AFC Fylde vs Barrow AFC
FA Cup Fourth Qualifying Round
Saturday 24th October 2015
Kellamergh Park, Warton, Lancashire
When Ipswich Town trudged off the Old Trafford pitch after their Premier League record 9-0 defeat, there can’t have been many pats on the back in the dressing room. After Wigan shipped nine at White Hart Lane, it’s unlikely Roberto Martinez congratulated each of his players individually for their efforts before handing them a Chomp or maybe a Freddo.
On a cold, wet and thoroughly miserable morning on the edge of the Peak District, though, that’s exactly what my son’s U7s team got as they left the field sodden with heads held high.
Regular visitors might recall his fledgling team shipping more than twenty goals against Matlock Town a few short months ago against an incessant wave of child-sized footballing robots. This morning, while perhaps more of a psychological victory than an actual one, our team of miniature heroes played their soaked socks off to more than halve the scoreline of that rather miserable Saturday morning.
As we set off for the Lancashire coast with the promise of fish, chips and illuminations following a quick bath, his happy demeanour would have been in stark contrast to the last FA Cup visitors of our destination.
AFC Fylde of the National League North is a team on the rise – just ask Coleshill Town. Despatched to the tune of nine goals without reply a fortnight ago, the Midland Premier League side would have probably taken a cuddle from their mum and the promise of a pack of Match Attax cards as they left Kellamergh Park.
Having devastatingly missed 3QR due to the inconvenience of a honeymoon, I was eager to get to Fylde in the hope of an upset. Daniel Agnew, recently recruited Head of Media from Blackburn Rovers would be my guide. Having been dropped off by my wife at what Google Maps suggested was the ground, I set off in search of floodlights via Kirkham town centre.
AFC Fylde’s recent rise through the divisions has been impressive. Founded in 1988, they spent the first two decades of their existence as Kirkham and Wesham. Winners of the West Lancashire Premier League for seven out of eight seasons between 1999 and 2007 (a run that incorporated a 21-month unbeaten run), they were eventually accepted into the North West Counties League in 07/08. An FA Vase, three promotions and a name change later, I find them top of the sixth tier National League North. Well, I say I find them…
“Scuse me mate, are you local?” asks a man pulling into Morrisons car park. “Looking for the stadium?” I ask, with a shake of the head. I ask the same question to a passing woman.
“It’s just up there,” she said, pointing in the direction we’d driven. I qualified this by checking it was the stadium they were playing in and she nodded with confidence.
To cut a long, breathless and embarrassingly unfit story short, it wasn’t. It was about three miles away and Google Maps had helpfully directed me to the (admittedly impressive) Club Shop. The lady in question had pointed me towards AFC Fylde’s new stadium which remains under construction ahead of a move in the summer. I’ve no idea if the two Barrow fans made it and would love to hear from them if they happen to be reading this now.
I collect my match pass, head into the ground and nestle myself in today’s makeshift home team press box – they’ve been moved this afternoon to make way for two separate radio teams from Cumbria.
Flustered and red-faced, I introduce myself to the assembled team. Among them is Jack Connor, a volunteer media officer for the Club, and Daniel himself.
“Have you managed to chat to anyone?” he asks, helpfully. I admit that I’ve actually been for a light jog in the town centre. They’re quick to make me feel instantly at home with Jack in particular coming across as the dyed in the wool AFC Fylde fan.
He says: “The first game I ever went to was the FA Vase Final at Wembley. I was 13 at the time, first visit to Wembley and I’ve never forgot it. I went to see them a few times a year after that and my affection for them has just grown and grown.
“We’ve been very lucky (to see so many) promotions through those years but as you get higher and higher it becomes more difficult. The Club’s progressing really quickly, we’ve got the new ground coming next season and I think ten years ago if you’d have said we’d be playing Barrow, Stockport and Boston then people would have said you were mental. It’s been a privilege to be a part of.”
And how has the relationship with neighbours Blackpool developed given the level of dissatisfaction at Bloomfield Road and ever-closing gap between the two clubs?:
“I think a lot of the Blackpool fans are quite supportive,” he says. “We do get quite a lot of fans coming from Blackpool, Fleetwood, Preston. The main rivalry is with Chorley, FC United and since last season, Barrow actually. Our fans don’t exactly see eye to eye and they’re quite feisty games.
“There hasn’t really been a rivalry there with Blackpool but who knows? Maybe over the next few seasons there might be. I’d love to get Blackpool here. Last season in the First Round at Plymouth it was a great experience and I’d love to do that again.”
