Like a moth to the flame, we are often drawn to commenting on the shadowy underbelly of football culture. Whether because it is under-reported, overlooked, or generally swept aside, issues of football finance, supporter tension over club directives, or the vagaries of rules administration provide ample fodder for analysis and debate. A regular focus on some of these more unsightly aspects of the football world typically can be joyless and as frustrating as surmising just which entity owns Leeds United.
Sherlock Holmes has been on that case for some time now, but he might have already given up and told Watson it’s time to depart for Reichenbach Falls.
Instead, let’s take time out to appreciate a non-league club reaching heights never before seen since its founding over one hundred years ago. As with practically all histories of local clubs on the fringes, there are financial disintegrations, glory days and dark roads, but it’s refreshing to look upon what’s happening at Fleetwood Town and appreciate what it has accomplished in a few short years. Still in the reckoning for promotion playoffs in this year’s Conference National, the Cod Army might end the campaign enjoying something it could never have imagined–playing in the Football League.
The heyday of the original Fleetwood FC–established in 1908–were the interwar years when it played in the old Lancaster Combination League. A league championship in 1924 followed by four cups through the 1920s and 1930s gave way to rather middling times in the Northern Premier League until the 1971 NPL Challenge Cup victory over Macclesfield Town. Following that, the club endured a few rock-bottom finishes in the Northern Premier until a winding up order over past debts to Inland Revenue shuttered the club in 1976. The Lancashire club’s eroding financial situation mirrored that of its seaport town throughout the 1960s and 1970s owing to Cod Wars between the United Kingdom and Iceland that stifled the local economy. After the liquidation of Fleetwood FC in 1976, another club comprising most of the original squad reformed in 1977 in the Cheshire League, which had merged with Lancaster Combination.
This phoenix club eventually flew around the Northern Premier and its Division North for a spell before having its wings clipped due to another liquidation in 1996. During this period, Fleetwood Town encountered its closest chance at greatness–a date with Halesowen at Wembley for the 1985 FA Vase Final. Unfortunately for the Cod Army, this was Halesowen during its run of three FA Vase Finals in four years, and the Yelz won 3-1. Following this, continual financial woes–the town of Fleetwood still having not recovered from the loss of its once vibrant fishing industry–left Fleetwood Town unable to compete or even keep its Highbury Stadium in a somewhat safe condition, and this club also closed its doors.
Reforming a year later as Fleetwood Wanderers, local businessman and club chairman Jim Betmead brought the club back to life and tried to keep this version going financially by having supporters contribute a pound a week through a direct debit club and having the club play under a sponsorship deal as Fleetwood Freeport–a shopping outlet centre–for five years. Finally with a bit of dosh, Fleetwood Freeport were able to earn promotion up to the North West Counties First Division and get back in the habit of winning trophies like its interwar years. When Betmead stepped aside as chair and his manager Mick Hoyle stepped in during a rough 2001/2002 season, though, ”Cod Heads” likely thought this club would fold up as well. The Freeport deal ended, and the club (back to playing as Fleetwood Town) were back to struggling in the NWC First. Hoyle appointed former Accrington Stanley and current Bamber Bridge manager Tony Greenwood in his place and later sold the club to young businessman Andy Pilley.
This duo began Fleetwood Town’s swift rise from nearly being just another non-league memory to now sitting on the precipice of League Two. Greenwood’s management skills and Pilley’s money from his energy brokerage backed the club to promotions through the NWC up to the Conference North in 2008. With the club languishing at the bottom of the Conference North–perhaps finally reaching its level after such a swift ascendancy–Greenwood was sacked in favor of Burnley youth team coach Micky Mellon, who steadied the side and managed a respectable eighth-placed finish. In the 2009/2010 season, the Fishermen appeared set for another promotion up to the Conference National as champions of the North, but when Farlsey Celtic were disbanded without completing that season, Fleetwood Town lost the 3 points it had taken over the side, which gifted Southport with the Conference North championship. Thankfully for Mellon and Pilley–who by this point had invested well over £1 million for upgrades to Highbury Stadium to avoid any ground grading issues in the upper leagues–Fleetwood Town defeated Alfreton in the promotion playoffs and secured the Cod Army’s highest ever promotion in any of its variations.
Now sitting just within the playoff positions of Conference National, FTFC have five matches to hold off Kidderminster for the chance to compete in the Football League next season. The story is not completely peaches and cream, however, as Pilley has become a bit of a controversial figure in regard to company practices with his Business Energy Solutions firm. Having made his money as an independent energy trader with BES–a company founded by himself and his sister after US firm Enron imploded and cost Pilley his job–Pilley’s already had one legal entanglement over his company’s slightly slime-ball tactics which he lost and BES now looks set to face a class action suit over similar shady contract dealings. If his continuing legal entanglements either drain his chequebook or force him to devote less attention to Fleetwood Town when it’s nearing an impossible dream, might there be a third liquidation for Cod Heads to stomach?
Wait–this was supposed to be an uplifting piece about a non-league side living the dream and returning glory back to a town that’s watch its neighbor Blackpool enjoy being everyone’s second favourite Premiership side. It still can be, as the bit of ugliness is about Pilley’s non-football business practices and hasn’t touched the club yet. At least, it hasn’t stopped Pilley from continued investment in the club’s Highbury Stadium, as work on the £4 million East Stand is set to be complete in a few days (per the club’s website clock) to get the grounds ready for Football League grading requirements.
For those supporters of Fleetwood Town, these are indeed heady times–a potential to pack Highbury even tighter for the first sight of league football ever at the town of many lighthouses. Let’s hope that Cinderella does indeed have a chance to make it to the ball with Pilley correcting BES contract dealings and resolving past mistakes. Otherwise, there might return that all too-familiar smell of rotting cod in Fleetwood.
Hey, at least most of it is positive.