FC Halifax Town vs Bradford City preview
@The Shay on Sunday 9 November, 2014
By Jason McKeown
The first four fixtures of the season read Bamber Bridge home, Trafford away, Lancaster City away, Durham home. This was the Northern Premier League Division North, and FC Halifax Town were embarking on their first tentative steps since reforming; having been relegated three divisions, to the ninth tier of English football.
16 August, 2008 was the date of FC Halifax Town’s first-ever competitive match, after the old club’s near 100-year existence had been brought to an end over an £800,000 tax bill that pushed the Shaymen over £2 million into the red. The administrators could not strike up an agreement with Town’s many creditors, so they were liquidated and expelled from the Conference. Bradford City board directors David Bosomworth and Bobby Ham helped to set up FC Halifax Town, and the long recovery began.
This Sunday, FC Halifax Town deserve to feel especially proud of their resurgence back up the football pyramid, via three promotions, as they welcome Bradford City for a showcase occasion. The FA Cup first round derby clash is being screened live on BT Sport, and a crowd of between 8,000-10,000 is expected for a meeting of local neighbours who so rarely cross paths.
When three years ago FC Halifax faced Charlton Athletic to the Shay at this stage of the competition, it was the first time in 100 years that Halifax had been shown live on TV. Prior to that, Town’s only national TV exposure had been a Match of the Day appearance in 1980, when they took on Manchester City. Being part of the Conference again means Halifax have over recent times appeared more often on BT Sport; but make no mistake this weekend’s derby clash is a big deal for the club. They deserve to have this moment in the spotlight.
And whilst Bradford City’s many TV appearances over recent years allows us to be blasé about appearing in front of the cameras once again, this tie has captured the imagination of us supporters too. It is exactly 10 years ago since the Bantams returned to entering the FA Cup at the first round stage, following 2004’s relegation from Division One (now the Championship), and the competition has subsequently provided few memorable moments.
Without fail, City have always been drawn against opposition from Leagues One or Two in the first round of the FA Cup (and the second round for that matter). A quirky trip to a non-league ground has been a treat reserved for other Football League clubs, as City instead faced uninspiring matches against the likes of Crewe, Barnsley, Tranmere, MK Dons, Notts County, Colchester United, Rochdale, Northampton and Rotherham. A trip to the Shay is completely different, and demand for tickets has been high.
The shoe is completely on the foot, as City – cup conquerors of Arsenal, Aston Villa, Leeds and all – go into this game as the giants that everyone else wants to see toppled. FC Halifax Town sit third in the Conference, two divisions below the Bantams. They have won six and drawn two of their eight home league games to date, averaging three goals per match, and in pre-season defeated City’s League One rivals Barnsley, Rochdale and Notts County at the Shay. In contrast, there are all manner of problems afflicting Bradford City, which makes them ideal giant killing material.
There’s a banana skin lying on the floor that everyone can see, and for City it will be no small task avoiding it.
It is a huge occasion for Halifax, but potentially a major moment in City’s season too. A defeat to non-league opposition would push the downbeat mood around the club to another level, and would see a number of people – chiefly manager Phil Parkinson – placed firmly in the firing line.
There is a pressure this Sunday which is completely different to appearing live on TV against an Arsenal team that cost over £65 million, when nothing is expected of you. The players have to stand tall, stay composed and be professional. Few people will credit them for victory at the Shay, but many will lampoon them if they fall short of being in the hat for Monday’s second round draw.
Parkinson’s team selection is hampered by the unavailability of loanees Jordan Pickford and Andy Halliday, who have been refused permission to play in cup matches by their parent clubs. For goalkeeper Ben Williams – initially signed on non-contract terms, but now on a deal until the end of the year – it is a big afternoon simply because his fifth appearance for the Bantams could be his last.
It is a tough situation for the former Hibernian keeper, who has done little wrong in the games he has played in. However, with Pickford’s sparkling form meaning there is no obvious route to regular first team football, Williams is left needing to impress when given a chance, and hoping that circumstances mean Pickford either gets injured or is recalled by Sunderland.
In defence, Rory McArdle makes a welcome return and will slot back in alongside either Andrew Davies (if fit) or Alan Sheehan. McArdle seems unloved by a small section of supporters but in my opinion is having a very good season – he is certainly one of the increasingly few bright spots. The full back places will be taken by the out-of-sorts Stephen Darby and either the in-form James Meredith or Sheehan.
A word on Darby, who had arguably his worst ever game for City in the 2-1 loss at Oldham. There are a range of theories behind why he has struggled to match his form of the previous two seasons, although being weighed down by the captaincy is not the one I subscribe to. Darby is never going to be Gary Jones and no one will have expected him to be, but he is someone who can lead by example and who seemed happy enough skippering the team on occasions last season. I don’t see it affecting his game.
For me, Darby has struggled with the attacking demands of the formation and the lack of defensive cover from Jason Kennedy. I am not convinced by Halliday – who took Kennedy’s place against Doncaster – but he certainly provided better support to Darby. Whatever the solution, it’s time more people got behind Darby rather than sticking the boot in.
In midfield, it is unclear if Parkinson will go for a regular flat four or go back to the diamond. Mark Yeates has been a revelation playing just behind the two strikers, and WOAP will have more to say on him over the next week or so. Billy Knott has flattered to deceive and I am in the ‘he-didn’t-play-well’ camp over his performance against Doncaster, which divided opinion. If Gary Liddle is fit to play (it looks unlikely), he will come straight back in to the side to add calmness and composure. In contrast Filipe Morais must be considered someone to bring on from the bench – he has rarely made an impact when starting.
Up front, Jon Stead has been granted permission to play and will be paired with Billy Clarke. James Hanson is struggling to recapture his form pre-injury and will sit this game out. It’s a big game for Clarke to impress in, given he has been completely overtaken by Yeates in playing at the tip of the diamond. As it stands, Clarke is destined to become a bit-part player this season when he could have offered a lot more.
Looking at the opposition, there is the extra interest of Bradford City ties in the boardroom and on the field. Simon Ainge was the man tasked with replacing David Weatherall when the Bantams stalwart became player manager in 2007 – it didn’t work out well. Steve Williams (who played for Bamber Bridge against FC Halifax in the reformed club’s first-ever competitive game) spent three seasons at Valley Parade and initially impressed, before he fell foul of Parkinson.
Jon Worthington was brought in for three months by Peter Jackson and seemed to pick up a booking every match. Matt Glennon was one of Stuart McCall’s final City signings in January 2009, but under Peter Taylor lost his place to Jon McLaughlin and left the following summer.
It is 16 years since the clubs last met in competitive action, when a 5-2 aggregate victory for the Bantams took them past Halifax in the second round of the League Cup. City went on to be promoted that season, but difficult times laid ahead for both clubs. With these two neighbours able to reflect on more recent happier times on the pitch and greater financial stability off it, Sunday is an occasion to relish.
A special game for both teams, but especially Halifax.