FA Cup first round: Harrogate Town looking to shock 2008 winners Portsmouth

By Neil JohnstonBBC Sport
Harrogate Town manager Simon Weaver (left) and his father Irving, who is the owner of the non-league club
Simon Weaver (left) is congratulated by his father Irving after Harrogate Town are promoted to the National League in 2018
FA Cup first round
Date: 8-11 November Coverage: Highlights and goals from all ties will be shown on the BBC Sport website and app. Click here for more details.

Harrogate Town manager Simon Weaver has heard it all before. "You're only there because of your dad," comes the chant from opposition fans.

As the 41-year-old son of club chairman and owner Irving Weaver, the former Sheffield Wednesday reserve defender has grown accustomed to the terrace taunts.

"You can't stop what people say," Simon tells BBC Sport. "Whenever I hear it, it fires me up to work even harder for my family."

The digs from non-league fans are becoming infrequent.

Since Irving joined his son at the north Yorkshire club, the Weavers have transformed Harrogate from sixth-tier strugglers to National League high-flyers challenging for an English Football League place.

"It's very rare in football and Simon was very apprehensive about it," said Irving on the moment in 2011 he became owner at the club where his son is manager. "I did agonise before taking over."

Eight years ago the club nicknamed the Sulphurites had seven season ticket holders.

On Monday, around 3,000 home fans will pack the CNG Stadium as Harrogate look to beat 2008 FA Cup winners and 2010 runners-up Portsmouth on their 3G pitch in the first round - and take another step forward under the Weavers.

Relegation zone to longest-serving boss

While Portsmouth were playing AC Milan and Wolfsburg in European competition in 2008-09 after beating Cardiff at Wembley, Harrogate were averaging crowds of 375 in the Conference North.

At the same time Simon Weaver was at Ilkeston Town, overcoming the third ankle break of his playing career while contemplating the next step in life at the age of 31.

Within 24 hours of scoring the winning goal which secured Ilkeston a 2009 promotion to the sixth tier, he was answering an advert placed in the Non-League Paperexternal-link by then-Harrogate Town chairman Bill Fotherby - who died in March - for the manager's job.

Ten years and 440 league matches later, Doncaster-born Weaver is the longest-serving manager in England's top five divisions.

Harrogate Town had seven season ticket holders in 2011-12. Last season they had a crowd of 2,584 against Leyton Orient
Harrogate Town had seven season-ticket holders in 2011-12. Last season they had a 2,584 crowd against Leyton Orient

It has been anything but plain sailing. He arrived in the spa town in 2009 to find an overgrown pitch, no players and a budget of £1,600 for players and staff.

"I had to beg, steal and borrow in the first season," recalls Simon, who was at Wednesday at the same time as Paolo di Canio and Benito Carbone. "Some players played for free as a favour to me."

Harrogate, now a thriving community club with a full-time staff of 32, finished that season in the relegation zone but won a reprieve because of Northwich Victoria's financial problems.

In June 2011 Irving Weaver was announced as the club's new owner after being approached by former Leeds United managing director Fotherby, who had decided to stop funding the club.

A multi-millionaire who has made his fortune through a family-run house-building business, Irving had been a regular visitor to Harrogate Town to support Simon's managerial career.

He thought long and hard about the impact of becoming his son's boss - and the reaction it would cause among fans.

It was not long before the first murmurings of discontent were heard.

'I'm not bulletproof'

With questions already being raised by fans over Simon's managerial experience, alarm bells were ringing for the Weavers with Harrogate trailing Boston United 3-0 and facing a fifth straight defeat in the early stages of the 2013-14 campaign.

"Had we lost I would have been honest and said we were in a difficult situation and if we were unable to turn it around then we'd have to let somebody else come in," added Irving.

"It finished 3-3. Our working relationship has not been a problem in the family. It's never got in the way, if it did it would spoil it."

Harrogate Town play on a 3G pitch which raises around £200,000 a year through community hire
Harrogate play on a 3G pitch which raises around £200,000 a year through community hire

Since going full-time at the start of 2017-18, Harrogate have won promotion to the fifth tier for the first time in their 105-year history and sit seventh in the National League table - four points behind leaders Bromley.

"I still get shouts from away fans that I'm only in the job because of my dad," added Simon, who was part of the Tamworth team that reached the FA Cup third round in 2007.

"So far we have managed to get out of a tricky run of results before it's got too bad. But if it ever got to six or seven defeats in a row, you'd soon be thinking it could become untenable.

"The advantages outweigh the disadvantages regarding my dad being chairman. When we win it feels good that we have done it together.

"When we lose we problem-solve and worry it through together because we're both going to get it in the neck."

From prison to FA Cup shock?

Harrogate's team includes midfielder Warren Burrell, 29, who is in his second spell with the Sulphurites after his first stint was cut short by a four-year prison sentence in 2009 for grievous bodily harm.

"I've learned from that experience," said the former Mansfield Town player. "I had to grow up when I came out of prison and get my life back on track."

Burrell is an ever-present this season and hopes Harrogate, who reached the play-offs last season, can go one step further this time and win promotion to the Football League.

Harrogate Town defender Warren Burrell (left) in action against Dagenham & Redbridge this season
Harrogate Town defender Warren Burrell (left) in action against Dagenham & Redbridge this season

"The club is knocking on the door of the EFL which is great considering where it was when I was first here 10 years ago," said Burrell.

"The Football League is our aim and we're not too far away."

It is only two years since Harrogate were knocked out of the FA Cup at home by Gainsborough Trinity.

Now they're preparing to face Portsmouth, winners 11 years ago.

"It's a thrill to us to see some progress," said Simon Weaver.


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