By Alex Narey
Think the FA Trophy is a distraction for clubs with aspirations and their eyes on promotion? Just try telling Dave Challinor that.
The AFC Fylde boss believes a date at Wembley would bookend another wonderful season for the northwest club, and while the number one priority is making a push to take their place in the Football League next term, The Coasters’ chief says the cup run to the semi-finals hasn’t put his side off their stride.
Before seeing off Barnet on penalties two weeks ago, Fylde had enjoyed – or perhaps endured – one of the more colourful paths in Non-League’s premier cup competition this year, beating Ramsbottom United 4-1 after being taken to a replay in a pulsating 5-5 draw, while having to overcome a spirited Biggleswade Town in January’s second round clash.
Such opportunities for a giant-killing act would have threatened to derail most sides, but Fylde have built an inner resolve, drawing on inspiration from their league form as they eye a date under the famous Wembley Arch.
“I am not sure it ever becomes much of a distraction,” admits Challinor.
“In our dressing room it has not really been spoken about, and I would imagine that has been the case with the other three clubs. We have played an awful lot of games to get this far in both the league and the cup. But to lose your focus and potentially not finish the season strongly would be criminal.”
Fylde have been promotion contenders all season in the National League, with the club’s remit to reach the promised land of the EFL by 2022. For many, they remain a side that goes somewhat under the radar as the likes of Salford City, Leyton Orient and Wrexham slug it out for table-topping superiority. But Challinor has the belief his boys can go better than their play-off exit last season at the hands of Boreham Wood in the first eliminator.
“Let’s be very clear, the Trophy is hugely important to us and we desperately want to get to Wembley and win it, but I would be lying if I sat here and said it was our main focus. We are focused on winning it, but our main objective is to win promotion.
“The players are good enough to be successful in both, which is why there is no real distraction.
“It helps with the semi-finals that we don’t have a league game in between – which means we can fully concentrate on the cup before getting back into focus for the last nine league games of the season.
“The plan was to get into the League by 2022 and some people would say we are ahead of schedule.
“But this division is incredibly tough to get out of, and I am just so proud of the players, not just the guys who have been involved this season but all the players who have been involved in our journey over the last few years.”
Meanwhile, the semi-final tussle with Stockport County has the bean-counters eyeing a potential windfall with a large attendance expected over the two games, and despite the one-division gap between the two sides, Challinor is expecting a brutal test over the 180 minutes.
“When you get to the last four of any competition you are not expecting to have an easy game.
“Stockport are a former Football League club who pull in big crowds. Some of the attendances have been a little low in the Trophy for what some clubs would have hoped, but now we are at the semi-final stage you would expect there to be some really big numbers coming through the gates.”
“We are used to playing in big games now. All our games will be high-pressure from now until the end of the season.
“As a football person, you want to be involved in the big-pressure games where you are challenged mentally and physically.
“We are just two games away from Wembley now; these are amazing games to be involved with this club!”
Stockport County boss Jim Gannon wants his players to live out the dreams of every footballer by playing on the hallowed turf of Wembley – an experience he enjoyed four times as a player with an appearance as a manager already in the locker.
“It doesn’t matter what level of the game you play, there is something very special about playing at Wembley,” said Gannon.
“I know what it feels like, but I want the players to feel those emotions.
“For this group it would be an incredible reward for all the work, and an incredible memory for them all if we could get to Wembley in May.”
The Hatters have pieced together a phenomenal run in the National League North since their last defeat on November 20 – a 3-2 loss on the road at Blyth Spartans – picking up 13 wins from their last sixteen games with only Chester, Guiseley and Alfreton Town preventing them from taking maximum points. It is a run that had catapulted Gannon’s men to the summit of the league table before yesterday’s encounter with Brackley Town.
And Gannon believes the pressure his players have been put under in the Trophy has served only to whet their appetite for success in the league.
“We have had it tough in the FA Trophy; having to overcome the likes of Harrogate and Altrincham on the road.
“You just take one game at a time where you are preparing your players for the challenge ahead, and get the right tactics across, almost using that game as the principle for how you play in the league, and then game by game you get closer.”
But Gannon knows the size of the task for his side will be even tougher with his Hatters defence having to marshal Non-League football’s hottest marksman in Danny Rowe.
“I had Danny here at Stockport on loan,” said Gannon.
“He scored ten goals to help us stay up in the National League. His progress has not surprised me.
“Fylde are a good side; I have a lot of time for ‘Chally’ and all his assistants.They are a club heading in the right direction, and they have the players who can hurt you so we know we have to turn up and give it everything.”