It was probably the last thing that Malcolm Allison wanted. After spending big at the start of the 1979/80 season, the pressure was building on Manchester City's manager as the new decade commenced, and a trip to Fourth Division Halifax Town in the third round of the FA Cup awaited as the vultures circled. Taking on an improving Halifax was bad enough, but for Allison the tie would also see him lock horns again with an old foe from the past. It didn't just rain on Saturday January 5 for Allison; it well and truly poured.
Sitting in 16th place in the top flight in January 1980, the City board and supporters may well have been justified in expecting more. In the previous summer - apologies for temporarily slipping into the 1970s - Allison had been appointed as manager, with previous incumbent Tony Book stepping up to General Manager. After winning the League Cup in 1976 and finishing second in the league under Book in 1976/77, Allison's appointment in July 1979 was a gamble by chairman Peter Swales, a decision that he would regret as their relationship developed.
The club flexed their muscles in the transfer market in the summer of 1979, spending £750,000 on Michael Robinson, £300,000 on Bobby Shinton, £250,000 on Steve Mackenzie (making Mackenzie the most expensive teenager in Britain), and £140,000 on Yugoslav defender Dragoslav Stepanovic. But the deal that really stood out came in September, when City spent a whopping £1,437,500 on Wolves midfielder Steve Daley, a deal that in subsequent years would be guaranteed a spot in any article discussing worst signings ever.
Money was recouped on the popular duo of Gary Owen and Peter Barnes, along with Dave Watson and Asa Hartford, yet with so much investment in the squad, Allison was in the spotlight as the season kicked off. A poor start consisting of one win in their opening six matches saw the press sharpening their pens, but ten points from the next twelve steadied the ship (in the days of two points for a win).
Inconsistency ruled up until the New Year. A 4-0 loss at home to Liverpool was followed up two weeks later by a 2-0 derby win over Manchester United; three consecutive defeats, including a 4-0 thumping at Ipswich, saw the team drop to 18th, before a 3-0 home win over Derby and a 2-1 win at Everton stopped the rot, highlighting the Jekyll and Hyde nature of the team.
Worryingly though, the match before their trip to Halifax saw City suffer an embarrassing 4-1 defeat at the hands of struggling Brighton, the start of a slide down the table that saw Allison's reign begin to unravel with the club not winning a league match until April 12. But as poor as the loss on the south coast was, there was worse to come a week later, as Allison took his team to The Shay on an unforgettable afternoon for both clubs.
After successfully being re-elected to the Football League in two of the last three seasons, Halifax were at least going the right way in 1979/80. Under the management of George Kirby, the club were in 11th position, and had only lost one out of thirteen at The Shay, their far from hospitable home.
Kirby had enjoyed success in his previous spell at the club, finishing third in Division Three in 1970/71, and then beating Manchester United 2-1 in the pre-season Watney Cup, before defecting to Watford. For the Liverpool-born Kirby, January 1980 would provide another opportunity to get one over a Mancunian rival.
The build-up to the match focused heavily on two men in particular. Allison was understandably under scrutiny, his struggling team the potential subject of a giant killing act that could have serious repercussions for his employment. But when Kirby used an old adversary of Allison's in an attempt to give his players an edge in the tie, the City boss was forced to share the column inches as the match approached.
Allison had history with the hypnotist Ronald Markham, more commonly known by his stage name Romark. In the 1975/76 season, the then Crystal Palace manager had used the services of the hypnotist to boost the confidence of his players, but the story does not have a happy ending. Romark claimed that Allison had never paid him, with the Daily Express reporting after the Halifax game that Allison had not turned up for an appointment in 1975. Either way, Romark was not a happy man.
Hell hath no fury like a hypnotist scorned. Romark immediately placed a curse on Allison, even meeting up with Southampton boss Lawrie McMenemy the day before the 1976 FA Cup semi-final with Crystal Palace to lend any support he could provide. Third Division Palace lost 2-0, and would later miss out on promotion to Division Two. Whether or not you choose to believe in a curse is your choice, but Palace's collapse in the league that season added fuel to the media fire surrounding the two men.
Romark met the Halifax players on the eve of the match, apparently hypnotising Paul Hendrie (father of future Aston Villa player Lee) and convincing him that he was the best midfielder in the country, although striker John Smith was a bit sceptical about the whole thing. Describing his meeting with Romark in the Lancashire Evening Post, Smith indicated his state of mind at the time. "I was trying not to laugh and I'm thinking, what's all this about? What a load of nonsense".
One factor that obviously did help the Halifax players was the state of the playing surface on the day of the match. Smith reveals that Kirby again would try and gain any advantage he could over their more illustrious opponents. "Anyway, it had snowed all week, and by Thursday the pitch was ankle deep in water, thawing out slowly. Kirby, though, got the fire hoses on the pitch, and poured hundreds of gallons of extra water on. By kick-off, the pitch was just about playable, but it looked like a soggy, peat bog."
It may be a cliche to say that the Cup is a great leveller, but back in the 1980s it truly was. Pitches like the one seen at The Shay were ideal for Cup upsets, even if Division One teams were not as spoilt then as they are now with their own grounds. Referee Michael Lowe inspected the pitch twice on the morning of the match and deemed it fit. City's players would have taken one step on to the mud that day and known they were in for a fight.
