Simon Weaver intent on Harrogate Town pushing on even higher up the Football League

When Simon Weaver leads Harrogate Town out at Southend United this afternoon it will not just be as the Football League’s newest manager, but also its longest-serving. The rookie will therefore be confident in his own skin, determined to be himself and true to principles learnt on the Hillsborough terraces.

IT'S A BEAUTIFUL DAY: Simon Weaver celebrates his team's victory over Notts County at Wembley. Picture: Catherine Ivill/Getty Images

It has not always been the case.

“I cringe at some of the things I said or did when I was wet behind the ears,” says the ambitious Doncaster-born manager. “I walked out at FC United in the FA Trophy in my first season (at Harrogate, 2009-10) and it was raining. I thought I’d go with my grey coat, suit and tie. I was liked a drenched rat on the sideline. I thought, ‘What am I trying to be here? You’re a tracksuit man, get your tracksuit on and be yourself.’

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“Before the play-off final (against Notts County in August) the lads were saying, ‘Are you going to get a Wembley suit?’ and when I said no, they said, ‘We thought not.’

MOVING ON UP: Harrogate Town's Jack Muldoon (left) battles with Tranmere Rovers' Peter Clarke in last week's Carabao Cup clash at Prenton Park. Picture: Martin Rickett/PA

“Hopefully, I have evolved as a manager but I’m more just myself every day rather than thinking, ‘You’ve got to be like Mourinho.’ I used to get in a tangle when we lost by thinking, ‘Maybe it’s not that system.’ We’ve been predominantly the same for the last three years and we’ve been top goalscorers for two out of three and won two promotions. That gives me a belief I probably didn’t have a few years ago.”

To understand Harrogate’s system, dig out clips of the Sheffield Wednesday team of 42-year-old Weaver’s youth. He came through their main centre of excellence, his assistant Paul Thirlwell the Gateshead centre.

“It was so exciting with two players up front and balls into the box, midfielders who could pass it properly and Roland Nilsson overlapping,” gushes Weaver. “Really silky football delivered with passion. The crowd volume went up because they could see 11 players who cared so much.

“I sometimes look at YouTube videos because they were a very good 4-4-2 team. Sometimes they would go back to front, they’d play at the right times, they just probed in different ways. When they started recruiting players that didn’t care for the club as much, it gave a different vibe, even on the terraces.

Harrogate Town's Wembley heroes will get a chance to prove themselves at League Two level. Picture: Adam Davy/PA

“We’ve got to keep our spirit because the minute that changing-room vibe changes we might not get that amazing pressing and energy. You can fall into mistakes quite easily with the amount of flattery agents give you and videos of players who look like Maradona and Messi rolled into one.”

Aged 20, centre-back Weaver’s first love hurt him badly, the Owls showing him the door.

Another 14 clubs followed, culminating in Harrogate.

“I thought I was making good strides,” he says. “I’d been at the club since I was 10 and it had been mentioned I was going to get another couple of years, go out on loan again. I was released in a room with five others and that was hard to take. It made me think – maybe not at the time, but when I got into management – that if you’re going to release someone, do it right.

Harrogate Town players and staff celebrate after the final whistle of the National League play-off final at Wembley. Picture: Adam Davy/PA

“That probably gave me even more fight. I remember driving home and thinking I didn’t belong anywhere.

“I didn’t have natural ability of the highest order so I had to think about the game. I was whole-hearted but off the pitch I looked at different teams and how they set up, even at school. I read an article by Henry Winter who said a lot of managers come from playing backgrounds where they’ve not had a lot of pace so they’ve had to think. I thought, ‘That’ll stand me in good stead!’

“Keith Alexander at Lincoln got a collective unit and forged a real unity. Brian Horton, who managed me (on loan at Macclesfield from Lincoln in 2004) was very good at being succinct. The players have got more chance of understanding.”

Ex-Leeds United chairman Bill Fotherby, then in charge at Wetherby Road, made 31-year-old Weaver his player-manager.

“The club had two players under contract who didn’t want anything to do with them because they’d got rid of everyone else,” recalls Weaver.

“Even the concessions were cut so the older supporters were feeling hurt. I found it very difficult to work with some people because there wasn’t the energy or team-spirit. People would say one thing behind Bill’s back and another to his face.”

Town finished bottom of Conference North in Weaver’s first season, only for Northwich Victoria to be relegated instead over financial irregularities.

Weaver admits: “I’d turn up sometimes on Sunday morning at Bill’s house thinking this could be it but he said, ‘I don’t sack managers, I’m backing you. What can we do to get going again?’

“The first two or three years I was against the ropes at times but I always thought I’d find a way. Rather than thinking, ‘I’m rubbish,’ I thought, ‘I’ve got to not be rubbish.’”

In 2011 he started an uneasy family partnership.

“We’d gone nine games unbeaten and my dad (Irving) came to the game,” he explains. “I watered the pitch for nine hours with my dad because Alfreton were a team of giants and if it was just bounce-ball they’d murder us!

“We equalised in the dying minutes and afterwards my dad shook my hand and just said, ‘That was really good.’

“A week after, Bill Fotherby said he was going to resign (the club) two levels unless we got financial support. My dad said he wasn’t going to throw money at it for no return but he’d think about taking ownership. I didn’t feel easy at all with that but it was a better scenario than getting relegated two leagues.

“If the time comes (to part ways) we’ll be honest and have the club at heart and if fans aren’t coming in as much as we need to progress, that’s the acid test.”

By 2017, Weaver Junior was confident enough to propose Town go full-time. Two promotions sandwiching a play-off defeat followed.

“There might have been external pressure but as soon as the board passed my proposal it cleared so much noise,” he says. “I wanted fast, efficient passing football, hard pressing, a one-in-all-in team that produced goals. I do feel when the players look me in the eyes they believe in me.”

The feeling is mutual.

“They know our expectations and our mentality so I’d rather just save a bit of money in case we need a bit more after a month,” argues Weaver. “If I spend it now, I’ve disheartened the current group and it might not be the right thing. We did a great job against Notts County on the biggest of occasions for the club, so they all deserve a chance.

“I’m competing with clubs with serious money. We don’t want to go about it that way but I’m not too interested in languishing. You can’t have 1,700 at the top of League One but I really want us to be up there. It might take time because we’re a steady building machine.

“I hope we’ve accumulated some points so the fans are really buzzing by the time they get back in. It will really hit home then – pride, a pure joy of knowing we’re in the Football League. But we’ve got to keep driving on.”

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