Part-time Shaymen scale heady heights

FC Halifax v Cambridge United.'Town's Lee Gregory celebrates his penalty.'30th April 2014.Picture Jonathan Gawthorpe
FC Halifax v Cambridge United.'Town's Lee Gregory celebrates his penalty.'30th April 2014.Picture Jonathan Gawthorpe

Almost exactly nine months separated FC Halifax Town’s two visits to Cambridge that book-ended their season.

But no-one at the Abbey Stadium on that sunny afternoon back on August 11 would have predicted a re-match taking place with a Wembley final a stake 261 days later.

The 51 games in-between saw Town confound their part-time status to scale unimaginable heights on their first season back in the fifth tier as Neil Aspin preserved his record of a top-five finish every year since his appointment in 2009.

Finishing fifth-from-top when pre-season talk among supporters was settling for fifth-from-bottom represented perhaps Aspin’s finest achievement at the club so far.

Pre-season saw the usual comings and goings, with popular figures such as Gareth Seddon and Liam Hogan heading in the opposite direction of a host of new arrivals, the vast majority of which would either be a rip-roaring success or an underwhelming failure.

Marc Roberts and Lois Maynard were two diamonds that needed very little polishing and belied their rise from the obscurity of the regional leagues to produce sparkling campaigns.

But one man who stood head and shoulders above anyone else was Lee Gregory, who scored Town’s first goal just seven minutes into the season and hardly stopped afterwards, notching an astonishing 32 in 40 games and reaching 100 for the club in the process.

His tally for the season also set a new record for the reformed club, beating James Dean’s total of 27 from 2009-10.

But it wasn’t a particularly happy 25th birthday for the striker, who was forced off during the 1-0 win over Southport on the August Bank Holiday Monday with a hand injury, not for the last time during the season.

That was Town’s third home win on the bounce following victories over Wrexham and Dartford, with the number of teams longing for the sanctuary of the M62 after their stop-off at the Shay already beginning to mount.

The collection of strikers who were told in no uncertain terms they weren’t Lee Gregory also rose steadily throughout the season whenever a visiting forward sent a wayward shot flying into the South Stand.

BT Sport certainly got their money’s worth with an action-packed season opener at Cambridge, with a drubbing on the cards as soon as two were shown to Matt Glennon and Danny Lowe.

Glennon’s dismissal sparked a merry-go-round between the sticks as Tom Morgan was pressed into unexpected action after signing on dual registration terms from Farsley.

That deal was to cover the absence of Phil Senior, who barely had time to unpack his suitcase before starting against Wrexham less than 24 hours after returning from holiday in Spain.

The away day blues were already piling up as Kevin Holsgrove and Josh Wilson both saw red before half-time in Town’s next defeat at Salisbury.

But Halifax had won three of the four games in between, with their next victory the first of a fantastic double over recently-relegated Barnet, with their boss Edgar Davids conspicuous by his absence due to a bizarre policy of not attending lengthy away games.

Maynard then saw red in an astonishing climax at big-spenders Forest Green, who scored twice in stoppage time to cancel out Dan Gardner’s first-half penalty.

Again Town recovered immediately with an electrifying 4-0 win at Grimsby under the lights at the Shay, although this was soon tempered with a 2-0 defeat at Kidderminster.

The prospect of them finishing above the Harriers on that cold September evening seemed fanciful.

A home win over fellow former Conference North side Chester, who had finished 32 points above Halifax, emphasised the different directions both clubs were heading in.

Town then dared to dream at Luton, going 3-1 up with some incisive attacking football before another late comeback agonisingly prolonged the wait for an away win.

More unbearable late drama was to be had at home to Nuneaton, when Ryan Toulson’s late goal was outdone by Wes York’s even later equaliser.

Halifax’s away form hit its nadir with a poor display as Alfreton eased to a 3-0 win, but while there appeared no cure for their own travel sickness, home comforts were plentiful with back-to-back 4-0 home wins over Hyde and Aldershot.

They followed a day out in Milton Keynes, not usually something to stir the adrenalin, but a memorable reward for knocking out Nuneaton and reaching the FA Cup first round.

