A GARDENER by trade, it was somewhat fitting that Scott Garner was the man who ensured that FC Halifax Town’s season ended up smelling of roses.
As horticulturists will all know, a blossoming oasis only arrives after a combination of tireless spadework and some careful nurturing, with nine months of graft – at times of the back-breaking variety – culminating in the Shaymen’s standard being planted back in the National League.
It completed another remarkable season’s journey for Billy Heath, that serial promotion fixer with he and long-time assistant Mark Carroll being promoted exactly 364 days after taking North Ferriby United to the same level.
Saturday was not easy, but not too much is at this level.
Crucially, Halifax held their nerve, just as they did at the start of the week in seeing off semi-final opponents Salford City on penalties, with more misery being heaped upon another corner of Lancashire on Saturday.
The Shay was holding out for a hero and one arrived in the shape of big defender Garner, whose smart near-post header provided the game-breaking moment, just when thoughts were turning toawards the prospect of another penalty shoot-out in Calderdale.
It might be a case of ‘back to work on Monday’ for Garner, who works for his father’s gardening firm, but you suspect his dad might go easy on him following some epic weekend celebrations which saw him and his team-mates head over to Manchester to hail promotion on Saturday night.
Coventry-born Garner, backed by a travelling army of personal supporters who have made a regular pilgrimage up from Warwickshire to support his cause all season, said: “It is hard to put into words. I went to bed on Friday night, dreaming of a clean sheet, never mind scoring the winner in the play-off final!
“It is something I will remember all my life. It is a big achievement which cannot be taken away from me now. I cannot believe it has happened, to be honest.
“When it went to extra-time, I was determined not to lose this game. We have big characters and everyone dug in. We were not going to lose and there was no way they were going to score (again).
“My mates all ran onto the pitch at the end and they all stank of beer when they came on! But I think they had a great day.”
Hailing the impact of Heath, who kept things together at the start of 2017 when some fans were calling for him to be sacked, Garner added: “The gaffer is a winner and we have all bought into it and have got our success now.
“The manager knows exactly what he is doing and you look at his CV and it is embarrassing as he has won so much.
“We were saying that in the dressing room at Stalybridge (in January) when we were at rock-bottom and it couldn’t be worse. We were probably about 11th and he told me: ‘We will get promoted this year, don’t worry about that.’
He really is a genius with the way he puts squads together and gets performances.FC Halifax Town’s Scott Garner on manager Billy Heath
“And it is exactly what he has done again; he really is a genius with the way he puts squads together and gets performances.”
The Shay has had its fair share of dramatic final-day encounters over the years for contrasting reasons and Saturday was right up there in terms of importance.
The sense of theatre was heightened by the sight of a remarkable crowd of 7,920 – the highest ever at this level of football – and on a day when both sets of supporters did their respective clubs proud, it was the hosts who thankfully prevailed.
Truth be told, the occasion looked like it had got to both sides in a tentative first-half with the hosts having to switch formation after left-back Josh Wilde went off with an early injury.
But Halifax were more pro-active on the restart and it yielded immediate fruit with the impressive Jordan Sinnott slipping in Mark Roberts with a lovely weighted pass, his low shot creeping under the body of Magpies goalkeeper Ritchie Branagan.
Matty Kosylo spurned an excellent chance to double the hosts’ tally and that was exposed on the hour mark when the visitors, backed by a raucous travelling support of almost 2,000 fans, restored parity with an excellent pinpoint low free-kick from Adam Blakeman, who had been fouled by Nathan Hotte.
Thrills and spills arrived, but no breakthrough – with that golden Garner moment arriving in the first period of extra time.
After Branagan did well to turn away Sinnott’s well-struck free-kick, the respite was brief with Sinnott’s right-wing cross latched on to by Garner, who nodded home a deft near-post header.
Despite a frantic finale, Halifax were relatively comfortable, with Chorley’s best moment coming when goalkeeper Branagan volleyed over awhen coming up for a late corner..
On the sense of achievement, Heath said: “When we came to the club, it was on a downer. We had only six players signed on and two had long-term injuries. We had four players in the building and had to rebuild a whole team.
“To come out of this division in the first year is fantastic and right up there with anything.
“The supporters were absolutely magnificent and to have almost 8,000 fans was unbelievable.
“When we had quiet patches of the game and when it wasn’t going so great in extra-time, they never waned and kept supporting and pushing us and feed energy into us.”
FC Halifax Town: Johnson; Roberts, Garner, Brown, Wilde (Denton 24); Lynch (Clarke 79), Hotte; Kosylo, Sinnott, Charles (Moyo 62); Peniket. Unused Substitutes: Drench, Morgan.
Chorley: Branagan; Teague, Leather, Jordan (Charnock 37); Challaner, O’Keefe (Walker 59), Whitlam (Roscoe 115), Cottrell, Blakeman; Carver, Sampson. Unused Substitutes: Jarvis, Beesley.
Referee: D Middleton.