"There is no next week, it's now or never" - Former players reflect on Shaymen's past play-off campaigns

This will be the sixth play-off campaign in 14 years for FC Halifax Town.

By Tom Scargill
Saturday, 21st May 2022, 1:36 pm

The play-offs seem a natural home for a club at which life is rarely dull, so often seeming to be fighting for promotion or battling against relegation.

The Shaymen have one quarter-final defeat, two semi-final defeats and two final wins to their name in the play-offs since reforming in 2008.

But that barely scratches the surface of some dramatic, gripping and unforgettable games.

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Tobi Sho-Silva in action for Town in their 2020 play-off eliminator defeat at Boreham Wood. Photo: Marcus Branston

We spoke to some of those involved in Halifax's recent play-off campaigns for their memories of what happened and what lessons Pete Wild's team can learn ahead of Tuesday's clash with Chesterfield.

"I think first of all they've got to remind themselves that they've come a long way," says former Town striker Tobi Sho-Silva, who scored Halifax's goal in their 2-1 defeat at Boreham Wood in the 2020 play-off eliminator.

"It's hard to get into the play-offs, you have to be consistent over the season, so they've got to know they've got the beating of whoever they come up against.

"That's first and foremost, because they've shown it throughout the season, so there's nothing to fear.

Lee Gregory scores in the semi-final first-leg against Cambridge in 2014

"And then secondly, don't big up the occasion, just play the game that's in-front of them.

"I always say 'play the game, not the occasion', so just narrow it down to the fact they've got 90 minutes, maybe 120 minutes, to play and their only focus should be on winning that game of football.

"The rewards that come with winning should be their focus and they shouldn't be thinking about anything else.

"Give it your all and stay professional until the end of that 90 or 120 minutes.

Town celebrate beating Salford on penalties in the semi-final in 2017

"It is a big game and it might take some sacrifices to make sure you're as ready as you can be, but when you're out there, just play with freedom, knowing you deserve to be there."

That play-off clash with Boreham Wood seemed a million miles away when Pete Wild took over at Halifax in the summer of 2019.

"It was a messy start to the season," says former Town midfielder Josh Staunton. "Pete came in late but we started really well.

"I think it was clear to see for everyone that Pete was a good manager.

Billy Heath celebrates his side's win in 2017's play-off final against Chorley

"We dropped off a bit and then we got a bit of form back and then were interrupted by Covid.

"The play-offs were even more of a lottery than they usually are because we just came back for a one-off game, with no crowd.

"It was a bit of a step into the unknown for everybody, it was the first game we played without fans, after probably a two-month break.

"It's like a pre-season game really, your body wasn't used to playing games because friendlies were hard to come by because no-one was allowed to mingle.

"It was a disappointing game but no-one went into the play-offs with any momentum because it was a complete one-off.

"It was a gutting feeling losing that game because it wasn't the way we wanted to go out that season."

Josh Staunton looks dejected as Town bow out at Boreham Wood in 2020. Photo: Marcus Branston

"We'd worked so hard during the season," says Sho-Silva, "and it was the points-per-game that solidified who was in the play-offs, but we earned the right to be there, and we had no nerves going into it.

"To take the lead, and to get a goal myself, it was amazing. We just didn't want it to pass us by.

"It was an enjoyable, enjoyable occasion but gutting that we couldn't get the result we wanted."

Town did get the right result back in 2017, when Billy Heath led The Shaymen to play-off success as they beat Salford in the semi-finals and then Chorley in the final at The Shay.

"I think the biggest thing is that at no point did I ever doubt us," says former Town midfielder David Lynch, "because it was such a good group of lads, probably the best dressing room I've ever been in, in terms of winners and what we demanded from each other.

"The togetherness off the pitch, the relationship the manager and his assistant had the with the players, I just fancied us.

"I remember Peni (Richard Peniket) scoring in the first-leg at Salford, we had a couple of good chances, I think Nathan Hotte hit the bar.

"At no point over both legs did I ever think we were going to lose, especially when it went to penalties, I just fancied us. We had too much character about us.

"That Salford team was very good, Anthony Johnson and Bernard Morley did a brilliant job there, and they were strong.

"But there was something about us, I think we had a bit of everything. You look at the mixture of players we had, if we wanted to go long, we could do, but if we wanted to play, we had Kev Roberts, Sinbad (Jordan Sinnott), Kossy (Matty Kosylo), Peni, we had different types of players.

"The squad the gaffer had assembled at the time, it was just too strong. If you wanted to have a fight with us, we'd fight you, if you wanted to play, we'd play.

"Even when we went a goal down or something happened that season, because we had a bit of a bad spell around Christmas, but we kicked on. We'd already beaten Salford too.

"The overriding thing I remember is going into the game with excitement because I fancied us, and we'd gone into the play-offs in good form.

"I think our character got us through to the final, and then you can't look past Sinbad in the final.

"Obviously Kev was brilliant too on the day, one of the best full-backs I've played with at any level.

"Browny (Matty Brown) got back fit at the right time, but I think Sinbad was the difference, I don't think anyone could argue that. It was his pass for the first goal and then his cross for the second.

"I think it gets forgotten how good a player he was. You look at that final, he was just unbelievable.

"That was probably the best time of my career and I'm massively appreciative of the gaffer bringing me in when he did.

"It was special."

So too was Halifax's 2013 play-off campaign, where they beat Guiseley in the semi-finals and then won at Brackley in the final to reach the fifth tier.

