Words John Edwards | Pictures Jonathan Moore
Altrincham 1 FC Halifax Town 2
IT has been a memorable 2023 for Altrincham, a year of significant progress on all fronts, but Phil Parkinson's high-flying team were unable to round it off in the style Robins fans have become accustomed to at The J.Davidson Stadium on Tuesday afternoon.
A Boxing Day Battle of the Roses was a prospect to be savoured for Alty followers in a bumper near-4,000 crowd, following a resourceful draw at second-placed Bromley that added further credibility to the Robins' play-off credentials, but it failed to deliver and ended as something of a damp squib.
One of the most resolute and well-drilled defences in the Vanarama National League remained largely untroubled on a rare off-day for Alty's normally-productive front line, while at the other end, Halifax helped themselves to goals by Millenic Alli and Jamie Cooke.
Alli, the scourge of Alty's Wembley dream last season with a last-second leveller in an Isuzu FA Trophy semi-final that went Halifax's way on penalties, fired the Shaymen into a 36th-minute lead, and when Cooke added a second in the 69th minute, it was game over.
Chris Conn-Clarke halved the deficit deep into added time, but with only seconds left, the Robins' fate had already been sealed.
Play was halted after only 40 seconds, with Lewis Baines needing three minutes of treatment after being poleaxed on the Pop Side of the pitch, and while the big defender made a full recovery and was able to continue, the first half didn't get noticeably better after that, from an Alty perspective.
The Robins carved out the game's first chance in the 15th minute when a move involving Justin Amaluzor and Conn-Clarke ended with George Wilson advancing a couple of paces before shooting narrowly wide of the right-hand post.
But it was Halifax who went ahead when that man Alli again proved a thorn in Alty's side.
Much like the last-ditch equaliser that dashed Alty's Wembley hopes when a Trophy final place was tantalisingly close, it was a goal out of nowhere, as the striker unleashed a low snap-shot from outside the area that sneaked inside the upright.
It could have been worse for Alty as two further Halifax attempts flashed inches wide of the post in quick succession in the six minutes that were tagged on to a disjointed first half.
Alty rang the changes in the second half in a bid to find a formula that might unlock a stubborn Halifax rearguard, but the game was up when Cooke found space on the edge of the area to drill a low shot beyond Ethan Ross.
The Robins kept plugging away and eventually pierced the visitors' defence when Conn-Clarke found the top corner in the fourth minute of stoppage time, but, fine finish though it was, it was condemned to be of little more than consolation value.
Man Of The Match George Wilson
Alty Ross; Banks, Baines, Kosylo, Marriott (c), Conn-Clarke, Amaluzor (Brockbank, 61'), Cooper, Wilson, Dackers (Linney, 66'), Newby (Mooney, 72'). Subs not used: Angus, Gould.
Halifax Johnson (c); Golden, Galvin (Cappello, 78'), Senior, Stott, Hunter, Cooke, Alli, Thompson-Sommers, (Cosgrave, 86'), Keane, Wright (Oluwabori, 43'). Subs not used: Hoti, Wilson.
Goals Conn-Clarke 90'+4 | Alli 36', Cooke 69'
Yellows Baines 20', Kosylo 51' | None
Attendance 3,912 (425 away)
Referee James Westgate
Assistants Emmanuel Edet & Adam Nichol | Luis Griffiths
The rematch at The Shay on New Year's Day (3pm). Admission to this Vanarama National League clash is by cash turnstiles and will cost £21 Adults, £18 Concessions, £9 12-17s & £4 under-12s.