Fleetwood Town’s transformation continues apace and reporter ROSIE SWARBRICK examines the role former players now have at Highbury.
He’s the most famous former Fleetwood Town player.
So it is apt that the turn of the year could see the Cod Army’s most celebrated son Jamie Vardy reminiscing about the past with players from Fleetwood’s rich history.
While Vardy is from the most successful era – the Andy Pilley years – he could be making the trip home to Highbury on January 6 with Leicester City if Fleetwood beat Hereford in an FA Cup replay on Thursday.
If that dream third round FA Cup tie happens, the TV cameras will descend on a club much changed from its first formation in 1908, a world away from the second in 1977 and completely altered from the one that Jim Betmead re-formed in 1997.
Such has been the transformation under Pilley that even in the short five years since Vardy’s 2012 £1m departure to City the club will even be unrecognisable to the man who fired Town out of the Conference and on the road to the third tier.
Betmead, club president, is part of the newly formed Fleetwood Town Past Players Association.
He says it is important to remember the past and origins of the club from the graffiti-stained Highbury they saved from becoming housing in the 90s to its days at the heart of a thriving fishing port.
The Association is the brainchild of former goalkeeper and current player pathways manager Stuart Murdoch and vice-chairman Phil Brown and met last week ahead of Fleetwood’s replay at Hereford on Thursday.
They meet on the first Thursday of every month at Poolfoot Farm to share a coffee and memories.
Betmead said: “This is about not forgetting the people who played for Fleetwood and the people who are a big part in getting us where we are now.
“It is great to see them all, they are looking fit and well which says something for the Fleetwood air.
“Sometimes, as teams progress, other previous footballers can be forgotten. I don’t think that is fair and that is what we are doing here – embracing the past.
“They talk about games they have played in and their memories, Rob Thomas will tell you about a couple of goals that he scored.
“The players are from all over the Fylde, it is nice they keep the affinity and it is nice that they can see what has happened here at the training complex and at Fleetwood Town – how Andy has taken us to another level that nobody would have dreamt of.
“It is nice that all of these older players can feel a part of it.
“I played for Fleetwood and I re-formed Fleetwood for the simple reason I did not want Fleetwood to not have a football team, they would have built houses on there. There would not have been a football club and we would have lost our identity.
“I’m a proud Codhead.
“Andy has taken it to the level it is now and it is quite surreal, the Fleetwood Town from when I played is a lot different and everyone is sharing my excitement.
“I’m sure it has not finished yet, we had Vardy who took us out of the Conference.
“We are all proud of what he has achieved.
“When he is mentioned Fleetwood are always mentioned so it would be great to have him back.
“In the next generation we have young Billy Crellin and his England Under-17s World Cup winners’ medal and you just look around the whole facility and stadium, it just blows you away every time.”
But Pilley is not just making an impact on the pitch as Poolfoot Farm, the football club and his energy company have changed the town.
Betmead says the football club has helped the area form a new identity after the collapse of the fishing industry.
He said: “I work at the local job centre and I have been trying to get the links with Fleetwood Town which are pulling together now.
“It is massively important for the community.
“We were a big fishing industry, we lost all that and we were sort of losing our identity but the club has given us our identity back.
“We all walk around with our chests out.
“What Andy has achieved on the park is amazing – but off the park he is by far one of the biggest employers on the Fylde Coast.
“So it is a win-win, we are winning on the park and off it.”
Last week, youngster Crellin popped down to show off his medal while chief executive Steve Curwood gave a talk at the December meeting.
The first-team squad also mix in at Town’s continental-style training base to listen to memories from yesteryear and take a gander at some of the memorabilia of the old days brought in by the ex-players.
Murdoch, 62, was a goalkeeper for the club in the 70s before embarking on his coaching career.
He said: “The main aim of the Association is keeping former players involved and letting them know that the club still thinks about them, wants to help them in anyone that we can, even though they are not playing any more.
“It gives them a focus, something to do once a month and sit and have a cup of tea and chat about the old days.
“As the months have gone by – we started in September – and the numbers have increased, more people have come and brought their memorabilia and looking at old articles out of The Gazette.
“We haven’t even started talking about modern-day football we are still in 1960-1970!
“As far as the club is concerned the chairman is very supportive of it and I think it is important to remember where the club came from.
“This is what football is about.
“It is amazing the bonds and friendships that have lasted 40 or 50 years.
“There are chaps here I haven’t seen for 40 years and it is amazing when you start speaking, it’s like you’ve never left. We go over old games and it has been really helpful for some of the older ones.
“It gives them a focus, it gets them out and they can see people they have not seen for years.
“You only have to listen to the laughter from down the corridor.
“The one thing that is good is that when the first team have been training they come and talk to everyone and get a completely different view of what football is about.
“They’d tell them about slogging through the mud and the sort of kit, changing rooms...the modern footballer can’t believe that is how it was.
“This club has got a magnificent history over the last 10 years but we have not got to forget all the struggles that a lot of people went through earlier on in the history of the club.
“They have come through different eras of the club but they still feel part of Fleetwood Town Football Club.
“We need things in our community to put a smile on our faces and give us a focus, football has always done that.
“Certainly when you talk to these chaps and the pitches they played on and the dressing rooms they had to go in and sizes of the baths they had to jump in – it is a completely different world!”
The next meeting is at 10am on Thursday January 4 at Poolfoot Farm.
And Murdoch urged any past player to pop down.
He said: “Anyone who has any memorabilia, anyone who wants to come along is more than welcome.
“At the moment we are only doing these sessions on the first Thursday of every month but we realise a lot of our players are still at work.
“Basically this is the older generation but in the new year we are looking to bring it to the younger generation.”
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