Friday, January 5, 2018


"Number 666, Halifax Town, will play, number 23, Manchester City"
If the FA Cup 3rd round these days is a slightly tedious procession of big teams in bright kits picking off smaller ones while fielding their second string, it was not always thus.

Indeed, as City prepare to welcome Burnley, it is not without relevance to remember how this was a club not so very long ago that was always top of the charts on 3rd round day for those seeking out the local betting shop for possible giant killings.

Recent history has seen Oldham, Middlesbrough and Nottingham Forest triumph from leagues below while Sheffield United managed to put City out with one of the all-time classic cup goals, deflected past keeper Joe Hart via a string of stray party balloons in the area.

Go back a little further than this and City’s history is richly adorned not only with bananas, but their skins too.

On 5th January 1980 Malcolm Allison – celebrating the first anniversary of his second coming at Maine Road - took his star studded City side to perhaps the most ramshackle stadium in the four divisions, or as rookie Yorkshire TV commentator Martin Tyler would claim at the beginning of the match “one of the league’s more unfashionable grounds”.

The Shay, a legendary mud heap that in today’s world of ringroad-based sardine can identikit grounds, looked a little like the arse end of a Rio de Janerio favela transported painlessly and efficiently into the coal-black hills of West Yorkshire. Even the sooty faced kids replete in their parkas might have been plucked from the opening credits of The City of God.

City, without defenders Willie Donachie, Dragoslav Stepanovic, Tommy Booth and Paul Futcher, put out a side containing the teenage talents of Nicky Reid and Tommy Caton at the back. What the effervescent talent of Stepanovic and Futcher would have made of the mud caked pitch is anyone's guess, but at least City had an excuse or two stored up their sleeves, just in case. If ever a day was going to test them it would be this one.

As well as the dilapidated ground, the braying crowd, the numerous injuries and the brain-freezing fervour of the Cup, Halifax had also invested in their own Shayman, Romark, a hypnotist of dubious origin, who had been brought in to transport the likes of Paul Hendrie into the zone.

A man with possibly equal amounts of psychic ability, Allison had uncovered this mysterious soothsayer during his spell as head coach at Crystal Palace in the mid-70s.

Big Mal, hands more than full with champagne bottles and bunny girls from the Playboy Club, had forgotten to pay Romark's modest bill, however, and the all-seeing hypnotist got the severest of humps, revolving his eyes in different directions and placing a curse on Mal and his eager young Palace side.

On the eve of their 1976 FA Cup semi-final against Southampton, Romark -evidently a man who enjoyed looking into the past as well as the future- contacted Lawrie McMenemy's secretary and arranged to meet up with the Southampton supremo. McMenemy could hardly refuse a man with such an obvious penchant for storing grievances. He is widely quoted thus:

"When he came in, his eyes immediately struck me. He had peripheral vision, both eyes staring in different directions. He surprised everyone by asking for two chairs to be placed in the centre of the room facing away from each other two yards apart, then got an apprentice to put his head on one and heels on the other. When he took the chairs away, the lad stayed suspended in mid air. I was even asked to sit on the lad's stomach and still he stayed suspended. George Horsfall, our reserve-team trainer, came in shortly afterwards and, after telling him what had happened, he did the trick all over again. He wouldn't tell us how it had been done, but George was born in India and it may well have had something to do with the old Indian rope trick." 

Whether the apprentice was suspended by the golden filaments of Mordor or Romark had a set of bathroom mirrors stashed in his underpants, the trick worked a treat on Southampton, filling them with a strange "energy" that not only saw them past Allison's oddly unblinking Palace, but imbued enough turquoise light in the players to see off staunch favourites Manchester United in the Wembley final itself.

Some will still remember watching Bobby Stokes stroke the winner. The pass through to him had arrived in his stride from Jimmy McCalliog, who, when afforded an intimate close-up after the goal, appeared to have a middle eye shining brightly on his forehead. In an instant, it was gone. It was that fast. I am sure I was not the only one watching Cup Final Grandstand that day that actually saw it.

