Dave Challinor says AFC Fylde must end their reliance on top scorer Danny Rowe if last year’s Wembley heartbreak is to be avenged.
Rowe, 29, was named National League player of the year and also won the golden boot after netting 27 goals for the Coasters last term.
But the striker failed to reproduce that form as Fylde lost 3-0 to Salford in the play-off final at Wembley – his 57th game of a gruelling campaign.
Rowe’s importance to the side was underlined a week later when he struck a fine free-kick to down Leyton Orient in the FA Trophy final, but Challinor wants other players to shoulder a share of the responsibility.
Kurt Willoughby, 21, who scored 19 goals for FC United in National League North last season, has arrived for the new season, along with Matty Kosylo, 26, from Halifax.
Ex-Rochdale winger Jordan Wiliams, 26, has also signed on the dotted line as Challinor fine tunes a squad that fell just eight points short of automatic promotion.
“Success is a hard thing to quantify,” says the former Tranmere defender, who has won three promotions in his eight years with the Coasters.
“On the one hand, you could look at last year and say two finals was a success. On the other hand, we could have finished fifth bottom and still achieved the same thing.
“All you can really do is compare year on year. Have you improved? And the one place we were a little bit down was goals. We scored ten less than the previous year, and in a division with such fine margins, that cost us.
“So we’ve tried to add goals right the way through, mainly to ease the burden on Rowey. We still hope he’ll get 25 to 30, but he needs a break at times.
“Over the last five years, he’s played pretty much every game for us. And towards the end of a season, he tends to fall away a bit. That’s understandable – he’s basically playing 50-60 games a season year in, year out.
“If we can ease that a little bit, maybe pull him out of FA Cup and Trophy games and let him get refreshed, it would make a big difference.
“I think Kurt will be a great foil for Rowey and allow us to play two up front. We’ve added Jordan Williams, Kozzy, Mark Yeates from Eastleigh. All three of them should be looking to get double figures.
“Last year, we had a budget that allowed us to have a strong first XI. If injuries came along, or we needed a spark off the bench, we didn’t always have it. Now, we’ve got that in abundance.”
Better yet, Challinor completed the bulk of his business before pre-season and now needs just a handful of players to complete his squad.
“We’re going to Scotland on Monday and we’ve got probably 16 players,” he adds. “Last year, we took ten trialists up there so we’re in miles better shape.
“It relaxes things a little bit and means you can focus on training instead of constantly looking for players.”
Despite last year’s play-off pain, Challinor says he would “absolutely take” a place in the top seven if it was offered at the outset.
Yet bookies have the Coasters pegged at 4-1 for promotion, joint-favourites alongside Notts County and Chesterfield. Rivals, too, are tipping the Lancastrians to challenge for the title. Does Challinor mind the talk of big budgets and big ambitions?
“We’ve always accepted that, right since we were at Step 4,” he shrugs. “The important thing is that everybody around the club knows where we’re at.
“Football is full of rumours, opinions and hearsay. But we know the score. We haven’t stretched ourselves by any means over the last couple of years.
“This is a big division and, budget-wise, we’re nowhere near the top six or seven. With what we have had, we’ve probably overachieved.
“I came here eight years ago to progress as a manager, to try and win. If you succeed in that, a bit of sniping comes with the territory.
“But I wouldn’t have it any other way. I don’t mind people talking about us. It shows how far the club has come. And you have to embrace it because you’d rather be the team everyone is backing for the title than one where everyone is saying ‘They’ll be lucky to stay up’. We make no bones about wanting to be up there.”
As for who else will, Challinor is expecting a tight race to be gatecrashed by a Bromley side strengthened by the eye-catching signings of striker Michael Cheek, from Ebbsfleet, and former Gillingham midfielder Billy Bingham.
After that, he says, much will depend on whether relegated duo Notts County and Yeovil can get their houses in order amid drawn out takeovers, managerial upheaval and wholesale squad changes.
“You’ve no idea really,” admits the 43-year-old. “Almost every club that comes down has some issues and it looks to be the case with those two.
“With what’s going on, literally anything could happen. At the minute, it looks tough. But at the flip of a coin, they could have new owners and everything could turn round again.
“Whatever happens off the field, it’s always a tougher transition than you expect. I don’t think many clubs – if any – have bounced straight back to League Two in recent years.
“It always takes a year to find your feet and work out what’s going on. And teams at this level love going to places like Meadow Lane and trying to take a scalp, which makes things even more difficult.”
For Fylde, meanwhile, the prime objective is to start well – and cut out the slack performances against the division’s bottom dwellers.
“If you look at our results against the bottom eight, we only beat one of them away from home last year,” he says. “That’s not good enough.
“And if you want to be really critical, draws was the other one. We lost the second-fewest number of games in the division, but we drew more than anybody else in the top half.
“On paper, a lot of them looked like good points against decent teams. But too many of those draws came after we’d taken the lead. We didn’t go and get that second goal to really finish teams off. Improve on that and we won’t go far wrong.”