There’s no denying Jack’s enthusiasm for the Club as we chat. “Sometimes it’s difficult to separate being a fan and a media person,” he tells me. “I sometimes get funny looks cheering the side on at away games!”
The Barrow fans are in fine voice at the opposite end of the field as they chant loud and proud about their status as reigning National League North champions. It comes with extra bite today given the growing rivalry between the two sides.
Expecting consolidation after a second promotion in three seasons, Fylde defied the odds again last year to push for the title. 85 points was only enough to be runners-up though; despite doing the double over Barrow, it was the Cumbrians who sealed promotion to the fifth tier as Fylde fell in the playoffs to Guiseley.
Exacting revenge is just another incentive for former FA Cup underdog hero Dave Challinor’s side as they attempt to reach the First Round for the third time in his four and a half seasons in charge. The Barrow fans find repeated energy to remind the hosts of their superiority in the league ladder before turning their attention to Fylde midfield Danny Rowe.
“Danny Rowe is a wanker, is a wanker!” they chant to their former player as the teams get ready for kick-off.
“We’d like to remind all fans to remember to be respectful to both sides, each other and match officials,” says stadium announcer Brian stood just in front of us. “In other words, stop swearing at our players!” he adds, off-mic.
To describe the opening half hour as ‘cagey’ would be being complimentary. With the two sides perhaps sensing each other out in the months that have passed since they last locked horns, the media team collectively counted a shot each off target in the opening 25 minutes. My notes on the game largely consist of observations about the sheep in the field adjacent to the stand we’re sitting in. Dan sits beside me trying to find crumbs of action to add to his match report.
I ask him whether the match highlights are recorded. “We do for the management team,” he tells me. “They don’t go online though. You have to put them up in the level above but otherwise you’re just giving free scouting to other Clubs.”
“If Danny Rowe scores, I hope he does the full Adebayor and slides in front of them on his knees,” says Jack, as another chant strikes up at the Barrow end.
We almost find out as Rowe lines up a free-kick in the 29th minute before firing it into the wall. Barring a run and overhit cross down the right flank for Barrow soon after, it’s almost all the first half has to offer.
“You could call that a deep, seeking cross?” I suggest to Dan, helpfully, as we watch the ball bounce over the far side wall into a tree. “Or a sheep-seeking cross,” adds Jack, more accurately.
I find out a bit more about Dan’s role at the Club at the break and how he came to join after a decade at Ewood Park:
“It’s basically to raise the profile of the Club,” he tells me. “Things are going well and the Chairman is very ambitious so they looked to bring someone in with experience from a higher level. There are quite a few differences but it’s a nice change really. You get to see the grassroots side. The game is the same although perhaps the facilities are a little different.”
As if asked to inject drama during the break by the two opposing managers, for the sake of entertainment if nothing else, the second half begins with a bang. Just a minute after the restart, Dan Pilkington’s two-footed lunge right in front of our media box is as clear a red card as you’re likely to see. Referee Adrian Holmes doesn’t hesitate and, suddenly, the home side have a one-man advantage.
They seek to take advantage with a freekick in a dangerous area in the 49th minute. Danny Rowe steps up and blasts the ball high over the wall, goal and into the car park to the jeers of the visiting supporters at the opposite end.
“I dunno what they’re cheering about,” says stadium announcer Brian, stood on the concrete in front of us. “He’s just taken a window out on their coach.”
Barrow remind the home side of their threat in the 55th minute with a header going just wide but it’s not long before Fylde put the home supporters nerves at rest.
On 59 minutes, lively winger Dion Charles attacks down the right hand side after a threatening first half on the left saw him well shackled by the Barrow fullback. Jinking into the box, his shot takes a deflection and flies past the ‘keeper on his near post.
“YEEEEEEEEEEEEEES!” screams Jack beside me, doing little to hide his enthusiasm for Fylde as the players celebrate in front of us. “Sorry about that,” he says, as he takes his seat beside me at the restart. “I just really don’t like Barrow.”
The game enters a strange period following the goal. Fylde appear to be comfortable in possession, inviting the 10-men on to them to force the game. Barrow, meanwhile, look a little leggy at times as if lacking the energy to chase their opponents down in the search for an equaliser.
“I don’t like this!” says Jack, as Barrow begin to find a rhythm in the closing quarter of an hour. “I don’t like this one bit!” He has reason to be nervous, as a fine shot from Grimes that looks destined for the top corner is acrobatically pushed out by young Matt Urwin.
