|Date: Sunday, 10 January Venue: Stamford Bridge Kick-off: 13:30 GMT Coverage: Watch live on the BBC Sport website/BBC iPlayer; updates on BBC Radio 5 Live; text commentary on the BBC Sport website|
As celebrations go, Morecambe’s 100th anniversary in 2020 was a write-off – but at least one supporter was smiling.
On the way to Newport County for a match in December, Morecambe’s team coach pulled up outside the bungalow of Cliff Crabtree, who was celebrating his 90th birthday.
Manager Derek Adams and midfielder Aaron Wildig got off to surprise the life-long Shrimps fan with a card signed by the team, along with a centenary scarf and mug.
“We haven’t had fans inside our ground since last February. It’s about giving people that little bit of hope,” says co-chairman Rod Taylor, a former NHS nurse.
There are no stop-offs planned when the team, seventh in League Two, head to Chelsea for the biggest FA Cup tie in Morecambe’s history on Sunday, with the 13:30 GMT kick-off live on the BBC Sport website and iPlayer.
Following a coronavirus outbreak at the club, it is Morecambe’s first match of 2021 after a particularly painful 12 months which saw revenue streams dry up due to the pandemic, while the Shrimps also mourned the death of defender Christian Mbulu, 23.
‘We’re not millionaires’
The year 2020 should have been a special one at the Mazuma Stadium, which is about a 10-minute walk from the seaside town’s promenade.
Morecambe turned 100 and pianist Jools Holland was headlining a celebration concert at the venue.
In a year like no other, it was cancelled because of the pandemic and an opportunity for the club to make a potential £100,000 profit evaporated.
The Shrimps have an operating budget of around £3m but the seven-day-a-week corporate and hospitality facilities at their smart 11-year-old ground – where two-time world heavyweight boxing champion Tyson Fury has a gym – have been closed for the best part of 10 months.
With turnstiles locked, club-shop sales hit, no bar or refreshment takings, no weddings, birthdays and other such functions, Taylor adds: “We’ve lost hundreds of thousands of pounds. We’ve got to keep our resolve and hang in.”
Good has come from an extremely challenging situation. The ground is being used as a vaccination centre for some of the town’s population, while fans and players have rallied.
Around 700 supporters bought season tickets for the 2020-21 season in the hope they would be allowed to return. The first 10 home league matches have been behind-closed-doors.
“Not one of them have requested a refund,” adds Taylor, who runs one hotel and four care homes in the area.
Players, led by captain Sam Lavelle, agreed to top up the wages of some club staff who were furloughed. They acted after long-serving kit man Les Dewhirst “seemed down and worried about things”.
“We’re not millionaires. I think we’ve the lowest wage bill in League Two but we’re on a good wage,” says Lavelle.
Morecambe, owned by Bond Group Investments Limited, have not hosted a match in front of fans since a 1-1 draw with Crewe on 29 February 2020, when former Motherwell player Mbulu was an unused substitute.
He had been with Morecambe since January and died suddenly in May. Many Shrimps fans contributed to a GoFundMe page to help support Mbulu’s baby daughter. It has raised nearly £30,000.
Morecambe may have one of the smallest fan bases in the EFL – their average crowd in 2019-20 was 2,264 – but they have a reputation for being one of the friendliest clubs around.
Before Barrow’s League Two home game with Stevenage on 12 September 2020 – their first Football League match for 48 years – a plane circled the ground.
It was towing a banner which read ‘Wlcome back2the EFL from Morecambe FC’.
The £700 costs were paid for by an unnamed Shrimps director who wanted to reach out to Morecambe’s newly-promoted north-west of England rivals.
“None of us are paid directors,” adds Taylor, who has watched Morecambe’s rise from the Lancashire Combination league to the EFL. “We’re in it for the right reasons.
“My grandad took me to Christie Park, our old ground, in the 1950s. My co-chairman, Graham Howse, is exactly the same – a long-time fan.
“We’re very hands on and involved in the nuts and bolts of running the club.”
‘Heavyweight v lightweight’
Having finished 22nd, 18th, 22nd, 18th and 21st in the last five seasons, an FA Cup trip to eight-time winners Chelsea is a welcome distraction from the rigours of League Two.
This is the club’s first appearance in the third round since 2003 but there is naturally sadness none of their supporters will be at Stamford Bridge.
It is the second time this season Morecambe have faced Premier League opposition without fans after losing 7-0 at home to Newcastle in the Carabao Cup in September.
“It’s a damned shame. We could have been looking at taking 5,000 in normal circumstances,” adds Taylor, who says some club staff will also miss Morecambe’s big day at Chelsea.
“We have stuck to the rules right the way through all of this and there are people at the club who haven’t been able to be involved,” he says.
“Tom Sawyer, who helps our kit man Les, is a volunteer. Because he’s of a certain age, he hasn’t been able to do what he normally does. It’s hard because he’s been here for 20-odd years.”
There is a huge gulf between last season’s FA Cup runners-up and Morecambe, but Shrimps boss Adams says his players, whose 10 days of isolation ended on Tuesday, are relishing the challenge.
“You’ve got Tyson Fury, who has his gym in the corner of our stadium, a heavyweight in Chelsea against a lightweight in Morecambe,” adds the Scot, who took charge in November 2019.
“Morecambe’s waited years for a tie like this. It’s fantastic for the town.”