FC Halifax Town: “We’re constantly looking at areas where we can get better” - Millington on progress on and off the pitch
In the second-part of our in-depth interview with Chris Millington, Town’s assistant manager talks to Tom Scargill about progress on and off the pitch, maximising potential and raising standards.
The plates are still spinning at FC Halifax Town, but at least now there are more hands keeping them going.
When Pete Wild and Chris Millington first arrived at the club in summer 2019, they had less than two weeks until the start of the season, and a backroom staff containing a goalkeeping coach, a kit man and a physio.
Despite that, The Shaymen made an incredible start to the season, racing to the top of the table, and eventually finished in the play-off places.
Now, the backroom team has evolved and includes a first-team coach and head of recruitment, and sprouted different departments, including strength and conditioning, and video analysis, using specialised, qualified staff.
“The club was in good health when we came in,” says assistant manager Millington.
“The chairman runs a tight ship, there are some really good departments within the club, and I think the previous manager had moved things on from the time when he came in to the time when he left.
“So the club was moving forward anyway in many respects. I think what we’ve tried to do is then look at what are our constraints, what are the things that are going to be a challenge for us, and how do we navigate a route round that to be able to do the things we want to do?
“So it was increasing our levels of fitness, make ourselves fitter in terms of the ability to run further, to cover more ground, and to be able to challenge the teams who were fit last year, which were the likes of Harrogate and Notts County.
“We looked at them and said ‘we’re not at those kind of levels and we need to be if we’re going to kick on’, so we looked at how we could improve that side of the football preparation without necessarily going to the chairman and asking for a great increase in the budget.
“We’ve been able to achieve that.
“There’s been a lot of work gone into the analysis side, through people coming in who are highly qualified to do the work and doing it to help move the club forward, they’ve done it out of a desire to improve what’s already here rather than a desire to earn a significant wage.
“These things have really helped because we now feel we’ve got highly qualified people doing jobs within the club that last season, me and Pete were taking care of, and you know what it’s like when you’re trying to spin three or four plates, one or two might not be particular areas of expertise, so things might not get done quite as well.
“We think we’ve got a team around us of lads who can rightfully be called experts in their field, and that’s definitely had an impact on how the whole football operation works.
“In terms of our style of play, that’s starting to become more obvious when you watch a performance.
“Last season, all of the coaching fell on mine and the gaffer’s shoulders, which is great because we’re both highly-qualified coaches, we love the coaching, love working with the players on the grass and both love that personal relationship you get when you’re trying to help a player and a team develop.
“What was a challenge was the amount of work that produced in terms of preparing a session, evaluating a session, thinking about individuals within the session, then thinking about oppositions and how well are we preparing the lads to face a specific opposition.
“It’s quite a heavy workload, whereas now having a first-team coach on board who is with us on a pretty much daily basis means we can rely on a very highly-qualified and excellent coach, but also we have the ability to stand back and take different parts of the role and focus in on those specific areas.
“So rather than having to manage a session from preparation through delivery and evaluation all on our own, we’ve now got three bodies who are able to see it through the same lens and pick out what the important parts are, but focus in on different areas of the work to make it more effective.”
Millington says the devil is in the detail for Town’s backroom staff, whether it be analysing upcoming opponents or improving fitness.
“It’s hard for the fans because they just see a performance and that’s the culmination of an awful lot of work,” says Millington.
“Within that there’s quite a lot of variables that we haven’t got control over.
“We’re constantly trying to maximise our potential but minimise the level of shock and surprise the opposition can throw at us.
“What I mean by that is, we go through a thorough analysis process of the opposition, which means getting right under the skin of what they’ve been doing over a number of games in terms of the style of play, goal threat, defensive structure, team selections, threatening players, the ones who maybe offer us an opportunity to get in and use our strengths.
“Then there’s amount of work we do around our training, trying to recognise the areas where we can expose and exploit other teams’ weaknesses, areas they might be looking to expose things in our team where we haven’t been particularly strong in recent games.
“Then you’ve got the lads looking at the strength and conditioning side, trying to build in a really thorough fitness programme into what’s already a busy training schedule and make sure we’re getting the right sort of fitness work into the lads without that leading to fatigue that undermines matchday performance.
“So there’s loads of plates spinning all at one time, and within that you’ve also got the fact that these players are young lads, human beings who are dealing with the challenges the world in general is throwing up at the moment, that they can’t always see family members, so we have to have an understanding of that and have the ability to recognise the human side of what’s going on at the moment, which we try and do because we care about them.
“There’s an awful lot of work goes in to try and prepare the team, pick the right team, make sure the right players are available in terms of fitness.
