“We weren’t Man United, but we had some good players”: Former Halifax keeper Alex Smith reflects on his time at The Shay

Alex Smith saves a penalty from Man Utd's Willie Morgan. Photo: Johnny Meynell.
Alex Smith saves a penalty from Man Utd's Willie Morgan. Photo: Johnny Meynell.

Even all these years later, Alex Smith can still entertain the crowds down at The Shay.

The 80-year-old was hoping to watch his former club take on Ebbsfleet last Saturday, but the state of the Shay pitch put paid to that.

Alex Smith. Photo: Johnny Meynell.

Alex Smith. Photo: Johnny Meynell.

“That’s nice that!” said the 80-year-old of the beleaguered turf, with a nod to the shoddy surfaces he often played on.

Smith was a guest in the hospitality suite at The Shay, and gave a speech to his fellow diners in lieu of the postponed game.

And he had plenty of material to call on.

Smith made 381 appearances for Town between 1968 and 1976, becoming one of the most consistent custodians in the lower divisions in the late sixties and early seventies.

“I was understudy to Eddie Hopkinson at Bolton, and in those days, you couldn’t get away (from a club).

“He was a legend, and I mean a legend. He played 570 games, played for England.

“On the odd occasion I got in, when he was injured, I know I did well, but no matter what I did, I was always out again.

“I spent three years learning my trade, playing under Hoppy, which was good because he was a super goalkeeper, learned a lot from him, but I wanted to play regularly.

“I was playing regularly in the reserves, which was fine, but I’d rather drop down a league or two and play in the first-team.

“That’s the decision I made, and I blossomed, because I was playing every week, training hard.

“I never dreamed I’d be here for so long. I traveled over from Bolton, which never bothered me.

“I did have my best years here.”

When asked for his highlight, his answer was instantaneous. The FA Cup fourth round in 1969.

“Stoke City. When you look at their team, and some of the names they had, and we drew 1-1.

“We could have won it in the last few minutes.

“Then they beat us 2-0 in the replay.

“They had Gordon Banks in goal and they were a really top team.

“For me that was a better result than beating Man United (2-1 in the Watney Cup) because I had a lot more to do, a lot more saves to make.

“Against Man United, I only had the two penalties, one I saved and one they scored.

“I can remember which way I went, and I nearly got Bestie’s, I went the right way for that as well.

“But we played well that day, and they had their full side out.

“It was incredible, I don’t think they could believe it.

“The crowd were on the track that day. The atmosphere was incredible.

“Us beating them started the season off well for us.”

Did Smith get anyone’s shirt after the match as a momento?

“No, you didn’t do that in those days. I’d have got Bobby Charlton’s I think.

“It was just one of those days. We played well, we played above our station on the day.

“We had a couple of good breaks. We scored a good goal through Bill Atkins.

“He got above David Sadler, and then he fouled Bill, so it was a penalty.

“Things went for us. We didn’t just play long balls though, we played some good football, which we did do in those days, we had some good players.

“We had big Bill up-front, who had scored everywhere he’d been, always been a good goalscorer.

“Bobby Wallace was playing, David Chadwick, Tony Rhodes, Andy Bergin - we had a lot of good players.

“We weren’t Man United, but we had some good players.”

Halifax got promoted to the Third Division in Smith’s first full season at the club, and he then helped Town to a third-placed finish in 1970-71, just missing out on promotion.

“I think the board were panicking a bit because of our lack of facilities in the next division up.

“Unfortunately, the season I left, we got relegated, only by one point I think. That was after seven seasons in the same division.”

Smith played under some legendary Halifax managers but considers George Mulhall and George Kirby as the best to play under “because of the type of football they wanted, and the players they brought in”.

“We had some good players and we played attacking football,” said Smith.

“Alan Ball is up there too though for turning things round and getting us promoted with his style.

“It was a hard style to play but it worked, because I had 21 clean sheets that season. We didn’t concede a lot of goals, but we also had lads up-front who worked their socks off.

“We played a unique system, 4-4-2, but the two wingers had to be really physical and do a lot of running.

“The idea was, when play was developing on the opposite side, the winger not involved had to get all the way back.

“It was a difficult system to play, but we did it.

“We were so fit, because Alan Ball used to say ‘well, if my lad can run for 90 minutes non-stop, you can as well’.

“He didn’t say anything about is not being as good as Alan Ball!”

Smith considers Freddie Hill, who Town signed from Bolton, as the best player he played with at Halifax.

“I also admired Les Massey tremendously. He was a lot better than people thought. Always had a goal in him, a really silky player.

“We had a lot of good players.

“But in those days we probably had the lowest budget in the Third Division.

“We did alright for gates, but we played against Fulham, Preston, Aston Villa - we played at Aston Villa in-front of 33,000.

“Sheffield Wednesday were in our league as well. When we played them we had our best gate of the season, because they had such a wonderful away following.

“We would get 6,500, 7,500. We did get some better than that when we were up there and some of the top teams were there, like when Preston came, or we had the local derby with Bradford City.

“You’d have Rochdale and Barnsley too, so there were a lot of good local derbies.”

Smith says he developed a real affinity for the club while he was at The Shay, one which remains to this day.

“Even now, I look for them straight away to see how they’ve gone on and where they are.”

Keep up-to-date with all the latest FC Halifax Town news, interviews, match previews and reports - join our dedicated Facebook group here.