The day Town’s football world fell apart 25 years ago

Town fans run onto The Shay pitch after their team's 1-0 defeat to Hereford. Picture: Johnny Meynell.
Town fans run onto The Shay pitch after their team's 1-0 defeat to Hereford. Picture: Johnny Meynell.

“The most emotional thing I ever witnessed in professional football”.

That is how Mick Rathbone describes the moment Halifax fans invaded the Shay pitch after their club had been relegated from the Football League for the first time in its history.

Most supporters, like the players in the dressing room, were in tears as they defiantly sang ‘there will always be a Halifax Town’ following the club’s 1-0 home defeat to Hereford on May 8, 1993.

Former Halifax player Derek Hall’s 62nd minute goal ended 72 years of league football at The Shay.

Hall had been warned by Hereford’s player-manager Greg Downs that he would be substituted if it was felt he was not putting in enough effort against his former team-mates; Downs needn’t have worried.

The club had clung onto its Football League status 12 times by being re-elected after finishing bottom of the pile, but now it was unlucky 13 for The Shaymen, and no-one could quite believe it.

Twenty-five years on, the pain is still felt.

“It was horrendous,” recalls Chris Lucketti, who was a 21-year-old defender. “To be part of that, and to be responsible for the club not being in the Football League anymore.

“Everyone was devastated. You could see how much it meant to everyone around the club, from the chairman right down to the fans.”

Billy Barr, then a 24-year-old full-back, says: “The support was unbelievable on the day. I think there were nearly 8,000 there, and we were cheered off as crazy as it sounds.

“For me as a local lad, that was me just locked away for a few days, I didn’t want to speak to anyone. I ended up in tears.

“I saw the local news the day after, and saw how upset the fans were and people I knew crying on the pitch.

“That Sunday was an emotional day. You just felt you’d let everyone down.”

“I think it was a form of success to even get to the last day of the season,” says Mick ‘Baz’ Rathbone, who was caretaker-manager and went on to work as a physio at Everton.

“The players did well to still be within a shout going into the last game.

“The players, the fans and the directors had all done brilliantly to keep the club going because there were a lot of financial problems off the field.”

You can say that again Baz.

Chairman Jim Brown had announced in October 1992 the club was £100,000 in debt and a month away from possible closure.

Things were equally grim on the pitch, with Town losing 4-1 at Northern Premier League side Marine in the FA Cup first round, before a home defeat to Barnet sealed manager John McGrath’s fate.

Rathbone, a former Blackburn and Preston defender, had begun working as a travelling salesman selling clothing alongside training as a physiotherapist, and after rolling up at The Shay one day hoping to flog some gear, was offered a job as physio by McGrath.

After being handed the unenviable task of keeping Town up, Rathbone’s initial impact was modestly successful, lifting the club up to 17th.

But a down-turn in form, and the sale of top-scorer Ian Thompstone to Scunthorpe for £10,000 on transfer deadline day to guarantee March’s wages were paid, soon had relegation looming.

“I felt a big responsibility,” says Rathbone. “The stigma of going out of the Football League was stronger then. I felt the weight of history very strongly.

“We didn’t have a big squad, we’d sold two of our best players, but I tried to keep positive, tried to have a laugh along the way but we worked very hard on the training field.

“You could see the fear in the eyes of some of the younger players like Kevin Megson, Billy Barr and Jamie Paterson, but what can you do? You just have to keep going.”

“When it came to those last few games the reality really started to kick in that if we didn’t get results, we could find ourselves out of the Football League,” says Lucketti.

“It was a tough season. For me, I’d just established myself as a first-team player and getting games under my belt.

“We had a lot of younger players all at the same stage so we probably were naive at times and making our mistakes along the way.

“Looking back there were probably too many (young players) in the team at the same time.

“Everyone knew the task when Jim lost his job and Baz came in.

“We knew it was going to be a big task but we all believed we could do it.

“Baz is such a positive guy, he’s probably the most positive bloke you would ever meet. He just had a way about him of putting you at ease and lifting you when you were down.

“He never got on your back, he was always looking to encourage you.”

“If it hadn’t been for Baz we would have gone down earlier,” says Barr. “If he’d taken over five or six games earlier that could have made the difference.

“The picture of him slumped down with a drink in his hand shows the kind of pressure he was under but he kept all that away from us.

“He’d never managed before and it probably put him off completely!”

