If you say the name Shay, the majority of “Sports” fans will assume you are talking about a famous baseball field on the other side of the pond! For the true football romantic, and supporters in the UK especially it can only be the home of FC Halifax Town.
The Shay is a wonderful traditional football arena, in the truest sense of the word, it’s a proper football stadium where you can almost smell the grease paint, catch the faint whiff of a pie (They come complete with mushy peas here!), and the mighty thwack of boot to ball, all standing up, if you so wish!! The modern main East stand may have been controversial, as well as having been long in its construction (a corner remains incomplete), and the cost doubtlessly caused one of the clubs two bankruptcy issues, It does adds to the Shay a touch of modernity, yet still complimenting the other three sides that hark back to an era of standing terracing, with proper stanchions, that fill the sizeable terracing behind both goals. The South terracing is for home fans, and if a “big” away following, the North terracing will be opened, otherwise they are housed in the south wing of the main stand. The “West” stand opposite the main one, was doubtlessly a standing shed in years gone by, but is now partially seated, with room for more seats if needed to increase the capacity for another day if Halifax were ever to climb the leagues to such a giddy height where extra seating was needed. The Shay presently holds 14,061, which is more than sufficient for the fifth tier and higher if they were ever to recover their league status again.
In 1921 AFC Halifax Town were among the founding members of the Division Three North, and while their CV was largely unspectacular, they were never in danger of being re-elected. In getting promotion from the bottom tier in 1970/71 Halifax found themselves involved in the short lived Watney Cup, where the top two from each of the four divisions played a mini pre-season tournament the following term. On the 31st July 1971 at the Shay, Manchester United complete with George Best et all came to play in the first round, and Halifax beat them 2-1! They then lost the semi-final 0-2 to WBA, who then lost the final to Colchester United! The competition only lasted four years, but Derby, Colchester, Bristol Rovers and Stoke all got a rare moment of silverware, and maybe like when the Anglo Scottish Cup died when Chesterfield won at Ibrox, the Watney was doomed as the bigger clubs obviously weren’t taking it seriously. That said, it was a great idea, and instead of going off on meaningless lavish global exhibition game treks for pots of money, these excessively rich clubs should be giving a little love back to the under card. Bring back the Watney!!
I first caught a game at the Shay in April 2014 for a Conference (National League) encounter, a 2-1 win against Macclesfield Town, largely a mid-table joust, but I was just happy to witness a game in Halifax at last. It was the throwback nature of the stadium that bowled me over. I had been cursing my decision to take a seat in the new stand, but it was a sunny day and my decision was based on where I might catch the sun more, always a driving force at a game for me, especially when the majority of fixtures are played on such cold windy days! It did leave me with an excuse to return and experience the terracing next time.
Halifax was a famous woollen mill town, now re-invented, tucked into the slopes of the West Yorkshire hills, and it has a population of 88,134. One of the Textile mills, known as Dean Clough on the edge of town has been converted in a variety of shopping, retail and hotel space, whilst retaining the original facade of the old mill. MacKintosh chocolates hail from Halifax, makers of Rollo and Quality Street, as well as still the town continuing to retain the HQ for probably the most famous Building Society, before coming a bank! Flat land is at a premium here, so respect to those who chose to build the stadium where it is. The ground is no more than a half a mile from the train station, a suitably gentle uphill walk. If coming by car, Halifax is a few miles off the M62, but once in the city limit head toward the centre and the Shay is well sign posted. There is a car park right at the ground, and some parking in the streets nearby, but if you are arriving as kick off approaches, expect to struggle to find anywhere close.
The Shay has been the home to football in Halifax for 98 years, it is municipal owned now, and they share the ground with the town’s Rugby League club, which at the tail end a season sees the grass suffering from excessive use through a long wet winter. Fans of the now officially titled FC Halifax Town have been long suffering too, if you include the history of its predecessor. It caused remarkable consternation when the FC was put at the front of the name for the new club that rose from the ashes after the demise of Halifax Town AFC at the end of 2007/08. It does have a certain European swagger putting the FC first, and what is the harm in that! Judging by the banners around the Shay, the fans are embracing the change and not harking back to the old team name! The old club owed a considerable sum to the tax man, and the inevitable administration saw its demise.
The new team started life in the Northern Premier Division One, effectively the 8th tier in 2008/2009, and they have relatively quickly worked their way back to the Conference or National League as it is now known, even flirting with a return to league football three seasons ago in their inaugural season in the fifth tier, losing out to Cambridge in the Play Off Semi-Finals in 2012/13. Neil Aspin, whose name will forever be written into the history of FC Halifax Town, was the manager from April 2009, until September 2015, winning more than half of his 270 games in charge. He also oversaw an incredible 30 games unbeaten at the Shay from April 2009 to November 2010. But by September ‘15 the club was struggling, and they parted ways. Neil moved on to manage at rivals Gateshead, where he’d still be when I wheeled into town to see Halifax visit in August 2017, for an entertaining 0-0. During the season 2015/16 Halifax had two further incumbents in charge to no effect after Aspin that season, and then Jim Harvey arrived, and gradually they finally found a winning formula that nearly kept them up, but a cruel missed penalty in the last game of the season helped relegated the “new” club for the first time. The second of my games at the Shay was at Easter of that particular campaign and the 1-0 win over Altrincham seemed to have them on the cusp of a great escape, but they just couldn’t get it done, and in failing to beat Macclesfield on the last day it proved fatal.
However, in the wake of such tragedy, remarkably the following weekend they were off down to Wembley to play Grimsby Town in the FA Trophy Final the day after Manchester United had won the FA Cup against Crystal Palace, and more remarkably in Scotland, where Hibernian got a 114 year old monkey off there back winning the Scottish Cup 3-2 against fellow Championship side The Rangers, the first ever Scottish final not involving a top flight team! I was amongst the Shay fans, who had headed to Wembley in huge numbers, and an absolute peach of a strike was enough to secure the trophy. Amid wild celebrations, tears were flowing, a remnant of the angst of the relegation the previous week. Despite this silverware the fans had genuine fear that getting back to the National League could take years. However, they needn’t have fretted unduly as the energy of Wembley brought them straight back the very next season under the continued guidance of Jim Harvey. They have largely bedded into a mid-table for now, but I think we can expect another run at trying to get their league place back quite soon, albeit the league continues to be home to a number of monied and seriously ambitious clubs, Salford and Hyde to name two, and the likely return of Stockport and Torquay next season from the level below. That FA Trophy success was the clubs first ever “major” trophy in 105 years of football in the town, but unlike many clubs FC Halifax Town are not carrying forward the history of its AFC predecessor.
Ironically, also on display that day at Wembley were Hereford FC, the new guise of the previous Hereford United, playing Morpeth Town in part one of a doubleheader in the FA Vase. Halifax Town once lost to Hereford in a Conference Play Off final to regain league status in 2006. That game was played at Leicester in the era when Wembley was being rejuvenated, by while the Bulls went back up, they have suffered even worse bankruptcy fate that Halifax dropping down to the 9th tier. Hereford had the largest support that Wembley day, but they got a real second half doing losing 4-1 from Morpeth. They have recovered from the 9th tier to the 6th now but they are still one level below Halifax, but they could be going head to head once more on the coming seasons for a shot at league football once more.
Football Weekends, the magazine I write for is presently asking for nominations for the best old fashioned stadium in Europe. Given it is predominantly a UK readership, I suspect it will come down to an English ground, and I am nominating The Shay, and Edgar Street, Hereford the two mentioned above!