"It was a once-in-a-lifetime moment" - Assistant manager Andy Cooper on Wembley, fluctuating form and FC Halifax Town's 2023

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In the first of a two-part interview with the Courier, Town’s assistant manager Andy Cooper reflects on The Shaymen’s 2023.

It speaks of the bond formed in adversity between Chris Millington and Andy Cooper that the assistant manager's strongest memory of Town's day in the sun at Wembley in May is of the Halifax boss lifting the FA Trophy.

It speaks of the troughs Millington and Cooper had to endure earlier in the season - some desperately poor performances, some dire results and some fierce criticism.

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It speaks, also, of their resilience in overcoming all of that to lead The Shaymen to only the second Wembley triumph in their history.

Andy CooperAndy Cooper
Andy Cooper

Something which seemed impossible at the turn of the year, with Town embarking on what would become a run of just one win in 12 games to kick-off 2023. Happy New Year.

"It was a really tough spell," reflects Cooper.

"We'd had some really impressive home performances to get back on track, I think we won six in a row at home.

"I remember during the game at Alty, someone mentioned at half-time that we were in the play-offs, but they turned it round second-half and it seemed to be a downwards spiral from there in terms of performances.

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Chris Millington and Andy CooperChris Millington and Andy Cooper
Chris Millington and Andy Cooper

"The pitch was heavy for the game on New Year's Day and there was a pitch inspection, and we just didn't find our feet going into the New Year.

"We found it really tough to get going in that spell, maybe hampered by some of the injuries we had and tinkering around with the starting line-up.

"We thought we'd got over the bump in the road but we went to Torquay, and then had the game with Scunthorpe, really poor performance, we couldn't break them down, which was disappointing.

"It took until the Oldham game at the start of February to spark a turnaround."

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FC Halifax Town v Gateshead, FA Trophy Final at Wembley StadiumFC Halifax Town v Gateshead, FA Trophy Final at Wembley Stadium
FC Halifax Town v Gateshead, FA Trophy Final at Wembley Stadium

Performances did pick up a bit after that win against Oldham, but it wasn't until the 5-0 hammering of Wealdstone that results finally, mercifully, started to show.

"I remember it was the lowest crowd of the season, people were a bit flat, and we knew that the pressure was on and we needed a result and a performance," Cooper says.

"They were a bit depleted in numbers but we really attacked the game, we were really aggressive and we really went for it and put them to the sword."

There were chants of "we want Milly out" before that 5-0 thrashing, which wasn't the first or the last time Millington and Cooper have had to face the wrath of the terraces this year.

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"I think the pressure comes from ourselves and our own standards," he reflects.

"We believed we were good enough to get ourselves out of the trouble we were in, but also took full responsibility for it.

"We just needed to graft and to work, and out of that massive adversity came constant reviewing of what we were doing, continued analysis of opponents and trying to pick the strongest team possible to get a result and get ourselves out of the trouble we were in.

"We know that people pay their money and have got their opinion - there's been chants and murmurings this season, and boos, and we just accept it's part of the game now.

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"It's a bit more short-lived than it was in my generation growing up as a fan on the terraces, where people got a lot more time, but the stats show that you don't get as much time in management and understandably, the fans have their opinions and voice them.

"It doesn't help the players, I think it affects the players more than the management.

"I remember hearing comments in the changing room from players who it did affect in terms of how they play and what they felt about playing at The Shay.

"But for us as a staff we just had to keep going. I had full belief we had enough about us and enough qualities as a staff that we could get ourselves out of the trouble, we just needed to keep working with the players and see a bit more of the end game.

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"Having huge support from the chairman, who was unwavering throughout that period, gave us the time and support we needed, and the clarity to keep going with what we were trying to do to drag ourselves back into a position where we'd get a respectable league place and have the cup run."

Ah yes, the cup run.

More of a cup stumble to be precise, with Harrow Borough and Maidenhead edged past on penalties as The Shaymen faltered in the league.

