Empty stands, injuries and just falling short - FC Halifax Town season review 2020-21
By the time the fans returned to The Shay, Town’s play-off hopes were stuttering before they stalled completely, just out of reach.
For so long, it appeared the final day clash at home to Chesterfield would be a celebration of another top seven finish as well as the reunion of players and supporters.
A brilliant run through March and April saw Halifax amass 32 points from a possible 45, winning 10 and drawing two of their 15 games.
But four defeats from six in May saw them pipped to the post.
There are opposing views. One perspective is that Town threw it away, wasted a great opportunity of a play-off finish when it was in their own hands through inconsistency, conceding avoidable goals and profligacy in attack.
Another is that most supporters would surely have taken being in with a chance of the play-offs going into the final day, and that but for injuries and some bad luck along the way, a second successive top seven finish would have been achieved.
The Shaymen finished lower in the table than in 2019-20, but judgements must be more rounded, context taken into account.
Halifax’s budget was dwarfed by those around and above them, while hard work at improvements behind-the-scenes mean the foundations are in place for another crack at promotion without having to start from scratch.
A detailed, carefully planned recruitment strategy resulted in an exciting squad being constructed over the summer, as disappointment over Town’s play-off defeat in July made way for optimism that they could possibly go one better.
Jake Hyde was the headline addition after producing a one-in-two scoring record in two seasons at Woking, while fellow striker Matty Stenson, midfielders Luke Summerfield and Kieran Green and defender Neill Byrne were also statement signings.
A mixed pre-season preceded a terrific curtain-raiser as Town beat Dagenham and Redbridge 2-0 with a stylish display.
But they then went nine games without a win during a tough run of fixtures, including a narrow defeat at much-fancied Stockport followed by draws against Boreham Wood, Yeovil and Woking, but with plenty of encouraging signs.
A miserable cup exit was the first of four defeats from five during that run as Halifax slumped to a dreadful 2-0 loss at South Shields in the FA Cup.
It later transpired that a Covid outbreak had swept through the squad, which did explain the abject performance, and the subsequent improvement when they returned to action two-and-a-half weeks later.
A gutsy display by a ten-man and then nine-man Town was cruelly beaten by a late Wealdstone goal at The Shay.
Another battling performance against Notts County was rewarded by Jamie Allen’s added time equaliser before narrow defeats to high-flyers Torquay and Sutton.
Town then finally kicked into top gear, winning six of their eight games in December.
That run began with a 5-2 thrashing of Barnet, Town being 5-0 ahead within the hour, before another five were put past a sorry Weymouth live on BT Sport and The Shaymen came from behind to win 3-1 at Aldershot.
After a slow start, they were now speeding up.
After an undeserved defeat at Solihull, Town beat Hartlepool on penalties in the FA Trophy, and then Eastleigh three days later.
A blustery Boxing Day defeat at Hartlepool was followed by a hard-fought 3-2 win over in-form Altrincham at The Shay to ensure Halifax ended the year in the play-off places.
You could barely see the ball for the fog in the 1-1 draw at King’s Lynn, but you wished you couldn’t see it at all 10 days later as Halifax again lost to lower league opposition, against Southport, in the FA Trophy.
A fine win at Bromley and an encouraging draw at Wrexham followed before a frustrating 3-2 home defeat to Maidenhead and a perplexing, maddening 2-1 loss at strugglers Barnet.
So the pattern continued. Just when Town moved up a gear, they slammed on the brakes and momentum ground to a halt.
Injuries were a persistent problem, depriving Pete Wild of first choice strike partnership Hyde and Stenson for most of pre-season and the start of the campaign.
Stenson was ruled out for the season in early November, while Hyde missed two months between mid December and mid February.
A host of forwards came and went to fill the gaps. Less successful were Gold Omotayo and Gevaro Nepomuceno, more so were Nyal Bell and Billy Chadwick, but neither of whom stayed long enough for Town’s liking.
Captain Nathan Clarke was also absent for four months mid-season with a career-threatening eye injury he showed tremendous courage to overcome, while Summerfield’s almost three months on the sidelines in early 2021 disrupted a fine campaign for the influential midfielder.
South Shields and Southport run it close, but Barnet was the low point of the season.
Town were in first gear, with a steep hill in-front of them.
But they climbed it, hauling themselves back into the fast lane impressively quickly, starting with a remarkable 3-2 win at leaders Torquay, the first of five wins from six games.
Back-to-back away wins, the latter a glorious, swaggering victory under the lights at Notts County, preceded successive home wins by a single goal over Solihull and Aldershot.
