Photo: Matt Kirkham

Having guided Harrogate Town to a play-off place in their debut National League campaign, Simon Weaver has seen his team begin to hit their stride again lately, as the club from the serene spa town chases its fruitful footballing future.

While Paul Doswell’s departure from Sutton United in April marked the end of a distinguished era, it also meant that no manager in English football’s top five divisions now surpasses or even matches Simon Weaver’s ten-year tenure at Harrogate. The 2017/18 National League North runners-up (and subsequent play-off winners) made a strong impression in their first season in the fifth tier, finishing 6th and sealing a play-off place.

Although a second successive promotion ultimately eluded them, they are firmly in the conversation again, hot on the heels of the leading sides with over a third of 2019/20’s National League fixtures already gone. The man who has been there through decidedly leaner times for this upwardly-mobile club has seen local awareness and interest in their endeavours come on considerably, though he still slips relatively under the radar when out and about, in comparison to another esteemed gaffer residing in the area.

“To be honest, Gareth Southgate lives in or around Harrogate, so I think if he goes to the supermarket he gets a lot more attention! I think people forget who I am, but I live 20 minutes away, and it’s a nice little drive back home; not quite long enough sometimes to get rid of the thoughts of the game!

“Most people are very polite if they’re football supporters and they recognise us, and I think there’s a fair bit of pride in the local area now with the club, which is nice. Some people occasionally will come up and say they’re disappointed with a result or performance, or why am I not playing him or him, but I guess that’s par for the course in the position I’m in.”

England chief Southgate was still Middlesbrough manager when Simon was starting out at Harrogate as a young player-boss – and when eye-catching signings like summer capture Jon Stead were a million miles from plausible. With longevity has come verifiable progression, and vice versa.

Soul-searching has unquestionably played its part, too, and never more so than all the way back in year one, as Simon recalls.

“I was in on my own at 31 and probably the youngest person in the building, when we weren’t training, by probably 50 years sometimes. It was an ageing group of people in the boardroom and it was not an easy place to be, because it’d be about this time in a midweek when you’re looking to train, it’d be raining and you’d have to cancel training because the groundsman wouldn’t want you to train on the pitch for fear of damaging it.

“The general manager at the time locked me out once, so I couldn’t get in, couldn’t get the players in. I was advised to train in the doctors’ car park behind it, that had cars on, or run around the park, where there’s no floodlights.

“I think the lowest ebb was probably getting 18 lads to train on a squash court. It’s been a lot more difficult in terms of those things, but now we’ve got it up and running, it hurts just as much sometimes, because we have got a facility and we’ve got great opportunities, everyone in the building, to make it happen.

“You put immense pressure and strain on yourself to do it, because we’re all in it together and you don’t want to let anyone down, and not least the chairman, because of my relationship with him. We’re full-time and we need results, we need to do well, so there’s just as much pressure.”

As many are now aware, that chairman is Irving Weaver, Simon’s father, who heads up Yorkshire company Strata Homes. He assumed control at Town from the late Bill Fotherby in the summer of 2011, between Simon’s second and third seasons at the helm.

By that point, Simon was already all too well acquainted with the rigours of management, with Harrogate only given a relegation reprieve in the Conference North after the first season as Northwich Victoria were demoted (with Farsley Celtic also already expelled). After 12th and 15th-place finishes, Town pushed up to 6th in 2012/13, and it was a season that also saw them reach the FA Cup second round for the first time, as the club began scaling new heights.

Photo: Matt Kirkham

Simon’s arrival as manager had come after he bagged the play-off final winner to take Ilkeston Town into the Conference North. He was the successor to recent Port Vale boss Neil Aspin, who had seen his team disassembled and players asked to take wage cuts during his last season.

As well as the locality, the realisation that his injury-interrupted playing days were winding down was the main driver behind Simon putting himself forward for the job. The grounding to those playing days for the Doncaster native had come at a club that holds extra meaning for him – Sheffield Wednesday.

“Mum used to go with her dad to Hillsborough, and at the same time, my dad was another part of the South Stand, going with his dad and brother, so it’s gone through generations of my mum’s side and my dad’s side, supporting Sheffield Wednesday. My dad in his joiner’s shop made me a little box with a handle on, so I used to carry that down past actually where I was at the weekend, because my wife’s family live just off Leppings Lane.

“I used to walk past that with this box and put my thumbs down at opposition fans’ buses walking past and get myself in trouble! But the club was in the blood.”

He had grown up seeing his club make a second home of Wembley in the early-90s, with Ron Atkinson the manager who delivered the 1991 League Cup success over Manchester United. ‘Big Ron’ had left in acrimonious circumstances soon after, taking over at Aston Villa despite pledging his commitment to Wednesday days earlier, but he returned to steer the club clear of Premier League relegation in 1997/98.

Simon’s professional debut had come on loan at Doncaster Rovers, and he was released at 20 years old by Wednesday in an emphatic early taste of the cruel realities the game so often serves up. Being let go by Atkinson was just one part of his exposure to an alternative side to his club, as he explains when asked if his reluctant departure compromised his fandom for a time.

“Yeah, I’ll be honest, as soon as I got in the building at 16, it changed within a week. There were some heroes that you’re walking past, or you’re picking up their pants or socks, or you’re hearing them or you’re talking to them; the whole perception changed.

“I wish I signed for someone else at the time, because it changed my feeling for it. Don’t get me wrong, I always get my phone and see how Wednesday go on, and I went back to a game the year before last, Wednesday v Leeds, and Wednesday beat Leeds and played really well.