"It was just continuing the buy-in of the players of what we were doing, and that was going to be on the grass and in games," says Cooper.

"With such a small squad as well, we wanted to just keep working with the players and giving them an opportunity to play and prove themselves, prove to us and the fans that we had a good squad that could get out of this, and back them.

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"We just played the strongest team possible in every game and took the gamble that it would pay off.

"When you get to the latter stages of the cup, that January, February stage, it might not always be the prettiest, it's hard with the scheduling because of games being postponed and having to adapt, but we wanted to go for the strongest team we could each game to get a result, knowing that there would be a bit of a buzz around the training ground from the cup and the feeling of getting through to the next round, having the Monday listening to TalkSport for the draw.

"Getting that buzz can be difficult in the winter months - we had loads if illness among the staff and players as well so it was a chance to have some respite from the league but also try and bleed it into our league form.

"It felt like we were on a good path when we got results in the cup and performances in the league."

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After navigating some pretty strong turbulence, The Shaymen were flying towards the end of the season, only losing once in their last 16 matches, including a memorable win over soon-to-be-champions Wrexham.

"It was the cumulation of blood, sweat and tears of the season - some really terrible low moments and not an incredible amount of highs really," says Cooper.

"The wins were relief from a really good, solid week's work, not getting too high when we won but more justifying some of the work we'd done.

"Obviously Wrexham was a special day, we'd done our homework, given it the same process for everyone else and executed a game-plan really well.

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"The York game was probably the only game that I felt comfortable on the bench that we weren't really threatened or challenged and were in complete control.

"Once you take a two goal lead and you're pushing for that third, you've got security and you get the third, you know the game's pretty much done.

"In our time as a management duo, there's not many games where a scoreline's been in our favour of more than two goals so when that third goes in at York, the manner we played and how we'd been without the ball, I really felt as comfortable as I ever had done.

"The rest of the 46 games was pretty much right up to the whistle either chasing a game or trying to hold onto a lead.

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"There were some really positive moments, it was about getting the balance right, getting the shape we wanted, getting the players available and being able to stick to the same group of players, and the development in the lads.

"Milli Alli, Tylor Golden and Jamie Stott were getting more minutes, Adam Senior came in on loan, Rob Harker - there were players who came into the club that didn't have a huge amount of senior football and were now getting 25, 30, 40 games in a season and starting to show what they could do.

"It takes time, we wanted it to gel quicker but we didn't get that at the start and we needed to tweak a few things, change a few bodies, tweak the system and then we were on fire towards the end of the season and much more positive in our play."

Sandwiched in the middle of four straight league wins was Town's unforgettable FA Trophy semi-final at Altrincham.

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"We weren't great, we were trying to tweak things to get back into it and went really gung-ho at the end for the last 15 minutes," Cooper says.

"It was about stretching the pitch as big as possible and trying to create that opportunity.

"When the goal goes in, I know the record the club has on penalties, we'd had them on the run so far at Harrow and Maidenhead, so you're thinking 'we've got this, Sam is superb and we're very good at taking penalties'.

"The opposition bench were desperately trying to get the penalties moved to the opposite end for fear of safety because the nets were getting shaken, and the goalkeeper was complaining towards the end of the game.

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"So while all the chaos is going on about who's taking penalties, what order, there were a couple of staff from our side trying to battle to make sure that when we won the toss, we got them at the right end and the decision couldn't be reversed.

"Once we got them at our end, it was almost a sigh of relief to say 'we've got this' and the rest was history.

"After the final penalty, it was more about the fans' reaction. Me and Milly shook hands with the opposition manager and straight away, the rest of the backroom staff absolutely piled on and into the players and the fans.

"It probably took me and Milly a bit longer to realise what had actually happened, what's just been done and how big a moment it is for the club, the fans, the town to be able to have a day out at Wembley.

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"People were having a double-take in the changing room, realising what had just been achieved.

