FC Halifax Town: Season review

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Three managers, relegation and a win at Wembley - it’s rarely dull at The Shay and this season was no different.

The prospect of such upheaval in the dugout, dropping back to the Conference North or a first ever appearance at the national stadium would have seemed fanciful at the start of the season.

The FA Trophy Final.
FC Halifax v Grimsby Town.
Halifax fans celebrate.
22nd May 2016.
Picture : Jonathan Gawthorpe

The FA Trophy Final. FC Halifax v Grimsby Town. Halifax fans celebrate. 22nd May 2016. Picture : Jonathan Gawthorpe

But it was a campaign where the consistency and cohesion of recent years were replaced by uncertainty and bemusement and meant that, in typical Town style, one of the best days in the club’s history was tinged with sadness after their relegation from the National League.

The miserable story of The Shaymen’s league season has its roots in the preceding campaign, in which Neil Aspin had overseen a dreadful run of one win in the last 15 outings.

Aspin went back to the drawing board last summer, signing 11 new players after losing the likes of Marc Roberts, Lois Maynard and Matty Pearson.

But the signs of an unhappy campaign to come were there when Dan Maguire rejoined Blyth Spartans without making a single Town appearance and Elliott Whitehouse joined Nuneaton and Andy Bishop signed for Southport after just four matches each.

There were also clues on the opening day when a slip by Hamza Bencherif contributed to one of Boreham Wood’s goals in their 3-1 win.

Individual errors peppered Town’s start to the season as their porous defence just kept on leaking goals - it wasn’t until their 27th game of the season, a 5-0 win over Tamowrth in the FA Trophy, that they registered their first clean sheet.

It wasn’t until the 10th match of the season that Halifax scored first in a game thanks to CJ Hamilton’s goal at Guiseley - Aspin’s last in charge.

The lightning-quick Hamilton was one of few positives from the dying days of Aspin’s reign as The Shaymen won only once in their first 10 matches and none of their first six for the first time since 2000.

The board decided to act after that Guiseley defeat on Tuesday, September 15, ending more than six years in charge, some felt prematurely, others thought too late.

The final whistle was greeted with cries of ‘you’re getting sacked in the morning’ from the home fans; they were only wrong by 24 hours as, by Thursday, he’d gone.

Aspin released a statement later that week decrying the board’s lack of loyalty after he had previously rejected advances from elsewhere; it was a sour note on which to end such a successful spell.

The club then went from one extreme to the other as the longevity and stability of Aspin was replaced by the chaos and confusion of Darren Kelly.

Again, the omens weren’t good from the off.

The ill-fated reign of Kelly, who beat more than 150 applicants to the hot-seat, was signposted right from the start with a 7-1 humiliation at home to Cheltenham, Town’s heaviest defeat since losing 7-1 at Hereford in November 2003.

Kelly’s first win three days later, at Altrincham, was a false dawn as they conceded three without reply against Woking before hitting rock-bottom with a 7-0 mauling at Grimsby; the record books were dusted off for the second time in two weeks to reveal it was now Town’s heaviest defeat since being thrashed 7-0 at Macclesfield in March 1996.

The thought of beating The Mariners at Wembley seven months later would have been laughable.

Guiseley were beaten in the FA Cup after a replay, but it continued to be one step forward and at least two steps back as they were knocked out by Wycombe, 4-0, in the next round.

A defensive horror show against Braintree proved the last straw as Kelly, sacked after just nine games at Oldham, lasted only one match longer at The Shay with a record of two wins, a draw, seven defeats and 35 goals conceded.

Hyde would also live to regret his appointment before the season was out.

His assistant Jim Harvey, one of the 150 initially overlooked, took charge as caretaker-manager and initiated a remarkable upturn in fortunes, starting with a 4-1 win at Gateshead despite goalkeeper Russell Griffiths being sent-off.

The longer Harvey remained in charge, the stronger the clamour grew for it to stay that way thanks to wins against Dover, Lincoln and Wrexham.

Harvey’s Midas touch in the dugout was matched by Shaun Tuton’s on the pitch.

Tuton had arrived at The Shay as a trialist in the summer but left six months later as a League One player thanks to a purple patch of 11 goals in 11 games and was at Barnsley by the time Harvey’s 13-game unbeaten run was ended by Forest Green, by which point Halifax had reached the FA Trophy quarter-finals.

A 4-2 win over Grimsby was arguably as good as it got all season for results or performances, but for drama, the 120 minutes plus against Aspin’s Gateshead on Tuesday, March 2 had it all.

Aspin had returned to The Shay for the first time the previous Saturday for a drab 0-0 draw - the antithesis of an engrossing replay three days later.

Gateshead battered The Shaymen for most of the match but a resilient Town, helped by some good fortune and bad Gateshead finishing, clung on and somehow, from somewhere, produced a stoppage time equaliser from Connor Hughes to force extra-time, in which 2-2 became 3-3, before Matty Brown’s decisive spot-kick in the penalty shoot-out.

The Shaymen were able to keep the two plates of league and FA Trophy spinning as, between March 5 and April 5, they recorded crucial league wins over Southport and Altrincham and negotiated a fairly serene trail through the club’s first ever FA Trophy semi-final.

An impressive 4-2 win in the first-leg against Nantwich put one foot in the final before a 2-2 draw in front of 3,009 fans at The Shay sealed another first for the club: an appearance at Wembley.

A dramatic last-gasp winner against Boreham Wood on April 5 then put Town two points above the drop zone with two games in hand and six to play; what could go wrong?

But unforgivable back-to-back defeats against Aldershot and Kidderminster, followed by a 2-0 loss at champions Cheltenham, plunged them back in the mire.

In another twist, four points against Eastleigh and Forest Green put Town’s fate back in their own hands going into the final day.

Win equalled survival, but they could only draw at home to Macclesfield, allowing Guiseley to leapfrog them with a 4-3 win over Torquay.

So, as it turned out, neither Grimsby, promoted via the play-offs, or Halifax were a National League club when they met at Wembley, but Town bridged the gap to end the campaign with one last twist, thanks to Scott McManus’ superb 25-yard shot just after half-time in front of 10,000 deliriously happy Halifax fans.

Two days later, it was confirmed Harvey’s contract would not be renewed and North Ferriby boss Billy Heath was announced as his successor.

Never a dull moment.