Mellon's Cod Army now have bigger fish to fry
Fleetwood are taking the Conference by storm and aim to batter Yeovil in tonight's FA Cup tie. Tim Rich goes to the seaside
Fleetwood Town's manager, Micky Mellon, is whistling the theme tune from The Magnificent Seven, which should be the soundtrack for any club planning FA Cup giant-killing. It is, after all, the story of men punching above their weight, despite its poignant last line: "Only the farmers won; we lost, we'll always lose."
Fleetwood do not plan to lose any time soon, despite the gap of two divisions between themselves and tonight's opponents, Yeovil. This is a club that has had four promotions in six years. This is a club that has spent £4.5m on a new stand, where you can stand in a sports bar behind one of the goals with wall-to-wall plasma televisions – there is even one in the gents. They are top of the Conference and within two years many expect them to be in League One. This is a club with money.
Money began leaving Fleetwood long ago. Thomas Cook and Thomson did for the seafront hotels built by the Victorians for those who found Blackpool too brash. The Cod War did for the fishing fleet. The last deep-water trawler departed in 1982. At least two versions of the club have gone bust. In the last five years, however, the tide has started dramatically to turn and the money has come in, through the 41-year-old chairman, Andy Pilley. He, like Roman Abramovich, made his money from natural gas, although he has proved rather more loyal to his managers than Chelsea's owner. Mellon is his second in eight years. He can recall his first match as chairman, the opponents were Skelmersdale and the gate was 80.
The ground is called Highbury and then comparisons would have appeared ridiculous, now it has an elegant curved roof, a sparkling reception and the feel of a small, prosperous Dutch club, albeit one that sports a banner behind its goal proclaiming this to be the home of the "Ultras de Cod". Fleetwood's red shirts and white sleeves are apparently not inspired by Arsenal but date from the days when a trawler firm, whose funnels were painted that colour, indulged in a spot of early sponsorship.
The fishing heritage lingers in the names given to the executive boxes, which are all named after Fleetwood boats, the most poignant being the Red Falcon, a trawler that sank with all hands in 1959, leaving 25 children in the town fatherless.
Mellon saw his first Fleetwood game about 10 years ago, while he was playing for Burnley. "I live near a football pitch that Sunday league teams play on and I looked out of my window and there was a game on," he said. "I took my dog and asked who was playing and was told it was Fleetwood against Squires Gate. If someone had told me then that they would now be looking to put a team in the Football League, I'd have thought them mental.
"I sat down with the chairman and he asked me to build a club from top to bottom. Fleetwood had no youth policy, no reserve team and a part-time first team. We were also bottom of the league. He told me about the stand and that he wanted to develop a youth policy that now features 40 full-time kids and a first team that is full of major assets."
In The Magnificent Seven, Yul Brynner offered $20 to join him. Pilley and Mellon offer much more, although both are irritated by the suggestion that Fleetwood have spent their way to success. Mellon explained that of the side he took to Gateshead last week, only two had commanded a fee. However, they travelled to Tyneside the day before the game and checked into the Marriott at Gosforth Park, a place so plush it is where Newcastle put up new signings.
"Our boys are all full-time. That's another transformation I had to make a couple of years ago," said Mellon. "The vast majority are full-time for the first time in their careers. At first everyone got a one-year deal. That is pressure, playing with no safety net. I was asking them to put all their eggs in one basket and trust me to keep them in the game. Only one said no and he came back later and said he wanted to do it."
In this level of football there are many men who say they have money, which is either not there or far too quickly spent. The sight of Didi Hamann walking out of Stockport – full of stories of promises that began vanishing the moment the photo-call finished – is its own cautionary tale. Pilley points out that his business is rather more soundly based than some. "We're a smaller version of British Gas. People will always need electricity in the same way that they need oxygen, food and water," he said. "We are not quite recession-proof but it is a commodity people need." Their template is Crawley, who are driving their own path to League One.
"I hope what has come across is that I am very level-headed," said Mellon. "I have been in the football industry since I was 15. I have had years of talking shit to people like you. I have seen it all before. Do I think we can do it? Yes, but we haven't done it and until we have done it, it is all football talk. But we have every chance."
Success, however, breeds its own pressures. "If you lose a game of football here, you are the worst manager ever," said Mellon. "You don't get much breathing space. It is a club that over the last five seasons is used to winning and that creates a mentality. It is for us to go to places like Grimsby and Luton and beat them. To put things in perspective, we played Manchester United in pre-season and the fans were disappointed we never beat them because it wasn't United's first team."
His greatest asset is a 24-year-old from Sheffield called Jamie Vardy. When Fleetwood beat Stockport 2-1 at Highbury last month, there were 26 scouts to watch the centre-forward, who has scored 14 times. When Mellon is asked about Vardy he replies: "I rate him as highly as any striker I have played with and I have played with Andy Cole, Ian Wright and John Aldridge."
Vardy was on Sheffield Wednesday's books until he was 15 before being rejected "because I was too small", which seems astonishing when the best player in the world is 5ft 7in. Until he came to Fleetwood he combined training and playing for Halifax with making carbon fibre medical splints in a factory in Sheffield, sometimes not getting to bed until 1am. He has now signed a three-year contract. "I can be a League One player at Fleetwood. They will go up and then up again," he said. "We will definitely be promoted this season. You just listen to the banter. Everyone here thinks we are going up."
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