Cambridge v FC Halifax Town: Smith back on the Wembley beat as Shaymen defy all expectations

Halifax defender Chris Smith.
Halifax defender Chris Smith.
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THE sight of FC Halifax Town defender Chris Smith pounding the streets near his Derby home has become a familiar one over the past couple of months.

Since swapping York City and League Two for the Conference in early February, the 32-year-old has had no choice but to don his running shoes.

That is because the Shaymen are part-time, meaning Neil Aspin’s squad must juggle the demands of fifth tier football with a nine-to-five job. As a result, training is restricted to just two nights a week – or one if Halifax have a midweek game – on a five-a-side pitch in the town.

For Smith, who had four years at Bootham Crescent and last term missed just one league match, the switch from full-time football came as something of a culture shock – which is why his neighbours are now so used to seeing the defender putting the hard yards in on his own.

“It can be difficult,” admits Smith to The Yorkshire Post ahead of tomorrow’s play-off second leg tie at Cambridge United. “Once I play a game, I have always been the sort of player who needs to do something the next day. Even if it is just a jog.

“If you are at a full-time club, that happens. You’d go in for a rub-down or do a jacuzzi/sauna. But here we go three or four days without seeing each other.

“I can’t do that without doing some sort of fitness work in between. I wouldn’t be in the condition I need to be so I go for a run around the streets of Derby and get a sweat on. It is my way of getting all the rubbish out of my system.

“I put my music on and have a regular 20-minute loop. I think my neighbours found it strange at first but they have become used to it now.

“It is discipline, really. I have always been used to doing something so I still go and do it. Some of the other lads maybe don’t need to but I definitely do. This is a good league and any weakness I showed would soon be exploited.”

Judging by results, Smith’s fitness regime is clearly working. His 11 appearances for Halifax have brought nine wins, one draw and a solitary defeat. The latest of those victories came on Wednesday night, when the Shaymen claimed a precious one-goal lead to take to Cambridge United for tomorrow’s play-off second leg.

That win over the U’s means Smith is potentially just 90 minutes playing time away from a return to Wembley, a stage where he twice led York City to success in 2012 as they lifted the FA Trophy and clinched a return to the Football League.

“Things have gone really well and I couldn’t be happier with the move,” said Smith, who made more then 200 appearances for the Minstermen in two spells before calling time on his stay at Bootham Crescent to sign a short-term deal with Halifax.

“I felt a bit of pressure at first because I came in for my debut against Nuneaton after the team had claimed five straight wins. But the manager decided to make a few changes that day and we got the win.

“I have managed to keep my spot since then and am loving it. Maybe it helped that I had known the gaffer for a while. As soon as I heard he was interested, I was more than happy to have a chat.

“I was then so impressed by what he said. I came here two days before the Tamworth game (on March 1) and remember people saying, ‘You will be playing in that match’.

“But my thinking was always that I had to justify myself. I never thought coming here from a League club meant I went straight into the team.

“I bided my time, in the end. But since getting in, there has only been one disappointment and that is the Southport game (that Halifax lost 2-1 on Easter Monday).

“I am not making excuses here, but we did feel tired and leggy in that one. Otherwise, though, results have been great.

“The lads are unbelievable. Same with the coaching staff. Since I first came here, people have said, ‘all we expected this season was to survive’. But that attitude has worked.

“Same goes for me, It has been such an up and down season for me so to be ending like this is incredible. I don’t want it to end.”

If Halifax can negotiate tomorrow’s trip to Abbey Stadium successfully, they will face either Grimsby Town or Gateshead in the May 18 final.

Should the Shaymen then win that tie and bring League football back to the West Riding town, the club hierarchy has vowed to turn full-time.

For now, though, Aspin’s players will continue to make the best of things as they look to continue defying the odds.

Smith said: “We went into the first leg against Cambridge knowing that if we did our jobs and it finished 0-0, that wouldn’t be the worst result in the world.

“But 1-0 was justified in terms of how we played and the chances we created. The clean sheet was just as important as the goal, in my mind.

“So, we were very happy. As for the second leg, everyone seems to be talking about us going down there and defending. But, no, we have to go down there and do what we have done all season. That is why we are where we are.

“We can’t change our tactics or we will be punished. So, we go down there thinking it is 0-0 and wanting to win the game.

“Second legs can be funny things. It is often best to be away. At York, we were better away from home and in the year we went up the second leg was at Mansfield.

“That suited us and we went through to Wembley. I believe we can do the same at Cambridge, regardless of whether we are part-time or not.

“Of course, it should make a difference that the club is part-time but everyone here just loves defying the odds. I have mates at Cambridge and they are in every day, working on this, that and the other.

“Same goes for other clubs, where their players are in every day and that has to make a massive difference. But whatever the lads and the gaffer are doing here, it is working.

“Maybe people have under-estimated Halifax as a result this season.”