FA Cup lifeline keeps Stanley breathing
Accrington's run to a fourth-round home tie with Fulham today has saved the League Two club from a familiar fate
Their players earn an average of £26,000 a year basic and their manager has been working week to week without a contract for the past 11 years but the name of the sponsor that a prudent Accrington Stanley found to wear on their shirts this season, Combined Stabilisation, still seems like some kind of a joke.
The sponsor specialises in security, a commodity which this club – whose Crown Stadium home hosts its first encounter with Premier League opposition when Fulham roll up in the FA Cup today – have never known much about. Stanley, you might say, have specialised in being broke since they were forced out of the Football League in 1962 – fans still sing about never forgetting that year – and the broad east Lancashire burr which currently greets callers to the club tells the story of the place they're now at. "Press one for the 'Save our Stanley' appeal..."
A colourful Cup fourth round shows there are several clubs for whom football's oldest tournament holds out a lucrative Premier League adventure as a financial salve for troubled times. Notts County entertain Wigan, Brighton go to Aston Villa and Crystal Palace to Wolves. But only Stanley can say that their third-round win – 1-0 against League One's Gillingham – has literally seen off the taxman.
The £67,500 prize-money earned on Tuesday presaged an announcement that the £308,000 tax liability which saw the club face a winding-up order at the High Court last year has finally been settled. An FA transfer embargo, limiting the club to 20 players because of a £50,000 debt to the Professional Footballers' Association, will be cleared next and the estimated £25,000 from today's gate can finally be ploughed back into club.
In some ways it is the familiar story of a small town – famous for Holland's Pies and David "Bumble" Lloyd, a partisan fan who was up at the club on Thursday – struggling to sustain professional football. When the club last reached the third round a few years back, they were queuing down the street for tickets but this week the Stanley blog has been full of complaints about the £20 price and it is not even certain the tiny stadium (4,500 capacity) will sell out. The manager, John Coleman, part of an astonishing Clough and Taylor-style partnership with No 2 Jimmy Bell, the two having grown up in the same street and played at five non-league clubs together before embarking on management, has never disguised his frustration with the struggle to get the supporters in. "That's probably the reason we got into the financial trouble we did with the winding-up order," Coleman says. "Maybe the fans have got blasé. Those who do turn up make a lot of noise but that doesn't give you the bank balance and we don't want to get back into the situation we got into in 1962." There were a mere 1,300 in for the Gillingham tie.
Yet it's been about more than the struggle to sustain interest in a place equidistant from Burnley and Blackburn, who muscle in for local loyalties. Stanley's previous main sponsor, the coach company Fraser Eagle, went into liquidation last year, removing £100,000 from the club at a stroke and the pursuit of a replacement came just as six players were being charged with gambling thousands of pounds on their own side to lose to Bury in 2008. A further two were then drawn into the fracas at the centre of the Steven Gerrard GBH trial last year.
"Only two of the players involved in the betting scandal were under contract for any length of time but we were tarnished with all six," reflects Robert Heys, Accrington's chief executive, who's also been known to double as the kit cleaner. "The case also took 18 months to sort out, which was difficult because you can't sack somebody for being accused of something. Neither did it seem right to suspend them on full pay when they could be proved innocent. They'd left by the time they were eventually convicted but the general negative perceptions certainly affected our search for a sponsor."
Fortunately, Ilyas Khan, a millionaire merchant banker who grew up in the town, formed a more fundamental part of that stabilisation project, his career switch from Hong Kong to London coinciding with the club's hour of need. He had considered buying the club in 1995 but declined. "Hong Kong is a very long way off to be involved in a football club," he says. Khan, the new chairman, has provided £200,000 in loans to help clear the tax bill. The family has a history of beneficence where the club is concerned: the Crown Stadium's away end is named after Sophia Khan, the matriarch.
So it came to pass that in the stadium's Guest Lounge suite on Thursday, under the eagle eyes of the club's 1920-21 "Special Finance Committee", who are framed in sepia on the wall, a trickle of fans meandered through to collect their tickets while Coleman kicked his heels waiting for the Radio Lancashire man to turn up so he could start a press conference.
The Liverpudlian former teacher and his assistant have grounds for confidence. Never in their 14 years in management have the pair finished a season in a lower position than the last. With that kind of rise behind him, it is understandable that Coleman – who admits he was too busy when starting out at Ashton United 13 years ago to clock that Fulham's Roy Hodgson, flush with the success of managing the Swiss national side, was taking up the Blackburn Rovers job – believes he can make today difficult for him.
"Every time I seem to go to a Premier League club these days they wheel out the artificial lights to grow the grass," Coleman says. "We're not at that stage yet and I don't know if we ever will be. My players shovelled the snow last week but the Premier League is a different type of football, almost a different sport, with the time and the space afforded to these players on pitches that are carpets. If they can do that on our pitch then I'll wish them all the best. But they won't be used to playing on a pitch like ours or playing a team as committed as ours."
There is not much cup experience to draw on for the home club. Stanley, League Two's youngest side with an average age of 21.7, have faced Premier League opposition just once in modern times, losing on penalties at Watford in the Carling Cup in 2006. Two of the former Liverpool apprentices in their ranks, John Miles and Jimmy Ryan, were at the club at the same time as Fulham's Danny Murphy. But Coleman, whose post-match largesse after the Gillingham win included dishing out pizza slices to his players, has the next part of a survival plan resting on a creditable display today at least.
"Accrington Stanley? Who are they?" a young Liverpudlian asked his mate in the legendary milk advert which promoted the club and the town to the world in the 1980s. Here is the match which could finally answer the question for those so reluctant to join Coleman on his journey. In the words of the club's anthem: "On, Stanley, on."
Accrington survivors: The fall and rise
The original incarnation of Accrington Stanley resigns from the Football League following financial problems.
The present club are formed in a working men's club, with former player Jimmy Hinksman made manager.
Competing in the Lancashire Combination, Stanley complete a hat-trick of Combination Cup wins and take the league title for the first time.
The infamous milk TV advert is aired with the punchline "Accrington Stanley? Who are they?"
Local businessman Ernie Whalley buys Stanley and starts to turn the club around.
Current manager John Coleman appointed after Stanley finish bottom of the Northern Premier League.
Former Stanley striker Brett Ormerod is sold by Blackpool to Southampton for £1.75m. Accrington's sell-on clause lands them a huge windfall.
Losing only three league games all season, Stanley win the Unibond Premier League by 16 points.
Stanley win promotion to the Football League for the first time. Finish 20th in first year in League Two.
Whalley steps down as chairman as financial problems threaten the club's existence. Andrew Evans
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