AFC Fylde v Harrogate Town
Kellamergh Park / Conference North / 23rd April 2016
The clock is very much counting down towards the end of my 6 year residency in the northwest of England, so that means now is the time to get ticking off those elusive northern grounds that I had always vowed to go to, but missed out for one reason or another. The use of the plural ‘grounds’ is definitely accurate here as it now dawns on me that I’ll not be getting around to visiting many of the grounds that have resided on my hitlist before I head off to Slovakia in the summer.
I can definitely be an indecisive soul, so when deciding which one of these grounds to head to on this Saturday, I decided not to decide at all – I left that decision with my Twitter audience.
After rummaging through the non-league fixtures in the north, I whittled my options down to four and put it to Twitter, through the use of the app’s vote option, to choose my football fix for me. The contenders were: AFC Fylde v Harrogate Town, Nantwich Town v Frickley Athletic, Bacup Borough v Barnton, Stocksbridge Park Steels v Belper Town. The 6 hour vote produced a conclusive winner…drum roll please… AFC Fylde.
Following the voting, I found myself happy with this outcome and even thinking why I hadn’t just chosen AFC Fylde myself in the first place. This fixture would be the club’s last proper league game at Kellamergh Park before they move to their lavish new home in Wesham next season (they do still have the small matter of a play-off game to play at their current home before saying goodbye for good though). Plus, I’d read a great piece on the club earlier in the week on the incomparable football website In Bed WIth Maradona (read here), so that had also whet my appetite for seeing what AFC Fylde was all about and whether they lived up to the ‘pub team with money’ moniker that opposition fans regularly brandish them with.
One of the quirks of AFC Fylde’s home is that it is literally in the middle of nowhere. With that in mind, I thought it best heading elsewhere early afternoon for my usual prematch frivolities. After living in the north for 6 years, I’m still spellbound by the one-off that is Blackpool, so the initial plan was to head there first, but then I had heard good things about a small, magical-sounding town nearby: Lytham. Lytham it was to be with my decision helped by the fact that there was a free shuttle bus from Lytham’s town centre up to Kellamergh Park, located about 6.5 miles away from the town.
Having enjoyed myself at the South Manchester Derby between West Didsbury & Chorlton and Maine Road on Friday evening, I was up early Saturday morning and found myself stepping off the train at Lytham station at 10am. It was a peculiarly beautiful day in the north today with clear, blue skies above and I’d even braved wearing shorts for the day (I’d regret this later). It was a perfect day to be on the coast and with that in mind, I opted to head to the seafront – or at least what I thought was the seafront.
I felt the town itself definitely lived up to the ‘charming’ tag many had labelled it with as I strolled through the town centre, past a series of teashops, flower shops and other rather bohemian-looking establishments; of course, I was clocking the pubs for later too. Eventually, I arrived at Lytham front, only to realise on the map that this was actually the estuary of the River Ribble – which explained the lack of ‘sea’. Down here was also the town’s main landmark: the Lytham Windmill, which looks out over the river and the Welsh mountains across the water. Apart from lots of people walking dogs, there wasn’t much to see here and with the clock not yet at 11am, there was only one place to go…
The Wetherspoons in Lytham is a beauty! One of my recent favourites actually – even if it is not exactly the most ‘typical’ of Spoons. The Railway Hotel (confusingly not next to the train station) seemed relatively new to me, as the place was glistening as I ordered my first Punk IPA of the day at the bar. Clearly, the place to be today was at the races with much of the clientele all suited and booted enjoying a Spoons breakfast, before heading off to the horse racing. I, on the other hand, was off to another pub.
Since entering Spoons, it seemed that the entire population of Lytham had hit the streets, as the place was heaving with people – clearly all out to enjoy the very rare British sunshine. I wouldn’t be relaxing in the town square watching the Flixton Brass Band like everyone else though – I was heading to the highly recommended Taps.
On mentioning I was heading to Lytham, several people tweeted me saying that I needed to visit The Taps. A great shout. The Taps is found just a few yards away from the town square and it is undoubtedly a pearl of a pub. Obviously, for me, that means it sells a long list of ales and, more importantly, it has Punk IPA on tap. Scenes. However, I felt I’d spice things up a bit by having a pint of Dizzy Blonde, before feeling I’d committed an act of heresy by snubbing Punk IPA; I rectified these feelings of BrewDog-dissidence by staying for a second pint and this time ordering the prodigious Punk IPA.
