The new season sees the Football League welcome another previously unfamiliar side to its ranks. Following Crawley’s ascension last year, their brethren in red – Fleetwood Town – will compete in the 72 for the very first time this coming season.
Fleetwood have been in the news before, their breakneck rise through the non-league pyramid capturing attention, not least when they came up against Blackpool in the FA Cup last season. But – with just a few days to go until Fleetwood commence their first ever Football League campaign – now seems like an appropriate moment to take a closer look at the club. Is this a side that we should be welcoming with open arms, or is there cause for a more reserved approach?
Some Local Context
Located eight miles north of Blackpool on the Fylde Coast, the town of Fleetwood numbered 26,840 people in the 2001 census, equivalent – roughly – to that of Didcot, South Oxfordshire; Kendal, Cumbria; or Thetford, Norfolk.
The town itself is on a peninsula hemmed in to the west by the Irish Sea, to the north by Morecambe Bay and to the east by the River Wyre. Access to Fleetwood is therefore fairly restricted. Indeed, as away supporters travelling to the Football League’s newest members by train will discover, there hasn’t been a national railway service to the town since the 1970s and the final leg of the journey to the Highbury Stadium requires either a car or a tram pass.
As one might anticipate given its outlying location, there’s not an awful lot going on in Fleetwood, which a local described to me as “lacking the draw of Blackpool and the gentility of Lytham and St Anne’s a little further down the coast”. This hasn’t always been the case; from the 1860s onwards for about a century, its unique location lent itself suitably to a number of booming maritime activities and the town’s economy grew strongly, partly through shipping and salt and chemical processing but mainly on the back of the fishing industry.
Indeed, around the turn of the twentieth century Fleetwood was one of the major fishing ports in Britain, its westerly location hugely advantageous given the position of Hull, Grimsby and Aberdeen on the east coast. Around the 1920s, when fishing was at its height, as many as 9,000 people found work locally in the industry.
But, as with many towns where a single type of work has dominated, Fleetwood’s fortunes have since declined in tandem with that of the fishing industry, which was more or less destroyed following the Cod Wars in the 1970s. Coinciding across the years with the closure of the town’s railway connection as a result of the Beeching cuts; a decline in tourism and the closure of the ICI Hillhouse chemical processing works, another major employer in the town, Fleetwood has been gradually ground down to the point that three of its five districts were listed amongst the most deprived 10 per cent in England in a 2006 Government report.
Fleetwood Town: a Very Short Introduction
Numerous attempts have been made to inject life into the town in recent years but – taking a walk along the seafront – there appears to be little sign of progress if a couple of bronze statues celebrating ‘the heroic lives of Fleetwood’s fishermen and their families’ are discounted.
Against this backdrop, it’s been fascinating to see the town’s football club – so firmly non-league in hue until now – enjoy such a dramatic rise and, in the words of Wyre Borough Council Mayor David Bannister, “put the feelgood factor back into Fleetwood.” Particularly when one considers that – in its current guise – the club only formed a mere fifteen years ago in 1997 (two former editions went pop, both because of financial difficulties, in 1976 and 1996).
Previous incarnations were not unsuccessful; Fleetwood were founder members of the Northern Premier League in 1968 – effectively the fifth tier of English football until the reformation of non-league football in 1979 – and were runners up in the 1985 FA Vase. But in comparison to the progress made more recently, with some six promotions in eight years, it has to be said that Fleetwood’s former selves were pretty unremarkable.
So why the sudden turnaround?
In what is now a fairly well-documented story, Fleetwood’s success can be directly linked to the arrival of chairman Andy Pilley. Just two years after Pilley came on board in 2003, Fleetwood were the North West Counties League champions; five seasons later, they were competing in the Conference Premier, as well as operating as a full-time club, having been promoted a further three times through the two Northern Premier divisions and the Conference North.
Their first year in the top tier of non-league in 2010-11 nearly brought about an immediate promotion – Fleetwood eventually coming unstuck against AFC Wimbledon in the play-off semi-finals – but in the end Football League status was achieved only a year later as Town beat Wrexham to the title after a long-running race.
Bringing us up to the present day, Fleetwood are widely tipped for yet another promotion this term, their odds for the league title second only to an oddly nouveaux riche Rotherham.
To match, the stadium in which the Lancastrians will host Torquay in Saturday’s season-opener is well set for League football; Highbury having been completely rebuilt over the last five years, topped off with the impressively quirky £4.5m Parkside Stand, which as well as housing 2,000 spectators incorporates offices, executive boxes and a hospitality area.
