A captivating story with a sting in the tale - FC Halifax Town's 2021-22 season review

The ending to the story may have been the same, but for so long it seemed things would be different this time.

By Tom Scargill
Wednesday, 1st June 2022, 3:24 pm
Updated Wednesday, 1st June 2022, 3:27 pm

Just as a year earlier, Chesterfield exited The Shay with a 2-1 win and ended Town's promotion dreams, this season actually in the play-offs, with The Spireites delivering the sting in the tale once again.

But there had been so much hope and so much belief that something special was happening. That finally, nearly a quarter of a century after their last miraculous promotion into the Football League, The Shaymen's time had come again.

With every page that turned, every chapter of the season that went on, more and more Town supporters seemed convinced there was to be a happy ending.

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FC Halifax Town. Photo: Marcus Branston

As Pete Wild was losing some of his key players last summer, with Jack Earing, Jeff King - more of him later - Jake Hyde and Neill Byrne all getting better offers, the thought of coming within touching distance of a top three finish will have seemed like a non-fiction fairy story.

That necessitated not quite a rebuild but a refresh, and The Shaymen embarked on the new season with a younger squad, as reflected by Niall Maher being handed the captaincy, and the emergence of Jay Benn, initially, and Kian Spence as first-team regulars.

Billy Waters, Matty Warburton, Harvey Gilmour and Jordan Slew pepped up Town's cast of characters in attack, while Jesse Debrah and Tyrell Warren added competition at the back, both getting better as the season went on.

Some big performers had gone, but fans needn't have worried. Pete Wild and Chris Millington had a plan.

FC Halifax Town. Photo: Marcus Branston

An opening day defeat at home to Maidenhead was a wildly erroneous indication of what was to come.

Back-to-back wins against Woking and Altrincham gave a much more accurate picture.

A 1-0 defeat was Yeovil was an anomaly for the result and the performance, neither of which would be replicated for some time.

Beating Southend at The Shay was the start of when Town threw off the shackles of inconsistency and marched towards the pacesetters of the National League sure-footed and focused, like an Army regiment on parade.

An impressive 2-2 draw at Boreham Wood preceded a 3-0 win over money-bags Stockport.

Waters' seventh goal in his first eight games ensured Town won 1-0 at Aldershot to round-off September, with Halifax now looking seriously impressive.

Maybe fairytales do come true after all.

Waters was proving a masterstroke of a signing, dove-tailing beautifully with Warburton, another excellent addition, Slew and Gilmour, while behind them, Kieran Green and Spence were forming an excellent midfield partnership, combining silk and steel in equal measure.

Town's 0-0 draw at Barnet was certainly acceptable given it came before back-to-back home wins against Notts County and Weymouth, the former an extraordinary, unforgettable, wondrous game in which ten-man Halifax fought back from 2-0 down to win 3-2, with Warburton's winner coming in the tenth minute of added time.

And so the feeling grew that something special might be building. Not so much fantasy fiction but fantasy football.

It says something about the year that the Notts County comeback was probably the second most dramatic game of 2021.

The precursor to the first was a goalless draw at a surprisingly stubborn Pontefract Collieries in the FA Cup, who were only, finally, knocked out thanks to Jack Vale's winner in the replay.

Sandwiched in-between that and the next round was a win over Dagenham, a draw at Bromley and a defeat at Solihull.

As a snapshot of results, inconsistent, but zoom out, and Solihull was only the third defeat in the first 14 matches of the campaign, while performance levels were never worse than decent, but usually better than that, and containing some flowing, fluid football.

Halifax had kept six clean sheets out of seven matches before the Solihull loss too, with Maher exuding authority and assurance, Jack Senior growing in maturity and Warren deputising ably for the injured Benn, who had started the season brilliantly.

The previous five games had only featured three goals, but there were three inside the first 20 minutes when Halifax hosted Maidenhead in the FA Cup, an astonishing, amazing, jumpers-for-goalposts kind of match which finished 7-4.

It was quickly becoming a page-turner of a season. So good you couldn't put it down.

After a weekend off to recover, Town won after long away trips on consecutive Saturdays to Dover and Torquay, either side of a tough-to-take defeat at home to also money-bags Wrexham.

Some character flaws remained though, as Town extended their wait for an FA Cup third round appearance to 34 years after an inexplicably out-of-character display saw them lose 2-0 to an albeit very good Kidderminster.

As twists in the tale go, that was a belter.

