The 2016/17 season hasn’t offered much in terms of success for teams in Lancashire, with Blackburn relegated from the Championship, Fleetwood agonisingly missing out during the League One playoffs, off-field problems continuing to blight Blackpool and Morecambe just about surviving once again in League Two. To find success, football fans in the Red Rose county have to look further afield, and perhaps to two unlikely sources, A.F.C. Fylde and Lancaster City F.C.
Lancaster City F.C., better known as the Dolly Blues, have enjoyed a fairly turbulent history, spending the majority of it in the lower reaches of North West football. Their greatest period of, (it must be said) relative, success came in the early 2000s, when the team profited from some healthy mid-table finishes in the Conference North, the highest standard of English football they’ve ever played, alongside a number of appearances in the F.A. Cup first round proper. However, after suffering from financial problems during the 2006/07 season, the club folded and reformed, being accepted into the Northern Premier League Division One, where they have been ever since.
It is easy to see why Lancaster has struggled over the course of its history; a relatively small provincial backwater surrounded by dozens of historically strong footballing towns, with fans preferring the bright lights of Blackburn, Burnley and Bolton, or, if they were feeling particularly adventurous Manchester United or City. With all of these destinations within a short commute from Lancaster, many Lancastrian locals past and present have decided to get on the train rather than watch the team who play their games at the Giant Axe, a stone’s throw away from the train station.
The club received some media attention beyond that of the Lancaster Guardian in 2014/15, when ex-Premier League players Darren Peacock and Trevor Sinclair took over as manager and assistant manager. Unfortunately, the two of them couldn’t impart the knowledge which made them standout players to the Dolly Blues’ own playing staff, as both were relieved of their duties in September 2015. Replaced by former player Phil Brown, not to be confused with his namesake who managed Hull in the Premier League, Lancaster guided themselves to a comfortable mid-table finish last season. However, this season, in Brown’s first full season as manager, they have set the 8th tier of English football alight, coming up against Northern powerhouses such as Tadcaster Albion and Ramsbottom United.
With only the top spot securing automatic promotion, as 2nd to 5th place compete in playoffs, it was vital that Lancaster saw off the challenge from Farsley Celtic to gain automatic promotion and miss out on the lottery of the playoffs, where they have slipped up on previous occasions. Relying on defensive solidity rather than pure attacking football, the Dolly Blues conceded the least amount of goals in Northern Premier League Division One to be crowned champions on the final day of the season.
The season wasn’t without its moments of controversy though. A game away at Kendal Town on Boxing Day had to be halted after violence in the stands had spilled over on to the pitch. Perhaps unsurprising given the standard of football, Lancaster have struggled with problems of hooliganism in the past. Faced with a possible points deduction after similar incidents earlier in the season, the Dolly Blues treated the incident in the strongest possible terms, handing out lifetime bans to the culprits, who it must be said are in the minority when it comes to Lancaster supporters. Whilst a points deduction may have been fatal to their championship bid, financial penalties from the authorities may even have been a terminal blow for the club, with all non-league clubs teetering on the financial precipice.
Fortunately, neither footballing nor financial sanctions were imposed, leading Lancaster to rebuild its reputation and continue its title march. After a neck-and-neck race with Farsley throughout the season, it all came down to the last day, as Lancaster travelled to Glossop North End one point ahead of their rivals. Free coach travel was laid on by the club so that as many supporters as possible could be there on possibly the biggest day in the club’s history. An exceptional first half performance saw the Dolly Blues steam into a 4-0 lead, as they eventually prevailed 5-2, led by a hat-trick from striking sensation Jordan Connerton. Players and fans celebrated on the pitch as the final whistle blew, and the celebrations carried on long into the night at the Brown Cow back in Lancaster.
Having made the step-up to the Northern Premier League Premier Division, one below the National League North, Phil Brown’s boys know that they have their work cut out if they want to stay in the division. If they do manage to avoid relegation, and ward off the crowd trouble that has plagued them these past few seasons, they may well be able to establish themselves in the Lancaster area, possibly vying with Morecambe in terms of attracting talented youngsters. For the Dolly Blues, the sky is the limit.
A little journey down the M6 and along the M55 from Lancaster (i.e. between Preston and Blackpool) will find football connoisseurs at the gates of fellow Lancashire success story A.F.C. Fylde. Only formed in 1988 after a merger of Kirkham Town and Wesham, the pride of the Fylde coast have relatively shot up the footballing pyramid, having started in Division One of the West Lancashire League at their inception, and now finding themselves in the National League, after emerging as champions of the National League North this season. Taking the league at a canter, eventually ending up 6 points ahead of closest-placed rivals Kidderminster Harriers, the big time of televised games on BT Sport in the National League awaits them, playing against the likes of Leyton Orient and Tranmere Rovers.
It is fair to say that A.F.C. Fylde are prepared if their upward trajectory continues and they hit the dizzying heights of the Football League. For the start of the 2016/17 season, the team moved in to Mill Farm sports village, a state-of-the-art £18m facility that some Football League sides would be proud of. The facility not only contains a 6,000-seater stadium, that can easily be expanded if the team does find promotion, but also a number of 3G football and hockey pitches, conference facilities as well as a supermarket, a number of fast food outlets and a bar to rival Lancaster University’s own Fylde Bar! The success of the club partly relies on their Mill Farm facility, as it enables them to be the centre of the community, and provide a football team that represents a very proud area. They’ll be hoping to build on these values next season, as they aim to solidify their position in the 5th tier of English football.
Whilst not providing the glamour of Manchester or Liverpool, local clubs like Lancaster City and Fylde are once again giving Lancashire football teams to be proud of, whilst some of their more illustrious neighbours find it difficult to find their place in modern football.