Children travelling to the northern English seaside resort Blackpool have long tried to be the first to spot Blackpool Tower – an Eiffel Tower-inspired Victorian structure.
As the 156-metre tower loomed closer, other local landmarks would comes into view, including the floodlights of Blackpool Football Club’s Bloomfield Road.
Blackpool boasted Stanley Matthews, the first European footballer of the year and Alan Ball, star of England’s 1966 World Cup winners, yet the club have been on a rollercoaster ride with more dips than the nearby Big One, Britain’s biggest rollercoaster.
A Premier League side as recently as 2011, Blackpool are now in League Two, England's basement fourth division, with thousands of their own fans boycotting home matches in protest at the club owners. Blackpool are also no longer the area's pre-eminent club.
Their floodlights have long gone, yet there’s a new landmark on the approach to the coastal urban strip of 220,000.
Seven miles before Blackpool, the striking main stand of AFC Fylde’s Mill Farm is visible from the M55 motorway which links the area with England’s north west from where it has long drawn tourists.
With the help of owner David Haythornthwaite, a man who made his fortune in the animal feed business, the club which were founded in 1988 in a village of 2,000 are quickly climbing up England’s football pyramid, with crowds growing from 300 two years ago to an average of 1,500 so far this – many of them disenfranchised Blackpool fans.
Haythornwaite was rebuffed in his efforts to buy Blackpool and so decided to help grow a club himself.
Operating a full-time squad in the semi-professional sixth tier, they sit top of the Conference North with the stated aim of being a Football League club by 2022.
Their impressive new home is ready to host Football League matches and they also have a nearby model to follow, for three professional clubs now operate in proximity in an area which for so long only had one.
Six miles north of Blackpool on a peninsula sits Fleetwood, a town of 22,000 long famous for fishing. That industry died a slow death and the last large trawler left the port in 1982, sucking the soul out of the town where Fisherman’s Friend menthol lozenges are still made and exported to over 100 countries.
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The factory is the second largest employer in the town; the first is BES, an energy and commodity supply business with over 500 employers owned by Andy Pilley.
Since 2003, Pilley, 46, has been Fleetwood Town’s chairman, the man whose benevolence is a major reason why the club were promoted six times in 10 years.
“Thirty,” states Pilley when The National asks to estimate how many millions he has spent on Fleetwood Town since the life-long Blackpool fan became involved.
Pilley is talking at the club’s new £9 million (Dh42.2m) Poolfoot Farm training ground, opened by Sir Alex Ferguson earlier this year and a five-minute drive from their redeveloped 5,327 capacity Highbury home. He is a football obsessive who watched Blackpool “home and away for years, probably seeing Blackpool at 60 or 70 grounds”.
Now he is the main man at a club who are about to host Sheffield United on the day he is talking to this reporter, one of several big city clubs in League One.
“If somebody said to me 25 years ago that I’d no longer be watching Blackpool then I’d have thought they were insane,” admits Pilley,
So why does he do it?
“It’s a labour of love, I’m football daft and I’ve got an obsessive disorder with anything I get into,” he explains as he charts their rise from their days in the North West Counties league “when every tackle seemed to end in a fight”.
“There were 80 people at my first game,” he recalls. Average crowds have increased along the way and now hover around 3,500. But what of the original 80?
“A lot of them no longer come,” admits Pilley. “I’ve seen some of them and asked them why and they say they don’t enjoy it now.
“There’s not the same familiarity of knowing the players on a personal level. Now it’s a Football League club so fans can’t walk around and choose where they want to view the game from. It’s not everyone’s cup of tea.”
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Maybe, but Pilley still mixes with fans after matches and the growing pains have been few. The owner is hugely popular around Fleetwood, the town he has helped put back on the map.
Gates have continued to rise, but Fleetwood is the smallest town in England with a Football League club.
“We can’t get more supporters from the north, east or west because we’re a peninsula and we’d be in the sea,” he adds.
“The demise of Blackpool (to the south) has helped, but we have to make what we do attractive and affordable.”
Pilley did not intend for Fleetwood to become a Football League club, but his passion got the better of him.
