Dai Davies can still remember what life used to be like for the club now known as AFC Fylde. The lowest-ranked team – Fylde are 21st in the National League – left in this season’s FA Cup are preparing for what the club’s president says is by far the biggest occasion in their remarkable history on Sunday, when they travel to Sheffield United.
It is the first time Fylde have reached the third round of the Cup and is the latest landmark in the history of a club that has been through three stadiums, one name change and countless promotions in the past 25 years alone. But it was not always this exciting. “I used to play for Kirkham Town in the 1960s, the precursor of Fylde, and it was literally one man and his dog,” Davies recalls.
Kirkham merged with Wesham in 1988, after which as Kirkham & Wesham FC, they became a mainstay of the West Lancashire League, level 11 on the football pyramid. Davies, who had forged a successful career away from football, was asked to come back on board in 1994, and he remembers well what he encountered.
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“It’s not that long ago you’d be lucky to have 30 people watching us – and most of those were walking their dogs around the local field,” Davies says. “It didn’t take me long to ask people what they wanted from Kirkham & Wesham. If the people involved wanted it to be a pub team, then fine – but that wasn’t for me.” Thankfully, the club’s committee of volunteers bought into what Davies felt he could offer.
With his considerable financial backing, the club began to dominate the Lancashire scene, winning the West Lancashire League’s Premier Division seven times in eight years. But they were regularly refused promotion to the North West Counties League owing to their facility on Coronation Road, which was nothing more than a council-owned playing field. “It got to the stage where we had to move on,” Davies says. “We got a fantastic site elsewhere, and that was the springboard for us to kick on again.”
They moved to Kellamergh Park in nearby Warton, and for the club’s first game in the North West Counties League 101 people turned up. However, by the end of that season, a pivotal moment in Fylde’s history had arrived. In their first season in the competition they travelled to Wembley and won the FA Vase. That summer it was time to change again. “Fylde is an area of local villages and it’s quite parochial,” Davies says. “People all around here would never support a team with the name Kirkham attached to it if they weren’t from Kirkham, so we had to become Fylde and spread our wings.”
Fylde continued to scale the leagues, helped by the investment of Davies’s close friend David Haythornthwaite. Together, they have brought Fylde from the playing fields of Kirkham to the verge of the Football League, having narrowly lost out to Salford in last season’s play-off final. This season has not been as successful, but on Sunday, a trip to face a side 104 places higher in the pyramid is their reward for reaching the third round of the FA Cup for the first time.
“I think it’s got to be the biggest occasion we’ve ever experienced,” Davies says of Sunday’s game. “That’s why football is so great. It’s huge for a non-league club. We’ve generated over £100,000 in prize money already and we’re not done yet. We want to go and create a big upset.”
Given how Fylde have made no secret of their desire to spend money to achieve their dream of reaching the Football League – coupled with their location – comparisons to the similar journey of Fleetwood are frequent. “Other non-league clubs actually spell Fylde with a pound sign at the start instead of the F,” he laughs. “I’ve every respect for Andy Pilley and Fleetwood, but this isn’t Fleetwood II: this is Fylde doing it Fylde’s way.”
The club moved into Mill Farm, an £18m purpose-built development, three years ago, and managed to lure the Football League’s longest-serving manager, Jim Bentley, away from Morecambe in October.
“The stadium is signed over to the football club – we’re building a legacy here,” Davies says. “We won’t just disappear with all the money one day like you’ve seen at other places. This is for the future of Fylde. Sunday is a day for people who have been with us on this journey – from the playing fields in front of 30 people to hopefully a big crowd that puts Fylde in a good light this weekend.”
Nobody deserves to enjoy that day in the spotlight more than Davies – but there is a slight problem in that regard. “I’m not going to be there; I’m booked on a bloody cruise in the Caribbean,” Davies laughs. “My wife was booking the tickets and I told her to put AN Other on mine so someone else could go, but that didn’t go down well. But I’m hoping I’ll see Fylde in the fourth round. Who knows what will happen? It is the FA Cup after all.”