“Looking back, I’m surprised that team went down,” says then 21-year-old, Halifax-born defender Kevin Megson. “There were some good players there.

“If we’d had Baz in charge all season, we would’ve stayed up. He would have got us training and playing properly.”

Town dropped to the bottom of the table with two games to go before losing a six-pointer at relegation rivals Gillingham.

A win would have lifted Town off the bottom of the table, but despite outplaying their hosts in-front of around 1,000 travelling Halifax fans, The Shaymen lost 2-0, meaning they had to beat Hereford and hope Northampton didn’t win at Shrewsbury.

Neither happened.

Rathbone didn’t sleep a wink the night before the game and nearly stopped off at a church on the way to the ground to pray for a result.

Kick-off was delayed for 10 minutes due to crowd congestion.

“The crowds were usually between 1,200 and 1,800 and suddenly there were 7,500 and they were queuing outside,” says Lucketti.

“The build-up was massive. It was very intense, the media attention was incredible. For the younger lads, we hadn’t experienced anything like that before.

“There were cameras in the changing room before the game, at half-time and at full-time.”

Did that have an effect on the team?

“I think it probably would have done,” says Lucketti. “There was so much pressure there already but then you had the added pressure of all this media attention on you.

“But what it did do was bring it home how much the club was loved and how important it was for that many people to come and support us and for the media interest to be as strong as it was.

“We could have sealed our own fate if we’d beaten Gillingham, and we had some really good chances in both the last two games, but either through bad misses or the keeper saving them, we didn’t score.

“That was a big part of the season, we didn’t find the end product enough.

“The final day was a day of frustration. When they scored, no-one could believe it.

“We were in shock because we really believed we could stay up.”

“The day itself was horrific,” recalls Barr, “but it had been coming. We were down there in the dogfight most of the season.

“We had a little rally just after Christmas and got a couple of good results at another point after that. I remember going to Doncaster and winning there.

“But we just weren’t good enough over the course of the season.

“As a local lad, did I want that pressure? No. Did it make me a better person? Probably.

“One or two didn’t care. They were in the showers thinking it was their ticket out of Halifax.

“The rest of us sat there in silence.

“It could have erupted with them going in the shower, just treating it as another game.

“It wasn’t a nice feeling, but it does make you stronger and more resilient.”

“I remember it as though it was yesterday,” says Megson. “It was just a shame that many fans saw us get relegated.

“There were plenty of tears from the younger lads and the local lads. I think it hit us more.

“I knew a lot of the fans as well which made it worse for me.

“I remember Baz drinking from a bottle of whisky in the dressing room, and I went to The Weavers that night for a few pints.”

A photo of a drained Rathbone slumped in the Town changing room after the Hereford game captures the pressure he had felt, and the strain it had taken.

What was he thinking in that moment?

“Please don’t take this picture! One of the directors brought in a can of beer and said ‘here you are, have a drink of that’.

“I was relieved it was over because it had been a tough three or four weeks. It is difficult being at the bottom, you feel it all the time.

“But there was also a sense of pride.

“We all worked incredibly hard every single day, but sometimes it’s not to be.

“Someone has to finish at the bottom, and just because you do, it doesn’t make you losers or useless.

“As it turned out we would have gone down anyway because Northampton beat Shrewsbury 3-2.

“They were 2-0 down at half-time and we were 0-0, and I’m thinking ‘we’re a goal away from staying up here’.

“I do feel at least partly responsible because I was the boss, but I also feel very proud of all the players, the supporters and the directors.

“There were 7,500 people there - that was the maximum allowed in the ground for safety reasons.

“I went on the microphone after the game to speak to the fans. I thanked them and said we had to bounce back stronger and that sometimes you have to take a step back to take two steps forward.”

“The fans were incredible,” says Lucketti. “They’ve got a special core of supporters that are so dedicated and loyal.

“I really hope they can get back into the Football League as soon as possible, and if they can, I’m sure the crowds would come back.

“It’s a unique club in the community and in the football world.”

“I really enjoyed it, I was really proud,” reflects Rathbone. “I had 25 games in charge - we won four, drew five and lost the rest.

“They are still great memories. When I was at Everton and we’d go over the M62 for some away games, they’d all shout “get down Baz! Hide!”, and I would just to join in the banter, but it wasn’t like that for me.

“Halifax is up there among the favourite times of my career. I’ve had MR on Everton jerseys, Man United, England, now Nottingham Forest, but I’m equally proud to have had it on a Halifax one.”