(CHAMPAGNE MOMENT: Fleetwood toast their Conference title success in 2011-12. PICTURE: Action Images)
By Matt Badcock
There can’t be many people who would disagree with the crowning of Jamie Vardy as the best player to grace the Northern Premier League.
At the competition’s recent end of season awards bash, the Leicester City and England striker was unveiled as No.1 on their Top 100 list.
With a stand named after him from his time at Stocksbridge Park Steels and a championship medal with FC Halifax, Vardy left his mark on the NPL before moving to Fleetwood Town.
He was already the most talked about player in Non-League football by then, destined for the Football League, the Premier League according to some and there were even predictions of playing for England.
Even so, not many would have predicted quite how the story would unfold. A Premier League title, playing in the Champions League, scoring for England in the European Championships and, this year, making his debut in a World Cup.
But did he also play in the best team in Conference (National League) history? It was a thought that sprung to mind when speaking to Jamie McGuire this week and a view another former Fleetwood Town midfielder, Lee Fowler, now assistant manager at Nuneaton Borough, gave in a piece on his career for The Football League Paper.
Best in football is nearly always a subjective view. Messi or Ronaldo? It’s a debate that will rage on forever more.
You may have your views on who the best side to take on Non-League’s top flight have been and it would be good to hear any thoughts.
Fleetwood isn’t a bad place to start. But it wasn’t just the box office quality of Vardy that made the Cod Army tick. Ask Messi or Ronaldo if there’s such thing as a one-man team.
McGuire explained the importance of Steve McNulty. The defender is often scoffed at by opposition fans for his bulky build. They’re soon eating their words when he’s the best player on the park. A leader, there’s a story of how he pulled the Fleetwood players into the changing room – pre-Vardy arrival – and laid the law down for the bitching to stop or feel his full force.
His reading of the game is outstanding, he never puts himself in a foot-race and has since gone on to win promotion from the division on two more occasions with Luton Town and, last season, Tranmere Rovers.
Alongside him in defence was Nathan Pond, who went all the way from the North West Counties to League One with the club. With Scott Davies behind them in goal, they had a strong keeper with talent bursting at the seams around the rest of the park.
Shaun Beeley and Junior Brown at full-back, Peter Cavanagh in midfield along with Jamie Milligan as well as the leadership and energy of McGuire. Boss Micky Mellon then added the PlayStation passing of Fowler during the season, took Danny Rose from Newport.
The forward line was a Tour de Force too. Vardy hit 28 goals in all competitions but Andy Mangan was also a menace in the box with 17 in the league, while Magno Vieira chipped in with nine, with Gareth Seddon and Richard Brodie backing up.
Mellon had the chemistry right. The team spirit shone through, pranks were regularly pulled, socks cut and cars wrapped in clingfilm, as they eventually pipped Wrexham at the post – confirmed champions while most of the team were enjoying a day out at the Grand National. Mellon was spending time with family at a caravan park.
They finished on 103 points, not enough to top the division’s all-time point scorers Crawley Town, who clocked up 105 points the season before.
A game between Steve Evans’ title-winning Red Devils and Mellon’s Cod Army would have been quite something.
Not exactly breaking news to say they had heavy investment, Evans made signings like a kid on Football Manager. In all, they used 32 players that season, a long FA Cup run that ended at Manchester United no doubt a contributing factor.
Matt Tubbs was sensational from the off, scoring 40 goals following his arrival from Salisbury City. He worked brilliantly with Craig McAllister up front, the pair are now a management duo at Gosport Borough, and Brodie also hit double figures with Jamie Cook playing his part from the bench.
In midfield was the craft of Sergio Torres, the class of Dannie Bulman and Ben Smith, before Evans reinforced with Josh Simpson and Scott Neilson as well as defender John Dempster.
Money was undoubtedly wasted with some signings but the snaring of England C defender Kyle McFadzean from Alfreton Town was a masterstroke. The now-Burton Albion defender was alongside Pablo Mills, the centre-back pairing flanked by Dean Howells and Glenn Wilson.
Like Fleetwood, it’s fair to say there were some characters in the changing room. Smith’s brilliant book ‘Journeyman’ offers some hilarious, and often graphic, insight into the inner sanctum at the time.
One of the more printable stories in a family newspaper is the spontaneous decision to strip off for the coach journey home from Tamworth after the title had been secured.
Both Crawley and Fleetwood won 31 games in their triumphant campaigns, matching that of Aldershot Town in theirs back in 2007-08. That was some side, too.
Luton Town boast the biggest winning margin, 19 points over Cambridge United, in a season when they had the highest goal difference of +67.
Andre Gray was a star that season with 30 goals next to Paul Benson who knocked in 18 for the manager, John Still, who gave him his big break at Dagenham & Redbridge years earlier.
Champions in 2009-10, Stevenage were another formidable side. They were built on a stingy defence that featured the colossal Mark Roberts, with Jon Ashton, Ronnie Henry and Scott Laird in front of keeper Chris Day. Strikers dreaded a day against that defence.
Midfielder Andy Drury oozed quality, as did Michael Bostwick, and Mitchell Cole added the sprinkling of stardust from out wide. Goals were shared between Charlie Griffin, Yemi Odubade and Chris Beardsley.
Graham Westley’s side might not have been as easy on the eye as Fleetwood, but their relentless work-rate and efficiency struck fear into the opposition.
And this is before writing about other top champions like Yeovil, Chester, Carlisle, Barnet – maybe we need a Top 100!
*This article originally featured in The @NonLeaguePaper which is available every Sunday and Monday
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