If you want to get to the heart of Halifax’s 2015 success, look at the Bens, Heaton and Kaye.
A year ago, Heaton, low on confidence and out of favour, was on loan at Batley and – although he was contracted for 2015 – didn’t look like a player who was coming back any time soon.
And the usually irrepressible Kaye was a pale shadow of the workaholic number nine who had been a key part of Daryl Powell’s dominant Featherstone teams, struggling to provide direction or dynamism around the ruck.
Their dip in fortunes mirrored those of the team; Fax sinking without trace in the Championship play offs against Dewsbury – 25-0 at home – the weekend after coach Karl Harrison left the club, ending a three year reign.
Watching from behind the darkened glass of a hospitality box that day was Richard Marshall, freshly released from Warrington Wolves’ coaching team and already in negotiations to take charge of the club he had first signed for as a 16 year old at the beginning of the 1990s.
What Marshall thought watching that day’s horror show, and what he thought about inheriting an already virtually complete playing roster – the former Warrington junior Ryan Maneely was the only pre-season recruit he personally picked – is hard to say, but it wasn’t enough to dissuade him from jumping into the hotseat.
Roll on 12 remarkable months and Marshall can polish his Championship Coach of the Year Trophy, his paymasters can count the £787,000 in prize money they surely never imagined collecting, and Fax can reflect on arguably their best – at least if consistency and improvement is the yardstick – season since John Pendlebury’s side, which included Marshall, finished third in Super League in 1998.
But back to the Bens.
Fax’s success this season has not been based on a big wage bill or big names, it has been based on coaching in its truest sense; improving and educating, both individuals and the team.
Nowhere has Marshall’s willingness and ability to do that – which is typical of most of the coaches to have rolled off the Brian and Tony Smith production line over the years – paid richer dividends than with those two.
Kaye again looks like the human dynamo who played Super League for London and Leeds while Heaton has been transformed into one of the best centres in the competition.
And as their personal stock has soared, so has that of their teammates, to the point where every single one of the club’s players – at least the ones who were also in residence in 2014 – are indisputably individually better than they were a year ago.
Those improvements have snowballed over the last eight months, but they were evident from the first kick of the first Championship game at Whitehaven, traditionally a difficult venue whatever the fortunes of the home side, as Fax eased to a clinical 44-16 success in February.
A muddy, bloody home loss to title favourites Leigh, by 18-6 the following weekend, highlighted two things.
Firstly, Marshall – who has conducted himself all season with an intelligence and calmness which belies the intensity he brings to his coaching – was already well on the way to building a team that could defend and, secondly, he had a lot of work to do on his side’s attacking game.
Fax produced a super second half shutout to deny Batley the following week, but the month that followed was probably the most difficult of the year, with defeats by Featherstone, London and Bradford – the Broncos reverse was particularly galling after the visitors dominated in the capital – testing resolve.
Those three games began a trend that continued through April and May; Fax found themselves stuck in no-man’s land, comfortably disposing of the teams in the lower half of the table, home and away, but unable to get results against their top four rivals.
A narrow 22-14 loss at Leigh – after a bloodbath of a game – was typically frustrating, although the 36-10 defeat at Sheffield at the end of April hit Marshall particularly hard as his side, for once, simply failed to perform.
The coach observed after that debacle, which probably ended the Fax careers of two of Harrison’s buys – the wing Alex Brown and the centre Chris Taylor – that his side were “competent defensively, but not yet competent with the ball” a pithy assessment that summed up their predicament.
If there was a turning point in 2015 though, it was another defeat, to Bradford in the Summer Bash fixture at Blackpool at the end of May.
The Bulls won 18-4 courtesy of Lee Gaskell’s classy touches, but Marshall’s players were in the game from start to finish and, despite the result, set a benchmark for performance that would stand for the rest of the year.
They won easily at Workington the week after and then went to Post Office Road and walloped Featherstone, the on-loan Widnes stand off Danny Craven outstanding in a 44-20 rout, finally banishing the idea they could not beat the teams around them on the ladder.
By that stage, Fax had almost zero margin for error in the race for the top four and a place in the Super 8s Qualifiers, but in the end they didn’t need any as they marched relentlessly through June and July, sweeping all before them on a nine-game winning streak.
One by one their challengers – Dewsbury, Sheffield, London – were disposed of in clinical fashion as the seeds sown in the spring finally bore fruit.
The highlight was a supercharged, but largely academic, 20-16 home win over Bradford on the final day of the regular season, with the veteran forward Richard Moore spearheading an electrifying team performance in an equally crackling atmosphere.
The Super 8s began with a game against Widnes that was reminiscent of those early season matches; Fax played well, trailing only 4-0 inside the last 10 minutes on their way to a 14-0 defeat, but in the end lacked the cutting edge they needed to win.
A 34-12 reverse at Hull KR the week after demonstrated a trend that would continue to season’s end; against full-time teams, Fax’s part-timers could be very good one week, but not quite as good the week after.
The loss at Sheffield was the one that got away, injuries to Ben Johnston and Gareth Potts proving crucial in a 28-24 defeat, while the form dipped again when Salford ran out disappointingly comfortable 50-28 winners at the Shay.
Fax finally nailed Leigh the week after though, securing a win that left them shooting for the sixth-placed payday with the Centurions and Sheffield.
And while they never hit the same heights in defeat at Wakefield it turned out they had simply saved the best till last, rip-roaring their way to the club’s biggest post-war win at Bradford to crown a magnificent year.