GIANTKILLERS: Halesowen Town, at Step 4, toppled three National League clubs to reach the semi-finals of the FA Trophy. Picture: TGSPHOTO
While some National Game Awards are tough to call, others just seem to fall into place.
In a season where Step 4 clubs ruled in the cups – who can forget the achievements of Chichester City and Maldon & Tiptree in the FA Cup? But it was Southern League Division One Central high-fliers Halesowen Town who ruled supreme this time around after embarking on a stunning FA Trophy run to within just one round of a dream date at Wembley.
No fewer than nine rounds and 13 ties took the Yeltz all the way from the Preliminary Round to a two-legged semi-final before the coronavirus outbreak struck.
And they didn’t have an easy time of it either, toppling three full-time National League outfits – Maidenhead United, FC Halifax Town and Barnet – along the way, all on their own patch!
“It came as much of a surprise to us as anyone,” said manager Paul Smith, who arrived at The Grove last summer following the club’s relegation from Step 3.
“I did not think a Step 4 club could ever go so far in the FA Trophy so it wasn’t really a priority, if I’m honest. It was always the league.
“But as the season transpired and the further we got in the competition, we started to believe anything was possible and gear ourselves for what potentially lay ahead.
“We had momentum and I was confident that, any given day, we could give anyone a game. It was fairytale stuff.”
Make sure you grab your copy of @NonLeaguePaper today, the winners of the Virtual National Game Awards 2019-20 have been announced, we’ve won Cup Run of the Year and captain Paul McCone has won the Southern League Step 4 Player of the year #UpTheYeltz pic.twitter.com/NSF2bd62Nq
— Halesowen Town FC (@halesowentownfc) June 21, 2020
Wins over Dereham Town, Evesham United, Stamford and Grantham Town put them in the hat with the big boys where back-to-back successes over National League North pair Gateshead and Bradford Park Avenue kept the dream alive.
And it was then when a replay victory at Maidenhead on a Tuesday night officially announced their arrival as Trophy giantkillers.
“That was the turning point for me,” Smith reflected. “We were backs against the wall in the first half. Maidenhead were excellent and our keeper had to make two amazing saves. We were lucky to go in just one goal down.
“At half-time, I had to make a double substitution and change the formation completely. It was a move that will either define you as a Sunday League manager or the next Jurgen Klopp, but thankfully it came off! It was our best half of football all season and we ended up winning 3-1.
“Halifax was actually even more impressive. They were on fire at the time so to go there, stick to the game plan set out and keep a clean sheet was a fantastic achievement.”
After 13 FA Trophy ties and another four in the FA Cup, you could be forgiven for thinking the focus on the cups had come at a cost to their league form. Not so. They were second in the table – just one point behind leaders Berkhamsted with a game in hand – before the season came to a close and will surely start next season as red-hot favourites for a return to Step 3.
“That’s huge credit to the mental strength of the players,” Smith added. “It takes something special to achieve what they have this season, but then I’ve got something special in this group.”
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Images courtesy of The Non-League Paper & TGSPHOTO