Ten years on from Halifax Town’s play-off heartache

Halifax Town captain, Steve Bushell, is hugged by his daughter, Bethany, 8, after the final whistle of the Conference play-off game at Leicester on Saturday.  Town lost the game against Hereford 3-2.

Halifax Town captain, Steve Bushell, is hugged by his daughter, Bethany, 8, after the final whistle of the Conference play-off game at Leicester on Saturday. Town lost the game against Hereford 3-2.

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Ten years ago, Halifax Town were 10 minutes away from a return to the Football League.

On a sunny May afternoon in Leicester, the scene was set for Town’s ascent back into the big time.

An anxious Town fan watches on during The Shaymen's defeat to Hereford

An anxious Town fan watches on during The Shaymen's defeat to Hereford

But old enemy Hereford had other ideas, and after an action-packed 120 minutes of the 2006 Conference play-off final, The Shaymen were sent on the start of a heartbreaking journey that saw them plummet out of the division and out of existence.

“At the beginning of the season no-one would have had us down to finish in the play-offs,” says Ryan Sugden, who now owns an estate agents in Queensbury.

Tyrone Thompson, now a football agent, agrees.

“With our budget we should have been nowhere near the play-offs,” he says.

Chris Wilder watches on during Town's play-off final with Hereford

Chris Wilder watches on during Town's play-off final with Hereford

“We had some good players and a steely mentality.

“But it would have been a big ask.”

However, Town finished fourth, losing only once at home in the league all season.

“We were strong at home,” says Wilder, now manager at Northampton, who was in his fourth season in charge, after previous finishes of eighth, 19th and ninth. “We went unbeaten until the last home game.

Hereford United's Ryan Green celebrates scoring against Halifax during the Nationwide conference play-off.

Hereford United's Ryan Green celebrates scoring against Halifax during the Nationwide conference play-off.

“We were unfancied but we had a strong squad and played some decent football.

“We just gained momentum as the season went on.”

“We had something special,” says Steve Haslam, now a youth coach at Sheffield Wednesday. “Full credit to Chris, he recruited every player in that team.

“Everyone had been released by another club so we all had a point to prove, but he believed in us.”

Faces in the crowd before the start of the game between Halifax Town and Hereford.

Faces in the crowd before the start of the game between Halifax Town and Hereford.

“What Chris and Wayne Jacobs (assistant manager) created was a machine of efficiency,” says Danny Forrest, now an ambassador for the One In A Million charity

“That was my favourite season in football - the team spirit was brilliant.

“We had so much belief in ourselves.”

That belief was needed against Town’s semi-final opponents Grays, who had scored nearly twice as many league goals as Town and included future Football League players Michael Kightly, Aaron McLean and Dennis Oli.

“They were free-scoring,” says Thompson. “They were like the red arrows when they got going.”

But Halifax gave Grays a taste of their own medicine by racing into a 3-0 lead in the first-leg in-front of 3,848 fans at The Shay.

Lewis Killeen scores Town's first goal against Hereford

Lewis Killeen scores Town's first goal against Hereford

“That was the best 45 minutes we played all season,” says Lewis Killeen, now a physiotherapist at Salford Royal Hospital.

But two second-half goals from Oli left Town with a slender lead.

“Grays had thrown a lot of money at it,” says Wilder.

“They said something before the game and it was one of those where you stick it up on the dressing room wall.

“The start we made was unbelievable but they clawed their way back into it and their boys thought it was job done on the coach afterwards.”

“They were singing on the bus that they were going to the Football League,” recalls Lee Butler, now a coach at Bradford City, “which only made us more determined.”

In the second-leg, skipper Martin Foster gave Town an early lead before two goals in a minute seemingly handed Grays the momentum.

But Foster’s penalty after 63 minutes sent The Shaymen through 5-4 on aggregate.

“It was the best night of my career,” says Forrest.

“The feeling at the final whistle was unbelievable.”

“Before the second-leg Lee Butler said they’d put a lot of high balls towards me and they’d have one player going for the ball and another fouling me,” says goalkeeper Jon Kennedy, who had only been recruited in February and now works for a rubber safety fittings company in Rotherham.

“I came off with stud marks and bruises on my ribs.”

Wilder recalls: “We’d played 4-4-2 in the first-leg but we wanted Peter Atherton in the team for the second-leg.

“So we played three at the back and he was outstanding.

“We were comfortable at 1-0 but they got two quick goals and, again, probably thought that was job done.

“But the character in the side came through.”

This time it was Halifax celebrating on the team bus home.

“We had the final to think about though so we didn’t overdo it,” recalls Killeen.

Although there was no happy ending in the final for Halifax, it was still a special weekend for Ryan Sugden.

“I only realised with two months to go that I was due to get married the day before the final, “ he says.

“I was thinking towards the end of the season ‘hang on, the way we’re going here we could be in the play-offs’.

“I got married and then got up about 7.30am on the day, went to Birmingham where the lads were staying and had breakfast with them.

“Any pre-match nerves I might have had were taken away because of that though.”

After an early penalty appeal against Hereford defender Tamika Mkandawire was rejected, any early nerves were also settled when Town took the lead just before the half-hour mark through a screamer from Killeen.

The 6,000 Shaymen supporters’ joy was short-lived though as Andy Williams equalised less than 10 minutes later.