Romark's work was not yet done, however.

Big Mal: smoke and mirrors
The curse, as these things often do, transferred itself to Allison himself, who went back to City in the late seventies with startling failure and abject embarrassment just a funny glance and an oddly pointed finger away.

On the eve of the 3rd round tie the Halifax manager George Kirby enlisted Romark's assistance once again. Not being a man to miss a pay check or an opportunity to get revenge on previous poor payers, Romark accepted and brought his mirrors and rope set north to West Yorkshire.

Halifax striker John Smith recalled an odd meeting two days before the tie:

"I'm sat there with this guy called Romark, and he was saying … 'you will go to sleep now, John Smith, and then you'll overcome the power of Manchester City. You will play the greatest game of your life, John Smith. When I count to three, you'll wake up again.' I was trying not to laugh and I'm thinking, what's all this about? What a load of nonsense."

Naturally enough, Smith would subsequently lay on the winner for Paul Hendrie in a 1-0 win for the home side, although "overcoming the power of Manchester City" was not confined to Halifax in those tumultuous days. Shrewsbury and a host of other less than fragrant opponents also found it within themselves to beat City, Romark or no Romark. Smith was flabbergasted. "All the headlines, though, were about that hypnotist," said Smith, "but we beat Manchester City through courage, hard work and belief.", said the Halifax man whilst hovering three metres above his sofa, drinking orange juice without a cup.

Romark later tried to prove his powers to the unforgiving public on Ilford High Street by driving blindfolded down the road. His intrepid journey reached a rather predictable (unless you couldn't see the future too clearly) end after approximately 20 yards when he drove miserably into the back of a police van.

"That van was parked in a place that logic told me it wouldn't be," he said afterwards, looking at the wretched vehicle, slotted hopelessly alongside the pavement, parallel with the curb, within the little yellow lines and with its hazard lights flashing for good measure.

The hazard lights at The Shay had also flickered brightly. From a claggy start with Michael Robinson, £750,000 worth of raw Preston meat, displaying an inability to make contact with the ball as it stuck in the pudding of a penalty area, to a desperate conclusion of madly braying locals and desperately hoofed high balls. City had come a cropper.

Allison was soon to depart Maine Road a second time, embittered and beaten, after a bizarre exercise in team dismantling finally caught up with him. His private life, whilst tolerated as part of the glamorous scene of the victorious when City had been carrying all before them in the late 60s, now looked tawdry and inappropriate as the likes of Shrewsbury and then Halifax turfed City from the Cup.

And what of the day's protagonists? Romark found himself imprisoned for embezzling his own mother and died of a stroke in 1982. Mustn't have seen that one coming.

Meanwhile City chairman Peter Swales described the experience as “the worst football day of my life,” Allison was sacked and replaced by John Bond. Halifax went on to lose in the fourth round at Bolton and finish 18th in the Fourth Division. City reached the Cup Final the very next year under Bond, brushing aside 4th division upstarts Peterborough on their own London Road ground. Things were changing for the better, but it wouldn't last. 
It took City until 2008 to begin to stabilise, finally winning the FA Cup in 2011 and reaching the final again in 2013, only to fall to a modern day Halifax in humble Wigan Athletic. Thus, a club with such a rich history of mucking things up without help or hindrance from a higher plane, can never really rest easy on FA Cup 3rd round day.

Halifax Town: 1:John Kilner, 2:Chris Dunleavy, 3:Geoff Hutt, 4:David Evans, 5:Dave Harris, 6:Paul Hendrie, 7:Franny Firth, 8:Mick Kennedy, 9:Bob Mountford, 10:Smith, 11:Stafford, Sub:Goodman, Manager: George Kirby
City: 1: Joe Corrigan, 2:Ray Ranson, 3:Paul Power, 4:Nicky Reid, 5:Tommy Caton, 6:Dave Bennett, 7:Tony Henry, 8:Steve Daley, 9:Mick Robinson. 10: Colin Viljoen, 11:Bobby Shinton, Sub:Stuart Lee, Manager:Malcolm Allison

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