Gregory received more admiring glances with a goal in Town’s 4-1 defeat on the national stage before the wheels threatened to come off with four consecutive defeats, including the first at home, coinciding with a recurrence of Gregory’s hand injury in a dour 1-0 defeat at Braintree.

During the 4-3 loss against Woking, when a below-strength home team contained four loan players plus a fifth on the bench, one fan made his displeasure known to Neil Aspin by shouting at the Town boss next to the dugout.

But actions soon spoke louder than words as Halifax’s next four results saw them finally win on the road in the league at the 11th time of asking at Dartford as well as a 5-1 thrashing of Lincoln.

In fact, it was a very merry Christmas with a win over Forest Green and a creditable draw at Gateshead during the festive season.

Soon afterwards, Town suffered one of their worst days of the campaign as they lost meekly 2-0 at lowly Tamworth while also losing Dan Gardner to Chesterfield.

Thankfully though, the January window would close without Gregory leaving too, with Town admirably absorbing the loss of Gardner in the remainder of the campaign.

Half-a-dozen games without a win, despite commendable draws with Gateshead and Wrexham, then threatened to leave the play-offs out of reach.

Salisbury were hammered 5-1 as Town’s peerless home form reached glorious new heights before defeat at Chester arguably produced the most ridiculous finale to a game all season, although there were plenty of other contenders by now.

BT Sport looked to have lost their touch after televising a forgettable game which produced a logic-defying finish.

James Bolton, back for a second loan spell from Macclesfield, went from hero to villain in extraordinary circumstances as he failed to clear a cross moments after seemingly salvaging a draw to leave Jamie Menagh with a tap-in.

Town fans were left wondering just how much heartbreak they could take on the road, and this less than a year after Town had set a new club record for away league games unbeaten.

But Town epitomised their tenacious spirit with what they did next by shaking off such disappointment to record five straight victories which heralded the start of another club record of seven consecutive clean sheets.

This from a team that had kept only two clean sheets in their previous 11 matches before winning at rock-bottom Hyde.

After Alex Brown’s 56th minute consolation in Hyde’s 5-1 thrashing on March 8, it would be a jaw-dropping 709 minutes until Scott Boden’s goal for Macclesfield more than a month later.

Matt Glennon, Simon Ainge and Roberts can have no higher praise for their form throughout the campaign.

The midfield duo of Maynard and Matt Pearson also proved indispensable cogs in the Town engine room, with the latter establishing himself as an England C regular thanks to a never-ending series of energetic performances that put the Duracell bunny to shame.

Champions Luton were impressively swept aside as the Shay started to make a fortress look vulnerable, with all four sides of the ground in use for the first time since the club reformed.

Even more impressive was a hat-trick of away wins against play-off rivals Nuneaton, Grimsby and, in cavalier style, Barnet, who were demolished 4-0 on their own patch.

That was arguably as good as it’s ever got during Aspin’s time at the helm as the Shaymen’s thrilling home form transferred to the road in exhilarating fashion, making a mockery of their early-season struggles on their travels.

If it was in the boxing ring it would have been stopped long before full-time as Town relentlessly swarmed round the Bees, who only had the visitors’ profligacy to thank for not conceding twice as many.

After a win, a draw and a defeat saw Town jog rather than sprint over the finish line, they were back to full-speed with a play-off semi-final first-leg win over Cambridge as a season’s best crowd of 3,668 roared them on.

Never had the chants of Wembley over the preceding few weeks been sung with quite so much belief.

Nearly nine months after his first goal of the season, Gregory scored his 32nd and final of the campaign and his 18th in 21 games since the turn of the year to boot seven minutes from full-time.

Only Luton’s Andre Gray and Liverpool’s Luis Suarez netted more league goals in the top five divisions of English football. Not bad for a part-time electrician.

But there was a bitter-sweet end to the season as Cambridge and striker Delano Sam-Yorke ensured a horrible symmetry to the campaign by overturning that slender one-goal deficit in the second-leg in front of more than 1,000 travelling supporters back where it all began.