Hereford had a penalty appeal of their own turned down before substitute John Grant, that season’s top-scorer, helped Town regain the lead in the 73rd minute.

“I told John ‘you can go win the game for us’ and I think he scored with his first touch,” says Wilder.

Grant, who now coaches football at schools in Manchester, recalls: “I felt I would get a goal if I came on.

“When I scored I thought ‘that’s it, we’ve won it’.”

“I came off with cramp when we were 2-1 up so us getting beaten was nothing to do with me!” says Matt Doughty, until recently assistant manager at Altrincham, and one of two players forced off with an injury along with Greg Young.

“When John scored, I thought we’d win.”

Martin Foster, recently appointed assistant manager at Gainsborough, was just as confident: “I remember thinking ‘we’ll be in the Football League in 10 minutes’.”

But Guy Ipoua headed Hereford’s second equaliser to force extra-time.

“They seemed to get the momentum when they equalised,” says Grant.

“It gave them an extra charge and made us go flat.”

Chris Senior had a goal questionably ruled out for offside - “if that had stood it would have knocked the stuffing out of Hereford,” says Kennedy - and then came the hammer blow, courtesy of full-back Ryan Green.

“It was a cross. I don’t care what anyone says,” says Foster.

“If he did that another 100 times I don’t think it would go in,” agrees Peter Atherton, now a youth coach at Wigan Athletic.

“I think he’s said since he went to cross it but it went in the top corner,” argues Kennedy, who played with an injection in his neck after landing badly in training the day before.

“Before I’d even hit the floor I heard their fans cheering, which was one of the worst feelings ever.

“It was such a cruel way to lose.”

Wilder says: “I thought we were going to do it but fair play to them, they got back into it.

“In extra-time it could have gone either way.

“But I still believe the lad didn’t mean to score - it was a cross.”

For the dejected Halifax players, it was a heart-breaking way to lose.

“It was gut-wrenching,” recalls Sugden.

“Whenever my little girl sees my medal I just say it was a winners medal, but it means nothing to me.”

“I was absolutely gutted,” says Thompson. “We so wanted it for each other, for the club, for the fans.”

“We were doing well but then Greg Young injured his shoulder and Matt Doughty got injured so Steve Haslam had to move to left-back - that’s three changes in one position,” says Atherton.

“Without those changes I think we’d have been promoted.”

“You’re just deflated,” says Doughty.

“The manager got us in a huddle and said ‘you’ve been brilliant and we can kick on next year’ but I don’t think we were the same again.”

It’s hard to disagree. Halifax finished 16th the season after and by 2008 they’d gone out of business.

“To get to within 10 minutes of the Football League was an unbelievable achievement,” says Forrest.

“If we had gone up I think I’d still be there now - I loved it that much.

“We worked ridiculously hard all season and you were left thinking ‘where do we go from here?’

“I just felt ‘that’s it, the journey’s come to an end’.”

Despite such a devastating climax, those involved have nothing but fond memories of that season.

“Some of the lads still call me skipper when I speak to them, although I tell them not to,” says Foster.

“I suppose it shows they respect me and that I must have done something right. I’m proud of that.”

“Chris Wilder did a magnificent job,” says Haslam. “We were very close to pulling it off.”

“It was the best dressing room I’ve been in in terms of characters,” says Grant.

“We were very close knit. Chris made it feel like it was us against the world.”

“It was the best time in my 20 years as a player,” says Doughty.

“I used to love coming into work every day, whether we’d won, lost or drawn.”

“It was disappointing to lose but it was still a great day,” says Butler.

“The day after we all went to Magaluf, although my memory’s a bit sketchy on that!”

“Everybody in that team knew what their job was and they carried it out,” reflects Killeen.

“Our togetherness carried us through that season.”

Wilder remains proud of that squad and how close they came to promotion.

“It was a huge achievement because it was so tough to get out of that division,” he says.

“The top 10 teams could have comfortably gone into the Football League, which I don’t think is the case now.

“It was a steep learning curve for me. I had to deal with a lot of things most younger managers don’t.

“We just tried to keep the club going. We knew how important it was to the people in the area.

“Off the pitch, the club was existing from week to week but reaching the final got us back on the map.

“All you can ask from your players during the season, and especially in a play-off final, is that they leave everything on the pitch, and that group did.”

Halifax Town's John Grant (L) celebrates scoring against Hereford with team-mates during the Nationwide conference play-off Final at the Walkers Stadium, Leicester.

Halifax Town's John Grant (L) celebrates scoring against Hereford with team-mates during the Nationwide conference play-off Final at the Walkers Stadium, Leicester.

Halifax Town fans outside the Walkers Stadium, Leicester, before the start of the game against Hereford

Halifax Town fans outside the Walkers Stadium, Leicester, before the start of the game against Hereford

Halifax's Martin Foster slots home Halifax's equaliser from the penalty spot in their play-off semi-final second-leg against Grays

Halifax's Martin Foster slots home Halifax's equaliser from the penalty spot in their play-off semi-final second-leg against Grays

Lewis Killeen scores Town's 3rd goal in their play-off semi-final first-leg win over Grays at The Shay

Lewis Killeen scores Town's 3rd goal in their play-off semi-final first-leg win over Grays at The Shay

Halifax players in jubilant mood at the end of their play-off semi-final win over Grays

Halifax players in jubilant mood at the end of their play-off semi-final win over Grays