The Shaymen long for Shangri-La

FOOTBALL: While Halifax boasts a rugby league team judged worthy of Super League status their 11-a-side cousins are on the brink of extinction. 'Saving the club would cost little more than a 30-second TV ad for the building society'; 'People say this is...
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Some people were on the pitch. They thought it was all over. And if Halifax Town do not placate the taxman by the time the season ends at Runcorn next weekend, it will be.

Invading the playing area is a spring ritual in this neck of West Yorkshire. Two years ago, when Halifax surrendered their League status, they poured on. On Saturday, after seeing them lose what may be the last game at The Shay to the outgoing Vauxhall Conference champions, Kidderminster, most of the 1,754 crowd converged on the players' tunnel in another show of solidarity and sadness.

Tearful men wished they had not come in fancy dress as the Pink Panther or Yasser Arafat. Children clung to mothers like mourners at a funeral. The defiant chants of crew-cut lads - "The Shaymen!" - were tinged with despair. Halifax have threatened imminent closure before, but with debts of £170,000, few believe they are bluffing this time.

Then the chairman of two months, John Stockwell, took the microphone. He had struck a deal with the Inland Revenue whereby they could pay £30,000 by the end of this week and the balance of £55,000 over the next year. Several fans had pledged four-figure sums, he announced, and they were nearly half-way towards the target.

Stockwell worked his audience as if it were the Batley Variety Club. "Wouldn't it be a shame if there was no next season for the sake of £15,000?" Yes, they roared. "Manchester United make that in an hour on the commercial side. Are the people of Halifax going to let Town die for 15 grand?" No! Buckets were passed, and £2,000 thrown in.

The scene was given added poignancy by the thought that Blackburn Rovers - from another textile town, separated by 35 miles and about £60m - are close to their greatest triumph. Twenty years last week the teams drew a League fixture at The Shay. They were happier times for Halifax, among the few since 46 enthusiasts put up £1 each to form the club in 1911.

There have been heady days, such as when Tottenham, Alf Ramsey et al., drew 36,885 for an FA Cup tie in 1953; and a Watney Cup victory over Manchester United, complete with Best, Law and Charlton, in 1971, the year Halifax finished third in the old Third Division, above Aston Villa.

Yet they were always better acquainted with snakes than ladders. In 1993, when they finished bottom, there was no re-election vote to save them. Although, in theory, the Conference offered a way back, problems off the park hardly provided an atmosphere conducive to recovery.

To cut a long story short, Halifax lease The Shay from Calderdale Council for £37,000 a year. For their money they get the dressing-room pegs and the pitch on match days (Leeds reserves hire the same facilities for £500 a time).

There is no security of tenure, none of the bar or shop profits that sustain other outfits with an average gate of 970. Even after selling players that might have taken them back up, they owe £60,000 to landlords who argue that a peppercorn rent would mean "soccer on the rates".

The council is "hung", at least until Thursday's elections, its Tory leader perceived by Town followers as undermining the club's viability in order to sell the site for supermarket development.

Other villains of the piece, real or imaginary, include the conurbation's major employer, the Halifax Building Society, and the Evening Courier newspaper. One allegedly snubs all attempts to persuade it to sponsor the team, the other is said to be biased towards rugby league.

As a London-based fan, Bob Holmes, put it: "Saving the club would cost little more than a 30-second TV ad for the building society." Meanwhile, Saturday's Courier ran just three paragraphs setting up the "final game" at the bottom of its front page, with the 13-a-side code splashed on the back.

Stockwell has not given up on the Halifax - "I'd love to see their 'X' on our shirts" - but the loyalists dare not wait for a miracle. Bernard Lowery's 39-year devotion inspired him into a sponsored circuit of the Shay complex. "It's his life," his wife, Doreen, said. If anyone from the council canvassed her, she warned: "I'll wring their necks."

A member of the Supporters Club committee, Peter Dobson, felt the "fragmented" nature of Calderdale explained official apathy. "It stretches from Todmorden, where people follow Burnley, to Brighouse, where they incline to Huddersfield or Bradford City," he said. "In those places, councillors of whatever party aren't interested in us."

If the worst happened, he would help to re-form the club, even if it meant starting in a park league. "We've fewer fans than Aldershot when they went out of business, so it might take longer, but I'm confident it would take off again." In contrast, Stockwell insisted there was "no way back" once the club closed.

Revealingly, Dave German, the longest-serving player is only 21. By his own reckoning he has had 109 colleagues during five years in the first team.

"The constant chopping and changing hasn't helped," he said. "I feel great affection for this club because they gave me a chance when Sheffield Wednesday let me go, so to see the decline has been terrible."

Halifax have tried to remain full-time, but German admits semi-professionalism is inevitable if they do continue. "The board would have to make cut-backs ... take the people on £300 and put them on £100."

Dave Worthington, brother of Frank, would have been representing Halifax's most famous footballing family even if his son, Gary, was not leading Town's attack. "The stadium Kirklees built at Huddersfield shows what's possible," he asserted. "It's a source of civic pride, so why can't Calderdale do it here? The Shay's an ideal site, a natural bowl. All it needs is investment and vision.

"People say this is a rugby town, but their gates dropped to 800 when we were getting 2,500. Suddenly they found a chairman prepared to invest in players. Now they've been to Wembley twice and are in the Super League. But if the Shaymen did well, the crowds would be back. This isn't a rugby town, it's a success town."

That image is hard to square with a place that has already lost speedway and basketball teams. The final countdown still shows five days left and £10,000 to find - but where there is life there is hope for Halifax Town.