The perfect script for an English derby rarely varies. An atmosphere thick with hatred engulfs the crowd as the players contest a full-blooded war, desperate to get one over the old enemy. The very thought of failing to claim the bragging rights is unfathomable.
On the surface, Squires Gate versus AFC Blackpool looks to follow that script. Both clubs compete in the 22-team North West Counties Premier Division, eight tiers below the Premier League. The grounds are situated less than 500 yards apart, nestled behind rows of houses on either side of the same road.
And the two are currently locked in a fight against relegation to the First Division, a drop which could have disastrous consequences for both.
But Squires Gate and AFC Blackpool have flipped the script. Rather than a rivalry, the friendship between the two clubs is so strong they actually share their fans with each other, so connected that a stalemate was seen as the ideal outcome from their Easter Monday clash.
“Three teams go down. We are chasing Silsden, Alsager Town and Darwen – and Squires Gate just above them – with three or four games in hand over them. Obviously we don’t want Gate to get relegated either, so the ideal scenario is that it’s those other three that face the drop,” says Billy Singleton, former player for both clubs and current secretary at AFC Blackpool, a role he has held for 30 years.
Although at first glance the name suggests they are a recently-formed phoenix club, an alternative to the Football League side which takes the name of the town, AFC Blackpool have been established since 1947.
“We used to be known as Blackpool Mechanics,” Singleton explained. “It was deemed to be an old-fashioned name, and so in 2008 it was changed to AFC Blackpool, a name more fitting with the modern era – although we are still known as the Mechs.
“We had to ask Blackpool’s permission to change it, which they gave. They have been very supportive of us.”
That support doesn’t just come from the club itself; Blackpool’s non-league neighbours have inadvertently benefited from the ongoing unrest between the Tangerines’ owners and fans.
“On the odd occasion – not often – their fans will turn up and watch a game of ours,” said Singleton. “The crowd for these games can be over 500 people, when we usually get between 50 and 100 fans.”
Some stick around for good. Mark Ashmore, head of communications and media at Squires Gate, is one of them.
“I came down to Squires Gate one day when I couldn’t get to an away game and found I really enjoyed it,” he said. “I didn’t buy another season ticket at Blackpool and started coming here regularly instead; I’ve now been here for three years.
“I won’t go too deeply into the issues at the club, but it definitely influenced my decision, and there’s a few of us here who felt the same.”
However, this added backing hasn’t had a long-standing effect on either club.
His ten-year tenure encompasses many changes, but Squires Gate chairman Stuart Hopwood notes the one that stands out the most is the willingness of others to help out financially.
“Funding is the biggest challenge faced by football clubs at grassroots level,” he said.
“I’m in business, and I can go and see clients and friends about the club. Ten years ago, most would give you £1,000. Now, you’re lucky if you get £100. A lot of them, when they see you coming, turn and run in the opposite direction.
“None of us get paid. I’m the chairman, and I don’t get paid. If you had people that would want paying, then I don’t think the club would exist.”
Those who are involved do it for the love of the the game and the club; nothing more, nothing less. “I used to play for Squires Gate many moons ago and in some ways it’s like I’m now putting back into Squires Gate,” notes Hopwood.
Epitomising this affiliation between the community and the club is Brian Addison, the very definition of the word ‘stalwart.’ He’s been a part of Squires Gate since 1958 in various capacities: as a player, manager, chairman, and now head groundsman.
“I’ve carried on the work of the people who were here before me; they did it for me, so I’m doing it for the lads,” he said.
“There are a few of us who look after the pitch. We are all retired, so we come to the club three days a week to prepare the playing area for the weekend’s game and take care of any little jobs that need doing.”
“The loyalty of people like Brian goes a long way with me and I’m happy to stay because those kind of people are here to help,” adds Hopwood.
“We all muck in and do what we have to do to keep the club afloat.”
You don’t have to look too hard to spot the ways in which the club sustains itself. Enter the clubhouse and you notice, unusually, that it is laid out as if it were a classroom. There are numerous sets of tables and chairs, arranged in front of a half-covered display of coloured card and a television on the back wall. Pictures of players on the walls are complemented by scrawled handwritten labels.
“When I first came here, the clubhouse was in a poor state; I knew that we had funds in the bank, so I went away and designed something which we could then let out to a pre-school to generate money,” explained Hopwood.
“We had to design it in such a way that it was a joint unit – one part for us for football and the other for them.”
