Halifax no longer stuck in the mud

Manager Aspin is relishing return to big time for renaissance club in FA Cup today

The most striking thing about the YouTube images of Halifax Town's 1980 FA Cup third-round slaying of Manchester City is the mud. The footage of that January afternoon over three decades ago features some delightful details – Martin Tyler's commentary mentions the Halifax manager George Kirby's pre-match employment of the hypnotist Romark, a man who once put a curse on then City manager Malcolm Allison – yet what stands out above all is the bog that passed for a pitch at The Shay.

The pity for Neil Aspin, Halifax's current manager, is that there will be no such handicap for the League One leaders Charlton Athletic when they step out at the remodelled Shay this lunchtime to face their first-round opponents from three divisions below. "We're going to really need a few monsoons to get it to the state it was against Manchester City," says Aspin. "I must admit I would prefer it to be like that."

There is no danger of the south Londoners coming away caked in mud like Paul Hendrie, Halifax's 1980 hero. Today's council-owned Shay is a neat, compact stadium – the old speedway track is long gone – and a shiny new East Stand and pristine-looking pitch mirror the improved health of FC Halifax Town, the club rising from the ashes of the old Halifax Town AFC following their liquidation in 2008.

The new Halifax sit mid-table in the Blue Square Bet North – one step below the Conference – having already climbed two divisions in as many years (scoring 108 goals each time) since Aspin's arrival in 2009. The former Leeds United and Port Vale defender believes they are progressing "ahead of schedule" yet acknowledges that it has taken the FA Cup to really put the West Yorkshire club back on the map. "We could get promotion after promotion and you wouldn't get the kind of publicity we are getting in one day here. Because it is national and it is the FA Cup and the biggest game of the round, it changes everything."

The magic of the cup may be a cliché but it was impossible to be cynical at Halifax's media open evening this week. The parade of characters included Andy Gilchrist, the supporters' club vice-chairman who saw City scalped as a 15-year-old and was relishing an occasion "to remind a few people that football is still alive and kicking in Halifax" 100 years after the original club's formation. Also present was the full-back and trainee primary school PE teacher Ryan Toulson, who recalled the "devastating" moment that Halifax, then in the Conference, went into liquidation, ending his first spell at The Shay on the day he went in to discuss a new deal.

Halifax have one full-time employee – Aspin's own day job is managing rental properties – and, in a pragmatic sense, have already won before a ball has been kicked today with the £67,500 they receive from ITV for the live screening, not to mention a crowd that should be three times their 1,500 average. Yet after his initial euphoria at being drawn against Charlton, the manager's next reaction was "blooming hell" as he contemplated a considerably stiffer test than that posed by Tadcaster Albion, Lancaster City and Solihull Moors en route to this round.

Although Halifax have won seven in eight, they are without their suspended dangerman James Dean and their former England Under-19, Huddersfield and Bradford goalkeeper Simon Eastwood may have his work cut out. "I always set my team up to be positive, to go forward and pass the ball. But with the level of the opposition, we can't go trying to commit loads of men forward," admits Aspin.

The 46-year-old Tynesider can at least draw on his own giant-killing experience with the Port Vale side who eliminated the holders Everton in the fourth round in 1996. "I was playing centre-half and we came under a lot of pressure because they were very good at set-pieces. They had Duncan Ferguson – although Gareth Griffiths, playing alongside me, was 6ft 5in and he took him more than I did. We survived at Goodison and in the replay played very well and deserved to win. It was a fantastic night."

He also tasted a semi-final defeat with Leeds United, the team he supported as a boy and served for seven years, against Coventry City in 1987. That season ended with a play-off final replay defeat against Charlton. "I can remember sitting in the dressing room [after Leeds' 2-1 loss had denied them a top-flight return]. I'd played 54 games and was emotionally drained. Probably at the time I couldn't stand Charlton, but time's moved on since then."

After 20 years as a professional, Aspin stepped into the "the real world" of non-League football with Harrogate Town, first as player-coach then manager. "It is totally different. As a professional player, you moan a lot, you are never happy with things, you live in a bit of a bubble." He holds his part-timers in high regard – "they come from work, they may be tired but have got to train and they all want to play" – and his hope now is that they will "give a performance that they can be proud of".

Sadly for Aspin, a proud day for Halifax will unfold without his father Ronnie and Trevor Storton, his former assistant manager, both of whom died this year. "The saddest part of Sunday is my father is not alive to see it and also Trevor." Storton, a former Liverpool player, "would have loved to be here. He had a good career as a professional footballer but he loved non-League football". Aspin, happily, carries the same flame, and it is lighting the way ahead for Halifax.

FC Halifax Town v Charlton Athletic is live on ITV1 today, kick-off 12.30pm

Here are some Hali-facts...

Halifax Town were formed in 1911 and entered the Football League in 1921 as founder members of the Third Division North.

The club's highest League placing came in 1970-71 when they came third in the old Third Division, three points above Aston Villa.

Halifax have twice reached the FA Cup fifth round, in 1932-33 and 1952-53. The fifth-round tie against Tottenham on 14 February 1953 drew their record attendance of 36,885, but ended in a 3-0 defeat.

The biggest crowd for the "new" club was 4,023 for FC United's visit on 1 January this year.

The Yorkshire and England cricketer Willie Watson became player-manager from 1954-56. Capped by England at football too, he managed Halifax again in the 1960s whenhe was also a Test selector.

Other former managers include Alan Ball Snr and former England midfielder Paul Bracewell.

Nothern Ireland defender Chris Nicholl is the only player to begin his League career with Halifax and go on to play international football, winning 51 caps.

Paul Hendrie, Halifax's match-winner against Manchester City in 1980, is the father of former Aston Villa midfielder Lee and uncle of ex-Middlesbrough and Leeds winger John.

Striker Geoff Horsfield earned Halifax a club-record £350,000 fee when he joined Fulham in 1998.

Halifax's home since 1921, The Shay was built on a rubbish dump and was a popular speedway venue in the 1970s. In the icy winter of 1962-63, the pitch was turned into a public skating rink. A golf driving range was also set up at the back of one of the stands and opened by Jack Charlton in December 1966. With 200 balls a week being lost, the club shut it down 12 months later.

Halifax were the first club to lose their League status twice with relegation in 1993 and again in 2002.

Simon Hart

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