In short, then, Fleetwood surely possess the type of set-up – and chairman – that any lower league supporter would envy – and the playing staff hasn’t even been mentioned yet…
Or do they?
If Carlsberg made Chairmen…
Having built the club up from one which had an average attendance of just 134 people in his first season, there’s unlikely to be many Fleetwood supporters who have beef with chairman Andy Pilley.
As well as significantly investing in the club, Pilley’s made some good footballing calls over the years, not least his decision to employ nonsense-sceptic and professional Scotsman Micky Mellon as manager in 2008. Having previously worked as a coach at Burnley, Mellon – who enjoyed a 15-year long Football League career with West Brom, Blackpool, Tranmere and several more – has proved the ideal man for the position, bringing a good deal of lower league nous and experience to the club.
Mellon’s shown on numerous occasions that he has an eye for a player, as well. The most significant buy-and-sell has been Jamie Vardy who – a year after he joined from Halifax Town – was sold to Leicester for a seven-figure sum, but there are other Mellon signings still on the books who have played a significant part in the club’s progress, in particular striker Andy Mangan – best known until now, perhaps, for his involvement in a 2009 betting scandal – and former Blackpool and Morecambe ‘keeper Scott Davies, a born and bred Fleetwoodian who went to school just a couple of miles from Highbury.
Davies’ place in the core of Fleetwood’s squad reflects how the club have progressed – at least in part – through thoughtful acquisition of modest, and often local, talent. Indeed, alongside Davies in Fleetwood’s successful couple of Conference seasons were individuals such as defender Nathan Pond – approaching 10 years with the club – and former Blackpool and Everton midfielder Jamie Milligan, who grew up in St. Anne’s. And, looking down the list of first-team squad members who joined before this season, the vast majority originate from the north west of England, with Merseyside particularly prominent amongst players’ places of birth.
But, having achieved promotion, this preference for regional – and presumably more affordable – personnel seems to have been ripped up in favour of a gung-ho approach. With Pond, the club’s longest servant, having been sent on loan to Grimsby for example, this summer’s long list of new signings has been dominated by household Football League names, the likes of Jon Parkin, Barry Nicholson, Steven Gillespie, Damien Johnson and Youl Mawéné all having dropped down a level or two to make Fleetwood strong contenders for promotion.
Granted, there have also been signings more akin to what you’d expect from a newly-promoted League 2 club, former Everton trainee Gerard Kinsella joining following his release from Goodison and striker Alex Titchiner arriving on the back of a prolific spell at Witton Albion, but there’s no doubt that – alongside Rotherham – the wage bill at Highbury will be one of the division’s two highest by some distance.
Chairman Pilley has stated that the club should be self-sustaining and the sale of Jamie Vardy to Leicester in a deal potentially worth £1.7m, alongside Fleetwood’s appearance on Sky in last season’s FA Cup, hints towards that, but significant questions remain: how can a side with a ground capacity of just 5,000 – and with an average attendance last season of less than half that – beat Championship sides Huddersfield and Crystal Palace to players’ signatures (Damien Johnson and Danny Rose the individuals in question)?
Earlier this year, my co-editor at The Two Unfortunates examined a cross section of eight cities, towns and city regions which might be described as under performing in football terms and which may have the potential to rise to Championship level or above; Fleetwood, presently the smallest town in England with a League side, was – quite predictably – absent from that list. Whereas Kingston-upon-Thames and Milton Keynes were both regarded as having significant potential given the growing prosperity of both towns, and Plymouth was deemed capable of upward mobility due to its isolation, Fleetwood can be said to possess neither of these characteristics.
Fylde’s two Football League sides – Fleetwood and Blackpool – are set to alternate their home games most weeks, potentially providing a Leyton Orient to West Ham / Spurs state of affairs, but one has to wonder whether the region will be able to support them both in the long-run, especially given the presence of Morecambe, Preston, Blackburn and Burnley a little further afield. Even in their Championship promotion season in 2009-10, Blackpool’s average attendance was the second lowest in the division, ahead of only Scunthorpe, and it remains to be seen whether the Seasiders can sustain Championship status over a number of years, particularly if parachute payments don’t result in a promotion over the next three seasons.
In all likelihood, then, Fleetwood’s continued progression will depend almost solely on Pilley’s ongoing financial commitment. As has been exemplified through any number of clubs, Rushden & Diamonds a particularly apt case in point, this is an approach fraught with risk and right-minded supporters should – as they relish what’s likely to be another successful season – spare some time to consider the potential fallout should Pilley’s funds dry up or his interest wane.
