Shaymen aim to find their feet in taking next big step up

FOR a town that has hosted Conference football in 11 of the past 20 years, describing this season as a step into the unknown for Halifax seems to be stretching things a tad.

Neil Aspin.

But that is exactly what 2013-14 is likely to be for a club born out of the remnants of the old Halifax Town, who folded in 2008 amid ruinous debts of £2m.

Forced to start again in Northern Premier League Division One (North) – the eighth level of the football pyramid – FC Halifax have enjoyed a meteoric rise courtesy of three promotions in the past four years.

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The most recent of those came in May, when a 1-0 play-off final victory over Brackley was enough to elevate the Shaymen to the top division of non-League.

It is a level football fans in Calderdale are familiar with thanks to the old Halifax having gone under as a member of the Conference but, even so, those in charge at The Shay admit that the new season, which begins with a trip to Cambridge United on August 11, will be something of a “suck it and see” affair.

A consequence of this approach will be the club remaining part-time, with chairman David Bosomworth and his fellow directors unwilling to commit to anything else until a full assessment has been made of the financial implications of being in the Conference.

“We have always said since FC Halifax were formed that we would not put this club in jeopardy,” director Bobby Ham told the Yorkshire Post. “And we won’t do that. Instead, we want to find our feet, hopefully remain in the Conference and then take it from there.

“Staying part-time obviously has implications. But we need to assess what happens to our income before we can take a step as big as going full-time. No-one needs reminding what happened to the old club and we are determined we won’t overstep the mark.”

As one of only half-a-dozen part-time sides in the Conference this season, FC Halifax are in for a tough nine months.

Farsley Celtic are the last club from this region to compete in the fifth tier when not full-time and they were relegated in 2008 after just one season. The Shaymen are desperate to avoid a similar fate but Ham insists the club’s future will not be sacrificed in order to do so.

“We hope to do well and our budget is up around 25 per cent on last year,” says the 71-year-old, who sported the colours of both Bradford City and Park Avenue during a 15-year playing career.

“Our break-even crowd figure is about 1,600 but, obviously, it is difficult to gauge what level attendances will be at.

“For instance, our admission prices went up during the summer and we don’t know how that will affect attendances.

“Last season, we dropped by about 300 (to around 1,200) on 2011-12 in terms of our average but that was because the weather caused us to play a lot of home games at the end, which isn’t ideal as there is only so much money around.

“So, we have been careful when budgeting. The simple fact is you can’t live on your gates alone. It is impossible. You have to be solid on and off the field, which is what we have tried to be for the last five years.

“So far, we have been fairly successful but we continue to work very hard off the field to bring match sponsorships in.”

FC Halifax’s surge through the leagues has been made possible by the astute stewardship of not only the board but also manager Neil Aspin.

Lured away from Harrogate Town four years ago, the former Leeds United defender has brought a pride back to Halifax football that, but for a play-off final appearance under Chris Wilder in 2006, had slowly ebbed away.

Ham said: “If I am honest, we possibly couldn’t have imagined coming this far as quickly as we did. You dream of doing things like this but after we finished eighth in our first season in Northern Premier North, we realised it was going to be a lot more difficult than we thought.

“Then, we were fortunate to get Neil Aspin on board and things have taken a definite turn for the better. He has done a really tremendous job.

“We have won three promotions in four years and in the other we got to the semi-final of the Conference North play-offs. What a track record that is.”

As for the challenges that lay ahead in the coming season, Ham added: “There are some big names in the Conference. In the days when I played, there were 11 or 12 of the teams we will face who were in the Football League and doing quite well.

“Looking at how long some of them have been in the league, it shows what a difficult division it is. Look at Luton, Wrexham and a few others.

“You would expect them to be out by now with the budgets and crowds they get.

“It could be a bit tougher for everyone this season as there is no sponsor (to replace BlueSquare). But just having Conference football back in Halifax is great.

“We have got back to where we were thrown out of and are one promotion away from a possible Football League return. That was the ultimate goal when we set the club up in 2008 and nothing has changed.

“What we can’t do is put a timescale on it. It is a tremendous achievement to be where we are but this is a big step up.”