“Stop us if you can,” screamed a large banner at the back of a stand at Mill Farm, home of Fylde and one of the last places in England where it was possible to watch a game of football on Saturday. It would have formed a feisty response to the Covid-19 virus that has caused the shutdown of the four professional divisions above the National League, though in fact it related to Fylde’s well-documented ambition to be members of the Football League’s ranks by the year 2022.
In previous seasons the rallying cry has not looked out of place. Fylde have been consistently in the running for promotion and only last season lost out to Salford City in a Wembley play-off final. This season has been a different story. Jim Bentley has replaced Dave Challinor as manager, several new players are still being bedded in, and even after beating Aldershot at the weekend the Coasters are still second bottom in the table. While Bentley is encouraged by two wins on the trot after reaching March without beating anyone in the league since November, there is no denying Fylde are currently closer to National League North than the Valhalla of League Two, and if the season ends in relegation the self-imposed deadline of 2022 will look more unlikely than ever.
But then again, the season might not end in relegation. For all anyone knows the season might not even end. “As things stand,” the stadium announcer intoned gravely at half-time as spectators on the terraces shook their heads and smiled at each other, “the next home game will be against Maidenhead on March 24th. Suddenly that seems a long way off. Government advice may change.”
Government advice is already changing to the extent of an expected ban on mass gatherings of more than 500, which would account for Fylde, even though their stadium is so Lilliputian in scale that two balls had disappeared over the stands and into the Lancashire countryside before the Aldershot game was 10 minutes old.
The attendance of 1,668 was slightly higher than usual, boosted by a few Sunderland fans who had booked a weekend in Blackpool in advance of a postponement and some Plymouth Argyle followers who had done the same around a fixture at Morecambe, but there was no sign of a significant influx of floating voters desperate for a weekend fix from any of the footballing communities around Kirkham. There are plenty of football strongholds around Kirkham too. Well-served by motorways, Mill Farm is a short hop from Blackpool, Preston and Blackburn, and in easy reach of almost anywhere in the Merseyside and Manchester conurbations.
The same cannot be said of National League form team Barrow, staging a convincing campaign to regain Football League status from what Mike Harding once described as the world’s biggest cul-de-sac, though anyone who fancied a long drive to take a look at the league leaders on Saturday would have been disappointed. Rather ominously their game against Wrexham was one of several in the division called off a few hours before kick-off due to players reporting symptoms of coronavirus. For that reason alone it is hard to see National League games escaping the fate of the rest of professional football, and among the crowd on Saturday there was a strong feeling that this was merely a stay of execution rather than any sort of business as usual.
Aldershot supporter Guy Owen was at the game with his sons, Harvey and Joe. “We are based in Lancashire so we didn’t have to come far,” he said. “But we got the idea this might be the last chance to see Aldershot for a while so we thought we had better take it.” Christel Aspinall, Fylde supporter and seller of raffle tickets outside the main stand, was equally pessimistic. “It would be just our luck if the season had to stop just when we are turning a corner,” she said.
“We’ve not had much to cheer about in the last few months, just about everything has gone wrong that could have gone wrong, now this comes along just when we have started to pick up a few points. When you see what’s happening on the news though, it’s not really football that matters is it?” Absolutely no one believes the position of football teams relative to each other in the table is of any consequence when set against the real world emergency currently facing the country, yet even pre-apocalyptic football retains the capacity to grip and become its own centre of attention. Early in the second half, with Fylde leading through Danny Philliskirk’s first half goal that would eventually prove the winner, the home bench became visibly annoyed at the game continuing while Luke Burke lay injured in the middle of the pitch.
The referee Andrew Kitchen had several opportunities to stop the game, but didn’t, and Aldershot had several opportunities to put the ball out of play but chose instead to keep recirculating possession. Tempers inevitably boiled over when the two adjacent dugouts rose to their feet in a scrum of shoving and swearing, and though no punches were exchanged – there was obviously no time for anyone to wash their hands – Aldershot manager Danny Searle and Fylde goalkeeping coach Lee Jones ended up with a yellow card apiece for literally going head to head.
They probably felt quite silly afterwards, especially so if the fixtures are about to dry up. Burke’s injury did not turn out to be serious and by the end of the game all animosity between benches was forgotten. Indeed, Bentley was already considering the next challenge. Meaning Sutton United away on Tuesday, not Covid-19. “It’s important not to look too far ahead when preparing for games,” the Fylde manager said. Never was a truer word spoken.