Russell Kempson takes a trip to the Lancashire town of Fleetwood
Russell Kempson takes a trip to the Lancashire town of Fleetwood
It's Friday night in Fleetwood. The sun is going down, a burning orb shimmering on the horizon, and the regulars outside The Mount pub on the Esplanade are in awe. "I've not seen it that red in ages," says a local. Beyond the massive wind farm far out a sea, another rare event takes place.
The Isle of Man is eerily in full view, a hump-backed land mass in the distance. "I've not seen that for years, either," says another disbeliever. As the sun disappears, as twilight is consumed by darkness, the tranquil views over the Wyre Estuary and Morecambe Bay also vanish, just the blinking lights of Barrow-in-Furness across the water left to gaze at.
All is quiet. And yet it is less than 72 hours before Fleetwood Town, the former non-league football club, take their first titanic steps into the big time. A match against Nottingham Forest awaits at Highbury Stadium, a 20-minute walk from the seafront, and Fleetwood's first-ever game - in the Capital One Cup first round - as a Football League club.
The excitement, if not at fever pitch, is palpable. A Cod Army fixture list is displayed prominently behind the bar at The Mount, alongside a signed Fleetwood shirt. The nearby New Boston Hotel also has the historic fixtures - of games against Morecambe, their local rivals, Torquay United and AFC Wimbledon fixed to a front window. So too, at The Strawberry Gardens in Poulton Road, a popular watering hole on the way to Highbury.
Since the once vibrant deep-sea fishing industry of the west-coast port fell into decline in the late 1970s, and when the football club fell from grace and had to be revived in its latest incarnation in 1997, the town has had little to enthuse about. Yet it is now abuzz, a large chunk of its 28,000 population more than willing to embrace the Blue Square Premier champions of last season on their new adventure.
After five promotions in seven years, the turnaround has been remarkable. Thus, "Supporter Saturday" draws a healthy attendance at Highbury, with young and old invited in for free and able to look on in admiration as Micky Mellon, the Fleetwood manager, puts his players through their pre-season paces.
It has been a case of out with the old and in with new, with Mellon having to upgrade his squad to meet the sterner challenges that lie ahead in League 2. Out went 10 players during the summer, in came 11. Much has changed, dramatically, since the Scot took over in 2008.
Mellon, 40, does not waste his words. If exhilarated by the meteoric journey, he does not show it outwardly. Yet his commitment to the Fleetwood cause is unmistakable. "Yes, we're really excited about this season," he says. "A lot has gone on over the last four years for us to get among the elite and the Cup draw against Forest was also a great reward.
"The secret? Hard work, good footballers and a good relationship between the manager and the players who have been here. And great backing from the chairman [Andy Pilley] and a fanbase that is growing by the month. I just want to win the next game of football and then, at certain stages in the season, we'll see where we are.
"Yes, it is my first job as a manager, but I think myself and the club have grown together. We've walked forward, hand-in-hand, and progressed. I'm not sure how far we can go but we've grown together, we've learnt together and it's been a very good partnership. And long may it continue."
Chairman Pilley sits in his shorts in a dug-out at the foot of the state-of-the-art BES Parkside Stand, a £4 million outlay in the £10 million investment that he has staked in the club since taking control in 2003. Seagulls caw manically overhead - as they do everywhere in Fleetwood - and the threat of a sudden dive-bombing or unwanted deposits appears all too real.
Not that Pilley, 41, would be perturbed by any aerial attack. He runs the club like he does his company, a multi million pound energy supply business that is based in the BES Parkside Stand, with a firm hand on the tiller. Yet with a giggle, a laugh, a sharp sense of humour.
Especially when a youngster asks for his autograph.
"I suppose that's a sign that things are going quite well," he says. "Well, I'd like to think so. Yes, I was a Blackpool fan, but the opportunity to get involved at semi-professional level really excited me. I came down here, had a look around and thought: 'Yeah, this place has got great potential'.
"I never thought, though, in my wildest dreams, that we would be in The Football League so soon. It is now, undoubtedly, much more than a hobby. It's become an obsession. But that's the way it's got to be. You have to have like-minded people all pulling in the same direction.
"We've had a refuse-to-lose, failure-is-not-an-option attitude over the past few seasons. If you're determined to do something, you can make it happen. There's a real feel-good factor in the town and the success of the club has almost brought the community back to life after the demise of the fishing industry. It's been a real boost to the area and it's put a smile back on people's faces again."
The seagulls threaten another bombing raid but, thankfully, pull out. "OK, so I've spent £10 million here," Pilley continues. "It's an expensive hobby, and now we're in the League, it's probably going to get more expensive. But if you're fortunate to be successful in business, then what could be better than being involved in your local football club? I'm not a here-today-gone-tomorrow person. I live five minutes from the stadium, it's a huge part of my life and always will be".
It is a Pilley family affair. Wife Gemma organises the catering facilities at Highbury, 15-year-old son Jamie works in the ticket office. Little Lucas, two, plays with a ball at Pilley's feet. Daughter Melissa, seven, is away at a party. Mellon later reflects on the vital owner/chairman-manager relationship.
