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Fleetwood was left only its legendary fishing industry, but that too was about to crumble.

The Cod Wars between Britain and Iceland deprived an entire town of its livelihood. The last deep-sea trawler left Fleetwood harbour in 1982.

Since then, the town has suffered from a crisis of identity, as well as a crisis of virtually everything else.

Various abortive plans to rejuvenate the seafront have come to naught; the town’s population is declining as the young folk migrate to Blackpool or climes further south.

It is on to this inauspicious part of the world that the magic dust of the FA Cup is about to be sprinkled on Saturday.

The 104-year history of Fleetwood Town has largely mirrored that of its surroundings: a few good days, but many more bad. The club have folded twice and changed their name three times.

But since reforming in 1997, their rise has been nothing short of astonishing. Five promotions in 11 years have enabled them to ascend to second place in the Conference, on the brink of the Football League.

This afternoon, though, brings the biggest day in its history. After putting out two League One sides in Wycombe and Yeovil, Fleetwood find themselves in the third round of the FA Cup for the first time. Their opponents? Blackpool. The team nicknamed the Trawlermen have landed their biggest catch ever.

“They couldn’t have picked a better ball out of that hat,” says manager Micky Mellon, himself a former Blackpool player. “I couldn’t believe it when I saw it coming out. It’s just the perfect draw for us. This is it.”

To describe Fleetwood and Blackpool as rivals obscures more than it reveals.

The pair have not played each other for more than three decades, for a start, given the huge gulf from the Conference to what was last season the Premier League for Blackpool.

Moreover, there has been a great deal of cross-pollination between the two clubs.

Many Blackpool fans watch Fleetwood on days when their team are playing away. A number of players and staff at Fleetwood have Blackpool connections.

Groundsman Dale Frith tells me of his grandfather, a former Blackpool player who used to travel to games with Stanley Matthews. Even chairman Andy Pilley is a Blackpool fan.

When Nathan Pond joined Fleetwood in 2004, the club were in the North West Counties Football League, the ninth tier of English football. He is the club’s longest-serving player.

“When I joined the club, I was 17 or 18,” he said. “We had to win five games to get into the first round of the FA Cup. This is a dream come true.

“Since the draw was made, there’s been a buzz about the club. We’ve met once before, and it had to get transferred to Bloomfield Road.

“Now we get to play them at our place. I don’t think Fleetwood and Blackpool fans get on with each other, so it should be a good game.” The club retain the friendly openness of a small team but their ambition is very much that of a big club.

Step out of the howling gale and into Highbury’s hospitality section and the transformation becomes apparent. The pristine executive suites and modern design would not disgrace a Championship team.

All four sides of the ground have been completely rebuilt in the last few years, with current capacity more than 5,000. The pitch, fittingly for a side who like to play cultured, passing football, is magnificent.

The club’s rise can be traced back to local businessman Pilley, who has invested huge sums in turning Fleetwood into a potential Football League team.

They went full time in 2010, and fuelled by a significant transfer budget and an extensive backroom staff, they have achieved promotion after promotion.

The easiest comparison to draw is with Crawley Town, another club who have been bankrolled from obscurity into the Football League.

But for some reason, Fleetwood mission’s feels different. Success has been sought not only for their own sake, but for the people they represent, a town that has suffered such abject hardships over the last few decades.

“We always said, me and the chairman, that we wanted to give them the gift of a Football League club,” Mellon says.

“They’re great people, very passionate about their town, a very proud group.” It is a mentality that has filtered through to the team.

“We’re the end of the road, really, aren’t we?” Pond says. “If Blackpool come to Highbury expecting to walk over us, they’ll get a big surprise. We don’t lie down for nobody.” One way in, one way out? When you’re at the end of the road, the only way to go is upwards.


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