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The rise of AFC Fylde

Thursday 21st July 2016
Many may not know, or have even have heard of AFC Fylde, however, the small club located in the Borough of Fylde (near Blackpool) have taken huge strides since their creation in 1988. Multiple promotions, as well as relegations, haven't made it an easy going ride for the current National League North side. But now after consolidating their place in the league and narrowly missing out on promotion in the last two seasons, the club formerly known as Kirkham and Wesham have a bright future ahead.

This is the rise of AFC Fylde.
The Fylde area is home to many grassroots clubs and way back in 1988 this was no different. There were two main teams in the area Kirkham Town FC and Wesham FC. Due to numerous successes between the sides, it was decided that they would join forces and build a team together known to locals as Kirkham and Wesham FC. The new club started their rise in Division One of the West Lancashire League.

Their fresh start didn't begin well, however, as they finished bottom in the 1989/90 season causing relegation to Division 2. After three seasons in Division 2, the club was promoted back to the top league in West Lancashire. They were relegated again two seasons later. But once again the club bounced back only losing two games all season and found themselves back in the West Lancashire first division. At this point a very much yo-yo club.

After promotion the West Lancashire league had a complete restructure and was named the Premier Division. Kirkham and Wesham started off well, they finished 4th in their first two consecutive seasons in the league and performed well in cup competitions such as the Lancashire Cup.

At this point, nobody expected what was to come next. The club seriously dominated the league for a number of years. Between 1999 and 2007 the club managed to win the league a staggering seven out of eight times and in the process went on an incredible unbeaten run. From January of 2003 to October of 2004, the side was unbeaten, they did not lose a match in any format of any competition. A fantastic feat for a part time side. Dalton United was the team to stop the streak, a streak that was covered by many national sports broadcasters up and down the country.

Following their huge amount of success playing in the Premier Division, the club was offered a place in Division Two of North West Counties League for the 2007-08 season. A serious promotion. This was coupled with a move to a new ground in the village of Warton called Kellamergh Park. The original cost of the stadium was just £150,000 and had just 533 seats. Seeing the progress his club had made, David Haythornthwaite (current chairman) and members of the board decided to put forward a 15-year plan. The plan was simple, they wanted the club to be playing in the Football League by 2022. The plan at first was ridiculed by many.

How could such a small club manage to get themselves to become a professional club so quickly? However, that belief quickly changed.

The 2007-08 season was and probably will be one of the most successful seasons in the club's short history. It was the year many began to believe that Kirkham and Wesham could actually reach their target. There was success in the league and cup winning the Division Two Knockout trophy as well as gaining promotion as early as the 26th of April when they beat the Castleton Gabriel's 2-1. But the real story of the season was the FA Vase triumph. The FA Vase has around 500 entrants and has two qualifying rounds followed by eight knockout rounds.

Kirkham and Wesham had never participated in the competition before and it was an incredible success. After beating teams such as Coventry Sphinx, Crowborough Athletic and Premier Division side Needham Market, Kirkham and Wesham found themselves up against Lowestoft Town in the final played at Wembley. It was the biggest crowd both teams had ever played in front with 19,500 watching on. To sum up how small the Fylde area is in comparison with Lowestoft, Kirkham and Wesham brought 3500 fans while Lowestoft bought 14,000.

Outsiders may say that this looked to have damaged Kirkham and Wesham spirit. This was never going to be the case. After an unfortunate early own goal, Kirkham and Wesham managed to win 2-1 after a brace from 18-year Matt Walwyn. Walwyn calmed his nerves before the game by doing his Biology homework that he had forgotten to do the day before. Walwyn, now at FC United of Manchester is also an international after playing for St Kitts and Nevis.
Following the FA Vase success, the club decided to change its name to how it is known today, AFC Fylde. The club believed it would reach out to more people in the Fylde area and it soon did. Attendances grew and have increased ever since. The success didn't stop as the club managed to win the Premier Division at the first time of asking and were promoted to Division One of the Northern Premier League. This was just four divisions off the football league with over 14 years left until the 2022 deadline, way ahead of schedule.

The next couple of seasons, Fylde settled into the division finishing mid table before improving on that with a 5th placed finish the following season.

However, after a poor run of results in the 2011-12 season Kelham O'Hanlon was sacked and current manager, Dave Challinor and Colin Woodthorpe were brought in to try and settle a sinking ship. Challinor dropped two divisions from Colwyn Bay in order to build the club up due to the fantastic plan he believed the club had in place. When the new management arrived the club were 16 points off the top of the table. But, somehow the two managed to turn fortunes around and guide the club to promotion after a 1-0 win over Salford City. They were now in the Premier Division.

The first season in a higher division will always be difficult, but Fylde gave it a very good go. They finished 5th losing out to Hednesford Town in the semi-finals of the playoffs. The following season (2013-14), the club took the next step up.

After winning the Lancashire FA Challenge Trophy and the Northern Premier League Challenge Cup the club  beat Ashton United 4-3 on penalties to guide themselves to the National League North. The club was way ahead of schedule once again. It was 2014 and they were just two promotions away from being a football league club.

After the promotion in May of 2014, one month later there were, even more, reasons to celebrate again after a £18 million development plan was accepted by the Fylde Borough Council. The plan was to create a brand new stadium (Mill Farm) near Wesham which would have a capacity of 6000. The area would also be home to sports science facilities, numerous training pitches, an Aldi supermarket, a restaurant and even a petrol station. It is expected to be finished in the summer of 2016 and it was something to look forward to.

Once again, promotion to a division with teams as big as Tamworth and Alfreton Town was predicted to be tough. Fylde once again showed this not to be a problem. In their first season (2014-15) they finished 2nd place in the division and narrowly missed out on promotion after losing in the playoffs to Guiseley. The 2015-16 season also had the same outcome with Fylde losing 2-1 to North Ferriby United in the playoff final. The club's new stature isn't going unnoticed either with previous Premier League players such as Stephen Crainey joining. They are favourites for promotion this season and you would be wrong to say that they don't have a chance.
The rise of AFC Fylde has been dramatic. They have ultimately come from nowhere. The club has grown and grown. 20 years ago the club had attendances of 30. Now their new stadium, Mill Farm, can hold 6000. The growth has been magnificent and shows many non-league clubs that with the right investment, management and players, a lot is possible.

The 2022 target is still the main goal and you would be a silly man to say that it isn't possible. AFC Fylde is a club to watch in the future and we could very soon see them in the 4th division of English football.
Jamie Britt
Liverpool FC fan, official club member. Liverpool and the Premier League is my thing but I take a serious interest in European as well as lower league football ! Still waiting for Liverpool to win a league title.....!!

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