THE BIG INTERVIEW
Ambitious Dai Davis had a couple of simple questions to ask when he accepted the role of chairman of his hometown football club Kirkham and Wesham in 1993.
Did the amateur club want to remain unremarkable? Or did it want to put itself on the footballing map?
Becoming one of the best amateur clubs in the area was certainly a vision Davis, who is a successful businessman, had from the very beginning of his tenure.
But even he has raised an eyebrow or two at the progress, both on and off the pitch, the club has made since those early days.
Now called AFC Fylde after the club changed its name in 2009, it is fair to say the goalposts have moved both in the literal and metaphorical sense as far as the club is concerned.
The team is just three steps away from the Football League, having won promotion from the Northern Premier League First Division North as champions last season.
Off the pitch, the club moved off council-owned land in 2006 to its own stadium at Kellamergh Park in Warton.
Indeed there are plans to move to a new community-purpose facility just down the road in Wrea Green, although that plan received a setback when it was rejected by Fylde Council’s development management committee in April.
But it’s all a far cry from the days when Davis first took control of the club 20 or so years ago.
Davis said: “When I took over I said, ‘Do we want to have a good football team or do we want to be Dog Rubbish United?’ – did we want to be like everybody else and just be a run of the mill club?
“When you are at a club meeting, everybody always says, ‘We want the best team’, but whether you can achieve that is another matter.
“Fortunately for us, we have progressed since then and progressed quite well.”
Davis, who co-founded The Henhouse Poultry Wholesalers business in Preston, was certainly the driving force behind the club becoming, arguably, the best amateur team in Lancashire.
With his financial clout and the considerable footballing know-how of long-serving manager Mick Fuller, the club won the West Lancashire League Premier Division title on seven occasions, including four times in succession in the mid-2000s.
But it wasn’t until millionaire businessman David Haythornthwaite, who made his fortune in the animal feed business, that the club began to make it’s mark on a national scale.
Persuaded by close friend Davis to join the set-up, Haythornthwaite helped the club achieve Wembley glory when it won the prestigious FA Vase in 2008.
Two goals from local lad Matt Walwyn handed Kirkham and Wesham – as they were still then called – a 2-1 victory over Lowestoft Town during their first season at North West Counties League level.
It has been success all the way for the club since.
The long-term goal is to become a Football League club by 2022 and Davis admits he will be disappointed if that target is not achieved.
“It’s 2012 now, that gives us around three years in every division before we get there,” he said.
“I’d like to think the ambition is there for us to do it.
“We will put in place what we can do to make it happen.
“We are not trying to have impossible ambition that can’t be financed later on. We are trying to be methodical and making sure the finances are in place.
“We work to our budget – it’s got to be sustainable.
“The plan is 2022 to be in the Football League, but there are a lot of things we have in place which we have to go through first.
“We have a five-year planning card and we work to that and, hopefully, we will achieve that.”
Davis admits one of the biggest factors in the club’s recent success is the involvement of Haythornthwaite, who, at the start of last season, took over as chairman with Davis becoming president. Haythornthwaite, has, in the past, tried to take control of Blackpool, but his focus now is entirely on Fylde.
Davis added: “I think one of the big factors – well the main factor – in our recent success is when I asked David Haythornthwaite to become involved.
“I remember he did not give me an instant decision when I asked him because it’s well-documented that David is a very big Blackpool fan and he has, on two occasions in the past, put a consortium together to try to purchase Blackpool.
“That was his ambition – to take Blackpool over from the Oystons.
“That has not happened and probably won’t happen now.
“David is one of my best friends – we go back a long way.
“I was in a fortunate position about five years ago to be able to ask him if he fancied coming along and getting involved.
“He is a great marketing man. His strategy and foresight is on a different level to most people. Where he is very influential, on the back of his business success, is that we have put the football club in among his business so that the administration and everything else that goes on is run like a proper business.
“We are really well run and when you are run like this, it means we know where our money is going – even right down to the last penny.
“We have things in place to make sure that the money goes where it’s supposed to go.
“That’s crucial, especially when you look at the problems Chorley had last season.”
The decision to change the name to AFC Fylde from Kirkham and Wesham was a decision the pair took to broaden the club’s appeal.