“It was the first game I’ve been back to with my dad since I was 20, because I’ve been playing, I’ve been associated with other teams. With Ron Atkinson releasing me, it certainly hurt, and probably that was the way it was managed at the time, with not having enough respect to release people individually, after years of travelling Doncaster to Sheffield, from age ten to 20.

“We got called in, and he’d actually informed me that I was gonna get a deal, a few weeks before. He didn’t get chance to see me in the meantime, and then I got called in with five other lads, we all made our way up to the top office and he just sat there and said ‘listen, no easy way of telling you, you’re all out of contract and you’ve all gone.’

“There was no ‘this is what we’re gonna do,’ action plan to help you. I didn’t go home that night, but when I eventually found my way home, it was ‘right, I’ve got to build, I’ve got to write my own CV,’ and I probably hadn’t even heard of a CV at that point.

“I had to write it and send it off to about 90 Football League clubs. (In reference to how he was released) There’s ways of dealing with people, but that’s long gone; we went back (against Leeds) and really enjoyed it and got up on our feet.

“(Academy boss and former Owls player) Steve Haslam got us tickets on the front row; it was a great viewing point, but we both found ourselves jumping off our seats when Wednesday scored. It was like ‘wow, I didn’t think that was there,’ but it was great.”

After Wednesday came his introduction to non-league, with Ilkeston Town and Nuneaton Borough stints before he earned a move into the Football League with the late Keith Alexander’s Lincoln City in 2002. With his former Ilkeston gaffer, Simon had a Division Three play-off final appearance at the Millennium Stadium for the Imps against Bournemouth, as well as a semi-final the following year.

From the very outset of his own management career, Simon pointed to the work ethic Alexander instilled, and he will speak about the former Grimsby Town striker in the accompanying Q&A section to this feature. Ten years on from first taking his place in the dugout, he is a manager with a great deal to draw upon, and he knows just as well as anyone the disposability of opinions and perceptions in the game. ‘Riding high in April, shot down in May’ – maybe Ol’ Blue Eyes and the rest knew a thing or two about play-offs.

After a 3-0 win at now-high-flying Barrow put Harrogate on four points from the first two games of this season, the next ten games encompassed three draws, and wins against Stockport County and Chorley. It was, however, a testing spell, with two referees even apologising to Simon for impactful decisions that had erroneously gone against Town.

What followed a ‘bottoming out’ in the 1-1 at Maidenhead was a 1-0 derby success at Halifax, 2-0 wins over Sutton and Ebbsfleet, a draw with Wrexham, and a very impressive 2-1 at in-form Yeovil last weekend. While being open to exploring the possible benefits of tweaking plans, being able to also maintain faith in your fundamental principles is admirable, and not always so easy in the haste and furore of National League (or any level of) football.

“I think we all like to think we know what we’re doing, but you’re still looking for that momentum changer,” the former centre-half explained. “I think largely we held our nerve; we did look at a slight change in terms of the shape, but one that we’d done before.”

“We just went right back to the beginning again and just repeatedly did those exercises in training, repeatedly tried to start the game fast, but there were moments where you were like ‘maybe we’re overthinking this.’ If you change more than one variable at a time you don’t quite know which variable it is that was wrong.

“It’s an uncontrollable situation sometimes; the referee, as alluded to, that affected confidence. You can’t change that by changing the system, you can’t change a suspension by changing the system or a style of play.

“Rather than over-complicate it or think too deeply into ‘oh, the philosophy’s not working,’ we really did in the end just go ‘no, no, let’s try and just reset, uncomplicated football and try and go again’ and actually prove ourselves as the hardest-working team on the pitch, in a game (against Halifax) we really needed to win. Sometimes it doesn’t go off for you, but fortunately, it did.”

As well as looking to further refine the blend of attacking, purposeful play and wily ‘game management’ nous, is there any change in the overall approach during Simon’s tenure that he reflects on now as particularly significant?

“I think we changed even in the last year, with the video analysis; it makes it more objective, makes it calmer. The time spent on that is great now, because I love it if you get a view on it and you’re like ‘actually, that’s changed my perception of it from Saturday.’

“That’s a big part of what we do now in terms of preparation for opponents as well; we do it in-house as well. Also from a management point of view, I think we like to keep a small squad.

“The first year, there were a lot of incomings and outgoings, a lot of numbers of people used, and I’d rather work with 16/17 players where they all feel valued, and if they’re not in the team, knowing that they’re maybe one game off playing. They have to keep on it, and it’s easier to man-manage.”

Respite from trying to plot a prosperous path for the yellow and black army is meagre, but family getaways and the odd alpine adventure have managed to sneak in there.

“To be honest, a lot of life is taken over by football and kids now, with a six and a four-year-old, but we love to get away if we can. We’re trying to get one day this Christmas to take them to Lapland, because you can do it in a day now.

“I’ve always loved travelling as well, with Sally, and now with the kids. We love going down south to Cornwall, we’ve done a lot of city breaks; we did Prague in the summer and loved it.

“I try and play golf, but golf and me don’t mix since I’ve become manager really; I end up thinking about football, telephone’s ringing in my bag, so that’s no good! A couple of years ago I had a couple of days skiing, and that I thought was the best release I’ve had for years, because you’re actually focused on going fast and trying to not break your legs at the same time, and you can’t answer your phone!

“I think when you’ve got young kids, and just seeing their progress growing up, the simple pleasures are the best pleasures, and it takes you away and you can’t help but get a smile on your face.”

You can read the second half of this interview, as Simon takes on the Bosses’ Lounge Q&A here

Interview/article by @chris_brookes

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