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Blog: From Northern Premier League to former Premier League Champions

2 November 2017

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Ten seasons ago 30,033 fans came to Ewood Park to watch a goalless draw between Blackburn Rovers and Liverpool in the Premier League. In the same week Fleetwood Town played out a 0-0 draw at Highbury against Witton Albion in the Northern Premier League.

The two sides met for the first time in a league match on Halloween 2017. It is testament both to Fleetwood's rise and Blackburn's problems since the halcyon days of Jack Walker, Kenny Dalglish and Alan Shearer that the teams were locked on 24 points, just outside the League One play-off positions.

Fleetwood's history has been marked by significant milestones. The club that once aspired to match the likes of Lancaster City and Bamber Bridge can map out their journey through games against Hartlepool United, Northampton Town, Blackpool, Portsmouth, Sheffield United, Preston North End and Bolton. Now, they were up against former Premier League Champions for the first time, one of only six teams in that exclusive club. Some fans might be thinking about full-back Alan Wright who played a big part in both journeys. A Premier League winner with Blackburn, he played at Highbury between 2009-11 and I don't remember him ever making a mistake. Before the game, I chatted with another former Cod, Damien Johnson, who was looking on as a key part of the Blackburn coaching set-up. He was in the very first Fleetwood Town team to play in the Football League, at home to Torquay United in August 2012. It was at the end of a distinguished playing career and the quietly-spoken man from Northern Ireland paid tribute to the progress made by the club on and off the field.

The game had been postponed due to Rovers international call-ups but, ironically, they were missing as many players this time round, due to suspensions and injuries. It was a test of the depth of the division's biggest-budget club. Back in the day, Fleetwood had spent time and again in their move through the leagues. Now they were up again the likes of Bradley Dack, bought in the summer for three quarters of a million pounds. The midfielder caught the eye in the opening exchanges but Fleetwood are never overawed against big opposition. Ashley Hunter was a terrier of a figure, determined to make a mark on his first start of the season. Lewis Coyle caught the eye down the right, quick of movement and quick of thought. The defence were solid. The new type of match ball fizzed across the Ewood surface as Town tested the resolute home defence. Bobby Grant got a couple of his left-foot specials on target. It was a competitive half. Fleetwood's good work was almost undone just before the break but Alex Cairns stayed strong to beat away a fierce drive from Marcus Antonsson.

The second half was absorbing with both sides enjoying periods of pressure. The ten thousand Rovers supporters had moved rapidly from frustration to joy and back again but reached a new level of volume on 52 minutes when their side pounced. Aiden O'Neill, on for the injured Grant, lost the ball around half way and Blackburn drove forward in force. Dack paid off a slice of that hefty fee with a finish from close range. However, Uwe Rosler's Fleetwood team is one that shows character and strong mentality. Many a point was gained in the 2016-17 campaign from a 'never-say-die' attitude. Never forget David Ball's late equaliser against Southend United. Last Saturday's win over Oxford came from late goals. Rosler's men moved forward and deservedly equalised in the 64th minute. The moment almost went but a loose ball came out to O'Neill who expunged some of his previous disappointment with his first goal for Fleetwood, a left foot drive. It was a strike guaranteed to gain him adulation when he returns to Burnley, Blackburn's fiercest rivals.

Blackburn came back and their own period of pressure produced a goal in the 77th minute for substitute Joe Nuttall. With just under a quarter of an hour left, this was a real test of Fleetwood's credentials. To their credit they drove forward time and again, forcing corners and testing the Rovers back line. There was unease amongst the Rovers fans. The second comeback was celebrated in the 82nd minute. From one of those George Glendon corners, Wes Burns emerged from a melee of bodies in the goal area, celebrating his first league goal of the season. As added time was played, the home fans were streaming out. As for the 430 members of the Cod Army in the Bryan Douglas Darwen End, they were going nowhere. They celebrated another brilliant effort on the road and another historic night for their club. They continue to live the dream. No doubt those who look back to Northern Premier League days might even be forgiven for pinching themselves. 

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