"We were able to bring David into the changing room to speak to the lads and his emotion around what had been achieved was amazing, it hit home how much the club means to so many people.

"It was an unbelievable way to finish a game, and one that I don't think any of us will experience or be involved with again, just the manner in which it was done."

Two months later came a day which offered a chance of vindication, restoration and celebration for Millington and Cooper.

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"I don't get too emotional about the day, I tried to park it because there were 40 members of my family on a coach trip from Hull, so I tried to park all the emotions to the side and put everything into saying 'what are we good at?' - working with players and coaching," says Cooper, reflecting on May's FA Trophy final against Gateshead.

"So it was about getting the best plan to win that game, and we had time, we had 20-odd days to plan for the game.

"It was the graft that went into executing a game-plan and getting everyone fully on-board, and knowing on that morning when we put our suits on and went on a walk around the grounds of the hotel, that as a staff, we'd done absolutely everything to prep.

"We knew we were in such a strong position for the game to play out, we knew the type of game it'd be and we knew it'd be a really tight game with maybe one goal deciding it.

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"For it to play out exactly how we saw it and how the structure of the game went, for us to take our opportunities on the break - I know it's associated with luck with what Cookie did but that's what he does, he chases down balls, we knew they'd pass back to the goalkeeper a lot.

"It was a cumulation of being able to execute a proper game-plan and then when the full-time goes, the biggest emotion is just relief.

"I remember Milly and I chatting briefly on the pitch about not wanting to let anyone down, how crap it would've been if we'd lost for the fans, for families.

"We completely detached ourselves from talking about it subconsciously in the build-up, but that relief when we won it was just overwhelming.

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"My biggest image from it is seeing Milly with the trophy, lifting it, knowing all the stuff he'd been through, his own personal journey of stepping up to be manager, decisions he'd made, the criticism he'd faced early in the season, coming through it and then standing up there representing the club and the town at the most iconic moment in football, up there on that platform lifting the trophy and getting the ripple of applause from the crowd, it hit home that we'd achieved something.

"We wanted more in the league ultimately, but that one single moment, I was just pleased for him and journey he'd been on and the difficulties he'd faced.

"It was a once-in-a-lifetime moment at the end of such a difficult season."

Compared to the snakes and ladders feel to the first-half of the year, the second-half has been more serene and consistent, with fewer peaks like the Wrexham win but also fewer nadirs like Scunthorpe.

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"We've got as many away wins already as we had the whole of last season, we've got more points, we've conceded less and score more," Cooper says.

"We've been more consistent, mainly down to recruitment, players who've arrived who've hit the ground running.

"The way injuries have fallen have been really brutal and tough in terms of serious injuries, ones we can't foresee, big injuries for Jo Cummings and Jack Evans.

"But we've been able to have a more together squad competing for a starting shirt, players in the squad have stepped up.

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"Lads who had their first proper taste of senior football last season have kicked on this season and become mainstays of the team in terms of performances and how they've led the group.

"It's a more galvanized group that's picked up where we left off last season really.

"The disappointing side is there are inconsistencies we want to iron out, but the games we've fallen short in or ones we've given away last minute goals, they're the ones that make a difference to the league table.

"We're still in a solid enough position going into the festive period but we know we could be a few points higher, so consistency is the main thing for us.

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"We've been competitive in every game, there hasn't been a game where we've been absolutely battered and not competed or represented the shirt, which is all we can ask for.

"Being able to have a settled squad, have less upheaval, the players blending in, staffing remaining the same, we've just been able to continue on.

"A lot of the work was done in the summer months, so less holidays for the staff to get everything ready.

"We moved the pitches around to train on different pitches so ours were kept in better condition for this time of year.

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"There's loads of small, subtle changes that add a big percentage when they come together that help us in what we've done.

"We've stuck to the task well without the ball but we're still looking to try and create and score more, which is our Achilles heel."

The second part of the Courier’s in-depth interview with the Halifax assistant manager will be online next week.