Shaymen tipped as relegation candidates
30 April ~ August 11, 2013. FC Halifax Town are back in the Conference Premier, the division from which the old club were ejected in 2008 due to financial problems. The fixture list couldn’t have handed them a much tougher start – an away trip to one of the promotion favourites, Cambridge United. Halifax score first through Lee Gregory but by the 21st minute, early season belief has begun to ebb away. Town are down to nine men and Cambridge are level; it ends 5-1 to the U's. Life back in the Conference looks like being tough for the Shaymen. Yet the two teams meet again tonight in the first leg of a play-off semi final.
Halifax followed that first day nightmare with an impressive 3-2 win at the Shay against Wrexham, and home form was to prove vital in building a platform for the season. In September, two more promotion favourites were beaten – Barnet 2-1 and Grimsby 4-0, both without injured striker Gregory. Around the turn of the year, a 5-1 defeat of Lincoln and creditable draws against top-five sides Gateshead and Cambridge suggested that Town were a match for any side at home.
The problem was the away form. By the end of February, a solitary away win (against relegation candidates Dartford) had been achieved and Town were in mid-table. In a recent interview, manager Neil Aspin told the Non-League Paper he fully expected that, when other teams caught up on games in hand, Halifax would be battling against the likes of Southport and Aldershot to stay in the division.
What happened next was remarkable. Town embarked on a run of nine wins and a draw in ten games in March and April, including five successive away wins. They didn’t concede a goal for over 11 hours. And, despite the run coming to an end in a 2-1 defeat at Southport and tiredness starting to show, a final day draw against Kidderminster sees them face Cambridge over two legs for a place at Wembley.
Remember: FC Halifax are still a part-time team in a predominantly full-time league. But the pride, commitment and, yes, quality of these players has, to a large extent, rendered the distinction irrelevant. Gregory (rumoured to be moving to a Championship club in the summer) has been immense, scoring 29 league goals despite missing several games.
History is against the Shaymen. In 11 seasons of Conference play-offs, the fifth-placed team has never won. And the last part-time team to win promotion was Cheltenham in 1999. But Cambridge go into these games on the back of four defeats with no goals scored. It just could happen that FC Halifax will avenge that first day hammering and make their first ever appearance at Wembley. Charlie Adamson