He is not the first wealthy benefactor to fund a club’s rise and he will be wary of what happens when the money is cut as in the case of Rushden & Diamonds, who fell back down the pyramid after reaching England’s third tier. Their smart Nene Park home now lies empty.
“You have to sustain this,” Pilley said. “With running a football club and being the largest employer in the town comes social responsibility. You have to sustain this.
“There’s a lot of people who rely on me for a job, but with the football club I don’t want to subsidise a deficit year in year out.
“I’ve got to work smarter and have a football club with strong links to the Premier League, which has a training ground where Premier League clubs are happy to send their players to.”
Fleetwood want to trade well in the commodity of football players, but their biggest success so far has been a player they bought in non League.
Jamie Vardy cost £100,000 and was sold to Leicester City for £1.7m in 2012.
“A successful future for me is one where the football club is sustainable and not reliant on the generosity of a football-daft individual. Success can be judged by trading well, as we did with Jamie Vardy.”
Television money helps, with £1.3m filtering into every League One club each season from the Premier League’s solidarity fund.
“That makes a massive difference for a club like us,” adds Pilley. “We can’t rely on gates of 20,000 like Sheffield United.”
Pilley hopes to find more success by loaning or picking up surplus players. Premier League clubs are recruiting and coaching players from around the world who will have little opportunity to play in the Premier League.
Reserve team football is not an accurate barometer of whether a player is ready or not to be a professional.
Loaning or selling a player to Fleetwood, where both parties can benefit from a potential sell on clause, is. Fleetwood already have a very good relationship with Manchester City and Burnley, two of the five Premier League clubs within an hour’s drive.
In 2015, Pilley shifted Fleetwood’s focus, cutting the budget which had attracted “big spending Fleetwood” tags and appointing Gretar Steinsson as technical director.
The former Iceland international, who cost Bolton Wanderers £3.5m when he joined from Louis van Gaal’s AZ Alkmaar in 2008, then did a masters in sports management.
“I oversee everything related to football here,” explains the former defender. “I have a long-term holistic view over the football side. It’s an unusual role in a League One club.”
Going against the grain of the English football culture where a managerial change means the whole club changes as they bring in their own staff and players, Steinsson wants the team to play the same style of football, regardless of the head coach.
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“That brings continuity for the football club,” he explains about the model Southampton employ successfully.
“We want attacking high-pressure football and we want players to know they’ll play that if they come here.
“There’s a clear path for our players from our under 23s to the first team. They can showcase their talents in a young team here and move on.
“We’re now playing against big clubs from big cities. Sheffield United or Bolton Wanderers were in the Premier League not so long ago.
“We can’t buy the best players so we have to be smart with our recruitment, scouting and coaching. In Uwe Rosler, we found a coach who was interested in our plan.”
Rosler, the former Manchester City forward, is all smiles as he sits in his office overlooking some of the 14 pitches of various sizes at the training ground.
And a pond, named after Nathan Pond, the 31-year-old Fleetwood player recorded in the Guinness Book of Records as playing for a single club in the most number of different divisions.
It’s seven and counting for Fleetwood’s record appearance holder and captain.
Fleetwood’s top earners are on £2,500 per week, today’s opponents Sheffield United have players on £5-6,000.
With two hours to kick-off, Pilley is preparing to leave the training ground. The National asks what he makes of Fylde, the upstarts to the south?
“AFC Fylde is not dissimilar to our model,” he said. “There are huge similarities: Their new stand used the same architects as us and they have a very ambitious chairman. I know their chairman very well.”
“The situation there saddens me,” Pilley said. “It’s the first result I look for and always will be.
“Most football clubs experience ups and downs. Blackpool had a meteoric rise to the Premier League. Unfortunately it was all too brief and things haven’t gone their way. It was great when they were in our division last year because Fleetwood v Blackpool was the one we’d looked forward to. I’d like to play them on a regular basis.”
There is limited animosity between the three Fylde clubs because they’ve played each other so rarely.
Pilley and his son have a game to go to at League One’s smallest venue. The mood is positive around the town, but before we met him, this reporter visited Blackpool to see the contrast.
Christine Seddon, 53, is deputy chair of Blackpool Supporters’ trust and a lifelong fan of her hometown club. Her mother went to the 1953 FA Cup final on the back of her brother’s motorbike.
