"Those were special years" - Former FC Halifax Town manager Neil Aspin on joining the club, working with Jamie Vardy and winning three promotions

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After his appointment as FC Halifax Town manager in the summer of 2009, Neil Aspin won three promotions in four seasons to achieve his aim of restoring the club to the top tier of non-league football.

But that's only part of the story of his six-and-a-bit years in charge of The Shaymen.

In the first of a special two-part feature, Aspin tells the Courier's FC Halifax Town writer Tom Scargill about joining the club, working with Jamie Vardy and those three promotions.

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FC Halifax Town's inaugural season hadn't exactly gone to plan.

Neil Aspin after Halifax's play-off win at Brackley in 2013Neil Aspin after Halifax's play-off win at Brackley in 2013
Neil Aspin after Halifax's play-off win at Brackley in 2013

The newly-formed club had been made favourites to win the Northern Premier League Division One North title under Jim Vince.

But they ended the 2008-09 season in eighth, five points adrift of the play-offs.

If that was a false start though, they would soon be making up for lost time.

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"I was manager of Harrogate Town and I'd spoken to the chairman, we were coming to the end of the season and he'd said the budget the following year was going to be x amount and I wasn't happy with what he was saying," says Neil Aspin, who had enjoyed a good career as a defender with Leed United, Port Vale and Darlington.

Aspin with his assistant manager Trevor StortonAspin with his assistant manager Trevor Storton
Aspin with his assistant manager Trevor Storton

"Bill Fotherby was the chairman at the time, who'd been at Leeds, so I knew him quite well and I was able to have an honest discussion.

"I said 'I don't want to manage here next year, I want to go somwhere else'. I felt the club had gone as far as it could go, which was true at the time, and I wanted to have a new challenge.

"I was well up with the non-league scene at the time and I knew Halifax had been demoted three leagues and they'd had one season of trying to get out of that league but it hadn't gone particularly well.

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"I always knew if that job came up, I would be interested in it.

Aspin with his squad at The Shay for the pre-season friendly game against York in 2011Aspin with his squad at The Shay for the pre-season friendly game against York in 2011
Aspin with his squad at The Shay for the pre-season friendly game against York in 2011

"I got a call from David Bosomworth asking me for an interview, I went for the interview and came away thinking 'that went well'.

"Then I didn't hear anything for a few days so I rang him back and said 'have I got the job or not?' and a couple of days later they offered me the job and I was happy to take it.

"Although Halifax were three league below Harrogate, I just felt it with the fan base they had that it was a bigger club and I felt that if I could get them moving in the right direction it would be a good job, and that's how it proved."

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Aspin knew he had joined a club hungry for success and that he needed to deliver it.

Halifax Town celebtrate their win over Brackley Town in the Blue Square North play offsHalifax Town celebtrate their win over Brackley Town in the Blue Square North play offs
Halifax Town celebtrate their win over Brackley Town in the Blue Square North play offs

"As any manager that goes into a new job, I had to look at which players were under contract, that was the first thing, look at which players they had, who was worth keeping and which ones, even if they were under contract, I wanted to get rid of.

"Then I realised I had to bring in personnel who'd played at a higher level to try and get them out of the level they were in because when there's only one team that gets promotion, there's not a lot of margin for error.

"I knew if I didn't get them promoted, I'd probably get sacked and if I got sacked after being at Harrogate, which was my only job, if I went to Halifax and got sacked then it was probably the end of my career.

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"So I knew I was under pressure but when I took the job, I was very enthusiastic, very keen, I felt I could do the job and I wanted to put myself under pressure and do it.

"But I knew that if we didn't get promotion, I'd probably get sacked, so I knew I had to get some decent players in so I set about the task of doing that."

From 63 points and 71 goals to 100 points and 108 goals.

From eighth to first.

Stagnation to acceleration.

And Aspin says it went more smoothly than expected.

"I always remember my first game at Halifax, it was away at Colwyn Bay," he reflects.

"I knew we had to get off to a decent start, I knew Colwyn Bay were quite a fancied team.

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"Once we won that, James Dean played his first game and I could see what a handful he was going to be in that league, he scored two goals in that game I think.

"Once we settled down and won that game, I had a feeling we had quite a strong team and we could do well.

"You're always apprehensive because pre-season, you never really know how you're going to do.

"I think we played York in pre-season, who were three or four leagues above us, and we beat them.

"I felt then that we had a decent enough team."

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Thirty wins, ten draws and two defeats from 42 league games would suggest it was more than decent.

"In most of my time at Halifax, but especially early on, I worked with some great lads and as your career progresses, you realise it was a special group," Aspin says.

"As a manager, you have to have respect, which I had, but I respected the players as well because they were really good lads and I didn't have any trouble working with them.