“What a save!” I say aloud as the lads in the media box concur. It’s at this point the lady sat beside me for the whole game, a very pleasant neighbour who is perhaps in her early seventies, leans towards me.
“I’m glad they’re saying nice things,” she confides. “Although I wouldn’t say anything if they weren’t.”
I discover I’ve been sitting next to the AFC Fylde’s ‘keeper’s grandmother all along. Beaming with pride, she tells me a little more about the home team’s custodian and how he’s keen to impress after joining recently.
I reassure her that his performance has been excellent, and it has. In a game of few clear cut chances, he’s dominated his box at set pieces and pulled out a superb save in a half in which he’d otherwise been rarely troubled.
It’s as if my words curse him as, minutes later, a Barrow corner is fumbled as Urwin ventures out of his goal to unsuccessfully punch before his defenders clear their lines. Thankfully, he claims a second corner with great confidence sooner after.
In the knowledge that Matt’s grandmother and possibly parents are sat in the three seats to my left, the game takes on new significance. I kick every ball with the family as Barrow push for a late leveller and can honestly say it’s the most stressed I can remember being at a football match in a while. It’s hard not to share their pride in those final moments as I imagine them just a short decade or so ago cheering on from the sidelines at their own junior football match as I did earlier this morning.
There’s a bit of unsavoury afters between Ashley Grimes and the more diminutive Matty Hughes in injury time (“Leave him alone, ya bully!” screams the adorable Nanna Urwin) and I clearly hear Grimes taunting his opponent by repeatedly telling him that he plays for Fylde. Clearly last season’s double has slipped his mind…
As the final whistle blows, it signals a third consecutive victory for the home team over Grimes and co. and another venture into the First Round proper for the National League North leaders. A massive cheer goes up as Brian announces that the Coasters will be ball number 50 in Monday’s draw.
As the players gather in the bar for sandwiches and the odd bottle of Sol, I’m fortunate enough to be part of Dave Challinor’s post-match interviews in a portakabin labelled Managers Office.
“It’s a great competition for all non-league clubs,” he says when asked about what the FA Cup means to him. “Even as a player you wanted to try and get to the Third Round and try and draw a Premier League side. I was lucky enough to do that with Tranmere and progress to the quarter finals twice.
“The aim (was) to get to the First Round proper,” he continues. “It’s swings and roundabouts as to whether you want the lowest ranked team at home or a Sheffield United away. Players would probably want to go and experience that but whoever we play, it’s an opportunity to show what we can do on a national stage.
“I suppose you look at ex-Clubs but Tranmere (would be) a nice one. You look at Fleetwood and Blackpool as potentially really big games. Even last year, getting Plymouth was a massive tie. To go there, play in front of 7,000 people and get applauded off was great for our lads. It’s great to be where we are and we can enjoy the draw now.”
I catch up with Dan before leaving Kellamergh Park in the direction of Blackpool Tower.
“It’s a big achievement for a Club like this,” he says. “With the move to the new stadium, moving into a higher league is what we want but this is an added bonus. To get a Football League club would be fantastic…preferably Blackpool! I think that would be the fan’s choice,” he smiles.
With the possibility of just a division between the two sides from as early as next season, the wait might be over sooner than anyone anticipated.
The Underdog Blog Record 2015/16
P 5 W 2 D 2 L 1 F 5 A 5 GD 0
AFC Fylde vs Barrow AFC
FA Cup Fourth Qualifying Round
Saturday 24th October 2015
Kellamergh Park, Warton, Lancashire
|AFC Fylde 1 –||0 Barrow AFC
AFC Fylde: 1. Urwin, 2. C. Hughes, 3. Whittle, 4. Baker, 5. Hannigan (c), 6. Collins, 7. Charles (12. Lloyd 79’), 8. Rowe, 9. Blinkhorn, 10. M.Hughes, 11. Wilson.
Substitutes: 13. Hinchliffe, 14. Sumner, 15. Barnes, 16. Mullen, 17. Hardy, 18. Sloane.
Barrow AFC: 12. Dixon, 23. Symington, 3. Ashton, 5. Livesey (c), 17. Williams, 2. Cowperthwaite, 15. Mellor, 7. Haworth (20. Newby 75’), 10. Cook (26. Van Den Broek 68’), 14. Wilson (18. Grimes 32’), 11. Pilkington.
Substitutes: 1.Taylor, 6. Grand, 16. Fofana, 8. Harvey.
Referee: Adrian Holmes