Return ticket

Bottom of the pile. Fewest goals scored, most conceded. Fewest games won, most lost. Keith Butterick summarises a tough season in Division Three for Halifax Town

Well, at least we have secured our place in the history books. Not, though, for anything as em­otionally gratifying as being the first Third Division club to win the FA Cup. No, typical of Halifax Town, our entry will be the type that no one wants – the first club to be promoted from the Conference and then relegated again. Quite an achievement even by our standards.

Town fans have had some time to prepare themselves, because relegation hasn’t exactly been a last-minute cliff-hang­er. The fall from the League has been coming for some time on the back of some poor performances and dread­ful bad luck, including four home games where the op­ponents scored equalisers or win­ners in injury time.

After what has been a quite dismal season, Halifax fans might be forgiven for being full of despair at what lies ahead. After all, last time it took five long, hard years to get out of the Con­ference and clubs who have gone down after Town, such as Don­caster and Hereford, have al­so struggled to get back.

We have spent a long time wondering where it all went wrong, because when we came up four years ago, the prospects seemed for once to be very good. Gates were healthy, all the debts had been paid off and, in Kieran O’Regan and George Mulhall, we had a man­agement team who knew what they were do­ing.

Then Jim Brown came back. Brown, the Brad­ford City-loving former chairman, had been in charge when Halifax first dropped out of the League in 1998 and Town fans could not believe it when he took over again. To everyone’s disbelief, Mulhall resigned before the season had begun, furious that Brown had sig­ned his son-law, the former West Brom player Peter Butler, with a promise that he would get a coaching job. Mulhall, however, didn’t want to be dictated to. That started the rot, undermining all the good work that had been done by the previous board.

The key questions now are: is the club bet­ter prepared for non-League football than be­fore, and will we return? The initial indications would not appear too good. With the sea­son barely over, the new chairman Bob Walker has put the club into administration. This is no panic move, however, but part of a five-year plan to restore the club to financial order, which includes restoring some sanity to the wages bill – during this past year it has been the highest ever, but the team is one of the worst.

It might be an unpalatable fact of life for players and supporters, but they are going to have to learn to live within their means. Ha­lifax is a small club, with a hardcore sup­port of between 1,500 and 2,000. The club needs to budget on the gates it knows it will get, rather than the ones it thinks it ought to get. And every club will have to do the same. If that means part-time players, then so be it.

It appears Neil Redfearn will be the man­ager and there are those who believe that he should have been appointed when he was caretaker earlier in the season. Redfearn has said that the way forward for clubs like Halifax is to have a small nucleus of older players with a bedrock of youngsters. Encouragingly, in the last few matches he has been giving some of the younger players a chance.

What we do have is a ground that will be the best in the Conference when complete and, with the money due from the rugby club, will provide much needed commercial in­come. Our future will be determined by the bigger debate that has to take place about the future of football in the lower divisions. Sup­porters believe that the present ways of doing things cannot be sustained and even if the League and ITV Digital do reach an agreement at the last minute, the sums in that con­tract are never likely to be offered again.

Many feel that we won’t be playing Conference or Third Division football for too long, but rather in some form of regional structure. The big worry is what happens if you finish bottom of that league. That really would be staring into the abyss.

But for true supporters it doesn’t matter where we’re playing. We’ll still be at the pub for a pint before the match and in the same seats – or maybe in the new East Stand – watching. Because whether it’s Leigh RMI or Hull City, that’s what supporters do.

From WSC 184 June 2002. What was happening this month