The history of football in Fleetwood, Lancashire, is one of boom and bust. The town’s original club, Fleetwood FC, renamed itself Fleetwood Town and were founder members of the Northern Premier League in 1968, before folding in 1976. A new club sprang up the following year, reached the final of the FA Vase in 1985 and won back its place in the Premier Division of the Northern Premier League three years later. It too folded in 1996. The latest incarnation of what we might regard as effectively the same club was founded a year later, and has spent the last fourteen years climbing the same slippery pole as its predecessors. This time last year, they were winning the Blue Square North play-off final against Alfreton Town.
Flush with the cash of chairman Andy Pilley, they turned professional during the summer and their first season in the Blue Square Premier has been a resounding success. Their ground, Highbury (the Arsenal links – though not formal – don’t end there; Fleetwood also wear red shirts with white sleeves), has a shiny new stand and the team has rose to fifth place in the Blue Square Premier in their first season in it, setting them up for a play-off semi-final against AFC Wimbledon. Wimbledon, of course, have been here for a year longer than Fleetwood. They led the table for much of the winter before succumbing to Crawley’s riches, but second place in the table was still an exceptional finish and they ended their season with six wins from seven matches. To get this far was a step too far in their first season in this league – this season, however, has been a different matter altogether.
Highbury is sitting under heavy cloud and blustery rain this evening, and the less than ideal conditions probably play a part in a first half that takes a while to get into gear. Fleetwood are playing tidy, reasonably attractive football, but they seem to run to a full-stop whenever they get to twenty yards from the Wimbledon goal. The visitors’ goalkeeper, Seb Brown, has a reasonably comfortable time of things even though his defence has quite a lot of work to do in order to keep things so quiet for him. Wimbledon, meanwhile, attack sporadically, prodding and poking at the Fleetwood defence, as if testing it out for possible defects. With ten minutes of the half left to play, however, things start to warm up. Wimbledon’s opening goal is as simple as they come, a threaded through-ball for Luke Moore finds the Fleetwood defence suddenly absent without leave, and Moore rolls the ball past Hurst, the goalkeeper, to give the visitors the lead.
With this goal, the entire timbre of the match changes. Wimbledon, who have looked shaky up until this point, are suddenly coursing with confidence and they almost double their lead when Hurst saves well, again from Moore. With seconds to play of the half, everything suddenly boils over. Fleetwood’s Sean Gregan has something of the Sunday league player about him – his relative portliness, mostly – and his foul on Danny Kedwell is straight from the Hackney Marshes School of Tackling. Within seconds, there is a familiar-looking bout of pushing and shoving going on, but Gregan is only booked for his challenge. Kedwell joins him for his reaction to the challenge, and the first half ends with Wimbledon leading by the odd goal.
The second half starts as badly for Fleetwood as it’s possible to. Their goalkeeper, Hurst, is replaced by Scott Davies for the start of the second half and, within four minutes, Wimbledon are two goals up. Luke Moore works his way to the byline and pulls the ball back for Kaid Mohamed, who puts the ball in at the near post from six yards out. For the next fifteen minutes or so, it looks as if Wimbledon may sail away into the distance in the same manner that Luton Town did during the first half at Wrexham last night. They are taking pot-shots at the Fleetwood goal, with Sam Hatton, Kaid Mohammed and Ricky Wellard all having chances and Moore hitting the crossbar, but Fleetwood rally and the Wimbledon goalkeeper Brown makes two excellent saves to maintain their two-goal advantage. Wimbledon will now go into the second leg as the overwhelming favourites to reach the final of the Blue Square Premier play-offs.
Wimbledon, then, take a comfortable lead back to Kingsmeadow for the second leg on Wednesday night. It is now just short of nine years since the protest started and, although the club is a very different beast to what it was during its earliest days, there remains a spirit of those original days in the Combined Counties League at its heart. The long-term aims – to run their club sustainably, to not be pulled in by the lure of speculators, to return to their borough of London and to right the ongoing injustice of the FA allowing their club to be franchised to Milton Keynes by getting back into the Football League – remain the same, and the club now has an excellent chance of achieving something remarkable. From near the foot of the senior game in England to the cusp of a return to the Football League within ten years is something akin to a modern fairytale and, moreover, should they stumble on the way they would surely start next season as one of the favourites to win the Blue Square Premier.
“Resurrecting the club from its ashes as, say, ‘Wimbledon Town’ is, with respect to those supporters who would rather that happened so that they could go back to the position the club started in 113 years ago, not in the wider interests of football”, said the FA’s commission into the move to Milton Keynes. They were utterly, hopelessly wrong then, and their unncecessary and unwanted words on the subject deserve to be rammed back doen the throats of those that uttered them. Luton Town, who were punatively sanctioned for the actions of people that already left the club with a points deduction which effectively cost their place in the Football League, will also have a point to prove should they make the final. There is, of course, still time for either club to somehow throw the advantage won from their semi-final first legs away. The evidence of the last couple of days would seem to indicate, though, would seem to indicate that they are clearly the two best sides in the Blue Square Premier play-offs.
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