A lot of English people look at me kind of funny when I say things…
Groundhopping at Fleetwood Town FC
Going to a football game at Fleetwood Town is a chance to see a small club that got big quickly, step just off the tourist path for a truly local experience, and – lucky for me – witness the kind of magic that only live sports can produce.
For many newcomers to English football, Fleetwood Town may be best known as the temporary home of a very famous footballer during his magical rise to fame and glory. We’ll get to him later, but you should also know that just on the edge of the “English Vegas” is a town where you can experience some old-fashioned football with a very interesting recent history.
Fleetwood Town History
My personal history with Fleetwood Town started with an offhand remark from a football scout I sat next to at some long-forgotten game. “They have some top-notch facilities there,” he had said, and I thought, “at Fleetwood Town?”
The reason for that, and probably for the fact that I am writing, and you are reading, about the club right now, is one and the same: Andy Pilley, who made a fortune in energy distribution after Enron fell apart and the UK deregulated the industry.
Pilley got involved with the club in 2004, before which they had spent 90 seasons in leagues you’ve never heard of, gone out of business and been re-founded in 1997, then made it as far as the North West Counties League at tier 9 of the English football pyramid. Since then, he has put more than 10 million pounds into the outfit, rebuilt the stadium and training facility, and gotten them to where they are now: a solid League One outfit.
Fleetwood Town’s Soccer Royalty: Jamie Vardy
As for why you may have heard of them, it’s probably because in 2011 they purchased, from 7th-tier Halifax Town, a 24-year-old striker named Jamie Vardy. He had just scored 26 goals in 37 games one season after playing for Stocksbridge Park Steels. In the 2011-12 season, Vardy played in 36 Fleetwood Town games and scored 31 goals, while the club made the FA Cup Third Round, went 29 games unbeaten, and won the league at a canter, putting them in the Football League for the first time.
Leicester City, famously, came in with £1 million for Vardy – the largest transfer fee in non-league history – and you probably know the rest of that story.
Fleetwood Town, meanwhile, marched onwards and upwards, winning the League Two Playoff Final at Wembley in 2014, and they’ve been in League One ever since, even making the playoffs a couple of times.
Highbury, Fleetwood Town’s Stadium
First, if you’re wondering as I was, it’s named for Highbury Avenue, which runs alongside it – no connection to the old Arsenal stadium of the same name.
While this 5,000-seater is basically a brand new stadium tucked in between houses and a park, it still has some of the old touches that make non-league grounds charming and goofy. Among those are the roof of the old Main Stand, still visible behind the current Highbury Stand. Why was it back there? Because in the 1950s this place hosted racecar driving, so when the track was removed and the current stand was built, they left parts of the old stand’s roof back where it was.
The main thing you’ll notice is the 2,000-seat, £4-million-pound Parkside Stand with its hospitality lounges. Home fans will be behind a goal in the Memorial Stand, while the away lot will be in the opposite Percy Ronson Stand, which itself only stretches two-thirds across the pitch. For bigger followings, they will also get a section of the Parkside.
All things considered, skip the comforts of the Parkside and go stand in the Memorial End with the drum bangers and flag wavers.
Game Day Tips at Fleetwood Town
The trip to Fleetwood Town for a game will, for almost all visitors, be scenic and, in a sense, historic. Fleetwood lies just north of Blackpool, the famous seaside town that was built up in the late 19th century as a place for the rising working classes of Manchester and Liverpool to enjoy the seaside life.
In particular, at the time it was famous for electricity, and specifically for its holiday “illuminations,” still an annual tradition, and its 1885 electric tramway, the second ever opened in England. That line is still how you get to Fleetwood, and during the holiday season you’ll roll right through the famous illuminations on the way.
Highbury is a short walk from the Stanley Road stop, and there’s a good chippy nearby called the Highbury Chippy. I am told there are decent pub options in the proper town center, but as it was raining sideways on my trip – the downside of a winter visit – I didn’t make it over to investigate. There is, however, a bar inside the stadium.
Buying Fleetwood Town Tickets
I was at probably the biggest game of the season, unless they get a big club in a cup, and it wasn’t sold out. Adults are £25 to sit and £23 to stand.
