Football: Mulhall revives a dream from decay at The Shay

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Six months ago the future, like the past, looked bleak for Halifax Town. But the call to arms of an old servant invigorated the club who now find themselves tantalisingly close to a return to the League. Guy Hodgson reports

Take a look upwards from The Shay and the brooding Beacon Hill of the Pennines stares back at you. Until recently it summed up Halifax Town's position: the club at the bottom, Football League status at the top. No, transplant Everest and you get a truer picture.

Last May Halifax Town, original members of the Third Division North in 1921 and so used to being in trouble "crisis" should have been incorporated in the club crest, were only a game away from joining the Unibond League. Today they are seven points clear in the GM Vauxhall Conference and the League status they reluctantly surrendered in 1993 is suddenly attainable.

It is, as the Yorkshire Post put it succinctly recently, a "miracle to rival the moment Lazarus opened his eyes and wondered why on earth he had dozed off in a cave".

In Halifax they are rubbing their eyes and wondering, too. The club has flirted with oblivion for so long the neighbours had long since stopped talking and even Robert Maxwell took a look at The Shay's finances and thought better of buying. "It had a tenuous link with financial stability to say the least," the chairman of three years and supporter for 43, John Stockwell agreed. "We had the Inland Revenue trying to wind us up with the VAT people close behind."

A new, manageable, rental agreement with the local council, who own the ground, and the directors digging into their own pockets shook off the financial jackals and with gates around 2,000 the club can now afford to spend pounds 1m on The Shay to make it fit for elevation. Work begins on 5 January.

Stockwell the instigator of the financial turn-around, like the supporters, credits George Mulhall with the revival on the field. Manager of the club in their heyday - and here we are talking the old Third Division 25 years ago - he arrived on "keep us up and job's yours" basis in February.

"You have to lay a lot of credit at his door," Stockwell said. "He's brought in his own people and a good attitude and professional standards. He has transformed the club. If the season finished tomorrow I could say I've had more enjoyment this year than ever before."

Mulhall, a 61-year-old Scot, had been a manager at various clubs including Bolton and Bradford City and was coaching youngsters at Huddersfield when he was asked to help at Halifax. His priority was a leaky defence which he plugged with a variety of ex-League players including the 35-year-old former Coventry captain, Brian Kilcline.

He also changed the style to a less direct one which has worked to the extent that Halifax are the only club in senior football with a 100 per cent home record.

"I wouldn't go as far as to say they used to be a long ball team," Mulhall said, "but I'm of the opinion the longer you kick it the more chance you have of losing possession. I like to keep the ball, be more patient and pass with purpose. Let's put it this way, you won't play for me unless you can pass the ball."

When Halifax beat Huddersfield's first team pre-season, Mulhall realised he had the makings of a useful side. How useful, he is still not certain and he worries what a few injuries might do. "I'm happy where we are," he said. "I'd be foolish to say otherwise, but the bottom line is that we haven't won anything yet. Lose two or three games and the situation changes dramatically.

"The club's desperate to get back in the League like most clubs in the GM Vauxhall Conference. Could we survive if we got there? I think maybe the top six could play in the Third Division."

Stockwell, who had to live with the memories of FA Cup wins over West Bromwich Albion and Manchester City to sustain him through the the dark days, would love to think so. "I feel particularly pleased for the hard core of supporters," he said. "Last year we were down to about 700 diehards and they stuck with us through thick and thin, mainly thin. On Tuesday we had 2,100 on a wet, miserable night to watch us beat Northwich Victoria.

"The success this season hasn't really sunk in. I know I'll be chuffed to bits if we do make it, but I don't really want to think about it until we get there. We've had very few highlights and a lot of low lights at Halifax."

Like '93 when they went out of the League? "It felt like we'd fallen off the flat earth."