Weekend Interview: Billy Heath's long, long wait for a second chance

BILLY HEATH has been involved in the FA Cup first round just once.

UP FOR THE CUP: FC Halifax Town manager Billy Heath hopes to cause an FA Cup upset today when his non-league side play Dagenham & Redbridge in the first round proper. Picture: Tony Johnson

Nineteen years ago, FC Halifax Town’s current manager was a no-nonsense centre-half with Lincoln United when the minnows were drawn away at Walsall.

Lincoln lost 2-0 but Heath drew huge praise in the following Monday’s newspapers for shackling Roger Boli, brother of Rangers and Marseille striker Basile.

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The only problem with hitting the headlines was joint manager – and resident joker – John Wilkinson had, when asked by reporters for background on a few members of the Lincoln team, indulged in a bit of poetic licence when it came to nicknames and occupations.

And it wasn’t the usual ‘butchers, bakers and candlestick makers’ so entwined in FA Cup folklore, either, with Heath subsequently being dubbed ‘Billy the Fish’ in that Monday’s ‘papers due to working in Hull Docks as team-mate Baz Barker’s day job was revealed as ‘grave-digger’.

“My nickname wasn’t ‘Billy the Fish’, no,” laughed Heath earlier this week when reminded by The Yorkshire Post about the day he was given the same moniker as the cartoon-strip hero of the comic ‘Viz’.

“I was working on the docks at the time so that bit was right. But it wasn’t my nickname. Not to my face anyway!

“The lads at Lincoln loved a laugh. John Wilkinson must have made it all up. Baz certainly wasn’t a grave-digger. He might have looked like he lived underground at times but he wasn’t a grave-digger.”

Heath will renew acquaintances with the first round proper today when he takes FC Halifax to Dagenham & Redbridge.

Unlike his only previous appearance in 1997, just one division separates the combatants in Essex rather than the five that stood between Walsall and Heath’s Lincoln.

It still, though, represents a tough tie with the Daggers well placed to win an instant return to the Football League following last May’s relegation. For a start, John Still’s men are full-time and boast a wealth of League experience.

Heath, meanwhile, is just a few months into a rebuilding job that saw the 45-year-old inherit just five players in the summer, two of which have been absent with long-term injuries.

“I have always wanted to get back to the first round,” said the Shaymen chief. “I had a brief taste all those years ago as a player with Lincoln but that has been it.

“I watched the first round draw at home with my wife. Just watching the balls come out of the bag and knowing a team of mine was in there was a great feeling. I even started to get choosy when a team came out first. ‘Kiddy away? We don’t want them’, things like that.”

Heath moved to The Shay in late May, just a couple of weeks after leading North Ferriby United into the top flight of non-League football.

It was an incredible achievement for a team whose home village boasts a population of just 3,000, and one that ranked alongside leading the club to FA Trophy glory the previous season.

Joining newly-relegated Halifax meant taking a step down. It also meant further complications to an already hectic home life in Willerby with wife Toni.

Heath has been a foster carer for the past five years. Combining his football duties with being a father-of-four who also looks after three foster children was far from straight-forward when in charge of a team not too far from his own doorstep. But throw in a 150-mile round-trip twice a week for training and then again for a match on Saturday, and the logistics are not easy.

“The travelling is obviously hugely different,” he says. “I went from being six minutes away from the football ground (at North Ferriby) to having to set off at 4pm to get to training (in Halifax) for 6pm.

“But I had done it before at Frickley (who he managed for four-and-a-half years) so knew it wouldn’t be a problem.

“Family life is also different. I have seven kids at the moment, four of my own and three foster kids. It is a good job my wife, Toni, is so understanding.

“She is my absolute rock, and I don’t know how she does it sometimes. I am away Tuesday and Thursday nights (for training), and most of the weekend. She is left with seven kiddies. I honestly couldn’t do all this without her.”

Joining Heath on those regular treks along the M62 is Mark Carroll, his long-time confidant and right hand man. The pair first met at the age of 10 when playing for Hull City juniors and began their coaching career together at Bridlington Town.

Both were just 28 but success soon followed, three promotions being won in five years at the helm. A further five years followed at Frickley before a brief stint at Hall Road Rangers for the pair preceded the duo’s switch to Ferriby in 2011.

“We work together so well,” said Heath. “Neither of us functions without the other. We drive both our wives crazy by spending at least an hour a day on the ‘phone.

“They can’t understand what else we have to talk about after travelling to Halifax twice a week for training and then matches. But there is always something about football to discuss.

“The big think with Mark is I trust his opinion. He was the reason I packed in playing. I had literally just turned 28 when I took over at Brid as player-manager.

“After a year, though, my trusted assistant told me a few home truths. He said, ‘Big man, you need to hang those boots up because you are not the player you once were’.

“I had just made a bad mistake and we had lost 1-0. As a manager, it is difficult to come in after that and point fingers at people. I knew Mark was right and I never played ever again. Gave up on the spot. Since then, we have won something like 18 trophies together.”

Carroll and Heath will be together again in the dugout today at Dagenham & Redbridge. Having waited so long to get back to the first round proper, Heath just hopes his FC Halifax side won’t be left with the ‘what if?’ feeling he had after bowing out in the first round with Lincoln 19 years ago.

“It feels like two lifetimes ago,” said Heath about a Cup run that had started in September and seen the minnows negotiate five qualifying rounds. “But I remember a few things such as Derek Mountfield, who was 37 or 38 at the time, playing against us and never breaking sweat.

“We also had a great chance to equalise late on. Tony Simmons, the dad of Alex who funnily enough we have just signed on loan from Lincoln, had a great chance but missed from six yards.

“Walsall went straight up the other end and made it 2-0. Tony was a supreme goalscorer but I reminded him about that miss every time I saw him for years afterwards!

“Nearly isn’t good enough but we were in the tie for a long time and things could have been very different. As for this year, upsets do happen in the FA Cup. We have to believe we can be one of those upsets.”