“We’re in a very difficult situation of feeling that the only choice we have is to boycott our own club,” she explains from her place of work in one of Blackpool’s biggest hotels.
“Now is the worst it’s ever been. We’ve been in lower divisions before but we didn’t know any different.”
Blackpool fans have a major problem with the club’s majority shareholders, the Oyston family who are worth £100m.
“Owen Oyston rescued the club from the brink of bankruptcy in the 1980s and we recognise that,” explains Seddon, “but a football club is about the fans, about the community, about people pulling in the same direction.”
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Blackpool tumbled from the Premier League in 2011, when the average crowd hit 15,775 in their redeveloped home, to 7,052 last season. It’s now 3,701 – and even that figure is boosted from high numbers of visiting Carlisle United fans for one game.
Fans want a change of ownership from the Oystons, who have sued fans several times for derogatory comments. Karl Oyston, the chairman and son of Owen, has been the long-time chairman. A controversial character, he appears immune to fan criticism and protests.
When fans threw tennis balls and tangerines onto the pitch to bring a game earlier this year to a standstill, Oyston was spotted appearing to laugh in the stand.
“It’s tragic, absolutely appalling,” explains Seddon, who feels that the Oystons should have invested more of the money Blackpool received as a Premier League club.
Protests have been regular, the dislike between the owners and the club’s fans appearing mutual. The turnover of players has been high, with some signed at the last minute before disappointing league seasons.
“We travelled to the first game (of the 2014/15 season) at Nottingham Forest with nine first team players,” explains former player Andrea Orlandi, a man who stayed in 10 different hotels when he arrived at Blackpool including one where guests sang karaoke in reception below his room.
“On the coach, we were told that 13 players had been given clearance to play.” Blackpool’s ramshackle training ground – the antithesis of the one at Fleetwood – is mocked, too.
In August, Owen Oyston, 82, sporting a fedora and sunglasses, attended a Supporters’ meeting for the first time in two decades.
A raucous 500 strong crowd demanded that he step down. He did not. Oyston also claimed that Blackpool are not for sale and that there have been no offers to buy the club.
In December, London’s High Court will hear estranged club president Valeri Belokon file for “unfair prejudice” against the Oystons.
So far, the Oystons have not been found guilty of illegalities but Seddon feels that they will not be around at the club for much longer. She certainly hopes that.
Back at Fleetwood, where they have an owner who puts money in rather than extracting it, Alfie Boe, the locally born tenor who is hugely successful in the United States and across Europe, has returned to the town he left at 18 to sing the national anthem on the pitch.
As he does, the players and Captain Cod, the club mascot, watch on respectfully. Ticket prices can be as low as £7 per game for season ticket holders in the ground tucked into a residential area.
Fleetwood get an early goal which is greeted by a lilting old trawlerman’s song. The flags in the home end read “ultras de cod” and “one way in, one way out” to mark the peninsula status of the town.
The Fylde Coast, which was home to the Football League headquarters until it moved to London in 1999, has some wealthy areas, but it is predominantly working class and its tourist industry has struggled since foreign holidays took over in the 1960s.
It became a magnet for people other cities no longer wanted, the homeless and addicts who could stay in the hotels the tourists used to fill.
Blackpool especially is used to a negative press for the same reasons, but it still attracts millions of day trippers and the area remains a football hotbed, the people proud of where they live.
“There’s a lot of investment and really good things going on in Blackpool that people don’t mention,” says Seddon, who is tired of outsiders knocking the town. Sadly, Blackpool FC is not one of them.
“How are the Seasiders getting on?” asks a fan in Fleetwood’s £4m futuristic main stand at half time. The fortunes of Blackpool are never far away.
Nearby, former Manchester United striker Andy Cole is present with his daughter Faith to watch his son, Devante.
The striker, 21, was schooled at Manchester City before finding his way to Fleetwood. They have high hopes for him.
Sheffield United grab a 94th minute equaliser and 1,344 away fans in a 4,004 crowd celebrate. They are a huge big city club boasting generations of fans that Fleetwood cannot because their rise has been a recent one.
Fleetwood fans curse, they have conceded too many late goals, but their concern is fleeting.
They have enjoyed a rapid rise to become the area’s highest-ranking football club.
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