The source of those funds sparked a great deal of interest earlier this year when Radio 5 Live Investigates ran an episode which delved into mis-selling at Commercial Energy – a firm of brokers arranging gas and electricity contracts for small businesses which has been strongly linked to Pilley’s company, the commercial energy provider Business Energy Solutions (a job advertisement for telesales staff for Commercial Power – one of Fleetwood’s sponsors – posted in August on the club’s website invited applicants to contact Commercial Energy at 2 Darwin Court, Blackpool. The address for Business Energy Solutions (BES) registered at Companies House is 3 Darwin Court, Blackpool).
Listeners heard how 60 formal complaints had been made against Commercial Energy in the past year alone with telesales brokers accused of ‘bamboozling’ and ‘lying’ to customers in an attempt to steer them towards long-term, overly-expensive deals with BES. Although Pilley had refuted any claims of association between the two companies, it seemed as though he was playing at his own version of Undercover Boss as the show aired clips of Commercial Energy staff referring to Pilley as the company’s head honcho.
BES, Fleetwood’s main sponsors, Highbury co-residents and the company to which Pilley does put his name, are hardly strangers to controversy, either. A Google search yields numerous articles and messageboard threads speaking of their questionable practice, whether it be imposing “savage” time restrictions on their contract transfer policies; unlawfully breaking the terms of a contract which resulted in a hotelier facing an additional £27,000 over the life of his three-year deal; or fixing up a customer on a four-year contract costing up to 25% more than he might have paid elsewhere, resulting in the closure of his business.
All things considered, it doesn’t take a wire tap to realise that something potentially shady might be going on and it would seem that the wages of Damien Johnson and Jon Parkin et al are being directly funded through the deceit that BES and its (potentially) affiliated companies stand accused of.
Hypocrisy Reigns Supreme?
This will only give those rival supporters angered by the financial doping at Fleetwood a further stick with which to beat the Cod Army. But, in a sport where the governing body has dished out successive editions of its major international tournament to Russia and Qatar against a backdrop tinged with corruption and foul-play; where England’s leading clubs lost a combined £361m in the 2010-11 season despite a record £2.3bn income; where Birmingham City owner Carson Yeung stands accused of money laundering yet the Blues have – to some extent – been allowed to carry on as normal; and where numerous other League clubs are funded by dubious sources, is Fleetwood’s a case worth singling out over any other?
Moreover, despite the suspect backstory, significant efforts are being made to develop Fleetwood into a more viable business. The club website is amongst the best you’ll come across, replete as it is with freely-accessible video clips via ‘FTTV’ and well-synchronised with various forms of social media; ticket prices – starting at £12.50 for an adult – are remarkably cheap, reflecting a desire to widen the club’s support base; and opportunities for hospitality and venue hire far exceed the majority of their lower league rivals.
Underpinning all of this seems a willingness to engage with supporters; as fans of various established League sides continue to bemoan their clubs’ inability to communicate meaningfully, it’s clear that there’s a sustained effort at Fleetwood to keep the fanbase – whether it be longstanding or as yet unrealised – informed and connected to events. Not only does this manifest itself in the stream of videos and social media exchanges coming directly from the club; Pilley’s personal Twitter timeline shows that he’s equally open to dialogue.
The Cod Army sales drive has a darker side – the link-up with Joey Barton the type of bullshit PR cooked up by those looking to appeal to the lowest common denominator – but the club’s communication skills do raise an interesting debate about the way in which the power relationship between club and supporter is played out; too often fans are treated as a captive audience who will turn up regardless of how they’re treated, so in some ways it’s refreshing to see a club so ready to engage.
In one sense, Fleetwood represent all that is wrong with English football, suggesting as they do that rising through the leagues is best achieved through the involvement of a sugar daddy. Others – most recently AFC Wimbledon and York – have shown that there is another way, but nothing captures the headlines quite like a big spender. Also, significant questions regarding the legitimacy of BES’s business practice remain unanswered, although with Ofgem reportedly seeking to gain the powers to investigate commercial cases such as those referred to in this article the next few years might not be as plain-sailing for Pilley and his company.
Yet, there’s something undeniably attractive about stories such as these; as with Rotherham and Steve Evans, Fleetwood will bring some much-needed drama to League 2 this year. Rival supporters will come across a new club as teams are taken on for the first ever time; a new stadium will be added to the Football League roster; non-league diamonds in the rough will dovetail with veteran professionals on fat late-career salaries, with some establishing a reputation that might see them stay at this level for the remainder of their time as footballers. In short, Fleetwood’s first season in the League has the potential to be fascinating.