Big Interview: AFC Fylde making Hay under chairman

AFC Fylde chairman David Haythornthwaite with the model of the club's proposed new stadium
AFC Fylde chairman David Haythornthwaite with the model of the club's proposed new stadium
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The conversation would generally always lead on to the same subject.

When David Haythornthwaite used to arrive at the Taps, in Lytham, for his regular pint with old pal Dai Davis, their chats would have a familiar ring.

It is not that the pair had nothing else to talk about, but their heart-to-hearts would eventually turn to arguably their favourite subject – football.

The chairman of local amateur football club, Kirkham and Wesham, Davis was keen to bring his friend’s influence on board behind the scenes.

A multi-millionaire after making his fortune in the animal feed business, Haythornthwaite had made attempts to take over Blackpool in the past.

Rebutted twice by the Oyston family – once in 1990s and another time around 10 years ago – the chairman and founder of Vetplus eventually relented to his friend’s persuasive charms.

With his business already the main sponsor of Kirkham and Wesham, Haythornthwaite became the club’s president in 2007 – he would later swap positions with Davis and become the club’s chairman.

Deeply ambitious, Haythornthwaite insisted that if he was going to get involved in the running of the club then he wanted to aim high.

Hanging around in the West Lancashire League was of no interest to him and he sought assurances from Davis that he felt the same way.

Over a beer and a packet of crisps, the pair devised a plan to take the club into the Football League by 2022.

Pie in the sky you might think? It is probable that many educated people at the time scoffed at the duo’s grand plans for the club.

But less than 10 years on, AFC Fylde – as the club is now known after a name change to widen its appeal – is well ahead of schedule in its dream of achieving League status.

Currently one point clear at the top of the Conference North with a game in hand, the Coasters are just two promotions away from League Two football.

Haythornthwaite’s influence in the boardroom was felt from day one.

The club almost immediately won promotion to the semi-professional level of the NPL First Division North.

And that coincided roughly at the same time with arguably the club’s greatest ever day – certainly under the guise of Kirkham and Wesham – when it won the FA Vase at Wembley in 2008 under the stewardship of Mick Fuller.

Two goals from Matt Walwyn sealed a memorable 2-1 win over Lowestoft Town.

Ex-PNE goalkeeper Kelham O’Hanlon then took control of first-team affairs and led the club to the First Division North play-off final in 2011, although they were beaten by neighbours Chorley at Victory Park

O’Hanlon left and since then under current manager former Tranmere Rovers and Stockport County defender Dave Challinor, Fylde have secured two promotions.

In Challinor’s first season in charge, he guided the club to the title.

And further success followed a couple of years later, as the Coasters achieved promotion to the Conference North with a penalty shoot-out victory over Ashton United in the Premier Division play-off final last season.

Off the field, the foundation stones are about to be laid for the club’s new multi-million pound 6,000-capacity stadium and retail park on the outskirts of Wesham.

They are hoping to move from their existing home Kellamergh Park to their new ground by at least the start of the 2016/17 season.

It all amounts to exciting times for the Coasters.

“My best friend Dai was always nagging at me,” Haythornthwaite recalls.

“‘Come on, get involved’, he would say to me.

“I suppose he got me in a weak moment one night in the Taps.

“I said, ‘Right I am only doing it on one condition...I am not coming to play around in the West Lancs. If I come on board then we are going to have a go at the Football League’.

“Obviously Dai agreed to that.

“It’s funny, we were laughing about it the other week, but when Dai introduced me to everyone, it was a committee meeting at the Conservative Club on a Tuesday night.

“There were 29 people on the committee and at 11 o’clock, they were still arguing about who hadn’t taken out the bin in one corner of the ground.

“Afterwards I said to Dai, that’s the last time we go to that committee meeting.

“The next month there were just three of us and we got started.

“We were fortunate enough that year...I put some money in, Dai put some money in and we managed to put a good team together.

“We hit the jackpot of going to Wembley, which was amazing.”

Although he did not want to go into detail about his plan to buy Blackpool nor his dealings with the Oystons, Haythornthwaite admits the painful memories of the failed takeover bids provide a certain amount of motivation for him to achieve success with Fylde.

“I think that does give me motivation, there’s no doubt about it,” he said. “When I was trying to take over Blackpool, I was certainly ridiculed by them at the time.

“People used to say he doesn’t know what he’s doing and he’s got no money.

“I think it does give you that inspiration sometimes.

“A lot of things give you inspiration to do certain things.

“I am one of these people that if somebody says that’s impossible or you can’t do that...that’s where it all starts for me.

“It’s the same for me whether it’s business or football.

“I believe you can do anything if you put your mind to it.”

The plan to build a state-of-the art new stadium has been years in the making.

After the initial proposal to create a community complex and ground in Wrea Green was thrown out by Fylde Council, Haythornthwaite turned his attentions to an alternative site.

The new development at Mill Farm on the outskirts of Wesham, close to junction three of the M55, is expected to contain such things as a supermarket, a hotel, a restaurant, as well as a Football League-standard stadium.

After objections, planning meetings, Fylde Council eventually gave the green light to the proposals last year.

“We have got everything done,” he added.

“The i’s are dotted and t’s are crossed.

“To be honest, we have not been waiting for the planning permission.

“We have been working behind the scenes for two years on designing and getting everything ready.