"The two-legged semi-final against Guiseley was hard because they had a strong team," recalls former Halifax goalkeeper Matt Glennon.

"I think we played something like 11 games in about 22, 23 days because the pitch was that bad. I remember playing at Oxford City on a Thursday night, then playing again on Saturday, it was just ridiculous how many games we had to play in that short space of time.

"Just to get through that amount of games and then to get promoted away at Brackley was brilliant.

"I remember it being a bit closer than we'd have liked, but it was a great feeling."

Town then reached the play-offs again the following season, but lost over two-legs to eventual winners Cambridge.

"That was a bigger achievement in the sense that the Conference is pretty much a full-time league and we weren't full-time, we were just training a couple of times a week," says Glennon.

"It was phenomenal. The team spirit Neil Aspin and his staff put together was absolutely brilliant, and obviously some of those players have gone on to play Championship football and do really well.

"It was a great run. I remember sitting on the coach waiting to see if results had come in to see if we'd got into the play-offs or not - no-one got off the coach.

"We stopped at a pub where some the lads got off, and we all just sat there waiting for the whistle."

The current group of Halifax players can achieve what none of their predecessors for the new club did, and reach the promised land of the Football League.

"It's like playing cup football," says Glennon. "There is no next week, it's now or never.

"That's what needs to be drilled into people.

"The fans can get excited and enjoy themselves, but the players have got to think 'we've got one game of football coming up and we've got to make sure that we're at it' because there's no second chances.

"The carrot at the end of it is massive because it's Halifax back in the Football League and players being where they want to be.

"There's pressure getting there in the first place, those last few games making sure you stay in the play-offs are huge.

"There's pressure on every game, there's always pressure.

"In the build-up, lads will have butterflies in their stomachs, they'll be nervous, they'll be talking about it. But it's an excited nervous, looking forward to what could happen.

"Play it like a cup game, but try to enjoy the situation because the crowd will be lively, it's a great build-up and it's good to achieve things."

Lynch has just helped Marine to promotion into the Northern Premier League Premier Division via the play-offs.

"You've got to have belief, have the right mentality, but what you can't do is try and win the game in the first five minutes, because it just doesn't happen," he says.

"You've got to make sure you're solid, you stay in the game and if you believe in what you've got you're always going to create chances.

"You've got to make sure you treat it as just another game, you can't let the emotion of the occasion get the better of you.

"If you start trying to do things you've not done all season you can come unstuck.

"You've just got to keep doing the right things that you've done all season to get you in the position you are.

"I'd just say relax, believe in yourselves. You're good players, the fans will get behind them - for me they're the best fans in non-league football, I'd argue that with anyone, I've never seen fans as passionate in my life.

"You're going to have their backing, just go and play your normal game, go and believe in each other, stay in the game, don't be trying you've not done all season, do what's got you in the position you're in."

"When I'd last played in the play-offs at Dagenham it was the two legs," says Staunton, "which made it a bit easier to predict because over two legs, a lot of the time the better team will win.

"That one-off game makes it more the toss of a coin. It was definitely a different experience for me, and Boreham Wood are always a hard team to play against anyway.

"It was never going to be a free-flowing game. That was the first year of the new set-up with the single leg games, which made it even more like a step into the unknown.

"They're just a different experience, they don't feel like a league game, they're more like a cup game.

"Even more so when you go to that one leg.

"A couple of seasons before I'd played in a home and away leg against Forest Green, and the crowd can make a big difference.]

"It probably boils down to experience at the end of the day, and if you look at that Boreham Wood team, they probably had more experience than us.

"It's all about knowing how to win a game. It doesn't matter how well you perform on the day, it's the result which matters.

"They've got a good leader in Niall (Maher), he's a good guy.

"The team, from the boys I know and that I've come to play against, they've got a lot of good characters in that squad, so they probably don't need advice off me!

"I'd just tell them to believe in themselves. Pete will set them up well, and they'll go into the game full of confidence because they're where they deserve to be in the league.

"I think that belief is a massive thing. If you go into it thinking you can win it and go onto the next stage, you're giving yourself the best opportunity you can to progress."

"It's a knockout competition," says Sho-Silva, "like the games in the FA Trophy or the FA Cup, where it's not really about the quality on the day, it's just about getting through to the next round and winning that game.

"Sometimes that can add pressure but sometimes it can take pressure away because you just give it your all, and whatever happens happens.

"It was amazing to be involved in though because it is a high-pressure game for the club, the fans and the players, but you embrace it, knowing how hard you've worked to get there, and you can enjoy the occasion, like I did.

"It's probably one of my favourite games because of the occasion and how hard we worked to get there.

"Win, lose or draw, you're proud of your team-mates and the club to reach that achievement, and you're going into the game thinking about one thing, which is just winning that game of football.

"Pete and Milly were calming influences on the boys. We had a mix of experience and youth so it was just (a case of) bringing the boys together, making sure that we were prepared for the game, and not building it up to be a game that's bigger than any other.

"I always say 'you play the game not the occasion'. If you need to win tackles, win your tackles, if you need to score, go and score, if you need to track your man, track your man. It's just another game of football.

"Yeah, it's got a higher cost on it, but it's just another game of football.

"So they were a very calming influence on us, to just focus on the here and now. Not the next round and who we'll play, not the 30-odd games that have gone before, just to zone in and be prepared for the game."

Town with the trophy at Brackley in 2013