It’s the business end of the season – well, in fact, some teams are already finished – and teams up and down the land are celebrating and commiserating at the end of a hard-fought campaign.
One team celebrating is AFC Fylde, who have been promoted to the National League for the first time in their history.
Formerly known as Kirkham & Wesham, the club based in Lancashire have gone on a meteoric rise through the non-leagues. BBC Sport did an article on them in the week (most media are only interested in non-league teams when they think they can get hits for it) and I must admit my response to their tweet was a touch on the facetious side.
£££££££££££££££££££££££££££££££££££££££££££££££, mainly. https://t.co/K8FQiCOt3d
— Jon Phipps (@jonphipps81) April 19, 2017
However, since then, I’ve thought about that and it was perhaps a touch harsh, because AFC Fylde have made a far better fist of being minted in non-league football than many others before them.
Managed by Dave Challinor – who fans of a certain age will best remember for hurling footballs around for Tranmere Rovers long before Rory Delap made that fashionable – it has possibly been a longer road to the top flight of non-league football than they may have hoped.
They’ve lost in the play-offs in the past two seasons, but this year, they’ve finally made it.
But the project at AFC Fylde is not just about on the pitch. Their chairman David Haythornthwaite (belting name, by the way) has invested in the whole club. They have a new, purpose-built stadium, for a kick off, and their ambition has always been a long-term one. So good bloody luck to them.
At the other end of the same level of football sit Margate. Margate have been relegated from the National League South after a horrific season.
Gate are a club I have a real fondness for, having covered them for two seasons. I still know people at the club and to be honest I’m a bit annoyed at myself that I’ve only managed to see them play once this season – a 4-0 defeat at Ebbsfleet United back in August.
And while earlier on I praised Fylde for doing things the right way, I have to say that Gate did it all the wrong way – and are paying for it now.
They were bought by local businessman Bob Laslett in December 2013, and one of his first acts was to install Terry Brown as manager. Brown had success with AFC Wimbledon and Aldershot, and his appointment was a clear indicator that Laslett meant business.
It was too late for a promotion push in that first season, but they began the 2014/15 season as favourites for the title, having moved their training to London and cherry picked the best players from around the division – and even some from higher levels.
I started covering them that summer, and spoke to Laslett on a few occasions. Once he told me they could be “the next Southampton”. Ambitious, yes, but there is some potential in the area.
They eventually came third in the league, but snuck up through the play-offs. That summer, Brown signed a load more impressive players, some of them understood to be earning upwards of £800 a week – as part-time players. But while money was being thrown at things on the pitch, off it there was little progress. Thanet District Council probably didn’t help, but Hartsdown Park’s limited capacity was always going to hold Gate back. The matchday experience on a day where there was a big crowd wasn’t great, and average attendances never reached the levels they would have hoped for.
Maidstone United, just up the road, have taken a Fylde-like path, getting their new stadium in place first. They were promoted with Gate, but while they were getting crowds of more than 2,000 most weeks, Gate were getting around a third of that.
On the pitch, their new-look team wasn’t firing on many cylinders, and in December 2015 Brown was sacked, and replaced by Nikki Bull. Bull managed to rejuvenate the team and after a blistering start was named manager of the month and had Gate dreaming of the play-offs.
Away from the pitch though, all was not well. Laslett wasn’t at the games as often. I tried to call him a few times to get a story, but all I invariably found was his answerphone.
As these rumours started to whirr around, things on the pitch plummeted again, with defeat after defeat after defeat – and then in March, as top scorer Freddie Ladapo moved to Crystal Palace, it was confirmed that Laslett had left the club. The money that those players were earning simply wasn’t there any more. The club, so much potential and high hopes, was up against it.
In the end, a win over Hemel Hempstead in their penultimate game saved their skin, although not before a 2-0 defeat at Bath where Gate ended up keeping the ball in the corner to avoid conceding a third that would send them down.
Bull had a blank canvas in the summer. Not as much money to spend, but he worked hard recruiting top players. I was no longer covering them, but I was pretty sure they were going to be a force to be reckoned with.
I was wrong. They stuttered, and were pinning all of their hopes on a FA Cup run – but a defeat to Ryman Premier Harrow Borough, costing them a lucrative trip to Northampton, was the final straw. The squad was decimated, and Bull was left with no budget and a squad that would probably have struggled two leagues down.
Bull moved on before the relegation was confirmed, but under new boss Steve Watt – and with a takeover completed today – they can rebuild next year.
One team they will face in the Ryman Premier is Billericay Town, who have been taken over by Glenn Tamplin, and have already splashed plenty of cash. Jamie O’Hara and Paul Konchesky are the big names, but most of the rest of their squad has dropped down levels to play for them. Long-serving boss Craig Edwards has departed, with Tamplin taking charge until the end of the season.
The Blues are another club I’ve covered. Their stadium is about the same as Gate’s, and you can’t help fear that unless Tamplin can move forward with improving that, they too could end up hitting a wall and being unable to move on. And then where does that leave them? I get the temptation to sort the team out first – that’s the “sexy” stuff, I suppose, but without the infrastructure, that’s just a complete waste of time.
I’m pretty sure if you ask a Margate fan right now, they are quite happy to be free of the moneybags tag – and if they can have a settled season next year, there’s no reason why they can’t get back into the National League South… But ultimately they will need to sort out the stadium more than anything.
So, yes, Fylde have splashed the cash, but at least they’ve built something sustainable. Good luck to them as they try to take the next step.