My research had told me that the shuttle bus to Kellamergh Park picked up from outside The County pub at 13:20 and with this pub being only around the corner, I thought it rude to not head there for a pint, whilst waiting for the bus. Once again, this pub was another cracker and much bigger than the previous establishments I had visited. Plus, they had lemon-flavoured ale on tap, which was cool.
As I sipped away at my zesty beer, I also witnessed a remarkable scene: two Glaswegian men hurling ‘banter’ across the room at each other. Not that that is too remarkable. It didn’t take long to realise that one was a Rangers fan and the other a Celtic fan. The remarkable part came when they went over each other and instead of glassing each other, they hugged each other. How football fandom and rivalry really should be. I commented to the Rangers fan that you don’t see Rangers and Celtic fans hugging often, before confessing to him that I am more Celtic-leaning having had one glorious night at Celtic Park. He responded by saying that I seemed a nice guy and he hoped that I had enjoyed the ‘fine city’ of Glasgow and that I would enjoy my visit to Kellamergh Park. It seemed like everyone in Lytham was friendly and polite – even if they were adopted locals from Scotland.
Back outside in the Fylde sunshine, I waited at the bus stop outside The County, although there was no signposting to suggest that this was a designated stop for a football shuttle bus. I was slightly apprehensive when I seemed to be the only person waiting, but I was soon appeased when a couple of lads in AFC Fylde jackets showed up to confirm I was in the right place. A double-decker rolled around the corner and it was off to AFC Fylde.
I have to say that this is a brilliant initiative by the club in their pursuit of encouraging the Fylde community to get on board with AFC Fylde and the community spirit that the club seems to be rallying towards. The club are actually only as old as me having been formed in 1988 as Kirkham & Wesham FC – a name of a previous club that existed before World War I. Through the West Lancashire League and North West Counties the club navigated itself, picking up current multi-millionaire club chairman David Haythornthwaite on the way in 2007 and winning the FA Vase at Wembley in 2008. It would be Haythornthwaite’s vision that would transform the club, including the name in 2009 to AFC Fylde, in a move encouraged to bring in fans from the surrounding communities of the Fylde coast. With Blackpool FC fans (rightfully) rebelling against their club, there could be even more fans getting on board these shuttle buses to AFC Fylde soon.
The club only moved to Kellamergh Park in 2006 after previously playing at Coronation Road in Kirkham, but with ambitions soaring at the club, the club are already moving onto a far grander arena in Wesham.
On the bus to Kellamergh Park, I began to wonder where the hell I was being taken. When I was told beforehand that the ground is ‘secluded’ I didn’t expect it to be quite to this extent. I’m not sure ‘secluded’ does it justice. Field after field after field whizzed past us as we headed out into the Fylde sticks with the only signs of mankind being the imperious structures of Blackpool Tower and the Pleasure Beach’s ‘Big One’ on the horizon. We did stumble upon a quaint village green where a cricket match was underway, before more wilderness greeted us. I began to keep my eyes open for the ground and its floodlights as I figured they wouldn’t be hard to spot in this open, yet slightly hilly, countryside.
Then, suddenly, the bus stopped. I thought more people were getting on board, but instead everyone started piling off. ‘This couldn’t be it,’ I thought to myself, yet I followed suit and soon found myself next to a large country pub. My mind decided that this must be the last pub stop before the ground, until I spotted a sign that read ‘Kellamergh Park – AFC Fylde’. Apparently, this was the place. Really? I still didn’t quite believe it, as I could see no sign of a Conference North football ground. That was until I headed through the pub car park and spotted, hiding down the hill slightly, a football ground and entrance gate unmistakably reading ‘Welcome to AFC Fylde’. I can’t ever remember a ground of this fairly modest size creeping up on me so surreptitiously. With the ground found, I thought I may as well head into the pub.
The Birley Arms is a pleasant pub/restaurant and obviously a favourite amongst fans heading to AFC Fylde – not that there’s exactly any other pub option in the area. There was a jovial atmosphere in the pub with Fylde and Harrogate Town fans intermingling with both sets of fans already knowing that they had playoff places virtually secured (and in fact could possibly meet again in the playoffs in the coming weeks).
