They call the local football fans the Cod Army but “don’t mention fish”, says Steve Lynton, formerly one of Blackpool’s best known DJs, now netting awards at Granada Fish Bar and Restaurant in Fleetwood.
Leading light of the local chamber of commerce, and some-time sponsor of Fleetwood Town Football Club, Steve says the investment tide has turned in the port town’s favour.
Town’s first leg of promotional play-off tonight, as the club aims for Football League status, is clearly crucial to this sea change – thanks in no small part to the cash club chief executive Andy Pilley has poured in.
“Forget fish – look at what’s happening,” says Steve.
He refers to luxury housing springing up dockside, upgraded tramworks, resurrection of Tram Sunday, proposed new fish park, new ownership of the North Euston heritage hotel, more investors moving in because they like the pace of life and the fact it’s a “proper community”.
The world is Fleetwood’s oyster, reckons Steve, campaigning for better signage to replace those showing the ferry (Stena’s gone but Knott End ferry endures) and scenic ICI en route. One, near the nautical college, and the Lofthouse family Eros roundabout island, finally shows a beach and sandcastle.
“We need to change people’s perceptions, from the all-fishing, smelly 50s and 60s idea of the place. It’s not a fishing town, only two or three trawlers, and the dock where the trawlers are will be changed into a marina when the new fish park opens.”
You pass it on the A585 into Fleetwood, main route from the motorway. Asda and Freeport are firmly established, but relative newcomers in Fleetwood terms, for this is a community which stays put, has a sense of identity, time and place.
Older favourite Fleetwood Market extends opening hours to court coach parties and tramworks are nearing completion so you can reach more shops without circumnavigating the cages of roadworks.
The loss of the pier is an open wound, along with Stena pulling the Fleetwood to Ireland service, upsetting those who parked for free on the Esplanade, promenaded on sunny evenings and would gather to watch the ‘ro-ro’ freight arrive, and ships leave.
Historian William Hargreaves helped build the old Pandora roll-on-roll-off facility. Worked as a lumper too, at 18.
“You could always get work in Fleetwood,” says Bill ‘to his mates’, who leads guided heritage tours. “A day, a week, a year, longer, work was there. It’s tough now but, yes, things are picking up, the club’s part of that.” He remembers Fleetwood Town playing on cinders, a legacy of the speedway track once there, and he recalls another club gained promotion because they had a “better ground”. Now Cinders is having a ball and the club’s psychotherapist Steve Pope says: “Andy Pilley and manager Micky Mellon have done more for the community’s mental health than Freud did for psychiatry, a large injection of pride, confidence and self-belief, you can’t buy that in the chemists.”
Early birds get the best deal dockside so I’m up with the gulls for the daily fish auction to chat to workers Martin Hind, Alan Greenall and John Huartson, Cod Army veterans, thrilled with Fleetwood Town leaping those lower levels like a salmon returning to spawning grounds.
Four promotions in six years, five in seven years depending on who tells the story, and how low they go. “Pinch yourself to believe it,” says Alan.
Martin’s gone to matches since 1977 – the “Sunday league days.”
John shows me a picture of manager Micky Mellon with his little lad, kitted-out for his first home match. “‘Welcome aboard,’ Micky told my boy,” beams John.
“It’s a family club.” Brady Barcock, 19, says: “The town is buzzing.” His grandad was a skipper, his dad worked trawlers too.
“I’d have done it if work had been there, it was a hard life but a good one.” He top sides – presents fish – for Midland Fish Company, at the auction from 4am daily.
The club’s tucked away, on Highbury Road, near the Memorial Park. Three hundred play here, from main squad to youth academy, 11 teams for boys, three for girls, one for young disabled players, the likes of Joe Carnozzi, local lad made good, coming through the system for a promising debut the other day.
“Parking’s a hassle”, says a neighbour, guiding me down a track to the ground, where there’s a steady trickle, at Jim’s Sports Bar, for tickets for tonight’s match against AFC Wimbledon.
Others are browsing souvenirs such as a Never Mind the Pollocks Cod Army chants on CD. Club press man Derick Thomas presents me with a mug, and a meet and greet with chief executive Pilley, who’s made this magic possible.
It’s dazzling. “One way in, one way out,” Highbury stand flags proclaim, overlooking a picture-perfect pitch cultivated by full-time groundsman Dale Frith, formerly of Wimbledon (tennis, not footie), the brand new stadium gleaming in the sun. Field of dreams; it’s easy to slip into cliche speak, for the stadium is fantastic as much for what’s within, offices, community facilities, hospitality by Thornton’s Twelve restaurant (chef Paul Moss a big fan), as the view from VIP boxes bearing names of trawlers special to the club.
Don’t mention fish? Pilley will. He’s steered this club up, up and away, claims to be in “no rush” to win promotion “for it will come,” and is proud to honour the long lost Red Falcon trawler on his door. And we’re all, as Mellon puts it, “welcome aboard.” Bon voyage, Fleetwood Town FC.