Town again showed character and resilience in the face of defeat, and bounced back with consecutive hard-fought wins against Wealdstone and King's Lynn, with Warburton scoring in both games.

Progress in the sub-plot of the FA Trophy against Bradford Park Avenue and Alfreton, both on penalties, bookended the Christmas and New Year period.

Halifax ended the year level on points with league leaders Chesterfield, a magnificent achievement in itself, by drawing with them 1-1, preceded by the same result at Grimsby, with both matches seeing cruel twists in the tale of late equalisers.

There were back-to-back home league wins over Eastleigh and Grimsby, but then back-to-back league defeats to Maidenhead and Boreham Wood.

Town were back to their best in winning at Dagenham prior to a double-header against Notts County. First was defeat in the FA Trophy, but second was a heroic, backs-to-the-wall draw at Meadow Lane with ten men.

There then followed five straight league wins, despite Town's performances rather than because of them, but you couldn't argue with the results, or the clean sheets, with none conceded in four of those five wins.

Four of those five wins were also at home, contributing to the most home victories in the league, as well as the least goals conceded at home.

The plot thickened as a badly out-of-sorts Town suffered consecutive defeats at Wrexham and King's Lynn, but they then collected seven points from the next nine against Wealdstone, Solihull and Woking.

A Bank Holiday double against Altrincham and Chesterfield produced four more, but by now The Shaymen had lost their earlier effervescence and were having to work a lot harder for points.

Injuries, a regular storyline, didn't help, with Jamie Allen, Luke Summerfield, Kieran Green and Tom Bradbury all unavailable at crucial times, while Elliot Newby was missed after his loan spell ended.

Following a forgettable loss at Southend, another Bank Holiday double saw two wins from two against Yeovil and Eastleigh, but by their high standards, performance levels had dropped.

Another unexpected plot twist did irreparable damage to Town's hopes of third place as Aldershot equalised late at The Shay, before Halifax lost at champions Stockport on the final day.

It wouldn't be the last time this season they'd see the opposition celebrate with such jubilation.

Chesterfield proved the story's recurring anti-hero, with pantomime villain Jeff King scoring the winner in the play-off eliminator.

Town ran out of steam in the end, having squeezed every last drop of what they could give and amassing more points than ever for the new club at this level.

It was a compelling, captivating story, and with one final twist as, two days after exiting the play-offs, the author of it all put down his pen and exited The Shay.

Two play-off finishes out of three and establishing the club as promotion contenders is some legacy from Pete Wild. It’s just a shame there was no happy ending.

PLAYER OF THE SEASON

A case could easily be made for at least half-a-dozen players. It's harsh not to award it to Waters after scoring 20 goals, as well as displaying a ceaseless work ethic, excellent movement and clever link-up play, while Warburton also comes close thanks to a string of inventive, influential performances having fitted seamlessly into the team's style of play. Spence shone brightly this season, excelling in central midfield, showing quality on the ball and tenacity off it. Special mention to Kieran Green too, a tireless warrior so often the heartbeat of the side. But for his leadership, maturity, authority, composure, bravery and contribution to Town's outstanding defensive record, I'll give it to Niall Maher.

YOUNG PLAYER OF THE SEASON

Another strong category with plenty of contenders, which ultimately comes down to either Jesse Debrah or Kian Spence. Debrah is pipped only due to not being a first-team regular all season, but got better as the campaign went on and has blossomed into a hugely promising, commanding defender. Spence just edges it for a season in which his performances sparkled with energy, commitment and athleticism. This was undoubtedly his breakthrough year, and his technical ability, temperament and potential will surely not have gone unnoticed elsewhere.

SIGNING OF THE SEASON

There were some brilliant additions, including Warburton, Debrah and Warren, but Billy Waters surely surpassed all expectations with his 20-goal haul. Added an extra dimension to the side, worked his socks of all season and contributed so much to games other than his goals. His form tailed off but his commitment and graft remained constant.

HIGH POINT OF THE SEASON

Has to be the incredulous comeback against Notts County with ten men, having been 2-0 down. A story most wouldn't write for fear of being too unbelievable, but which summed up the collective spirit that drove The Shaymen on this season.

LOW POINT OF THE SEASON

In-front of the biggest crowd of the season, Town suffered their biggest disappointment, losing 2-1 to Chesterfield in their play-off eliminator. Halifax hadn't been at their best for a while, and failed to rise to the occasion in an ending unworthy of the season that had preceded it.