The sun was still bearing down on Fylde, but as I strolled down the dirt track towards the turnstiles of Kellamergh Park, I began to realise that I may have made a slight error in opting for shorts; it’s fair to say there was a brisk spring breeze blowing through the hills surrounding the small village of Warton and it looked like Fylde’s home wasn’t going to provide me with much cover. But not to worry, I’m a tough South Wales valleys boy, and so I paid my £12 and into Kellamergh Park I headed.
If there’s one buzzword that surrounds AFC Fylde it’s ‘ambition’. And for that reason I can see why the club are leaving Kellamergh Park. There’s nothing wrong with the setup here and I’m sure it’d be the envy of many non-league clubs, but for the lofty goals that AFC Fylde have set themselves, you feel that if they were to head into the Football League this would not quite suffice. Plus, if you see photos of their future Mill Farm home, then you’ll see how that is a far more worthy home for a club who continually preach that they’ll be in the Football League by 2022. In fact, the first thing that caught my eye on entering the ground was the large flag emblazoned with the words ‘2022 – STOP US IF YOU CAN’. I noticed that even the replica kits being worn by the fans had the number 2022 on the sleeve (as did the players’ shirts later). It all felt a bit OTT at times, but I suppose you can’t mock them for running with the 2022 mantra.
As mentioned previously, the ground is decent enough, although not exactly a place of imaginative-looking stands. If anything the ground’s quirkiness comes from the views of the landscape surrounding it (although I imagine that it wouldn’t exactly be as pretty on a cold, wet Tuesday night). Behind the far goal you’ll find a standard, sheltered standing terrace a few steps high; down one side of the ground is an open standing area (very open to the elements); and the opposite side has a series of small cabins containing hospitality areas, plus there’s another seating stand here. Next to me on entering was the Warton End – the newest stand added to the ground in 2015. As always though, I made a beeline for the bar adjacent to this – not your typical clubhouse either.
Put bluntly, AFC Fylde’s Fuller Bar is a large portacabin. Definitely my sort of portacabin though with the usual array of football memorabilia on the wall and, more importantly, a compact little bar. The place was relatively Tardis-esque actually as there felt like lots of people drinking within, yet plenty of room too. As usual in such establishments, time was spent with Jeff Stelling and the gang on the screens as we waited for kick-off to arrive.
Soon, emerging from the near left corner of the ground came the white of AFC Fylde and the Dortmund-esque yellow/black stripes of Harrogate Town, closely followed by the Coasters’ club mascot ‘Syd the Seagull’. I headed out into the sunshine for today’s Conference North action with my poor legs taking the chill of the Fylde breeze still. A pie (good standard, but not a life-defining) was bought to combat the chilly breeze.
It’s time to use my ‘banked phrase’ from the past few months: ‘the game was alright without ever really thrilling’ – well the first half at least. I cannot wait for when that is no longer a ‘banked phrase’. AFC Fylde started the better with them attacking uphill towards the stand I was now dubbing the ‘2022 Stand’ because of the large flag.
It was Danny Rowe who was impressing most in the early exchanges with one particularly eyecatching run being denied a deserved goal, when Harrogate’s keeper produced a great save. But following that, as I tend to do, I got chatting to a friendly local, who explained how he had been watching Fylde since the early Kirkham & Wesham days and who repeatedly emphasised how excited he was about the club moving to their new home. Me, reprising my role as the lovable stereotypical Welshman, jested, “But you’ll be leaving all these wonderful sheep behind!” The fields surrounding the ground are absolutely littered with sheep, but they’ll sadly have a few miles to walk to watch non-league football next term – their loyalty to the AFC Fylde cause will be put to the test.
There was the odd ‘BAAAA!’ or two from the sheep, but their vocal support was not as good as the home fans, who were in impressive voice throughout – as were the travelling support I should add. The home fans nearly had something to truly swoon over when Joe Colbeck put just wide with a superb overhead kick effort.
By now, I was halfway through my lap of the ground, when I spotted a strange item in one of the hospitality boxes. Now, I understand wanting a bottle of lovely Peroni with your half-time service if you’d paid up for the hospitality treatment, but…do you really need to be provided with a DVD on the ‘Brexit Debate’? Well, apparently so at AFC Fylde. See below.
Half-time at football is surely not a place to discuss such earnest topics. However, for the record, you should all vote to ‘stay’ in the EU for multiple reasons, not least that it’ll probably make my summer move to Slovakia a whole lot more trouble-free. So vote ‘IN’please. Political broadcast finished.
