Saturday’s National League North play-off final has been 18 years in the making for Billy Heath and Mark Carroll.
A win over Chorley would represent a vindication of their decision to leave North Ferriby only 10 days after guiding them to victory at the same stage last season.
Heath insisted at the time that it wasn’t a hard decision, and said he and his assistant, known as ‘Bobby’, were taking one step back to take two steps forward.
Ferriby’s win over Fylde last May was the crowning glory of their time in management on Humberside, so rejecting the opportunity of working on a national level won’t have been taken lightly given the nearly two decades’ worth of effort it took to achieve it.
But the move was informed by a career that has seen the best friends work on limited budgets and at relative football outposts compared to the elevated surroundings of The Shay, which is why Saturday’s game is a chance to take the biggest step yet of their management career, with a club at which they believe they can continue their journey.
The pair met aged 10 playing for Hull City juniors and started their coaching career at Bridlington Town, with Heath becoming player-manager aged 28.
They achieved three promotions in five years there, including taking the team from Division One of the Northern Counties East League to the UniBond League with successive promotions in 2002 and 2003 - the latter by a 20 point margin.
They spent five years at Frickley and had a brief stint at Hall Road Rangers before moving to Ferriby in 2011.
“We have put the years in serving our apprenticeship,” Heath said. “There were some lovely people at Frickley and I loved my time there but it’s a tough club because there’s no money and no surroundings.
“Managing at Conference level doesn’t hold any trepidation for me and Bobby at all. We’ve been ready for years.
“We’ve been doing this for 18 years, and I think we’ve won about 19 trophies.
“People think it all started with North Ferriby but we went through the leagues with Bridlington Town, won every cup and every league with them.
“The desire to win never goes away. We’ve put the miles in and the hard work in.
“Sometimes that holds you in good stead when you’ve been through the levels instead of just being handed a job. You have to earn your apprenticeship and see what it’s about.
“There’s not a situation that would ever surprise me because we have seen everything, believe me.
“We’re definitely not rookies at this game. But the next stop for us is the Conference National, and that doesn’t faze us at all.”
Miraculous is not too strong a word for what Heath and Carroll achieved at North Ferriby, who had an average crowd of 446 in 2015/16 and are based in a village that boasts a population of fewer than 4,000 people.
Despite the financial restraints, the duo guided the club to two promotions - the second replacing Halifax in the National League last season - and an against-all-odds FA Trophy victory over Wrexham at Wembley.
But for Heath, promotion with Halifax would match anything achieved on Humberside.
“It will be on a par with last season, maybe even a bigger achievement than when we went up last year, just because of the rebuilding job it’s taken,” he said.
“It’s a totally new squad virtually, and that makes such a difference. People don’t understand how difficult it is to do that, and with a relegation hanging over us.
“We had four players and two players with long-term injuries, and the league has been so competitive this season.
“To do it two years on the spin would be fantastic for me and Bobby, and to get the club back where it needs to be, and we’ll have done it in nine months.
“It took time for the players to get anywhere near gelling and coming together.
“A lot of teams had a massive advantage on us because they had settled squads.
“It would be unbelievable for us if we can finish it off.
“Nobody gave us a chance of winning at Wembley with North Ferriby. For a Conference North club to win the FA Trophy was just a fairy tale.
“But it will rank alongside that.”