“This all dates back to last February, March, when we started planning for this season and thinking about what type of characters, what type of technical and tactical players we wanted in the group, what kind of youth and what kind of experience we wanted to put around it, and what we wanted our style of play to be.
“There were three key objectives for us going into the season, and I think we’re showing that two of those are beginning to become part of our identity, and the third, which is around being really consistent in our defending, is the one I think will help kick us on further if we can start to achieve that over the next few games.”
Millington believes The Shaymen are a lot closer to operating like a Football League outfit than they were back in the summer of 2019.
“What we want to do is provide an environment and a set of processes that are as good as, if not better, than anything in and around is, at this level, the level above or the level above that,” he says.
“We want to be a management team that’s able to maximise what’s in-front of us, and I think we’re starting to do that.
“I think there’s more to come, I think we’ve got young players in and around the squad who I feel, given a bit of time and energy from us as coaches, we can help develop into real assets for the club, and who can push it on even further.
“I think we’ve got some really solid experienced lads who, with their knowledge and experience of the game, can really help us as a team kick on over the next 18 months or more.
“And then you’ve got that middle bracket of players who’ve been in and around the club for two, three, four years in some cases, who I think can help drive us forward.
“So on the pitch there’s definitely the quality there to go to the next level.
“Off the pitch, the different departments around the club have always been run well.
“Now I think we’ve got that in the football set-up, we’ve got a backroom staff that are really committed to Halifax Town first and foremost, but who are also well capable of helping us push forward.
“Were we to land in the Football League in the next couple of seasons, then I think we’re well able to compete with the clubs I know of in League Two.”
Millington says he and Wild have developed too, as the club has evolved off the pitch.
“Our values haven’t changed,” he says.
“They’ve been tested at times, what drives us and what keeps us wanting to move things forward I think have been tested occasionally, but I think we’ve come through that and started to develop.
“I think the spirit around this group of staff and players is partly down to the gaffer and me and what we’re trying to do but also it’s driven by those other people involved and what they bring to the table.
“We’re always looking at ways we can get better as individuals and as a team, and thankfully we’ve got a load of people around us who are equally as reflective and honest in their own evaluation.
“We’re constantly looking at areas where we can get better.
“We didn’t really have a clear handle on what was going to help move us forward until we’d been in a few months, but since then, we’ve got a real good feel for the club and a real affinity with the place now.
“It sparked something in me quite early on, the club itself, and I really hope we can bring the success that the town wants.
“The foundations are in place, now it’s just going to take a lot of hard work and persistence, and a bit of luck, and who knows where it could end up.”
Whereas Wild and Millington guided a half inherited squad to the play-offs last season, this campaign they are overseeing a squad they have been able to put more of their own stamp on.
“It’s a risky thing to say in football that we’re responsible for what goes off on a matchday, but we are, and nine times out of ten I’m quite proud of what the lads do,” says the 45-year-old.
“Even in the early part of the season when we weren’t winning games, I looked at the performances and I thought ‘we’re performing alongside some of the best teams in the division and out-performing in some cases, but the results weren’t going our way’.
“I look at the type of players we’ve got, the type of characters they are, the real hunger among them to fulfill their potential individually but also for the club, they want this club to do well.
“With the utmost humility, I’m quite proud to say these lads are lads I would stand by and I’m proud to work with.
“You come away from games like Torquay and I’m just really grateful they got what they deserved because so often this season, they’ve outworked oppositions, ran further than them, played better football than them, but failed to finish them off through a lack of opportunity or bad luck in some cases.
“But when they get what they’ve earned like they did at Torquay, I’m really pleased to be able to work with them.”
Millington feels a lot of progress has been made over the last 18 months, helping change perceptions of Town as a club punching above its weight in challenging for promotion to one that has earned its right to be in and amongst the play-off contenders.
“It’s hard to know when people are being honest in football but we get a lot of complements off opposition managers, coaches and players about how the team are performing and what they’re dong well, and that it’s refreshing to see how much Halifax have moved forward,” he says.
“We’re doing this on the back of hard work from previous management, we mustn’t ignore that fact. We didn’t get the club into this division, we didn’t get the club established in this division, but it’s our job now to try and get the club established as a top-half or a play-off team in this division.
“The feedback we’re getting off other people in the game is they recognise a different identity to Halifax Town than was possibly here a few years ago.
“That’s the job we’ve been charged with doing and I think it’s starting to show that that’s a reality now.
“It’s something we see in the players, it’s something we’ve bought into ourselves and we feel we’ve established a new identity.
“Now the key is we’ve got to maintain that and build up on it, because very easily you can find yourself in a situation where you start going backwards in football, so we mustn’t get complacent and think we’ve cracked it.
“We’ve got an awful lot of work still to do and I don’t think that work ever really ends, it’s a constant work in progress because you always want to be better.”