“To do that is a bit of a risk, because we spent a lot of money and it might not have happened, but we wanted to take that risk.

“We will start building...well I am expecting the bulldozers to move in either the first or second week of next month.

“We are hoping to be in our new ground by March 1 next year.

“Those are the famous last words, but we’re confident it’s going to happen and it’s going to be a very proud and exciting moment for me and everybody connected with the club.”

Currently, Fylde average crowds of around 500 at Kellamergh Park for home games in the Conference North – encouragingly it is an increase of 75% from previous seasons.

But surely for the club to sustain itself in higher divisions, it will have to triple, maybe quadruple, those attendance figures at the very least.

Sandwiched in between two big and long established Football League clubs in Blackpool and Preston, Fylde are also competing with other local sides for support, such as Fleetwood Town.

The Cod Army themselves have enjoyed a remarkable rise from humble beginnings in non-league to League One.

Haythornthwaite is not unduly worried about his club’s ability to attract fans, believing he can find a niche in the market which will appeal to spectators.

“It’s one of those things that your enemies or those people who don’t like your success will always point towards,” Haythornthwaite said.

“They will say, ‘It’s not sustainable...they will never be able to do it’.

“But I am quietly confident we can carve out our own niche.

“It’s like in business. Every day I am competing against massive pharmaceutical companies.

“If I try to take them on head to head, I will get killed. I will get beaten every time.

“They have got deeper pockets and are better at everything.

“But we have carved out our own niche and have a very successful formula.

“I plan to do the same with the football club.

“There’s no doubt about it. Football fans in many ways have become a little bit fed-up with the way they have been treated.

“Especially in the Premier League with the money which is involved there now.

“We are going to try and make our football club very much family based.

“We’ve started that off now already and that is very much where our focus is going to be.

“It’s an often-used word and in many respects I hate it, but the word community is what we are going to be.

“I think if you provide a value of facility along with getting it right on the pitch – which is the most difficult thing – but if you can do all those other things then the supporter is going to have a good experience.

“I think where we are lucky is that our new ground is right on that junction off the M55.

“Fleetwood’s problem in terms of their ground is it’s one way in and one way out. We are in a perfect position to pull people in who might be looking for a game to go to and think, ‘Yeah let’s go to Fylde’.

“We will have lots of parking, there will be ease of access and you have to remember all the other things that we will have there too.

“We are going to have a nursery so that if you come with a family and you have a young child, you will be able to put your child in the nursery.

“It’s a little bit unique and that’s the way we are trying to be – a little bit different.”

While all that is for the mid to long term, Fylde’s current issue off the pitch is ensuring they will be able to take their place in the Conference Premier next season should the team continues its present form and win promotion.

Currently, Kellamergh Park does not meet the ground grading criteria for the top-flight of non-league football.

Haythornthwaite has enquired about the possibility of ground sharing with Blackpool, Preston or Fleetwood for a season while their new ground is being built.

It looks like the club will be forced into spending £75,000 to bring their home ground up to standard in time for the start of next season.

“If we go up, we are committed to spending £75,000 on improving our ground,” he said.

“Our ground at the moment is not up to standard and the league is very strict on that.

“I am all for that. I’m a standards man and I have no problem with that.

“You have to have certain number of toilets, directors’ seats, etc, etc.

“But the main thing we have had to do is improve our floodlights – we have done that which cost us £10,000.

“We also need 500 covered seats – currently, we have got 280, so we will be building a new stand behind the goals which will have 250 seats.

“We also have to improve our perimeter fencing around the pitch.

“I have to do it because I need to support my manager.

“If he managed to get us to the top of the league I have got to spend that money.

“Another thing is it’s so hard to get out of each division – more so the higher up you go – so when you’ve got that chance you have got to take it.”

Haythornthwaite also revealed that he is 90 per cent certain that the club will remain part-time next season should they earn promotion.

However, he is quick to point out that nothing is certain this season despite the team’s current lofty position at the top of the table.

After winning eight games on the spin, the Coasters were knocked off top spot when they suffered three successive defeats. The comfortable 3-0 victory over Boston United in midweek ensured Challinor’s men returned to the summit.

They will be hoping to remain there after today’s away trip to bottom side Hyde, who have won just two games all season.

Haythornthwaite admits the decision to appoint Challinor as manager – along with his assistant ex-Norwich City defender Colin Woodthorpe – in 2011 has proven to be an inspired choice.

After taking his previous club Colwyn Bay to two promotions, Challinor dropped back two levels once more to take up the challenge at Kellamergh Park. “Dave Challinor wrote me a long letter by hand,” Haythornthwaite revealed.

“The first thing I thought was, ‘Geez, this is really unusual for a football was coherent and legible.

“I was really impressed with that. There was obviously no spell check involved or anything like that.

“Then I met him and he was an outstanding candidate.

“It was between him and Graham Heathcote, who had been at Altrincham for years and was very experienced.

“We had to decide between youth because Dave had only been at Colwyn two years although I know he had success there, or do we go for an older guy.

“We were amazed Dave applied for the job because it would mean coming down two levels again.

“We didn’t realise he knew about us.

“We didn’t know him, we had never met him.

“But he came in and interviewed fantastically well and you just knew he wanted the job.

“Since that day, he has been brilliant. He’s like me...he’s as honest as the day is long.

“We have a fantastic relationship, he’s great guy and he will manage in the Football League one day.”