In eight days, Dave Challinor has felt both desolation and delight at Wembley, but FA Trophy final success for his AFC Fylde team yesterday has him heading towards next season with renewed vigour.
The Coasters had made it to the Vanarama National League play-off final before being beaten 3-0 by Salford City last Saturday. While his side will naturally have still been smarting from the defeat, the Lancashire club were victorious this time at Wembley, seeing off National League champions Leyton Orient by a goal to nil.
For Challinor, he believes it was no less than his players deserved after their efforts over the season, leaving him with a feeling in stark contrast to the previous weekend.
“It’s incomparable really. I’ve been here before as a player and lost, and we tried, I suppose, to get across to the players that although it’s a big opportunity and an unbelievable place to play, it is about winners.
“To have the feeling of today, compared to last week, it doesn’t in any way make up for last week, but it certainly makes the summer a bit easier. We deserve to come out of the season with something, and as it is, the group in there have made history in terms of winning the Vase and winning this unbelievable trophy, so the feelings are obviously unreal, and I’m sure over the course of the evening it will sink in a bit more.”
Facing an Orient team who had won the National League by three points, Fylde won the game through a Danny Rowe free-kick on the hour, but not without having to withstand significant attempts on their goal. Former Tranmere Rovers defender Challinor highlighted the significance of taking their golden moment when they did.
“Very similar to probably Solihull away in the play-off semi-final. We knew that they’d come at us.
“We probably scored, in fairness, when they were having their best spell, but first half, we had some opportunities, and we have to take those. It could have been a different game; I suppose when you are in front, you only have to look at the quality that they’ve got on their bench to know that at some point you might come under the cosh.
“We didn’t get our luck in any way shape or form last Saturday, and today’s made up for it. I think when you come to a place like this, as much as you feel confident in your group that they’re going to go and perform on what’s a massive stage, last week it just didn’t happen for us.
“Whether that was the occasion, the magnitude of the game, whatever it might be, it didn’t happen. I could tell from the warm-up today that there was a different feel.
“Last Saturday did us the world of good in the wrong way, in preparation for today.”
Over 42,000 had been in attendance for the Trophy and Vase finals yesterday, with over half coming from Leyton Orient. Last weekend’s play-off final with Salford City had been played before a crowd of 8,049 at Wembley, so there was understandably a different feel all-round to the occasion on Non-League Finals Day.
There was, though, a sense of déjà vu for Challinor and the Fylde supporters when skipper Neill Byrne suffered a collision with Orient’s Josh Coulson just a few minutes in. Although he returned to the action, Byrne was replaced soon after. Fylde had also lost Luke Burke to injury in the first half against Salford last weekend.
With the topic of concussion in football as pertinent as ever, Challinor says it was the right decision to take Byrne off, with emotion needing to be taken out of it.
“I suppose when that happens again, you hope that that doesn’t sort of sum up the day, but in fairness, I think it really galvanised the lads. I thought Jordan Tunnicliffe really stepped up and was unbelievable in the middle of our defence.”
One-time Colwyn Bay boss Challinor is forever associated for many with his part in Tranmere Rovers’ cup runs under John Aldridge, and of course, that famous long throw-in. As a manager, the 43-year-old has established himself as one of the most promising young gaffers around, beneath the burning spotlight of the higher divisions.
The ex-Stockport County and Bury player has led Fylde to three promotions since taking over in 2011, overseeing a rise from the Northern Premier League Division One North. His side have made the play-offs in each of their seasons in the National League, finishing 7th last year and 5th this time around.
This season, they went two rounds further, heartbreakingly denied that place in the EFL at the final hurdle, but Challinor feels they are getting ever closer to having all the pieces together to realise their ambitions.
“It gets tougher every year. We’re in a good position in terms of the players we have under contract, so we have the makings of a really strong squad.
“Our recruitment’s done properly and we’ll try and add to that in the summer, but there wasn’t a massive amount wrong. We knew this year that we had to improve, not to stand still, and next year will be the same.
“We’ve got to be adaptable, get some more quality in when we can and keep hold of our good players, because there’s plenty of them there. It’s not like we need a revolution, it’s about little tweaks, little changes, and really going at the league next year.”
He heads into the close-season break having seen Fylde become the first club to win both the FA Vase (as Kirkham & Wesham in 2008) and Trophy. Yesterday belonged to his team, and with back-to-back National League Player of the Year Danny Rowe sealing the deal with a precise free-kick, Challinor felt it perfectly apt.
“I don’t think there’s any better justification for him than the fact that he’s done it on the biggest stage of all.”