"They put in a shift every game and I really enjoyed it.

"I don't keep in touch with many people who played for me but the ones that I do are mainly connected with my years at Halifax, so I think that shows that it was a good group."

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Aspin had put the foot firmly on the accelerator, and that's where it stayed.

The following season, The Shaymen made it back-to-back promotions by winning the Northern Premier League Premier Division by 19 points.

"In those days I used to play in a Masters tournament for Leeds," says Aspin, "which was on Sky, and I'm not going to mention their name, but somebody who was in non-league who was playing for another team there said to me 'you'll not do what you did last year in the league you're going into, it's much tougher, you'll not get 100 points'.

"But I said 'no, I think we'll do alright' and we got 98 points!

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"That next year, we strengthened, which is what you have to keep doing.

"You get success by your recruitment. Recruitment is always key.

"When I ended up getting sacked at Halifax, if you lose good players and you don't replace them with players who are as good, you get a decline and that's what happened.

"No matter what you think you're like as a manager, if you haven't got the tools on the pitch, you can't do the job.

"We had good players, signed good players.

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"I've been in football a long time and I've got no desire to return to it now, but at Halifax at that time, we were on top of everything.

"Myself, my coaching staff, everybody, we knew all the good players.

"We signed Jamie Vardy, we tried to sign Andre Gray, we were the first team that came in for Che Adams.

"If ever there was a good player available, we'd have always been aware of him and we were on top of everything so if we lost players, we were able to keep getting better players.

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"I don't remember too much of that season but one game that stands out is going to Nantwich, where Jimmy Quinn was the manager.

"I'd played against Jimmy, who was a centre-forward and a tough lad, really good in the air and someone I respected as a player.

"We beat Nantwich 6-0. I think our frontline was Vardy, Gregory and Deano - no non-league teams were putting out that forward line, it was really exceptional."

Jamie Vardy.....wonder what happened to him.

"He was great," Aspin says. "He had a reputation when I signed him, people told me not to sign him, I'd heard all the bad things about him.

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"But I thought 'no, I'm not going to listen to that, I believe he's got great potential as a player with his pace and his tencaity'.

"I think you need to have a bit of a nasty side if you're going to be successful but that didn't put me off and he never caused me any problems.

"When he trained, he trained well. When he played, he gave 100 per cent every game, no matter who he was playing against.

"Yeah, he was a lively lad off the pitch but I didn't mind because he turned up for training every time, never missed, and he never missed games, so he was great to manage."

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Team after team that season just couldn't cope with Vardy's explosive pace and finishing ability.

Combined with what was already an outstanding team, it made Town unstoppable.

"I remember the first game of the season against Buxton, Trevor Storton (assistant manager) was next to me, Vardy did a couple of things that game and we just looked at each other and I said 'he's going to play so much higher'," Aspin recalls.

"I remember when we were training at the track near The Shay (Spring Hall), we were doing a bit of running in pre-season and Vardy didn't even have proper trainers.

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"The rest of the lads knew we'd paid a fee for him and they didn't know what we'd signed, but then they saw how quick he was, then we started playing football and all the lads couldn't believe how good he was!

"Straight away, everybody knew he was going to be good."

Aspin's second promotion was given added poignancy after his assistant Trevor Storton died in March 2011 - just a couple of weeks before Town sealed the title - aged 61, following a long battle with cancer.

"Trevor played a massive part because he was really good with the players, he was like a father figure," Aspin says.

"I didn't realise until later that he was really good for me because he just had a great way about him.

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"He was knowledgable, he'd obviously played football himself, lovely bloke and I really missed him.

"When he died it was like losing part of my own family, a bit like losing your own dad in a way.

"It was really upsetting and it would have been so nice to have spent longer with him, but the time I was with him, I really treasure that time.

"Trevor was a big part in our success, that can't be understated.

"All the players really liked him as well.

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"He was the type of person that would ring up a player after a game and have a quiet word with them.

"Everybody liked him and he played a big part and he was a big miss."

In just two seasons, Halifax had gone from languishing in the eighth tier of English football to running dangerously low on silver polish thanks to consecutive promotions.

"I think the first one was the important one because I knew I had to get out of that league," Aspin says.

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"To be fair, Lancaster pushed us all the way, there was no margin for error.

"At the end of that season I think we had to play eight or nine games in 21 days, so we were playing Monday, Thursday, Saturday, Monday, Thursday, Saturday, and lads had jobs as well.

"It was really tough because we couldn't afford to lose, we had to keep winning and that culminted with the miracle we had at Garforth and then the home game against Lancaster, which put them out of it.

"We won the game at Garforth, then we beat Lancaster when they opened the new stand at The Shay and the atmosphere was great.

