Cup challengers Chorley with another hill to climb

With Chorley FC facing Wolves in a historic cup tie, Tony Dawber speaks with club official and lifelong fan Neil Hailwood about glory – and the gritty reality of lower-league survival.

Tonight the spotlight shines on a humble stadium named in the wake of World War I. Surrounding the pitch at Victory Park is banking fashioned from clinker salvaged from the fires of nearby cotton mills. Here Chorley FC take on Wolverhampton Wanderers, a glorious name gleaming anew, one that the sixth-tier side also faced – and famously beat – in the FA Cup 35 years ago.

Victory Park/Liam Dawber

Now it’s the Fourth Round, is another Cupset on the cards? According to club official and a lifelong fan Neil Hailwood, “Chorley’s story this year is what makes the FA Cup so magical and has encouraged the town to dream big!”

After unlikely triumphs over former winners Wigan and Derby, Chorley can rightly revel in the limelight. But what happens after tonight’s floodlights dim and the Magpies return to reality?

Hailwood, who hosts match-day sponsors and countless fundraising events, knows the score only too well. “Similar to most other clubs at our level, Chorley have been hit hard financially with the pandemic – and I’m sure everyone at the club would describe their fantastic cup run as a real life saver.”

Victory Park/Liam Dawber

These are tough times for every club, but for those in the semi-pro game, the gruelling survival slope which they must scale weekly is a whole lot steeper. A £10 million Covid handout split between the three divisions of the National League, followed recently by a further £11m loans package, offers short-term hope, but this is a long haul. Virtually equidistant between Bolton, Preston, Blackburn and Wigan, 30 or so minutes from Liverpool or Manchester, the club faces a constant battle to convince Chorleans to roll up more regularly.

Sixty years ago this week, Brian Pilkington bagged a brace for Burnley in a memorable European Cup quarter-final against Hamburg. Eventually he returned to his home patch of Chorley to become a prominent businessman – and the club’s Life President. Although Pilkington died this time last year before Chorley’s current run, he could look back on the 1977 FA Trophy clash against Wimbledon when 7,000 fans squeezed into Victory Park, that Wolves game in 1986 – and also the day 20 years ago when just 112 diehards turned up for a league game with Bishop Auckland.

Victory Park/Liam Dawber

Last season’s brief venture in the National League otherwise comprised of mainly full-time opponents ended in relegation for part-time Chorley. At present, the Magpies are just outside the play-off places in the National League North – and facing Wolves in the cup, with a home tie against Arsenal or Southampton at stake. In between, Victory Park hosts bottom-of-the-table Blyth Spartans.

“Our amazing journey so far has also had a big impact on the local community,” says Hailwood, “as spirits have been lifted with not only the results but the excellent team performances and unique celebrations shared on TV and social media”.

Chorley-Wolves, Victory Park, 7.45pm, Friday, 22 January.