Fleetwood Town’s president, Jim Betmead, could be forgiven for pinching himself when he gazes out from Wembley’s royal box before today’s League Two play-off final.
After all, the 65-year-old is the man who restored the Lancashire club to life after its liquidation in 1996, restarting in the second tier of the North West Counties Football League.
“It was just the tumbleweed that was missing,” he says of the then derelict Highbury Stadium he and a team of volunteers set about making fit for purpose. “The grass was waist high, the stands were in need of urgent repair. When I re-formed the football club, if I’d said we were going to go into the Football League, they’d have carted me away in a straitjacket.”
Today, Betmead may actually see Fleetwood go one better, for two seasons after their historic promotion to the Football League, they will climb into League One with victory over Burton Albion.
Fleetwood, a club who took their red-and-white colours from a trawler company, had already folded once before in the 1970s, just as the local fishing industry started to decline. Yet the climb of the “Cod Army” began in earnest after the 2003 arrival of chairman Andy Pilley, a wealthy local businessman who has spent £10m on transforming their fortunes. Pilley invested £4.5m alone in an impressive new main stand and on the pitch there have been five promotions, starting with the North West Counties First Division title in 2005. Their Wembley squad today includes one survivor of that first step, defender Nathan Pond, who made his debut in front of a crowd of 81 people. “What Andy has done has been an absolute dream – he has just taken us on this magical journey,” adds Betmead.
Besides a chairman with deep pockets, Fleetwood also have a bright young manager in Graham Alexander. He is 18 months into his first management job but has considerable play-offs experience: during more than 1,000 playing appearances, he lost finals with Scunthorpe United and Preston North End before winning Premier League promotion with Burnley at Wembley in 2009.
“For me it’s about repaying the faith put in me by people this season and last,” said the 42-year-old, who last summer was able to bring in vital experience in captain Mark Roberts – a League Two play-off final winner with Stevenage – and midfielder Steven Schumacher. His opposite number Gary Rowett, by comparison, actually lost his two best players after Burton’s play-off semi-final defeat 12 months ago. Where Burton may have a “1 per cent advantage” according to Rowett is from the fact they train at St George’s Park, where there are three pitches “very similar” to Wembley’s, although they may well need this against a club Nigel Worthington, manager of Fleetwood’s semi-final victims York, described as the “Manchester City of our league”.
Betmead prefers a different parallel. “I played in the Northern Premier against Wigan and look at what they’ve done. We’ve rubbed shoulders with them once before, so who knows?”