Accrington Stanley FA Cup tie just the latest step for ambitious AFC Fylde

 

They have never been this far in the world's oldest competition before, but when AFC Fylde manager Dave Challinor watched the draw for the FA Cup first round, the tie that was thrown up for his team presented more than a financially rewarding day out. It was more than the chance to claim a Football League scalp, and it was more than being seen by thousands on the late-night highlights show.

Tomorrow's match against Accrington Stanley provides a benchmark for this small club with big ambitious; a line in the sand to mark how well they are progressing in their ambitious, if not implausible, quest to join their opponents in the League by 2022.

Stanley will travel to Kellamergh Park - at the back of a pub in a village called Warton - all too aware that momentum gathered in this part of the Fylde means they will be in for a tricky afternoon. Not, though, for the reasons usual for a bigger club playing a non-league outfit. The conditions the Fylde players are afforded rival, if not better, those at Accrington.

"They have come from non-league football and worked their way through," Challinor said. "They haven't had massive amounts of financial backing and have had their own struggles. They have managed to see it through and sustain themselves.

"Accrington are a small club, but local people have got behind them. They are the benchmark.

"The last time our local community really jumped on board was when we won the FA Vase in 2008. This is the next big occasion where hopefully we can get everybody here. It gives us an opportunity to do well and increase our fan base."

Sandwiched between Preston and Blackpool, Warton is small and famed only for its BAE Systems base about a mile up a leafy lane from the football ground. If progression was measured on the local community's backing, Challinor would have to forget back-to-back promotions to the Conference North - something they are on course to achieve.

Fylde hope for a 2,250-strong crowd tomorrow. As nice as greater sustained gates would be - Fylde are due to average 350 this season - financial backing is what they need, and what they have in abundance. Chairman David Haythornthwaite tried to buy out Blackpool before becoming involved with the club and has grand aspirations. They were recently knocked back for a new ground in nearby Wrea Green, but are set to announce new plans elsewhere in the coming weeks.

This story has echoes of Fleetwood Town, only 17 miles along the coast, who were bankrolled to success in a whirlwind of promotions. Fylde have effectively jumped on the back of success brewing in the area for years.

"Part of the reason I came here was the ambition. When the new ground eventually happens it opens up loads of new avenues in terms of making Fylde a self-sufficient club," said the manager.  "Once we do move venues the facilities will be second-to-none and we'll have the capacity to entice players to an ambitious forward-thinking football club.

"We want to push on. If we can get into the Conference North there are some big sides in terms of budgets. If we can get in there quickly it'll give us more time to build things off the pitch."

Fylde had to come through a replay against Ilkeston Town before Accrington. Had they won that tie at the first attempt there would have been the possibility of this match being picked for television coverage. "I suppose that is the only slight tinge of disappointment," Challinor reflected. "The money that comes alongside that is great, but for us the profile of the television and to get the club known in the bigger picture would have been fantastic."

A former Tranmere and Stockport County central defender, Challinor himself is no stranger to cup triumph. He called this a "huge game", but has played against Liverpool, Newcastle United, Southampton and Everton in the FA Cup, while a losing finalist in the 2000 Worthington Cup against Premier League Leicester City. He has got the shirts to prove it: Duncan Ferguson (twice), Alan Shearer and Sami Hyypia are quickly rattled off when asked.

"I've always swapped shirts and the memories will stay with me for the rest of my life. Now you see people tapping up players to get shirts before the game! You would be daft not to take a memento from a cup run like this."

Challinor previously held the world record for the longest throw in football - he would hurl them in from anywhere - but joked that sadly, it isn't a weapon for his team: "It was great for me, but we're lucky if we can get someone to throw it short! I've never seen worse throwers of the ball than some of our lads. My boy's under nine's team are better at it. If it's five yards into someone's feet it ends up hitting them in the face and allsorts."

Asked who, if victorious, he would fancy in the second round, Challinor said "one of the bigger sides", but just wanted to stay in the present. "Opportunities like this don't come around very often, but the motivation for the players now is to win the game, get in the second round and see what happens." The club changed its name from Kirkham and Wesham four years ago in order to wider its scope and catchment area; keeping an eye on Fylde as they muscle in on the area's hotbed of football is advisable.

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