in any trouble. Covid-19 intervened, and the circumstances the play-offs took place in were difficult but we just dug in and now league football has finally arrived.”
The timing, of course, could have been better.
With the world currently in the grip of a global pandemic, Town may have been making history on an almost weekly basis in recent months, but there has been nobody there to witness these feats first-hand.
The significance of this is not lost on Irving Weaver, who concedes that football comes second to people's health, but has found himself counting the cost of the implications of the coronavirus crisis nonetheless.
Saddened that Harrogate's supporters have missed out on so much since football returned post-lockdown, he also fears that his club has been deprived of a huge opportunity to use the momentum from their promotion to the EFL to raise their profile and grow their fan-base.
“This is such a challenging time there are far more important things to consider than football at the moment, but we know that we need to keep growing our crowd and that’s what we have been trying to do over the years,” Irving Weaver added.
“It’s not just about the money and the increased revenue that bigger crowds would bring. We’re talking credibility, atmosphere inside the ground and about being able to hold our heads up high in the Football League.
“It’s such a big pity that we’re not allowed supporters in at the moment because we are confident that off the back of our promotion that we could really build on that extra local interest and the feel-good factor.
“What an opportunity missed to capture those hearts and minds and increase attendances, particularly when in addition to being able to deliver league football we also have the new stand and so much more to offer families.
“Come next year when we’re allowed supporters back in, some of the gloss may well have rubbed off, the interest might not be the same. That momentum might be gone."
Whatever concerns Irving Weaver may have regarding the impact of Covid-19 on the club's growth, they will surely be forgotten - at least temporarily - when Town's players run out at the EnviroVent Stadium on Saturday afternoon.
"It's going to be another special moment, I think it will be emotional," he added.
"If you don't feel that emotion on occasions like this then I don't think the game has got to you. I'm a supporter first, I was a football supporter before I became a chairman.
"There won't be many of us there, but there will be a few to share the moment with. It's going to be another one for the history books.