FC Halifax Town Review of the Year: Mix of style and substance sees Shaymen flying high after an encouraging year
It's been a strange year at FC Halifax Town - things have gone so well.
In fact, things have just got better as 2021 has gone on.
The first half of the year contained more ups and downs than a pogo stick world record attempt, but so far this season, it's a different story.
The big difference is consistency.
Rather than one step forward, one step back, The Shaymen are now purposefully marching into the New Year.
2021 did start with a stumble though. You could barely see the action in the fog as Town started the year with a 1-1 draw at King's Lynn, but you wished you couldn't see it at all 10 days later as Southport dumped them out of 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 hugely disappointing 2-1 loss at strugglers Barnet.
One step forward, one step back.
But they'd got the low point of the year out of the way in February.
Things would only get better from here, starting with a remarkable 3-2 win at leaders Torquay, the first of five wins from six games.
Then it was back-to-back away wins, the latter, a glorious, swaggering victory under the lights at Notts County.
If only the Town fans had been there to see it, although they would be there to witness an even better victory against The Magpies later in the year, yet still not believe what they'd witnessed.
That preceded successive home wins by a single goal over Solihull and Aldershot.
Just when the cloak of inconsistency seemed to have been shed, Town lost a dreadful, 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 the inconsistency rose to a hair-pulling, nail chewing, groan-inducing degree.
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 gobsmacking 4-0 defeat to Wrexham, then showing grit and determination to overcome King's Lynn, who went 2-0 up, four days later.
There was a truly great 2-1 win at Chesterfield, but then a truly average home defeat to Bromley.
Woking were edged past at the Shay before Stockport edged past Halifax.
The play-offs looked within reach after a 3-0 win at Yeovil, but then disappeared into the distance with defeats to Boreham Wood and Dagenham and Redbridge.
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 of it before the Chesterfield game in honour of former Town striker James Dean, who had tragically died earlier in the month.
Town lost some key players over the summer as Jack Earing, Jeff King, Jake Hyde and Neill Byrne all got better offers, while skipper Nathan Clarke also departed.
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, and later, Kian Spence, as first-team regulars.
Billy Waters, Matty Warburton, Harvey Gilmour and Jordan Slew pepped up Town's attacking options, while Jesse Debrah and Tyrell Warren added competition at the back.
Some big performers had gone, but fans needn't have worried. Pete Wild and Chris Millington had a plan.
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.
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.
The only inconsistencies now seemed to be in the ways Town won matches.
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 Tyrell Warren deputising ably for the injured Jay 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.
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.
The year began with a cup defeat against a lower league side, and ended with one too. The more things change, the more they stay the same.
It's now at least 34 years since Halifax reached the FA Cup third round after an inexplicably out-of-character display saw them lose 2-0 to an albeit very good Kidderminster performance. Still, the overriding feeling was one of a golden opportunity squandered.
But again, Town 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.
The year began with fog and ended with it too, rearranging Town's FA Trophy clash at Bradford Park Avenue, which The Shaymen won on penalties after a topsy-turvy 3-3 draw.
Town ensured they ended the year level on points with league leaders Chesterfield, a magnificent achievement in itself, by drawing with them 1-1 in yet another example of how far they had come over the last 12 months.
To finish 2021 in such lofty heights is testament to the astonishing progress that has been made, and suggests there is no reason why their upward trajectory cannot be maintained.
Player of the Year
Special mention to Niall Maher, who has matured into a superb centre-back and skipper, but for me Kieran Green has had a magnificent calendar year, consistently producing outstanding performances full of heart, desire and commitment, while also displaying composure, vision and aerial ability.
High Point of the Year
Has to be Matty Warburton's winner for ten-man Town in the tenth minute of added time after The Shaymen had been 2-0 down at home to Notts County. Astonishing, astounding stuff.
Low Point of the Year
Kidderminster away comes close, but Town's form either side of that dilutes the disappointment. The 2-1 loss at Barnet in February was an awful result after an awful performance against a team mired in an awful run of form, but prompted a fine run that almost propelled Town into the play-offs.