DERBY hostility is nothing new to Steven Pressley. Saturday promises to be a unique experience for the former Hearts captain, though.
He and his Fleetwood Town squad make the six-mile journey to neighbours Blackpool for the first time ever on league duty. A raucous welcome awaits at Bloomfield Road for a club very much seen as the young upstarts in Lancashire.
Pressley played in Edinburgh derbies and on both sides of the football divide in Glasgow, yet nothing can prepare him for this. The only meeting in history between Fleetwood and Blackpool took place in the 2012 FA Cup, with Blackpool running out 5-1 winners. Having been in the North West Counties League – the tenth tier of English football – as recently as 18 years ago, Fleetwood’s relentless ambition has taken them to League One and a local derby many thought would never happen.
Pressley is honoured to be involved and, perhaps typically, plans to revel in the intensity. The pressures are no different whether you are captaining Hearts against Hibs, playing as an ex-Rangers player for Celtic in a Glasgow derby, or managing Fleetwood in one of the biggest games in their history. Known as the Cod Army, they head to Bloomfield Road as favourites, sitting 17th in the table compared to their hosts’ precarious 23rd place [second bottom].
In fact, Blackpool’s lowly status adds extra spice to Saturday’s match. Their fans are again expected to protest against chairman Karl Oyston as the fall from Premier League to League One relegation zone in five years continues to grate.
“Because of the uncertainty surrounding Blackpool as a club right now, it will make for an interesting derby day,” says Pressley. “There are rumours of protests and various different decisions the Blackpool supporters will make. We can only focus on ourselves.
“A lot of people have asked me the difference between the Edinburgh derby, the Glasgow one and this one. The fact is, in terms of profile and media coverage, there’s no doubt the other two derbies are significantly great. In terms of what it means to our supporters, nothing’s different. They all want the same thing: To win, to get the bragging rights, to go into work on Monday with a smile on their faces. So, the pressure remains the same for us.
“It’s a great story because at one stage there were almost ten divisions between the two clubs. Since our chairman [local businessman Andy Pilley] took over, he’s made significant progress. Now we find ourselves in the same league as Blackpool.”
Might memories of that 5-1 defeat three years ago, when Fleetwood were merely a Blue Square Premier club, fuel a revenge mission? “The only one still here from that day would be Nathan Pond,” says Pressley. The Fleetwood captain has a story all of his own. His name can be found in the Guinness Book of Records as the only footballer in the world to enjoy six promotions with the same club. “He’s gone on the journey from the very bottom and he’s a great professional, a great example,” continues his manager.
Similar tributes regularly flowed Pressley’s way in his playing days. After cutting his managerial teeth at Falkirk, he left Scotland two and a half years ago for Coventry City but lost his job there in February. He decided to stay and wait for another turn at management in England. Seven weeks ago, he got his wish when he and assistant Neil MacFarlane took charge of Fleetwood.
Life at Highbury Stadium is manic right now. As well as this historic derby, the club, which helped put Jamie Vardy on the road to stardom, are getting extra media attention due to his astonishing scoring feats with Leicester City. Fleetwood’s focus is firmly on the future, not the past.
“People in Scotland would be absolutely shocked by the infrastructure we have,” says Pressley, who has former Hearts player Eggert Jonsson as a mainstay in his midfield. “The chairman has invested £8million in a state-of-the-art training ground. We’re working out of Portakabins until the new facility opens in February. It’ll be similar to Lennoxtown.
“The chairman bought several hotels in Blackpool and renovated them. Our young players stay in them, they get fed and looked after with their own rooms and en-suites. It’s a brilliant, ambitious club. Fleetwood Town would surprise many people. A lot of the issues I had at Coventry dealing with these kinds of things, they’ve been taken off my desk. That allows me to focus on the first team and development group.
“I took over when we were second bottom and we have a real fight on our hands. The goal this season is solely survival. Beyond that, it will depend how good our recruitment is.”
Even though he is in England’s third tier with a provincial club, Scottish football is far from his thoughts. “I’ll be honest, I’ve no intentions of coming back north. I said that when there was the speculation about the Dundee United job. I love the football down here. I’m very happy here, as are my family, as are Neil and his family. We’ve no intentions of going back up the road.”
Their families are based in the Midlands, a situation Pressley describes as “not ideal”. His drive to become a top football manager means he has to make it work. “My long-term goal is to manage at the top level. To do that, you need to be involved in a country like this. Although I lost my job at Coventry, the seven months I had out of the game allowed me to reflect after five years in constant management. I’ve come back refreshed and hungry. The football is relentless down here. You can enjoy a victory for about 20 minutes and then it’s on to the next game. I enjoy that. It’s a really tough league, there are no “gimmee” games.”
Pressley will reacquaint himself with another old Tynecastle team-mate at the weekend. Steve Banks is Blackpool’s goalkeeping coach and will likely make everyone in the home dressing-room aware of Pressley’s appetite for derbies. There will still be plenty butterflies fluttering inside the Fleetwood manager before kick-off.
“It’s the worst time for any manager, that period before a game,” he says. “A lot is made these days about philosophies and styles of play, but football is about one thing – winning. If you really care, you’ll always have that feeling at the bottom of your stomach.”