High-flying AFC Fylde stand top of the National League North and moving ever closer to the club’s stated ambition of Football League status by 2022. Tony Dawber focuses on the former West Lancashire League side looking to outshine Blackpool as ‘The Football Team of the Fylde Coast’.
A 97th-minute equaliser looks to have sent AFC Fylde into the National League for the first time, another step on this ambitious club’s path to hallowed membership of The 92.
A 2-2 draw at home on Saturday to promotion rivals Kidderminster, bookended by a crazy last ten minutes of two Fylde goals, three red cards and a mass brawl, keeps an 11-point buffer between the leaders and the chasing pack, with eight games to go in the sixth-tier National League North.
On Tuesday, Fylde host promotion-chasing Stockport County, a Football League club for over a century.
‘We set the target to reach the Football League by 2022 a few years back and it is still very much the aim,’ says Fylde spokesman Daniel Agnew.
‘We are currently ahead of schedule of where we expected to be at this point, but promotion this season is a must.’
But there’s more to this ambition than league status. The clue is in the name. The Fylde is the section of Lancashire that juts out towards Cumbria, hemmed in by the M6 and the Irish Sea. In football terms, it was put on the map decades ago by Blackpool, in freefall since relegation from the Premier in 2011. A year later, nearby Fleetwood Town won the Conference, gained Football League status and are currently in line for a place in the Championship. This isolated port, whose major employer makes throat lozenges, is leaving Blackpool behind and setting the example for AFC Fylde to follow.
If Blackpool are the Seasiders and Fleetwood Town the Trawlermen, AFC Fylde are the… Coasters.
And yet the £18 million Mill Farm Sports Village, opened just in time for the 2016-17 National League North season, is nowhere near the coast. Come 2022, those Doing The 92 will not have the swish Blackpool tram to ferry them to their tick-box destination. Off junction 3 of the M55, outside Wesham, officially Medlar with Wesham, home to 3,500 people and a biscuit factory, Mill Farm is exactly halfway in a straight line between Blackpool Pleasure Beach and the M6, a distance of 14 miles.
Mill Farm is also key to the grand scheme of wealthy AFC Fylde owner David Haythornthwaite. In order to create The Football Team of the Fylde Coast, for a football team that’s clearly not on the Fylde Coast, he has created a slick infrastructure around Mill Farm, involving a conference centre, a complex of 3G pitches, a sports bar with 22 screens and a zonal sounding system, a Mediterranean restaurant, all centrepieced by a spanking new, 6,000-capacity football ground.
Fans are provided with buses from around The Fylde. The attendance for Saturday’s Kidderminster game was 2,359. Four days before, Blackpool played Stevenage in front of 2,456, for a League Two fixture at a neglected Bloomfield Road. Preston is a 20-minute drive from Wesham – which game in The Fylde should the floating fan choose, the club on the up in a comfortable new stadium, with ticket prices at non-league rates, or moribund Bloomfield Road?
‘Attendances have rocketed since the move to the new Mill Farm stadium,’ points out AFC Fylde’s Daniel Agnew. ‘We have averaged three times the crowd compared with last season.’
And let’s not even talk about last season – which saw Fylde lose out to North Ferriby in the 95th minute of a play-off for National League status. It wasn’t that long ago that the club – formed by a merger of Kirkham & Wesham in 1988, renamed in 2008 – was toddling along in the eleventh-tier West Lancashire League, challenging the likes of Barnoldswick Town and Euxton Villa for honours. Home was council-owned Coronation Park.
The club moved out to rural Kellamergh Park in 2006. A year later, Fylde played their first ever home game under floodlights.
Branding, ambition and zonal sounding systems might bring success but there’s one thing they can’t buy: tradition. Outside Blackpool’s Bloomfield Road stands a statue to Stan Mortenson, who scored four goals on his full England debut 70 years ago. How much history will count in Blackpool’s favour should Fylde achieve their ambition should be a matter of grave concern to all Blackpudlians.
AFC Fylde-Stockport County, National League North. Tuesday March 21, 7.45pm. Mill Farm Sports Village, Coronation Way, Wesham, PR4 3JZ. Standing £5-£12, seats £12-£15. http://tickets.afcfylde.co.uk/.