‘I never wanted to own a football club’, says the man behind Harrogate Town’s rise to the National League

Irving Weaver pictured after Harrogate Towns National League North play-off final victory over Brackley secured their place in the fifth tier of English football. Picture: Caught Light Photography
Irving Weaver pictured after Harrogate Towns National League North play-off final victory over Brackley secured their place in the fifth tier of English football. Picture: Caught Light Photography

In 2015, Harrogate was voted the happiest place to live in the country.

More than three years on, and even on a gloomy, cold Saturday afternoon in the middle of winter, there’s a buzz on the streets.

This year, however, it’s not just eminating from Betty’s tea room or the area’s luxury spas, but stems from the efforts of 11 men clad in yellow and black football shirts.

Now, Harrogate Town AFC are knocking on the door of the football league.

At each home game, the CNG Stadium attracts crowds of more than 1,500, with spectators packed in tightly, coffees and pints in hand anticipating a performance which will help them sustain what has been an unexpectedly strong start to life in English football’s fifth tier.

After 11 games, newly-promoted Town were unbeaten and top of the table following their rise to the Vanarama National League at the end of last season.

The man who has helped make many dreams come true and put this small footballing town on the map is Irving Weaver, the chairman and owner of this ever-evolving club.

As we sit on black metal chairs outside the conference suite watching his players warm up, you can see the cold in the air, while a little drizzle mixed with the ever-flowing pitch sprinklers causes slight concern as Irving predicts we might get “a bit wet.”

Irving is man with a passion for the sport. Supporting Sheffield Wednesday as a boy his appetite for the game always existed but he never thought he’d one day be running a club, pushing for two promotions on the bounce.

“I’m a South Yorkshireman by birth and work, and I’ve always been interested in football,” he said.

“It’s been Sheffield Wednesday, that’s where my passion has lied for about 40 years. What happened was my son Simon grew up there as a youngster and spent 10 years in the academy. Fast forward to 2009 and he got the job here at Harrogate.

“He was 31 at this point and he'd had quite a few injuries.

“Immediately the budget at Harrogate was desperate as the owner at the time Bill Fotherby wanted to cut back.

“It was a baptism of fire for Simon.

“One day, Bill contacted me and said he was going to take it down two leagues. He asked me if I wanted to take it on to stop the club being demoted. I never wanted to own a football club, I knew too much about it.”

Irving’s family were more than important when it came to making a decision, even if Simon was first reluctant on the idea saying: “Dad, the father and son job is never done in football.”

But it was in fact Simon who became the inspiration for Irving to take on the task of taking control of the club.

Irving added: “I thought this is Simon’s chance now, I didn’t know how I would go on or how Simon would. I had to say more than once that if we do well, we do well together and if we both fail we’ll put our hands up and leave the club in a better place.

“We’ll put some infrastructure in and if it collapses because we’re not good at it then we’ll let someone else have ago.”

The early days of Irving’s tenure brought many challenges as although former Leeds United director Fotherby had done an incredible job, pushing Harrogate to the National League North and only two steps from the Football League, the club lacked infrastructure to keep the wheels spinning.

The ground back in 2011 was more comparable to muddy farmer’s field than a football pitch as it sloped to one side leading to many a swimming pool for birds to take a paddle in.

A big step that pushed Town in the right direction was the installation of their 3G pitch in 2016, allowing Weaver Junior to implement a style of football which could be admired, while the facility also helped generate additional revenue.

The club have experienced some difficult patches during the Weaver era.

However, Irving never lost faith in his son.

A comeback from 3-0 down against Boston United was the moment Irving felt things were beginning to change:

“Simon never looks up at me when he’s in the dugout but this time I was in the stand he looked up and I went to him ‘come on now’ and we ended up drawing 3-3.

“It was almost like that was the turning point for us.

“From there on we had a really good cup run four years ago, punching above our weight and an appearance on television which helped with our profile and momentum and also the cash to help the budget to be competitive.

“You can have a great manager but at the end of the day you also need the players.”

The most remarkable achievement for the club was last season’s promotion to the National League, leaving the club just one step shy of the Football League.

When I mention the word promotion there’s a rather large smile on Irving’s face. He leans back into his chair and then forwards towards the table.

It’s clear to see the emotion on his face before he’s even said a word.

The enjoyment he got from that day was not only for himself and his family but also for the town and the fans who he wasn’t sure would support the club like they have.

“What really pleased me was that the town would support the football club,” he added.

“I didn’t know if they would get excited but they did and I think that was the biggest thrill for me, that it has gone on from there and this season we’ve got 500 more supporters.”

There are few people who have been able to witness the incredible journey of Harrogate and understand the history of this club better than Clive Dunnington, a local man who has supported and been involved with the club his entire life.

At the age of 86, Town's vice-president is a constant spirit and inspiration for the team.

As I spot him across the room he looks at home, just taking it all in and shaking the occasional hand.

There are many moments which stand out in Clive’s mind about his local club, but the promotion season is something he will never forget.

“It was wonderful, absolutely fantastic,” he said.

“Irving has done a fantastic job here. It’s a wonderful family and they deserve the success.”

One thing that is clear to see at Harrogate Town is the affection for the club is so strong from everyone involved. There’s a real feeling of togetherness which sparks the success.

Clive travels all over the country with the team and it’s something he truly embraces:

“I go away to all the matches, I never miss a game. I tell the lads on the coach ‘Leesley it’s your turn for a goal, Dom you’re due a goal’ and Dom [Knowles] will reply ‘don’t worry I’ll get one today’, so I have a natter with all the players.

“I just enjoy being with them and being part of this club.

“Not knowing this league, I’d be quite happy to finish mid-table but look where we are, I can’t believe it.

“If we finish in the play-offs we could still go up so there’s a chance. I’m so pleased for Irving and the town because of the Harrogate people. I’ve never seen so many tops and scarves in the town so it proves we’re getting them.”

As things stand, despite a lean spell of form over the festive period, Harrogate are still among the play-off places.

Up until a few weeks ago, they were providing strong competition to front runners Leyton Orient and Salford City who are famously owned by Manchester United’s ‘Class of 92’ including Ryan Giggs, Gary Neville and Paul Scholes.

Irving understands and respects the competition in the league, knowing it will be no easy task to achieve another promotion.

“Salford have got a great infrastructure and great players,” he added.

“People criticise the way they do it but I say good luck to them.

“For us, this year has been a surprise for me. I thought this would be a holding year. 50 points was the magic number for survival and as we sit here now we’re six points away from that.

“I have to look at the league sometimes and realise just where we are and yes, we’ve had a little ripple but when we play the teams at the top such as Leyton Orient who have 4,000 season tickets compared to us with about 350 you have to think let’s be steady, don’t break the disciplines of trying get something properly in place and then build a future. Then it really is a legacy.”

Zooming out on the situation that this small and close-knit club find themselves in, the footballing future looks like bright.

A real structure is in place and belief is in abundance around the ground. When assessing and reflecting on where the club has come Irving is quietly optimistic on where this club will go:

“The eight years have flown by,” he continued.

“Simon and I think that if we’re going to have a run at the divisions like Burton Albion did then we’re going to have a busy 10 years.

“One thing about keeping it moving is that if we do what Burton did, maybe there’s a journey beyond me but through me. It’ll happen as long as we keep the good practises on and off the field and I’m a believer that it will.”