"It's absolutely imperative that it is healthy," he says. "And it is. It's very honest and we get on very well. At times, we're not shy at telling each other what we think, but we both want the same thing. That's for the club to be successful."
Highbury is a hive of activity. Midfielder Anthony Barry, who dislocated his left knee early last season and missed almost all of the title-clinching campaign after having to endure two operations, receives treatment in the physio's room. "It's been a nightmare, very frustrating," he says. "Hopefully, I'll be back in a couple of months."
Outside, the Capital One Cup is on show pitch-side. The players and fans enthusiastically pose for pictures with it and it is also taken to the nearby fire station and library for further photo calls. In the library, 'Through Stormy Waters', a history of Fleetwood FC in its many guises, sits proudly on the top shelf of the Football Mad section. "It's a great read," Derick Thomas, the club's ever-helpful communications manager, confides.
Behind the goal in the Memorial Stand are banners that read: "Cod Army Papua New Guinea" and, best of all, "Ultras de Cod". Steve Wetherill, a 51-year-old fully paid-up Cod Army season ticket-holder, looks on as the squad trains vigorously. "A lot of people here are pinching themselves as to where we are now," he says. "It really has been a great adventure.
"Andy [Pilley] is very hands-on, very accessible and seems very ambitious and focused. He's taken Fleetwood to his heart and really put his money where his mouth is but on a step-by-step basis and in a sensibly managed way. The big question now is how far can we really go?"
Sunday - 24 hours before D-Day at Highbury - is quieter. On the promenade, joggers, cyclists and dog-walkers compete for space and the Beachside Cafe enjoys decent trade. Not surprising; the £2.70 bacon & egg barm is excellent. As legend has it, John Lennon spent holidays here with a cousin before later returning to play a gig with The Beatles.
I take my own Ticket To Ride on the 40-minute tram trip from Fleetwood Ferry - the end of the line - along the coast to North Pier, near the world-famous Blackpool Tower. It is a pleasurable experience, the tram gliding effortlessly until it reaches the hustle and bustle of Fleetwood's big brother and near-neighbour.
That Championship Blackpool lose 2-1 at home to League 2 Morecambe in the Cup first round on Sunday causes a stir. It just adds to the sense of anticipation in Fleetwood for the visit of Forest, twice European Cup champions, the next evening. Bring it on.
Highbury, on the big night, is bristling with eager endeavour. The Forest team coach, with personalised number plate, backs carefully into the tiny main entrance in Nelson Road, unloading the skips full of kit and packet after packet of energy drinks before returning to the team hotel to pick up the players. The Fleetwood players' shirts are hung neatly on pegs in the spacious home changing room.
Upstairs, outside the plush Parkside Suite, you can see Blackpool Tower, eight miles away, and the vast Fisherman's Friend lozenge factory, the town's largest employer. Downstairs, Ted Lowery, the dressing-room steward and a club vice-president, busies himself making cups of tea for anyone and everyone.
"I don't really need to do all this," he says. "If I wanted, I could go in the boardroom and just sip the wine and have a chat. But I'd rather be mixing with the football. It keeps me younger."
Ted, 82, is in his 34th season at the club. He has experienced it all - the good, the bad and the extremely ugly - and can't quite believe how high Fleetwood are now flying. "It has astounded me," he says. "Never in a month of Sundays did I ever think that I would be a vice-president of a Football League club."
In Jim's Bar - named after Jim Betmead, the president, former chairman and widely regarded as the saviour of the club in '97 - it is heaving. The home and away fans mingle in perfect harmony and Anthony Stott, a Fleetwood convert from Dewsbury who is now in his third season in the Cod Army, reflects on the startling progress that he has witnessed.
"The first time I came here, it was just grass banking and little else," Stott, a 39-year-old management consultant, said. "But I heard that the facilities had all changed, came back for one game ... and I've been coming ever since. Everyone makes you feel so welcome. You feel close to the people high up in the club, the players and coaches will still talk to you, and I'm sure that won't change. I go to all the away games, too. As a football fan nowadays, it's an investment you just have to make."
The game passes in a blur, of hope and expectation in a tight first half but followed by dismay and eventual resignation after Dexter Blackstock scores at the second attempt to secure a 1-0 Forest victory. Mellon had given starting debuts to six of his summer signings and they had acquitted themselves well against a side two tiers above them and four-time winners of the competition. "I'm delighted with the way we played," Mellon says. "We have shown again how far we have moved on as a club."
As the fans drift home, the heavens open. Back at The Mount on the Esplanade, the locals discuss the match, the coming League 2 programme and also count the spectacular lightning strikes across the bay as the deluge shows no sign of letting up.
By early next morning, the rain has ceased and all is calm. As chairman Pilley, the go-getting leader of the Cod Army revolution, had so succinctly put it on Supporter Saturday: "For the club, this is the dawn of a new era."
Thanks to the Capital One Cup website