City were also hindered by a lack of experience in their defence. Without Tommy Booth, Willie Donachie, Paul Futcher, and Stepanovic, Allison was forced to field three teenagers in his back four - Tommy Caton, Nicky Reid, and Ray Ranson - and the situation would have been even worse had it not been for a British postal strike. Booth and Ranson had been sent off in a friendly against Real Madrid in December, but due to a delay in receiving the match report, both would avoid suspension against Halifax. Booth missed out anyway, but there would be no such lucky escape for Ranson.
The match kicked off at 2pm - reportedly to fit in with Yorkshire TV's highlights coverage - and immediately City were under the cosh. A long throw from Mick Kennedy eventually found its way to Hendrie a little over six yards out, who pulled his volley wide, yet the tone for the afternoon had been set. Shortly after, an Andy Stafford corner was tipped on to the post by Joe Corrigan, the excitement building in the 12,599 crowd, as the conditions on and off the pitch worsened. It was becoming increasingly clear that this was not a day for pretty football.
Gradually City began to impose themselves, with Halifax keeper John Kilner doing well to deny Bobby Shinton, and then parrying a volley from ex-Preston team mate Michael Robinson. But there was still a threat down the other end. Towards the end of the half Corrigan denied Halifax captain Dave Evans, a player who had once marked Johan Cruyff whilst playing for Aston Villa against Barcelona in the Uefa Cup. At half time, both managers would have been relatively happy.
Looking at the middle part of the pitch it is amazing how a game of football could take place during the second half, as the mud seemed to expand and the energy sapping nature of the surface took its toll. Hendrie went close again, bringing panic to the City goalmouth, but the best chance of the match fell to Shinton. A Dave Bennett cross, made from one of the rare patches of grass on the pitch, was nodded back across goal, the ball landing at the feet of the City striker on the six yard line (not that you could see it). But Shinton's instinctive strike was well saved by Kilner, and soon after Hendrie made City pay the ultimate price.
On 75 minutes the decisive blow was landed. A Stafford cross from the left was superbly cushioned by Smith into the path of Hendrie, and the midfielder found himself one-on-one with Corrigan. Hendrie's confident left-footed finish would prove the difference, and as the Halifax players celebrated in front of the stunned City fans, Allison must have wanted a hole to swallow him up. Instead he had to sit in the tiniest dugout imaginable, watching as his expensive misfits tried in vain to repair the damage.
Daley went close late on, but as if to sum up his City career his long range effort went past the post, and that was that. As soon as the final whistle sounded, the celebrations and recriminations could well and truly begin. As Halifax's players enjoyed Champagne, their City counterparts endured a dressing down from Allison and were forced to take a long look at themselves.
"Defeat will not be the end of the world, but it will be bloody close to it," Allison had declared before the trip to Halifax. How true. According to the press, cries of "Allison out" and "Swales out" could be heard from the terraces, with Daley having to be restrained whilst getting on the team coach after receiving abuse from supporters. The situation at Manchester City was as messy as the pitch at The Shay.
Swales described the experience as "the worst football day of my life", but promised to support Allison and Book. "All I can do is give Malcolm and Tony our backing. I still believe they can do the job," Swales stated, and he was true to his word. In March, more money was thrown at the problem, with £1.25 million spent on Kevin Reeves, the panic buys continuing.
City avoided relegation, but the writing was on the wall. No wins in the first twelve league matches of 1980/81 season left Swales with no option. Allison was sacked, and John Bond would lead the recovery that included a much happier Cup run than the previous year, ending at Wembley rather than The Shay.
Halifax would go on to lose in the fourth round at Bolton, and finish 18th in the Fourth Division, the City match very much the highlight of Kirby's second spell at the club. In June 1981, Kirby was dismissed after the club had to re-apply for their league position once more. Hopefully he had the common sense to pay Romark in January 1980, otherwise people may have jumped to conclusions.
And what of Romark? Happy to court the publicity, he announced that he would finally lift the curse on Allison, an invitation that was politely (or maybe not) turned down. Whether Romark had a positive influence on Halifax or not is debatable, but his presence certainly added an extra ingredient to the tie. "All the headlines, though, were about that hypnotist, but we beat Manchester City through courage, hard work and belief," Smith protests. In truth, City were there for the taking, regardless of Romark.
Martin Tyler neatly summed up the Halifax Cup shock in his Times report, writing that it had "every element of cup-tie football: the fourth division against the first; the poor of the league against the biggest spenders; a quagmire of a pitch in one of the game's least fashionable settings". The sort of occasion that seemed the norm back in the 1980s, as supporters of Harlow Town, York City, Port Vale and Sutton United can vouch for.
Where were you when you were s**t? A popular song sung to supporters of cash-rich clubs that have collected trophies due to the vast amounts of money invested in their squads. In my opinion, any City fan that went to Halifax that day (or Shrewsbury the season before) and froze on the terraces, caked in mud, and embarrassed at the state of their club, fully deserves their moment of glory now. From Shinton to Sergio, life has rarely been dull if you follow Manchester City.