Away from European legislation, there was eventually a goal on the pitch in the 39th minute and it was to go the way of the home team. Coasters’ striker Rowe found space and fired home low into the bottom corner. It was probably deserved.
Half-time: AFC Fylde 1 – 0 Harrogate Town.
I started the second half in front of the now empty seating stand with the Harrogate Town fans having moved right next to the more boisterous Fylde fans on the terrace behind the goal. Them moving made the ‘IN CHALLY WE TRUST’ flag in that stand clearer. Who’s Chally? Well, only Tranmere Rovers’ legend and former world record holder for the longest throw in football (taking the record from Welshman Andy Legg) Dave Challinor – the current manager of AFC Fylde.
Harrogate almost grabbed an equaliser just after the half had restarted, but a powerful effort at goal was cleared off the line for Fylde to hold onto their 1 goal advantage. Over the other side of the ground, I could hear the Fylde fans disparaging their Yorkshire counterparts by chanting, ‘YOU’RE JUST A TOWN FULL OF TEASHOPS!’ In fairness, I’ve been to Harrogate once and there are a lot of teashops – beautiful town though.
The second half was a much more exciting 45 minutes of football with both teams having several good chances to add to the goal tally. However, it would be the home team who eventually added to it in the 78th minute. James Hardy took fire at goal from outside the box and saw the keeper wrong-footed as the ball flew into the corner. 2-0.
As the shot was flying in, I found myself on the standing terrace next to the Fylde fans, who were throwing a lot of taunts towards their Yorkshire friends next to them. Not that the Harrogate fans were exactly taking it quietly; it all seemed to be good-natured anyway.
Harrogate Town fans would have something to cheer in the final moments, when they grabbed a goal, but it would ultimately prove to be a consolation goal and AFC Fylde made their place 2nd in the league that little bit more secure.
Full-time: AFC Fylde 2 – 1 Harrogate Town.
Unsure of the bus times out of this remote part of the Fylde peninsula, I didn’t hang around after the final whistle and instead bolted to the Birley Arms. It seemed haste was not necessary, as the bus back to Lytham wasn’t until 17:30. Pint please!
Post-pint, the shuttle bus was bang on time and I was soon heading back towards Lytham. I was to make some new fans too. A group, who had clearly spent the afternoon in the hospitality suite of Kellamergh Park and who I obviously quizzed on the whole ‘Brexit’ debate (“Didn’t you watch your ‘Brexit Debate’ DVD?”), began giving out a whole load of AFC Fylde goodies that they had received to children on the top deck of the bus. When they pulled out some AFC Fylde bottle openers, I immediately expressed an interest in one, as the bottle opener on my keyring has now withered away (it has seen a lot of action). In exchange, I gave the group a load of #NoFlatCapNoParty Lost Boyos stickers. Soon, some younger lads at the back of the bus were expressing their interest in the stickers too and moments later they spontaneously burst into chanting ‘NO FLAT CAP, NO PARTY!’ I did try to film the spontaneous moment as it happened, but my camera was to let me down. However, the chant carried on for much of the bus journey back to Lytham and so I made sure to start one of the chants myself to film, as shown below.
After a rather boisterous bus journey back to Lytham, we soon arrived back at The County pub and it was time to bring my time on the Fylde coast to an end. The train back to Salford (this time via Preston) was not due for 45 minutes, but fortunately for pub-loving me, there was a large pub to be found on the platform. So, my evening finished with a final pint of ale and watching Manchester United eventually triumph over Everton in their FA Cup semi-final. Then it was back into the Lytham sunshine and back to Manchester for a boozy 40th birthday night out (obviously, not mine).
I’d be warned repeatedly of the impracticalities of getting to Kellamergh Park, yet I found the journey completely stress-free in the end. Combined with a trip to lovely Lytham, it was a perfect day out in the sunshine actually. I’m glad I finally got to see AFC Fylde play here before they head to pastures new, but it’s understandable why they are off to their new home. Just one game to go at Kellamergh Park, before a new era begins.
Highlights: Lytham was nice, nice Wetherspoons, The Taps, free shuttle bus, scenic ground, flat cap-related chants.
Low Points: ground is very isolated, ground isn’t too exciting.
See all my photos from my trip to Lytham and AFC Fylde here.