It was with much sadness that we learned over the weekend of the passing of one of Halifax Town’s greatest managers, George Mulhall. He was 81 years old. George would be forever revered by the supporters for shaping the team of 1997-98 and leading them to the Conference title and thus reclaiming League status that had been lost five years earlier. This was George’s second stint at managing Halifax Town; his first had been in the early Seventies, though it’s arguable which was his greater achievement with the club. Keeping them in the old Third Division with little or no money, or turning around the club’s fortunes by achieving promotion from the Conference a year after narrowly avoiding relegation? But what isn’t in dispute is the fact that George became the only manager to deliver a league title for Halifax Town, and for that reason alone he stands out among his peers.
Of course, nobody could have foreseen the significance of George’s appointment as coach by Ray Henderson in October 1971, his first such position in England after a lengthy career in both Scotland and England as a dashing winger, good enough to win three Scotland caps.
With two of his elder brothers having forged professional careers with Falkirk and Albion Rovers, George’s own professional career took off with Aberdeen, signing for the club on his seventeenth birthday. He had to wait almost six years to establish himself on the left wing due to the form of Jackie Hather but he made an immediate impact, and his belated meteoric rise continued with selection for the Scotland national side against Northern Ireland in Belfast on 3 October 1959. George lined up alongside Dave Mackay, John White, Ian St John and Denis Law and made a dream debut, scoring the last goal of a 4-0 win. Mulhall helped the Dons to runners-up spot behind Rangers in 1955-56, and made 110 League appearances and scored thirty goals during his time at Pittodrie.
By the time he won his second cap, George had moved to Second Division Sunderland, where he set a club record of 125 consecutive appearances in a total of 253 League appearances and 66 goals. Initially, he supplied the ammunition for lethal centre-forward Brian Clough, and though there was disappointment in 1962-63 when Sunderland just missed out on promotion, they finished runners-up to Don Revie’s Leeds United the following term to reclaim their place in the First Division after an absence of six years. The 1963-64 season was also memorable for three epic FA Cup clashes with Manchester United in which George starred, only for his side to lose 5-1 in a third meeting at Leeds Road, Huddersfield. But George would have his day against United. On the final day of the 1967-68 season, his headed goal denied the Reds the League title and handed it to their bitter rivals Manchester City.
It was his form with Sunderland that earned George a recall to the Scotland side; he appeared in a 5-1 victory over Northern Ireland at Hampden Park in November 1962, and won his last cap against the same side almost a year later, then lost his place to Rangers’ Davie Wilson. But his consistency and durability were important factors in Sunderland managing to maintain their place in the top flight until tired legs gave way, and George left the club in 1969.
He retreated to South Africa where, in less demanding surroundings, he became player manager of Durban City, being top scorer in the League and winning a cup medal. George toyed with the idea of residing there but his wife Elizabeth wanted their three children educated back home. He then appeared for Greenock Morton before pursuing his coaching career following a call from Ray Henderson at the Shay.
Henderson was sacked after just one season in charge at The Shay, but in turn, the board promoted George to manager and against the odds he kept the club in the third tier of English football. The club made headlines in 1972-73 by stopping up on goal average by winning their last four matches, and having made some astute signings, such as centre-forward Dave Gwyther, David Ford, David Pugh and winger Alan Jones, the club finished ninth the following season.
The Shaymen had made a modest start to the 1974-75 campaign, but even so, George’s resignation following a 3-1 home defeat to Chesterfield in September 1974 came out of the blue. ‘Halifax Town is not for me,’ he would say, but keen to stay in football he duly joined Ian Greaves as assistant at Bolton Wanderers a month later, helping guide the Trotters to the First Division in 1977-78.
Bradford City tempted him away from Burnden Park in November 1978 and he was unlucky to see his side miss out on promotion from the Fourth Division in his second season in charge. He tamed the wayward Bobby Campbell, whose club record 143 goals included the winner in the first leg of a League Cup tie against League champions Liverpool in August 1980, and by the time George left the club in March 1981 he had built the nucleus of a side which Roy McFarland would take to promotion in 1981-82.
George returned to Bolton to assist Stan Anderson, then briefly took over as manager. In July 1985 he was Frank Worthington’s right-hand man at Tranmere Rovers, then appointed Huddersfield Town youth development officer.
It was Halifax Town boss John Bird who brought George back to The Shay to act as assistant manager and to run the youth team. When Bird left the club in March 1996, chairman John Stockwell approached George and Kieran O’Regan to look after the team, and though O’Regan fancied the job, the board made the surprising appointment of John Carroll with two matches of the season to go.
George reverted to his role as youth team manager but was called upon again in February 1997 when Carroll left the club. Initially appointed on a caretaker basis Town won their next three matches, but when Town’s league position looked ever more worrying, Stockwell announced, ‘Keep us in the Conference and the job’s yours.’ George, with trusted O’Regan at his side, managed to do just that, though it was mightily close with survival assured only with last day victory over Stevenage Borough.
Never one to shy from making tough decisions, George’s decision to sell top scorer and final-day hat-trick hero Mick Norbury nevertheless astounded the fans, but the canny Scot assembled possibly the finest ever Halifax Town team. With Geoff Horsfield taking over the mantle from Norbury, George added the likes of Andy Thackeray, Mark Bradshaw and Jamie Murphy to the team, as well signing the inspirational centre-back Peter Jackson. Jamie Paterson returned to the fold a better player than when he left, and with marauding midfielder Kevin Hulme acting as skipper – a role given by George to make him more responsible – the Shaymen produced a brand of free-flowing exciting football the supporters hadn’t seen in years. He brought the experienced Brian Kilcline out of enforced retirement when Jackson left to take over as manager at Huddersfield Town, and his side cantered to the Conference title, clinching it with a 2-0 win at Kidderminster Harriers with three games still to play. George’s reaction upon the final whistle at Aggborough clearly showed what the success meant to him.
George was by then 62 years old, but he had claimed he wanted to manage in the Football League, and indeed seemed all set to do so having taken his team through a series of friendlies. But four days before the season’s opener at Peterborough, he sensationally quit the post, though his reasons for doing so have never been publicly declared.
George was lined up to become director of football at the club twelve months hence, and would in the meantime groom O’Regan as his successor, but there were suggestions that the timing of his decision to step down was to help save O’Regan’s job and avoid in-house fighting. Other reports stated he felt he needed a rest. Either way, it was a most unsatisfactory end to a marvellous career, one which had left George achieving cult-like status at The Shay.
On 27 July 1999 Halifax Town held a testimonial game for George, a game which saw the Shaymen defeat Peer Reid’s Sunderland 1-0 at The Shay.
George was, and remains, many things to the clubs that he served. As a player, he was hard and direct, comically quoted for ‘getting his retaliation in first’. The Sunderland fans who remember the Sixties held George in high affection, recalling his rocket of a shot and direct approach. As a manager, he didn’t suffer fools gladly, and when tough decisions had to be made, he wasn’t afraid to make them. As a person – as those who knew him well will testify – he was an absolute gent.
George had suffered with Alzheimer’s over the last few years and his death came after he fractured a hip and was in Huddersfield Royal Infirmary. When news broke, initial shock gave way to sadness for a man who had given so much to football in general, and more locally with Halifax Town, he became part of the club’s fabric. His passing leaves a massive void.
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