x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 July 2017

A friendly tussle for England's north west as Blackpool face Fleetwood

Their FA Cup third-round match, the first time the neighbours play each other since 1980, will be a welcome distraction for supporters.

Ian Holloway, the maverick manager, led Blackpool to the Premier League last season.
Ian Holloway, the maverick manager, led Blackpool to the Premier League last season.

Storm force winds and heavy rain battered the Fylde coast in England's north west this week.

Local media voiced the concerns of residents that the sea defences would not be adequate, but the people of Blackpool and Fleetwood have had something to take their minds off the inclement weather.

The towns' respective football teams, who are used to operating in different worlds, have drawn each other in the FA Cup third round, a highly intriguing tie for two clubs who have enjoyed good fortune in recent years.

When people describe England's FA Cup as the greatest cup competition, they mean romantic ties like this, where giants and minnows, or neighbours come face to face.

Every club in the English football pyramid enters the cup and such is the prize money, even a brief run of success in the qualifying rounds provides a vital financial boost to smaller clubs.

The biggest teams from the top two divisions join at the third-round stage and this year's draw pulled out some fascinating ties: an East London derby between Dagenham & Redbridge and Millwall, a Midlands affair between Birmingham City and Wolverhampton Wanderers, fourth level Macclesfield Town against Premier League Bolton Wanderers and, of course, Manchester City and United.

The Manchester clubs meet at least twice a season, usually more, but Fleetwood and Blackpool, who cross swords on Saturday, have not met since 1980. They have both suffered turbulent times since.

Six years ago, Fleetwood Town, from a depressed port which saw its fishing industry almost collapse in the 1980s, were playing in the 10th tier of English football with average crowds of 200.

Thanks to the money of self-made chairman Andy Pilley, whose company supplies gas and electricity, they have been promoted five times and are now second in the Blue Square Premier, one step below the Football League.

Fleetwood's once ramshackle Highbury home has been completely rebuilt, the latest addition an impressive £4.5 million (Dh25.5m) main stand. Crowds now average 1,600 and Pilley harbours aspirations to take Fleetwood into the Football League.

Following the second-round win over Yeovil, a team who play two leagues higher, Pilley described the draw against Blackpool as "the game of the decades" for his ambitious club.

"Genuinely, hand on heart, we would prefer Blackpool at home to Manchester United, Manchester City, Tottenham, Liverpool, anybody," Pilley said.

Blackpool, eight miles to the south, were hardly the glamorous neighbours. Their halcyon FA Cup-winning days from the 1950s were long gone, their fortunes a metaphor for the decline in their town's position as a tourist destination for northern England's working classes.

Blackpool had fallen well behind Preston North End, the team they consider their true rivals and Bloomfield Road was the last of the 92 Football League grounds to be redeveloped. Even when it was, it remained a mess with only two proper stands six years ago.

In 2007, Blackpool's crowds averaged 6,000 and they played in England's third tier. Under their maverick manager Ian Holloway, an unexpected run to the Premier League followed in 2010 and, despite relegation, Blackpool are serious about their ambition to go back up.

Crowds have doubled and Bloomfield Road now has four stands - all of which will be needed if there is a replay after Saturday's game in Fleetwood.

Fleetwood sold all 5,094 tickets (including 800 to Blackpool fans), but Blackpool's chairman Karl Oyston would not be among the crowd, claiming that Blackpool against "a Conference side isn't wonderful".

It could easily be read as a snub and it also goes against the positive mood generated by the rival managers and the fans too. Some Blackpool fans watch Fleetwood when their team is away and vice versa.

Fleetwood's priority is also promotion and they sit second in the league, with Jamie Vardy, their 24-year-old winger, attracting a number of bigger clubs. Fleetwood's squad hardly fits the archetypal non-league model of part-time postmen or students.

Several of their players earn close to £2,000 a week and all are full-time, a decision Pilley made (and financed) to further their hopes of becoming a Football League club.

"Everyone is talking about the game," said Blackpool's Bojan Djordic.

Beats moaning about the weather.

sports@thenational.ae

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