Fleetwood may sound like the name of a timber haulage company but it is in fact a town on the Lancashire coast. It sits on the Fylde which is a large coastal plain, roughly 13 square miles in size, which incorporates Blackpool to the South and is bounded by Morecambe Bay to the north. The town has a population of around 27,000 and was one of England’s major fishing ports. Its most famous export is the throat lozenge Fisherman’s Friend, which everyone’s Grandma always has in plentiful supply regardless of the season.
Until 10 years ago the town’s football team was a mere footnote of the national game but 6 promotions in 12 years has changed that! But what, or should I say who, made the difference? Enter Andrew Pilley, a man who grew up in the local area and a shrewd business man to boot. When he arrived at the club in 2004 he was presented with a club in a sorry state. Their Highbury Stadium was dilapidated and was literally falling apart.
Pilley put his money in and saved the club from going bust but what he did next was quite remarkable. He continued to invest and following his take over the club won back to back promotions from the North West Counties Division in 2005 and then the Northern Premier League First Division a season later. They consolidated their place in the Northern Premier League Premier Division with an 8th place finish and a victory in the Northern Premier League Challenge Cup before winning the title a season later and gaining promotion to the Conference North. By this time the club had a growing support base and the Chairman was funding the renovation of the clubs Highbury Stadium, the first phase of which was the opening of the new Percy Ronson Stand in 2007, the first new stand built since 1939, which really says something! The chairman knew that new revenue streams were vital to the club moving forward and investment in the stadium to accommodate office space and executive boxes would allow rental and business revenue to enter the clubs coffers.
The 2008-09 season did not start well leading to a managerial change that would see Micky Mellon being appointed manager. He led the team to a second place finish in 2009-10 taking the club into the play-offs. Fleetwood narrowly defeated Droylsden on penalties in the semi-finals before securing a place in the Conference National by beating Alfreton 2-1 in the final.
With the team now in the top tier of non-league and made up of professional players the Trawlermen would need to raise their game in a division with some big budgets. Surprisingly they had a great season and ended up finishing 5th, facing AFC Wimbledon in the play-offs. Fleetwood were no match for the Dons, however and lost the semi-final 8-1 on aggregate but they were not to be denied in 2011-12, winning promotion to the Football League with two games to spare thanks, in no small part, to Jamie Vardy’s 31 goals in 36 appearances! Vardy was sold to Leicester at the end of the season for a fee rising to £1.7million and his rise to prominence somewhat mimicked that of the club he would be leaving.
A solid first season in the Football League saw the team finish 13th with Graham Alexander taking over as manager in December after chairman Pilley fell out with Mellon. The clubs meteoric rise continued in 2013-14 season. Alexander’s side managed a fourth place finish, narrowly missing out on automatic promotion but were successful in the play-offs, securing promotion to League One for the first time in their history by beating Burton 1-0 in the final.
Off the pitch the club were continuing their development with new youth facilities and a training base at nearby Thornton that gave the club the much needed infrastructure to support their on the pitch success as Pilley continued to invest.
The team consolidated well in their first year as a third tier side, finishing 10th but Graham Alexander was sacked the next season after a poor start. 2016-16 was a more challenging year for the Fishermen, seeing them flirt with relegation for most of the season but they were eventually guided to safety by new manger Steven Pressley. Pressley would leave during the summer amid rumours of frustrations regarding player recruitment and Pilley being more insistent on the club becoming self- sufficient by developing young talent. To help the club achieve this goal work was completed on the new multi-million pound training base in Thornton, opened in April 2016 by Sir Alex Ferguson that included 18 pitches, a floodlit artificial 4G, gym, café, bar and offices.
With the current season coming to an end Fleetwood sit 3rd in League One and, guided by Uwe Rosler, are still mathmatically in the hunt for an automatic promotion place. It would be a truly remarkable story if a team from a town with only 27,000 inhabitants manage to make it to the second tier, even Yeovil had a population of around 45,000 to call upon for support when they managed their promotion to The Championship. Their accent up the divisions reminds me only of Bournemouth in recent times. If they fail in their bid for automatic promotion then they will definitely have a chance in the play-offs. In the meantime the rise and rise of Fleetwood Town FC continues….
Words by James Richards
Photograph By David Dixon, CC BY-SA 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=20486685