Town lost a dreadul, dour game at Eastleigh before throwing away a two goal lead and a stirring performance to draw at home with Sutton.
Weymouth and Altrincham were then beaten before infuriating inconsistency set in.
Five wins and six defeats accounted for Halifax’s final 11 matches as they swung from one extreme to the other; awful at the back in a stunning 4-0 defeat to Wrexham, then showing grit and determination to overcome King’s Lynn, who went 2-0 up, four days later.
A magnificent 2-1 win at Chesterfield hinted at the foot being planted on the accelerator heading into the home straight, only for the engine to cough and splutter with a poor home defeat to Bromley.
Woking were edged past at the Shay before Stockport edged past Halifax. A 3-0 win at Yeovil then appeared to put the play-offs within reach, only for disappointing defeats to Boreham Wood and Dagenham and Redbridge see them disappear into the distance.
A penultimate win against Maidenhead kept hopes alive, only for them to be finally ended against Chesterfield on the final day as the fans returned.
After nearly a whole season of silence from the stands, there was one more minute’s silence before the Chesterfield game in honour of former Town striker James Dean, who had tragically died earlier in the month.
The supporters missed some magical, memorable moments, goals and games, such as magnificent victories at Torquay, Notts County and Chesterfield, which included stunning goals from Jeff King and Tahvon Campbell in the first two.
King was nothing short of a revelation having been converted to right wing-back, displaying bags of energy, skill, composure and commitment. Jack Earing shone brightly before his season ended prematurely through injury.Green improved as the season went on, always tigerish in midfield, socks rolled down, ready for battle.
Summerfield’s injury cruelly stopped what would surely have been a debut season good enough to win him player of the year. Why Wrexham considered him surplus to requirements is a mystery, the 33-year-old’s passing, vision and desire were outstanding.
Sam Johnson had another very good season in goal, while Neill Byrne, Nathan Clarke and Niall Maher all acquitted themselves well in defence.
Hyde would surely have netted 20-plus but for injury. ‘But for injury’, three words which perhaps sum up the season.
‘Conceding avoidable goals’ also capture things quite well, as do ‘wasting goalscoring opportunities’.
In the end, inconsistency of results, enforced inconsistency of team selection and inconsistency of finishing in-front of goal meant Town just came up short in the play-off race.
But there’s no shame in that. When Town were in top gear this season, they were a pleasure to watch, for the lucky few in person or the rest on an unpredictable live stream.
It was the stutters that cost them.
But two top ten finishes under Wild suggest a third in-a-row is the least Town fans should expect when they, hopefully, take their seats again next season. Player of the Season
Jeff King. A constant attacking outlet down the right flank, he scored seven goals in 35 league games, but delivered a stream of dangerous crosses, engineered and enhanced build-up play, offered stamina, athleticism, skill and enthusiasm. All this from a converted attacking midfielder. Still needs to address his tendency to be over-zealous and let his passion get the better of him, but without losing the hunger and desire that radiates through his performances.
Signing of the Season
Luke Summerfield. Made a mockery of Wrexham’s decision to release him, and completely justified Pete Wild’s decision to sign him. His injury at the end of January felt like the death knell to Town’s season, as up until that point, he had been the lynchpin of the side, belying his 33 years with a string of terrific performances. All energy, showing awareness and intelligence to intercept the ball and break up play one minute, then pick a pass and pick out a team-mate the next. His variety and execution of passing was simply superb.
Young Player of the Season
Jack Earing. Scored on the opening day of the season, after which it quickly became apparent he had blossomed into a delightful footballer. Confident, an intelligent runner, with good movement, technique and an eye for goal and a pass, Town fans would have lapped up some of his displays in person. Provided the crucial link between midfield and attack as the number ten, he was sorely missed in the final stages of the season due to injury.
High Point of the Season
Notts County 1-2 Halifax, March 9, 2021
Town were inspired under the lights at Meadow Lane, swarming around County like men possessed, playing fast, frenzied attacking football that the hosts could not live with. Effort, energy and enthusiasm in abundance, their hard work appeared to have been wiped out when the hosts equalised 15 minutes from the end, only for substitute Tahvon Campbell to win it with a spectacular shot across goal.
Low Point of the Season
Barnet 2-1 Halifax, February 16, 2021
Bottom side Barnet recorded their first win in four months, and first in 16 games, against a hugely disappointing Halifax. Pete Wild had warned before the game it was one of the biggest games of the season, but his side didn’t play like it, producing a dreadful, dour, dispiriting performance.