Davis, who used to play for the club when it was known as Kirkham Town in the 1960s and 70s, said: “We changed the name because we felt we needed to broaden the fan base.
“We felt the name change name was necessary because the club now encompasses Lytham and St Annes, all the surrounding villages, as well Kirkham and Wesham.
“It was very hard for some of the locals to support the change of name.
“Some of them will always refer to it as Kirkham and Wesham.
“But I think we are getting there in terms of increasing our fan base.
“One of the things we do is doing a lot of work in the community – going out to schools, doing coaching sessions and things like that.
“We offer free tickets to the children to come to games.
“So one of the aims is, year on year, to improve our fan base by 25%.
“The average gate is going up year by year so it was right to change the name. If we wanted to progress, it was a fundamental decision.
“I suppose we are limited in terms of support.
“But if you have got some ambition – and we’re trying to get into the Football League – the point is if you’re playing the right football and the right opposition, we will bring fans with us.
“I think we have got as good a chance as getting the same kind of crowds as Fleetwood.”
Both Davis and Haythornthwaite were forced into making another big decision last season when they decided to replace manager Kelham O’Hanlon with former Tranmere Rovers stalwart Dave Challinor.
The club had endured a mediocre start to the season and were in danger of slipping out of promotion contention.
O’Hanlon fell on his sword and Challinor, who had won back-to-back promotions with Colwyn Bay, was quickly installed in the hotseat. Given the brief to win promotion, Challinor’s task was made even harder by the magnificent start made by Curzon Ashton, who appeared to be running away with the title.
However, in an amazing turnaround, Fylde went on a terrific run to pip the men from Ashton-under-Lyne to the title.
Davis added: “We were very surprised with the calibre of people who were interested in the position of manager.
“It makes you realise how high the club’s profile is when we have a manager who was managing a team two divisions higher, and he was willing to be interviewed for our job.
“The point being is the reason he was interested was because his ambitions matched ours.
“We had a shortlist of four and to be honest, if we had picked any one of them, they would probably have been okay.
“Dave Challinor stood out though and we were unanimous in choosing him.
“We would love the manager to take us to where we want to be.
“Our thoughts are that Challinor will go a lot higher and manage at a very high level.
“I will be very surprised if he doesn’t. He’s new to the job but you can just see he’s going to go far.”
While Davis had every confidence in Challinor, he admits he was surprised that the club managed to overhaul Curzon and claim the title last season.
Said Davis: “His brief was to win promotion – that was Kelham’s brief too.
“Kelham had taken us to the play-off final the year before and we won the Lancashire Trophy at Bolton Wanderers, but it got to the stage last season where we were thinking we might get in the play-offs, but we might not.
“There is always going to be pressure on a manager because he’s given his brief and his budget.
“When we made the change, we could have ended up with egg on our faces, but it turned out to be the right decision.
“We did not think we would win it when we appointed Dave because we were so far behind.
“I remember we had a particularly hard couple of months in November and December when Dave first came in.
“We had to play Curzon Ashton twice and I think we also had to play Witton Albion, who ended up finishing third.
“We played Curzon and lost 2-1 – I think it was Dave’s second or third game in charge.
“That was a bit of a disaster. After that we were thinking, ‘Well it looks like it’s play-offs at best’. Then we lost 2-1 to Witton, but after that we went on a great run.
“In among that we played Curzon again at home and we were 1-0 down with just a few minutes to go.
“We equalised just about inside normal time and then our winner must have come right at the end of injury-time.
“I think before that game we were something like 17 points behind Curzon but we had a game in hand. They slipped up and we went on a remarkable run.
“I think our last 30 games, we won something like 26 of them and drew two and that is what won us the league title.”
As far as the immediate future is concerned, Fylde will be happy with consolidation next season, although they have noted the success neighbours Chorley have had last season, in their first season back in the Premier Division, with interest.
Off the pitch, the club still plans to press ahead with their new stadium plans whether that will be in Wrea Green or elsewhere. Davis added: “When I first began playing in 1965 for Kirkham Town, there was no football facility in the area.
“All these years later there hasn’t been much progress in that regard.
“We have had this knock-back at Wrea Green, which I find crazy.
“But if it doesn’t happen at Wrea Green, it will happen somewhere else because we have pinpointed one or two other places, if we can’t do it there.”