Attracting newcomers remains an ongoing issue at clubs such as these, particularly with so many neighbours to contend with. Blackpool Wren Rovers of the West Lancashire Premier Division are situated even closer to Squires Gate; so much so that both clubs actually share the same fence on one side of the ground.
“You have three good quality teams trying to draw spectators, but when one team is playing away, the fans will go and watch the team at home,” Hopwood says. “It’s always the same people and they’re all of a certain age. This year, three people who used to come and watch us have passed away, and they haven’t been replaced.
“We’re lucky if we get an average of about 55 to 65 people, which really isn’t enough and means we can’t rely on the gate money. You need at least 100 to 150 coming to every home game just to break even.”said Hopwood.
Ashmore believes the perception of non-league football remains a problem. “People still think it’s just drunk men who’ve been out the night before, playing dirty football, fouling each other, hoofing it up, and it’s not. The players try and play football and try and enjoy themselves.
“You’d think a local derby would be of interest, but over the last couple of years we’ve only got a crowd of 150, max. It’s disappointing that more people don’t try it. I’m not saying come down and get a season ticket – just come to one game and give it a chance, like I did.”
Despite the forewarnings from both Addison and Ashmore regarding the quality of a derby neither side want to lose, the encounter was an entertaining one for the 165 supporters in attendance.
Naturally, all derbies summon a degree of hostility, but here it remains on the pitch; screaming arguments about whether a lunging tackle was one- or two-footed, kicking a support post on the edge of the pitch in frustration.
The only goal of the game saw Richard Sear send a looping header into the back of the net from a delightfully chipped cross by Mark Thornber. With Gate reduced to 10 men shortly before the end of the first half, there proved to be no route back for them.
The bar at the end of the room commands a long queue at half-time and it’s Hopwood himself, alongside his daughter, who staffs it. After everyone filters outside for the beginning of the second half, with Gate trailing 1-0, two men remain, peering out at the action through a window.
“Any better, Spence?” came the question from the back of the room.
The recipient, without dropping his gaze from the window, answered with a solemn shake of the head.
Everyone knows each other and it’s easy to tell the attendees are regular match-goers. They have their own routines, like the family who lay out a huge selection of matchday snacks on part of the stand as a makeshift table, or those two men who stay inside the clubhouse.
A certain ‘Jamie Vardy effect’ permeates conversations,an unsurprisingly popular topic not least because of his association with Fylde Coast neighbours Fleetwood Town on his path to top-flight prominence. Having previously played for Stocksbridge Park Steels, currently a step above the North West Counties Premier Division, Vardy is an inspiration to supporters and players at these clubs, hoping they’ll either be watching or becoming the next one to rise.
But clubs like these can’t pay their players a wage, making it incredibly difficult to hold onto those that do have potential.
“We’ve had two players join Football League clubs recently – Jack Sowerby went to Fleetwood in 2014, and Josh Kay joined Barnsley in February, having come through AFC Fylde’s youth system,” said Hopwood.
“But you don’t see anything. You can’t afford to sign them on a contract because if they got injured, you’d still have to pay them. You may as well be putting the shutters up on the door.
“They can take anybody they like and it hurts. Just as you’re about to get a decent squad together, all of a sudden it gets broken up because two or three players get whisked away and the manager has to start all over again.”
“The FA should notice this and start saying that we need grassroots football, that it’s important, because that is the foundation for these players to progress and move on.
So what exactly are the ambitions of clubs who fight for every penny just to keep going and frequently face the dismantling of their squad? One word: consolidation.
“It would be nice to progress to the next level, the Evo Stik Division One North, but again that costs you more money, because you end up with more travelling and you aren’t going to get players coming here for what I would call expenses,” said Hopwood. “There are clubs who have stepped up and subsequently folded. In some cases it’s a step too far.
“If we can sustain where we are now, and avoid getting relegated, I would be really happy with that. If we were to progress, it would have to be without it costing us a great deal more money, because it would be me that has to find that money.
“Getting to the next league would be a feather in our caps, but I wouldn’t want to go up then come straight back down again.”
The neighbours are of a similar opinion. “I think the next league up is beyond us, and I think it is beyond Squires Gate as well,” said Singleton. “I can’t see that changing, unless a major sponsor or someone with plenty of money comes to take over the club and push us on.
“But that’s never come in my lifetime.”
For Squires Gate and AFC Blackpool, their annual meetings are the only guaranteed game in which they break even from the gate receipts, rather than simply the local derby circled on the calendar. Neither club can afford to lose the other from the fixture list; that’s one script which can’t be written as easily.