‘I’d love to swap with Klopp for a week’ – EFL’s longest-serving managers compare notes

Accrington's John Coleman/‘I’d love to swap with Klopp for a week’ – EFL’s longest-serving managers compare notes
John Coleman has been in post at Accrington Stanley for over nine years, second in time only to Harrogate's Simon Weaver - Paul Cooper

The managers of Accrington Stanley and Harrogate Town do not appear to have much in common. Accrington’s John Coleman is approaching retirement age, a plain speaking Scouser who said after an FA Cup game four years ago he was falling out of love with football because of poor refereeing decisions.

Simon Weaver, his opposite number at Harrogate, celebrated his 46th birthday last week and is nearer in style to the current managerial norm, steely but self-effacing, like a League Two Eddie Howe.

Yet Coleman and Weaver stand apart for the same reason. They are numbers two and one respectively on the list of the longest-serving managers in the top four leagues. Ahead of their teams’ meeting at Harrogate on Boxing Day we spend 45 minutes together via video and further similarities emerge.

They have managed more than 1,500 games for their clubs between them, Coleman in two long chunks. He notes that this is the second time he has nearly topped the longest-serving list, making it to number three in his initial spell at Accrington which began in 1999. Back then he was stuck behind Sir Alex Ferguson and Arsene Wenger and leaving for Rochdale in 2012 put him back in 92nd position. He returned to Accrington two years later and Weaver, appointed at Harrogate in 2009, is now the only manager with a longer tenure.

Both have competition from numbers three and four on the list: Jurgen Klopp and Pep Guardiola. “I’m a massive Liverpool fan,” says Coleman. “It would never happen, but you know those programmes where people swap jobs for a week? I’d love to see Jurgen and Pep swap with me and Simon.

“We’ll do their jobs and we’d see how they get on with ours, it would be an eye opener. I know the pressure is far greater at Liverpool and Man City compared to our two clubs, but there are a lot of little things that we have to do that they don’t, because they’ve got somebody else to do it. There are problems that get brought to our door that would never get near theirs.”

Coleman and Weaver have similar war stories about punching above your weight in the fourth tier. Coleman tells of long nights scouting potential signings which bleed into reviewing opponents via video when home, in readiness for training the following morning. Harrogate have struggled to win planning permission for a road sign indicating the location of their stadium.

As of Boxing Day 2023, Simon Weaver has been in charge of Harrogate Town for 14 years and 215 days
As of Boxing Day 2023, Simon Weaver has been in charge of Harrogate Town for 14 years and 215 days - Charlotte Graham

Simply getting fans through the turnstiles is a significant challenge, only Forest Green have a lower average attendance. “We had a big response recently when we played Wrexham,” says Weaver. “Everyone was looking forward to seeing me, or should I say Ryan Reynolds. It felt like half of Harrogate turned up, but it didn’t half make a difference.”

He is happy to top the long-serving list but says he gets a deeper sense of pride when noticing more of his team’s shirts in his area. “We trained at a school in Harrogate once a few years ago and people were saying ‘who’s that?’ They thought we were a Sunday League team. I said ‘We’re Harrogate Town, we play just down the road.’ Now you see kids in the big park in Harrogate actually proud to wear the local team’s shirts.”

Accrington is so dominated by Burnley and Blackburn fans that every year chairman Andy Holt donates hundreds of shirts to local children in year three of primary school. “If you do get the odd superstar in your team you’ve got to sell them,” says Coleman. “That is the model that you’ve got to have. I say to our lads, I want you to earn 10 or 15 thousand pounds a week… Not with us. But we’ll give you the opportunity.”

‘Players take care of their bodies more - mainly for Instagram’

Both have noticed changes in the current generation of players. “They’re fitter and take care of their bodies more, mainly because they want to post Instagram videos of themselves looking good with six packs,” says Coleman. “Gone are the days when you’d have to get them to lose a couple of stone when they came back for pre-season training.”

Weaver feels the omnivorous Category One academies attached to the biggest clubs leave too many players ill-suited to a career in the lower leagues. “Athletically and technically they are through the roof. But a lot who drop out are not right with their development mentally, it’s too much of a culture shock and they need to be rewired a lot of the time. The vast majority of players at academies drop out and there is a lot to be done with them.”

‘It’s important to get time to stamp your culture on the club’

Both are grateful for the time they have had to shape their clubs and how unusual their positions are in an era when struggling teams will often change managers twice in a season. “I liken it to a sourdough,” says Coleman, generously tailoring his simile for bougie Harrogate residents. “You have the yeast and you keep adding to it and making it better. I think it’s important to get time to stamp your culture on the club.

“It takes time to develop, it can only happen over a number of years. And once you’ve got it you start to feel like if you do move you’ve got to start all over again and it’s going to take even more time, but you don’t get time. I’ve had some pints of milk longer than some managers have had jobs.”

Mutually respectful relationships between manager and owner are essential, helped at Harrogate by the owner being Weaver’s father, Irving. It should be noted that he bought the club two years into his son’s reign as manager. For Weaver junior’s recent birthday he invited Irving to a family walk “Within the first 100 yards we were chatting about football. I said when we’d gone a bit further, ‘shall we just meet up after work on Friday?’, because times like these when we’re all together are precious. After that he went right back to being my Dad and the grandchildren to my kids.”

A father sacking his son seems unlikely, but it is still an enormous challenge to manage Harrogate. What keeps him motivated? “We got a good win against Notts County at the weekend. The lads went out for their Christmas do, I went to a pantomime. I sent one of the players who’s been here for 10 years a Jack and the Beanstalk photo saying ‘I hope you’re having a good time.’

“But I could have been anywhere and absolutely buzzing, because we’d got a win. You get your buzzes.” Like all managers, both are chasing those. Unlike most, Coleman and Weaver share a higher purpose, dedication to their community and a sense of mission.

After Tuesday’s game Weaver will have a drink with Coleman. He has no office in their Wetherby Road stadium to host a Fergie-esque glass of Tignanello, but the drinks selection is more open-ended, “He can have whatever he wants in our bar, might be a Coke or a beer, we’ve got it all.”

Crucially, and predictably given their longevity, their main shared motivation is a straightforward love for the job. “I wasn’t involved in professional football as a player, I only played non-league,” says Coleman. “So the thrill never goes away for me. The novelty will never wear off.”