2012: The end of one Halifax era and the start of another

players and coaches often talk about ‘rollercoaster’ years.

But rarely can the analogy have been more appropriate than when set against Halifax’s traumatic 2011 season.

Fax kicked off the year as Co-operative Championship champions, but spent the first three months performing like relegation fodder.

They rallied to reach the Northern Rail Cup final, stirred again to make the play offs, then, finally, ended as they had begun nine months earlier, with a performance so devoid of brains and character it made you wonder what the point of it all was.

In between, they found time to lose coach Matt Calland in circumstances that make the Bermuda Triangle look like a rational phenomenon, appoint a replacement - the club’s former Great Britain forward Karl Harrison - whose destiny has always appeared to be to coach the club where he spent a decade as a player and embark on a root-and-branch close-season rebuilding programme.

Oh, and off the field, they were left angry and frustrated when the Rugby Football League rejected their application for a Super League licence in favour of keeping financially crippled Wakefield at the game’s top table.

Even by rugby league’s chaotic standards, it’s been a controversial 12 months.

Things began well enough in the chill of February, with a 28-22 Northern Rail Cup win against Swinton at the Willows followed by a 50-10 home thumping of Oldham.

The first sign of trouble came at the end of the month, Karl Harrison’s Batley winning 26-25 at the Shay in the NRC, with Sean Hesketh, Dane Manning, Wayne Reittie and Paul Handforth - all Fax players 10 months later - weighing in with all but four of the Bulldogs’ points.

The next three games brought predictable blow outs against Lock Lane and Whitehaven in the Challenge Cup and NRC respectively, but the game that mattered, the Saturday night Co-operative Championship opener in Toulouse, went badly wrong, the under-strength French winning a poor contest - which seemed to be there for the taking for most of the 80 minutes - 26-12.

Calland reacted furiously, confining his players to their hotel after the game and imposing a ‘booze ban’ for the rest of the weekend, but his problems were already starting to become apparent.

His big half back buy - the Keighley stand off Danny Jones - struggled to play his best rugby alongside an increasingly frustrating Ben Black, while Graham Holroyd, dragged out of retirement at Christmas, looked short of both form and fitness.

Jones was actually one of his side’s best as Fax lost a rematch of the 2010 Grand Final against Featherstone at the end of March, with the home side leading at half time but fading badly in the second period as Rovers eased to a 32-20 win.

It was the 42-21 defeat by Sheffield at Bramall Lane a week later that really set the alarm bells ringing though, Fax sinking without trace on a truly miserable afternoon in South Yorkshire.

Toulouse were beaten 36-26 in the last eight of the NRC, Jones scoring twice in a morale boosting win, but the search for a league win went on as Leigh won 32-22 at the Shay and Widnes piled on the agony with a televised 47-36 flogging at the Halton Stadium on the Thursday before Easter.

That evening in Cheshire was particularly traumatic, with Calland rounding on his players afterwards in the Press, which is never a promising sign.

The bottom line was evident in the scorelines: Fax, never the best defenders, even in their title-winning year, were conceding far too many points, far too easily.

And with key attackers like Luke Branighan and Shad Royston having left at the end of 2010, they were no longer capable of racking up the kind of scores needed to compensate.

Dewsbury, a yardstick for enthusiasm but little else, were duly beaten at home on Easter Monday as Fax broke their duck, but even then the 56-24 scoreline seemed to raise as many questions as it answered.

And when Barrow romped home 43-25 at the Shay the following week, Fax were one from seven in the Championship and Calland, who had always endured a slightly uneasy relationship with sections of the club’s support, despite his record of on-field achievement, was under the cosh.

At the time, the choice seemed clear enough: To sack or not to sack.

What happened next was certainly unexpected, with the former Great Britain coach Brian Noble, easily the best homegrown coach of his generation, being drafted in as a ‘football consultant’.