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"Then we had to play Curzon away on the Monday night and we beat them 5-0.

"It was a great end to the season, but for me that was the more satisying because that was the first time I'd won anything as a manager and it set the ball rolling for the next couple of seasons as well."

The Shaymen were moving up in the world fast, but not fast enough to keep up with Vardy, whose inevitable exit came not long after the start of the 2011-12 campaign in the Conference North.

"David's very shrewd and he had Vardy on a four-year contract, which was unheard of in non-league," Aspin says.

"He was only on about three hundred quid.

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"He came to me at the start of that season, he'd quit his job. He was always struggling with his back because he was on his feet in the factory where he worked.

"He'd got an agent and said he wanted to go into full-time football, so basically the agreement was 'we're not going to stand in your way but the club has to get a fee we're happy with'.

"He played the first three games but he was desperate to go.

"He was still training and still putting it in in the games but he wanted to go, and if we hadn't let him go then I'm sure our relationship would have deteriorated because it would have been bad for him, to stand in his way.

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"So although I didn't want him to go, because I knew he couldn't be replaced, I knew it was the right thing.

"When he did go, it was the best move for all parties and who could have thought he'd end up playing for England? He's had such a good career.

"When he was leaving, David had clauses for everything, he had clauses for if he was top goalscorer, if Fleetwood got promotion, a sell-on fee, everything.

"The only thing that he regretted was that he never put in the contract 'if he plays for England' because he thought it might be a little far-fetched, so he didn't do it and he always regretted that.

"But he did think about it."

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A Vardy-less Halifax didn't quite have enough to make it three titles on the trot, losing over two legs in the play-offs to Gainsborough Trinity.

"We had a good go at it, we unluckily lost in the play-offs," Aspin says.

"We were a little bit short, I think we needed to strengthen in all areas and then the following season, I felt we had strengthened."

The Shaymen faced a ridiculous fixture pile-up towards the end of the 2012-13 season that would have left Pep Guardiola speechless.

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But Aspin's men dragged themselves into the play-offs once again.

"When we had a backlog of games, I always felt we were OK because everybody's got their own opinions of what managers are like but at the time, you could be a bit of a disciplinarian and the players were fit, they were very respectful, they always did as they were told and what I said, and we trained really hard, even though we were part-time," Aspin says.

"When we went into extra games, we were always fit and always ready for it, so that didn't bother me.

"Going into the play-offs, I knew we'd finished the season strong and that's how it proved."

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Town then knocked out West Yorkshire rivals Guiseley in the semi-finals before Lee Gregory capped a brilliant season with the winner at Brackley in the final.

"Guiseley had a really good team and we had to go there and win the game," says Aspin, with the first-leg at The Shay ending 1-1.

"Lee Gregory was starting to develop by then into the player that he became.

"We put in a really good display, which set us up for the Barckley game, which we also had to win away from home.

"Dan Gardner set-up the winning goal for Lee Gregory.

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"The thing with Dan Gardner, when I signed him from Droylsden, we played a pre-season game against Stockport and I was sat in the stand watching, and Dan Gardner was so good in that game, everybody was looking at him, he was absolutely brilliant.

"He was running the game and then he got carried off on a stretcher and that just killed the whole pre-season.

"I remember going to the hospital with him and it looked like he'd done his cruciate, which is obviously a really serious injury.

"I had a contact at Everton so he went there and a really top physio had a look at it and decided what we were going to do for his rehab.

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"That helped get him back playing and he was a big player for us.

"People like Liam Hogan did a good job for us, Danny Lowe was still playing, he was a big influence.

"We had a good team and I felt we'd improved from the season before.

"When you go in the play-offs, it's always a bit of a lottery.

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"I remember saying to Lee Nogan (assistant manager) before the Brackley game 'if we don't win this game, I think we're going to get sacked'.

"We were under pressure because that was the thing at the time, Halifax had to keep moving forward.

"We'd had one season where we'd missed out in the play-offs and I felt that if we lost the Brackley game, we would probably get sacked, so I was under pressure.

"It was a big game, I think you're always a bit apprehensive, but that was one of the best feelings of my whole career when we won that game.

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"A really, really special day. Probably one of my best days in managing Halifax."

Five years after Halifax Town AFC had gone bust, and four years after Neil Aspin had been tasked with kick-starting their resurrection, The Shaymen were back at non-league football's top table.

"That was my aim when I took the job, to get them back to where they'd been demoted from, so when we got there, three promotions, I felt it was a good achievement," Aspin says.

"I'd have to say, in my whole career, including my playing days, those years were some of the best, I really enjoyed them.

"Those first five years at Halifax were probably the best. I don't think I enjoyed management again after that, but those were special years, I really enjoyed them."

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