The Game: Fleetwood Town vs Morecambe
I figure if I am going all the way to some far-flung place like Fleetwood for a game, might as well show up for the derby. Since Blackpool got promoted to the Championship, they don’t get to play them anymore, so I was happy to realize that Morecambe are also in League One and about 20 miles away as the crow flies – those two things being all I know about Morecambe.
On arriving, after taking the tram through the illuminations, I fell into conversation with a Morecambe fan who informed me that the two clubs had faced each other many times in many leagues over the years and that the Shrimps had requested and received a larger than usual allotment of tickets for the game against the Cod Army.
Yes, it would be the Shrimps vs the Cod Army! I was even welcomed to the ground by Captain Cod himself, who saw me taking his picture while he high-fived some kids and struck the perfect pose for me.
After I high-fived him for his efforts, I decided to forego whatever seat I had reserved; I’ll be standing with the lads today! I took my place just under a large banner bearing one of the club’s mottos, tied to its location in a town at the end of a peninsula: One Way In, One Way Out. Another said “Fleetwood Illuminati,” which bears further investigation.
Under a darkening sky filled with swirling seagulls, the game began. I recall a few things beyond the constant cacophony from the two sets of supporters. One was a free kick goal for Morecambe right in front of our stand which involved that delicious moment – for the neutral, anyway – when, despite the presence of thousands of people, you can hear the ball whisk into the net – followed soon after, of course, by a roar from across the way.
In the second half I got to see another goal, this one also in front of me, but this one while I had my camera running.
1-1 with 10 minutes to go.
At this point, a draw would have been deserved, and probably was expected. Neither team showed much promise in finding a winner – they started the day 19th and 22nd in League One – and a fair few people had already left by the time the fourth official signaled for four minutes of stoppage time.
But football occasionally does this thing where an ordinary moment in time suddenly cracks open, and through it flows magic. The lightness or darkness of said magic depends on the colors you wear, but what happened in the 94th and final minute at Highbury that day was certainly magical.
Fleetwood came down towards us in the Memorial Stand for one last attack. It didn’t amount to much, and the ball was cleared to midfield. Two players went for it in the center circle, the Morecambe man came away with it, and then time stopped for a moment as he looked up and saw what everybody in the ground saw: The Fleetwood Town keeper, for some crazy reason, was 25 yards off his line!
Morecambe’s No. 9 cocked his leg, everybody else on the pitch froze, I yelled out “Oh no!” and he swung through the ball. It wasn’t a lob, either: he absolutely leathered it, and everyone, including the poor keeper and No. 9, stood stock still for a moment and watched.
The ball hit the back of the net on the fly – from inside the center circle! – and the far end of the ground just exploded with limbs. What then came down our way was one of those sounds that was well beyond the usual “yeah!” one hears after an English goal. It was a scream, a shriek, a howl. The No. 9 popped off his shirt and ran towards them, the Morecambe bench went off like a firework and started running the same way, and the rest of us just had to stand there and take it all in. The Fleetwood players either bent over, put their hands on their heads, or sat down.
And I was thinking, “Dammit, this is the last time I ever don’t film the final minute of a draw.” Because I didn’t get it.
But this guy did. Just barely, but still. Well done, sir. Listen carefully for the sound of somebody else realizing what was about to happen.
And of course the official highlights show the shot itself better than from our angle:
A few kicks later, it was over, and more mayhem ensued. The Fleetwood fans began calling for the manager’s head, as they had throughout the game. It’s one thing to have the club in the relegation zone, but he used to play and manage at Blackpool, for gosh sake.
I shuffled off into the rain to catch my tram, which meant I went around the ground, and several minutes after the final whistle, the Morecambe folks were still in there, singing their guts out. In the street and on the tram, the Fleetwood folks didn’t even engage in the usual postgame banter.
You can lose, 3-0, and still think of something to say about the game. But a 94th-minute winner from the center circle in a local derby on your own pitch? That one kind of speaks for itself.
I’ll never forget it, that’s for sure. I also just made plans to see Fleetwood’s visit to Morecambe in a few weeks.
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