“You’re just a pub team with money” sing an inebriated throng of Boston United supporters, as their opponents score yet another goal in a 5-2 demolition job. Though sung in jest, they’re not far from the truth. The Birley Arms is a pleasant country pub just like countless others in West Lancashire, apart from the fact that at the bottom of its car park is the home of National League North side AFC Fylde.
Fylde’s wealth is well-known in non-league circles. Backed by the deep pockets of chairman David Haythornthwaite, the club, formerly Kirkham and Wesham F.C. have made improvements to their existing home Kellamergh Park and seen a rise from the West Lancashire League in 2007 to The National League North in 2014. Last season Fylde manager Dave Challinor, of Tranmere Rovers and long-throw fame, banked an impressive 85 points in the league in 2015/16, but second place and a play-off semi final defeat to Guiseley meant their campaign ended in heartbreak. Poorer clubs would see a loss like that as a huge opportunity missed, and potentially damaging to a club’s future, but for Fylde it just seems a minor inconvenience on the road to something greater.
Once again, The Coasters sit second in the league below The Conference (or National League as it’s known this season). A late penalty for Nuneaton Town in their last encounter costs them three points and has created a surely unassailable gap between them and league leaders Solihull Moors, so Fylde will have to ready themselves for another crack at the play-offs. Behind the goal in which Nuneaton score their equaliser, is a banner reading “2022: Stop us if you can”, a reference to Fylde’s ambition to become a league side before the Qatar World Cup. Despite the heartbreak of the Guiseley defeat, and the potential for another play-off disappointment this season, you wonder if this target isn’t a little too cautious.
As their banner says, preventing Fylde achieving league status will be no mean feat. Even if they fall in the play-offs this time around their resources, the astute management of Challinor and the goalscoring talent of Danny Rowe, two more promotions in the next six seasons seems more than achievable.
As important as promotion would be to Fylde, the much-coveted ‘next step’ in their development from scrappy West Lancashire League side to bona fide professional football club is already underway. As Challinor’s players hammer Boston and blow it against Nuneaton, work continues at Mill Farm, an £18m development that includes a 6,000-capacity stadium – the Coasters new home next season. Fylde will soon no longer be just the pub team with money.
Regular updates are posted on the AFC Fylde website about how things are going in the construction of the new ground. The latest proudly boasts that “with the help of local turf specialists Danvic, the playing surface at Mill Farm will be the best around!” Clearly, no expense is being spared. Mill Farm won’t just be a new home ground for “the football teamof the Fylde coast”, it’ll be an Aldi Supermarket, a hotel, a pub, a restaurant and a petrol station. As the website says: “The intention is to provide a facility that will enable us to grow over the coming years and continue to invest in the team and our programme of community activities for young people across the Fylde Coast.”
Community engagement is another reason why Fylde have every right to be boisterous about their lofty ambitions. Re-branding the club from Kirkham and Wesham (a town and a village) to Fylde (a 13 square-mile peninsula) has clearly been successful. Football fans in the parts of the Fylde Coast that aren’t Kirkham and Wesham, which is most of it, now have a club that represents them. On matchdays, free buses run from Freckleton and Lytham to Kellamergh Park, in another bid to bring more fans from across Fylde to home games. Attracting fans from these more affluent areas of the north-west is clearly something the Fylde hierarchy see as a worthwhile exercise, as their gradually-increasing attendances will testify. As a white, AFC Fylde-branded double-decker pulls up to a pub in Lytham, two Nuneaton Town fans who board remark what a fantastic move this is, and how they wish their club could do something similar. AFC Fylde’s Community Foundation, founded in 2013, would be the envy of many a football league club. Cars emblazoned with the club crest zip about to this primary school or that children’s football team, for coaching sessions. They are a well and truly established presence locally, and this is something that should worry near neighbours Blackpool F.C.
