Latterly established in 1997, Fleetwood Town are the third incarnation of the club and one which has seen a rapid ascent through the leagues. This can be best demonstrated by comparing the club now, to that at the turn of the millennium. At that time, Fleetwood had won promotion to level nine of the footballing pyramid, their crowds rarely exceeded 300 and they seemed the archetypal non-league club.
It is remarkable to think that the same club would finish 4th in League One and be competing against clubs such as Bolton Wanderers and Blackburn on a regular basis. The journey has lead to trips to Wembley, a Guinness World record, representation at Euro 2016, a key part in the Jamie Vardy story and of course the Captain Pugwash music.
To gain a better insight into the club, how they have achieved so much and what it has been like to follow the club from non-league to the brink of the Championship, I spoke to fans who have been there for the entire journey and helped me to analyse the role of key figures such as the chairman.
The unparalleled success that Fleetwood have had over the last Twenty years is largely down to the Andy Pilley, a man who has made huge investments (approximately £10 million) in the whole infrastructure of the club. Without the investment of Pilley, the club is likely to have gone bust, there wouldn’t have been the redevelopment of Highbury stadium or the multi-million pound training centre that is not only for the players but for the use of the whole community. One of the many successes of this Fleetwood story is an owner who understands the importance of the local community and positively embraces it, creating at least 400 jobs in the local area alone.
The crowd at the first game of the Pilley regime in 2004 saw an attendance of 80 support the Cod Army. A world away from the 5,123 who were at Highbury for the visit of Bolton Wanderers on the on 11th March 2017. The club earned their place In League One with a memorable trip to Wembley and victory over another perennial overachiever, Burton Albion thanks to a goal by Antoni Sarcevic. A free-kick which was reminiscent of the goal scored by Ronaldinho in the 2002 World Cup with Burton keeper Dean Lyness playing the role of David Seaman. To demonstrate the disparity between the clubs they were competing against, just think you can fit the entire population of Fleetwood inside of Bramall Lane, Sheffield United and the Ricoh Arena, Coventry City with room to spare, two stadiums they have won at by the way.
I spoke to Fleetwood supporter Connor Wilson about his experiences, witnessing Fleetwood soar through the leagues at a rate never before seen. “It’s been an amazing journey climbing the leagues, the aim was eventually to get in to the Football League, however myself and most other fans didn’t expect us to do it so quickly and I now believe we can take the next step and become a Championship club”.
In true English nature, the Fleetwood story hasn’t always attracted praise. Fleetwood and Pilley have endured jealousy and envy from all sections of the English game with the idea of a small seaside town club being successful not sitting comfortably with historically bugger clubs. The owner has plans which demonstrates his long-term vision for the club and his shrewd business acumen. He plans for the club to be self-sufficient, the redevelopment of the stadium has seen more corporate facilities installed and the rise through the leagues has came with improved sponsorship and TV money enabling the club to run more sustainable to ensure the initial success is not a flash in the pan.
As the club continues to rise through the divisions, life becomes harsher and more expensive hence the change in approach, with emphasis placed on producing young players. Players such as Nick Haughton, Tyler Forbes and Ashley Hunter all of whom have played for the first team in recent season’s.
Since Andy Pilley took over at Fleetwood he oversaw successive promotions from the North West Counties League and then the Northern Premier League First Division, in 2005 and 2006 respectively. By the end of the 2011-12 season they had achieved the goal of becoming a Football League club. The only other comparison that can be made of a team rising through several divisions to achieve Football League status is A.F.C Wimbledon. The key? Recruitment. The best example of which, was the clubs player of the year for the 11/12 season, scoring 31 league goals ensuring Fleetwood won the title. The name? England and Leicester’s Jamie Vardy.
Vardy had been playing for Halifax Town scoring 26 goals in the Northern Premier League, his story as equally as impressive. Having spent three years playing for Stocksbridge Park Steels before moves to Halifax and then Fleetwood, his own personal journey would take Vardy to the Premier League title in 2015/16 and making Premier League history by becoming the first player to score in 11 consecutive matches. His role in helping Leicester City to the title would see him go on to play and score in the European Championships for England. Connor Wilson described the Vardy story as a ‘fairytale’ and went on to explain; ”To see him go from playing for us in non-league to become a Premier League champion and England International in just a couple of years is an unbelievable achievement. The guy is loved by everyone at Fleetwood Town FC”.
Now you would think seeing Jamie Vardy score in the European Championships would be a proud moment and surely their highlight of the Euro 2016 tournament. Step forward Conor McLaughlin. A full back who signed for the club for the 2012-13 season, the first in the Football League after stints at Preston and a brief loan spell at Shrewsbury Town. His performances at Fleetwood Town caught the eye of the Northern Ireland Manager, Michael O’Neill who awarded McLaughlin a place in the squad for the European Championships, starting their first group game against Poland. To see Mclaughlin represent Fleetwood at the Euros just shows how far this club has come in the past decade.
When a club gets promoted there is often several changes to the playing staff, but there has been one ever present in the Fleetwood journey through the leagues. Nathan Pond aka Mr Fleetwood. “He is a player who has been at the club for over 10 years and has stepped up every time we have been promoted. He is an old-school ‘hard as nails’ centre back who loves Fleetwood Town. The guy is simply a legend who will one day have a statue or a stand named after him” said Connor.
Having moved to Fleetwood Town from Lancaster City in 2003, Pond has played in 7 divisions, scoring in each one earning him a place in the Guinness Book of Records. He has won six promotions with the club, simply put the fans of the club adore their long-serving defender who started in the North-West Counties League helping to galvanize the small fishing town.
This season Fleetwood rekindle their local rivalry with Blackpool, with the first meeting ending in a 0-0 draw. The two clubs couldn’t have any more of a different feel about them. Blackpool fell from the Premier League to the bottom of the Football League at break-neck speed with ownership problems and fan protests a weekly occurrence. Compare that to the well run and community embraced Fleetwood Town with an owner who has developed the club quickly whilst also laying the seeds of a long term strategy.
League One has a collection of failing established clubs competing in the third-tier, Premier League winners and FA Cup Winners in recent times. With the vast progress the club has made on and off the field in the last decade, it would surprise no-one if they caused shocks again. It remains to be seen how far Fleetwood Town can go, but with clubs such as Burton Albion promoted to the Championship in recent years, it would be hard to argue against them taking the next step in the upcoming years.
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