Farsley Celtic manager Adam Lakeland admits his side will be underdogs in National League North – but reckons they can still take a bite out of their rivals.
The Celt Army stormed to Northern Premier League Premier Division success last term, wrapping up the title with a 2-0 win against Marine on the final day of the campaign.
But they are now about to embark on an altogether different test – taking on a host of big beasts in Non-League’s second tier. Facing the likes of Chester, Darlington, Gateshead, Hereford, Kidderminster and York is an appetising prospect and shows the west Yorkshire club have rediscovered their mojo.
The original club folded in 2010, but the new version, originally Farsley AFC, started again at Step 5 in the Northern Counties East League.
Three promotions, including one in their maiden season, have seen the Leeds-based outfit march up the divisions, bringing back memories of their days in Non-League’s top-flight a little over a decade ago.
Lakeland, who took the reins just over two years ago and guided Celtic to the play-offs in his first season, said: “From our perspective as a management team and group of players, I think it will be a season we relish. Whenever we faced big teams last season, like Alfreton (Farsley won 2-0) and Telford (Farsley lost 4-3) in the Trophy, I felt my players thrived on the environment and occasion.
“It will be a real challenge going to better grounds and pitches, coming up against clubs with big fan bases and experienced managers and players. We want to enjoy it – but you only enjoy it if you are winning games.
“It’s going to be tough – there will be weeks when we lose but others when we cause an upset. We will be the underdogs against some really big clubs in that league, but to have earned the right to play against them is excellent.
“We will give it everything, as we have always done.”
Former Northwich Victoria boss Lakeland is coy about revealing Farsley’s aims, but you get the feeling the play-offs could be in the back of his mind.
“We set targets internally – they are realistic, but you have to be ambitious, too,” said the 34-year-old. “It’s a risky business to say you just want to survive. It can become an acceptance from the off that you are happy to lose a certain number of games.
“Yes, the first objective has to be to stay in the division, that’s the bare minimum, but I also think it’s worth looking at last season – it was wide open.
“Up to seventh place is up for grabs for the play-offs and the number of points separating clubs from relegation to the play-offs last season wasn’t that great. Momentum can have a great bearing.
“We are realistic in what we think we can achieve, but we aren’t going out to make the numbers up. We have gone up a division, but Altrincham reached the (National League North) play-offs last season after winning the title the season before. Why can’t we emulate their achievements?”
It helps if you can keep most of your squad together and Lakeland has done that. He has also added goalkeeper Elliot Wynne, 21, (Altrincham), defender Jordan Richards, 26, (Southport) and midfielder Tyler Walton (Frickley) to The Citadel ranks.
“I wouldn’t say I’m actively looking for more players,” he said. “I’m really pleased with the group we had last season. A lot have played National League North before and we have a great team spirit.
“We have had a couple of years together now and the majority have played over 100 games. That familiarity and continuity is really important – I know what I’m going to get from this group of players. There’s great trust there.
“I’m confident the three lads I’ve signed so far will give us a reasonable platform and we’ll see where we need to strengthen as the season goes on.
“Elliot will give us excellent competition with Kyle Trenerry, while Tyler is an excellent young local product. He’s been at York previously and filtered through the system. He gives us something different in midfield and he’s already shown what a good player he is in pre-season.
“We lost Lewis Turner to a ruptured patella tendon last season and he’s going to be out for a long time – he was the best right-back in the NPL last season. To lose him was a real blow, but we managed to fill the void until the end of the season.
“I felt it was important we got someone in who had played in National League North as a full-back or wing-back. I thought about Jordan a while ago, but he played 50-odd games for Southport and I didn’t think he would be available. It was really important to try and get him on board.”
The new season is now rapidly approaching and memories of last term are fading, but it’s natural Lakeland should look back on their title glory with real fondness.
“It did take a while to sink in,” he admitted. “It wasn’t just winning the title, it was winning it against some of the other clubs we were up against – those clubs like South Shields, Warrington, Scarborough and Gainsborough. They were all going to be up there.
“The first season we put together a really good group and got into the play-offs – that was probably an over-achievement.
“I knew that if we could add three or four to make us a bit stronger we could have a good go last season.
“We had a really good run of form around the Christmas period and then managed to sustain it. It was a great achievement.
“When I joined, my goal was to get the club into National League North and we’ve managed to achieve that in a couple of seasons.
“I’m really pleased for the people who have been at the club for a long time, when the club was in the National League.
“It’s great for them to be back at those levels and I’m grateful they can enjoy the experience we are going to have this season.
“There’s a lot of work going on at the club at present, improving the infrastructure and facilities. It’s not all about what we do on the pitch.
“That said, the performances and results will hopefully have a good bearing on the community and bring in more people through the gates.
“It’s important that when they come they have the best experience possible and improving the facilities is an important part in any club’s evolution.”
Winning the NPL Premier was, of course, a feather in the cap for Lakeland, who has bags of experience for someone in his mid-30s.
A youth team player at Accrington Stanley, he soon decided that coaching was where he could make real progress. He began at 16, started managing at 21 and earned his UEFA A Licence at just 26.
He bossed Blackburn Rovers Ladies when he was 21 and is now stepping up the ladder in men’s football.
“I stopped playing at about 18 to pursue a career in coaching,” he said.
“I’ve always enjoyed it. I’ve coached men, women and children, and I think I have a good understanding of all levels of the game.
“I also own my own business, doing sports coaching at primary schools and nurseries. I enjoy my job at Farsley and I want to manage as high as I can.”
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By John Lyons