It was an innovative solution to a pressing problem, giving Calland support rather than throwing the baby out with the bath water, not to mention saving the expense of a mid-season payout.

The need for Noble was underlined when Fax lost 46-34 at home to Super League neighbours Bradford in the Challenge Cup, with Holroyd being unceremoniously hauled off early on in what turned out to be the final act of a controversial career that should surely have ended on that glorious night at Warrington six months earlier.

Still, on the face of it, it was a creditable result. But the suspicion lingered that it could have been so much better against the worst Bulls side for years.

Noble started work the following week and, predictably, was soon making his presence felt.

The training sessions got longer and more intense and, although no one ever really chose to admit it, Fax’s occasionally chaotic style, in both attack and defence, began to morph into something more realistic.

It wasn’t enough to grab a miracle win at Featherstone the following week, although there were certainly signs of improvement as the visitors went down 30-18 against the best team in the competition.

Sheffield were edged out at home 14-12 the following week as a leaner, meaner Fax finally began to emerge.

And when unbeaten table-topping Leigh were comprehensively outplayed in Lancashire the following week, Noble grinning on the sidelines as the visitors racked up a hugely impressive 36-16 win against a team coached by his old adversary Ian Millward, the transformation was close to complete.

It still took a last-play Paul White score to beat Hunslet the following week, before Fax headed back to Featherstone for a Northern Rail Cup semi final which seemed utterly unwinnable when the draw had been made a month earlier.

What followed was Fax’s finest hour of 2011, Jones’ golden-point drop goal winning one of the best, most brutal, games of the year at any level.

The scenes that followed were less glorious; with small groups of supporters fighting running battles in the Post Office Road car park in scenes reminiscent of a 1970s football match.

Harrison’s Batley managed to stick a spanner in the works with a 36-28 win at the Shay at the end of June as the old failings resurfaced, but victory at Dewsbury was a suitably defiant riposte.

An against-the-odds victory at Barrow, Fax winning 24-16 after Frank Watene was wrongly sent off, teed things up nicely ahead of the NRC final against Leigh at Blackpool in mid-July.

Fax led 10-0 at the break after a superb, virtually error-free first half performance at Bloomfield Road.

If there was a worry, it was that they hadn’t put enough points on the board.

That concern proved justified as Leigh, inspired by Super League-bound young guns Jamie Ellis and Chris Hill, eventually edged a pulsating final 20-16 through Tom Armstrong’s last-minute try.

What happened in the hours and days that followed will probably be never made public, but by the end of the week Calland had gone by ‘mutual consent’, leaving his assistant, Damian Ball, in charge.

From that point on, the club’s focus was divided: Ball, in his first stint of solo coaching at senior level, doing his best to keep things going on the field while, off it, officials sought Calland’s successor.

That that was Harrison, one of Fax’s favourite sons, was never in doubt - something borne out by the fact the job was never advertised and no other candidates were interviewed - although contractual obligations meant that it would be September before the worst-kept secret became public.

Ball’s tenure contained both highs and lows - the home win over Widnes and a gutless loss at York raising wildly contrasting emotions - but the club’s former back rower deserved tremendous credit for stopping the ship sinking without trace.

The 32-22 play off win at Batley was a fine achievement, although the elastic finally snapped at Bramall Lane the week after as Sheffield romped home 50-12 against a side trying to deal with injuries, fatigue and the intense uncertainty over their own futures.

For many, that concern was well-founded as Harrison put the cleaners through the club in the autumn, building virtually a complete team from scratch.

The former Great Britain forward, who captained the club between 1991 and 1999, is a chalk-and-cheese contrast to Calland in terms of both experience and personality, and his three year deal should bring some much-needed stability.

For the first time in a long time, Fax appear to have a football strategy that stretches beyond the end of the following year.

His reign certainly got off to a solid start with the Boxing Day hammering of Keighley, but the real tests of both his and his employers’ ambitions are yet to come.