FC HALIFAX Town manager Neil Aspin is 90 minutes away from ending over a quarter-of-a-century of pain and heartbreak tomorrow.
The wounds of five previous play-off failures have yet to heal for the 48-year-old, who has suffered end-of-season lottery woe as both a player and a manager.
You would certainly struggle to find anyone who could empathise with Sheffield United fans currently lamenting play-off despair for the seventh successive occasion more than the Geordie.
Few would begrudge the former Leeds United full-back an overdue bit of good fortune at his sixth attempt at glory tomorrow afternoon, when his Shaymen arrive in south Northamptonshire for their Blue Square North play-off final at Brackley Town (3pm).
Success would not only mean the world to Aspin, but also to Halifax supporters, 1,000 of whom will be making the trip in hope of witnessing their side returning to the Conference Premier.
Five years ago, in their former guise of Halifax Town AFC, they were relegated from that division under a mountain of debts, including around £800,000 owed to the taxman.
The appeal against the decision to be removed from the entire Conference set-up after breaking administration rules famously failed, with the club promptly wound-up before being reborn under its new moniker of FC Halifax Town, who kicked off in the UniBond League First Division North in 2008-09.
A big redemption moment will arrive if the Shaymen clinch a third promotion in five years tomorrow, while enabling their manager to finally lay to rest a 26-year ghost in the process.
Aspin, whose side booked their final place after beating Guiseley 3-1 on aggregate in the semi-finals: “It is not nice to lose with all your season at stake and then start again in the same division. You really feel those disappointments, so it would be really nice to win a final.”
Chronicling his own bitter tale of end-of-season heartache, he added: “When I was at Leeds, we lost to Charlton in the first season of the play-offs (1986-87) and winning would have been such a big step for me at the time.
“At Port Vale, we finished a bit like Guiseley and were 14 or 15 points clear of West Brom, having beaten them twice in the league (1992-93) – only to lose to them in the play-off final at Wembley.
“At Darlington (in 1995-96), we got pipped for automatic promotion by Northampton and went on to lose in the play-off final and I’ve had two more losses as a manager at Harrogate and Halifax.”
He added: “Sunday’s game will be difficult. But we have improved on last year in that we have got to the final after losing in the semi-finals.
“If we could get back to the Conference, it will have taken us four seasons to get three promotions, which is a great achievement.
Providing a bit of payback for Halifax fans who suffered a “kick-in-the-teeth” as Aspin puts it after seeing the Shaymen lose their place in the Conference at the end of the 2007-08 campaign is an added motivation for the north-easterner. Five years ago, the Calderdale club was in danger of becoming a tiny footnote in football history. But the hard work and dedication of chairman David Bosomworth, former Bradford City and Bradford Park Avenue striker Bobby Ham and Stuart Peacock – both directors of the club – associate director and former commercial manager Peter Stajic and many others ensured Halifax’s footballing heart has continued to beat.
Many will justifiably share in the triumph should the Shaymen prevail tomorrow. Whatever happens, the club can reflect on coming a long way since some truly dark days in 2008.
Thanks to Bosomworth and company, a go-ahead club has risen from the ashes of the old Halifax Town, one that was effectively built from scratch in just over a month before kicking off three divisions below the Conference in 2008-09.
To be within 90 minutes of a Conference return in five years represents a minor miracle.
Lifelong Shaymen fan Stajic said: “I think we were harshly dealt with at the time (by the Conference in 2008). But these things happen and we can’t turn back the clock.
“We have had a point to prove to everybody. It’s the same as anything in life; when someone puts you down, it’s a case of: ‘We’re going to show you.’ You get satisfaction when you get there. The club was at an all-time low five years ago. Starting three leagues lower down is a very, very hard thing.
“It took time to build the confidence back and get the club up and running. But when people saw what we were aiming to do, it totally changed people’s perception of the football club and people suddenly wanted to start getting involved and we have gone from strength to strength.”
While the Shaymen’s board are open about their grand designs of Halifax making a glorious and emotional return to the Football League – last weekend’s stunning achievement of Newport County not being lost upon supporters – given the painful financial lessons of just five years ago, chasing the dream is simply not an option.
Stajic, who says Halifax will remain part-time should they be promoted to the Conference tomorrow, said: “The ultimate aim is to get back to the Football League and if we can get back to where we were in the Conference in five years, it will be a huge achievement.
“But it’s a case of slowly, but surely and making sure we don’t make the mistakes of the past. We must walk before we can run.”