As Fylde pull out all the stops to bring people into their new stadium next season, Blackpool could very well enter League 2, with yet more fans driven away by the malicious ownership of Owen Oyston. A Blackpool fan turning his back on the Seasiders and seeking the warm embrace of the Coasters could become increasingly common, as the mismanagement of one club means the well-managed neighbour can profit. It wouldn’t be out of the question that in a couple of years time, the former F.A. Cup winners – the club of Matthews, Mortensen and Armfield, could face Fylde –founded in 1988, in a league match.
Another Blackpool legend is already wise the contrast in fortunes of the two clubs. Brett Ormerod, a Bloomfield Road icon with goals in every tier of league football, has turned down the opportunity to play his testimonial match at the ground where not so long ago he netted in a 3-1 victory over Tottenham Hotspur. The new venue for Ormerod’s big game?Mill Farm. Citing the League One club’s home as “too toxic” due to the bitter, at times ridiculous conflict between fans and ownership, the testimonial will be the curtain-raiser for a new chapter in Fylde’s short history. The local paper saw the 39-year-old’s decision to relocate the game as a new low in the seemingly ceaseless saga. Ormerod told the Blackpool Gazette: “Once AFC Fylde came forward and offered their fantastic new stadium as a venue, it was an easy decision. With fans banned from Bloomfield Road and others refusing to step foot inside, I couldn’t have held it there. It would have stirred up a hornets’ nest and I would have been dragged into the criticism.” In Ormerod’s final season, Blackpool were in the Premier League and seven tiers above Fylde. Now it seems as though the two clubs are sat at opposite ends of a see saw, Blackpool plummeting to earth, but unlikely to spring back up any time soon.
As you might have guessed by the taunts of the Boston United fans, Fylde’s resources haven’t made them popular with fans of other non-league sides. With former league sides such as Boston, Stockport County and Bradford Park Avenue in the same division, it’s understandable that Fylde – with their flash new stadium – should be the subject of the chagrin of the old-school non-league supporter. In a sense, they can be regarded as a Man City or Paris Saint-Germain of the sixth tier.
On the pitch, Fylde’s inconsistency has kept them from staying in the title race, which is down to just the single horse now. Against Nuneaton, they fall behind to a thunderous shot from ‘Boro’ right-back James Clifton. Largely second-best for much of the encounter, they get two late scrappy goals to, they think, make sure of the three points. That is until Fylde keeper Ben Hinchcliffe trips Nuneaton’s Elliot Whitehouse with the number ten going nowhere. The mistake will surely have Dave Challinor tearing his hair out, but he now must focus on keeping Fylde upbeat for the remaining eight games before the inevitability of the play-offs.
Premier League razzle-dazzle is on display at Kellemargh in the shape of Nuneaton’s Marlon Harewood, a former FA Cup finalist. As he is substituted on the 52-minute mark, a small group of around a dozen home supporters sing “Marlon Harewood, he used to be good”, to which Marlon puts a thumb up and yells “Oh, thanks!”. While they may be the ambitious rich kids of this level, Fylde is still for now, a small club, where player-fan banter is clearly audible most of the 555 supporters in attendance.
With three games left, Fylde have ensured their place in the top five and will duke it out with North Ferriby for an advantageous second-place finish. If Challinor can guide his team through the play-offs and into the conference at the end of this season, then it will be well and truly heady days for Fylde, particularly for the supporters who’ve been around since the Kirkham and Wesham days. In their last season under their old name, they won the FA Vase at Wembley with a 2-1 success over Lowestoft Town. They’ll hope to close another chapter in their history, the Kellemargh Park chapter, by winning another final.
The West Lancs side must remember that in order to achieve their dreams, they’ll have to endure plenty of setbacks like against Guiseley and Nuneaton, and that simply having the most money is no guarantor of success at any level of football. On their club crest is a fighter jet, a reference to the BAE Systems site in the nearby town of Warton. As freshly-built Eurofighter Typhoons fly around the Fylde plains, it is understandable that Coasters fans are spending most of their time looking upwards.
Picture credit to Matthew Wilkinson on Flickr.