Accrington Stanley: The fall and rise of a club that wouldn't die

Faithful fan unfurls the scarf he locked away 44 years ago to mark a famous revival
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Forty-four years is a long time to leave your supporter's scarf in a box full of old football programmes, but the red-and-white-striped woolly and the club to which its owner is devoted are about to get another airing in the Football League.

Dave Barnett, a 59-year-old recently retired from the newspaper printing trade, gave his precious scarf a trial twirl in the rain at Accrington Stanley's Interlink Express Stadium, where just a point is needed from four games to ensure promotion from the Nationwide Conference and back into the League which Stanley quit in March 1962 with the sort of debts which would not amount these days to an average Premiership player's weekly wage.

Barnett, a supporter since being taken by his father to watch Stanley as an eight-year-old in 1954 and now a life member of the revived club, vividly recalls the last time he wore the scarf. "I was 17 and getting ready to watch Accrington play Exeter City when we were told the game was off because the club had folded. I am a sentimental, silly old sod really, but I swore I would never wear it again until they were back in the League."

The little club with the most famous name in the game resigned from the League with debts of just under £64,000 after losing 4-0 at Crewe. An attempt to withdraw the resignation and stage the next home game, against Exeter, was blocked by the Football League secretary, Alan Hardaker, and the club died before being revived in 1968 as a non-League outfit.

Since then it has been held together by another "sentimental old sod", a 65-year-old local businessman, Eric Whalley, who over the years played for Accrington, albeit only in the reserves, was twice manager, eventually bought the club for £80,000 in 1995 and has been chairman ever since.

Things have looked up in the four years since I last interviewed Whalley in a broom cupboard of an office while he counted notes and coins into wage packets. The shrewd team management of John Coleman has seen Accrington march back through the minor leagues until, at the beginning of last season, the playing staff went full-time; and Whalley's unbendable enthusiasm and belief have wrought miracles at the little ground in one of Accrington's smarter residential areas.

Whalley had always said he would do his family a favour and retire from football involvement when Accrington got back into the League, but he has cheerfully abandoned that promise. "Success has come a bit quicker than I thought," he grinned, relaxing in one of the smart new lounges at his ground. "So I might give it another couple of years to see if we can get another promotion." He has earned that right, having frequently kept Stanley afloat with his own money. "If my wife knew how much I had put into this club she would divorce me."

He still can't quite believe what is happening. "The promotion word has been taboo at this club. If anybody mentioned it over the last month, I fined them. We have about £20 in the kitty at the moment and we shall use it to celebrate. I don't really drink, but I will certainly have a couple, whatever is put in front of me.

"It has all been so stressful, certainly since Christmas. I have slept with difficulty. We have been at the top of the table so long, the thought of getting knocked off worried me. Don't get me wrong, though, there are another 21 clubs in the Conference who would swap places with us."

Accrington are working hard at improving their facilities to League Two standard, and £100,000 has already been invested in the Livingston Road ground, with more needing to be spent. The anomaly is that Stanley are better supported around the globe than they are in Accrington, with even this season's successes rarely attracting more than 2,000.

"We sell merchandise all over the world," said Whalley, who is proud of the club's recent introduction of their own brand of chardonnay and merlot wines. "We get letters asking what kind of stuff we sell and I tell them, 'exactly the same as Manchester United, but not as much, unfortunately'. I am sure our attendances will go up next season, we should average 3,000 because most of the local clubs in that division have quite a decent away following. Also, we are situated halfway between Blackburn and Burnley, and since supporters of those two clubs refuse to go and watch each other, why not make us their second club and come to us when their team are away?"

In sharp contrast to loyal veterans such as Barnett and Whalley, Accrington's chief executive, although another diehard Stanley fan, is a 28-year-old, Rob Heys, who took a pay cut from his job as a computer programmer to join the full-time administrative staff at Accrington four years ago and was rewarded by being made chief executive at the start of this season.

Despite a preference for still watching from the terraces with his mates, something he has managed three or four times this season, Heys is putting in what he calls "horrendous" hours developing local sponsorship.

"It is not so long ago that people were collecting money in buckets to keep this club going," said Heys. "When I first came on the scene it was a question of people being offered an advert for making a donation. You could have a board behind the goal for £100, but next season we will be looking well into four figures for something like that."

Dragging Stanley into the big time, or more accurately the bigger time, is a tough process. The club mascot, Fraser the Eagle, put in only sporadic appearances at games because nobody wanted to don the costume. Now there is a schoolboy called Zane happy to be an eagle. And the groundsman's job is being done by a 19-year-old, Anthony Mallon. "Groundsmen are traditionally blokes with flat caps," said Heys, "but more and more these days the trend is for younger people in that sort of job, and Anthony is picking it up very quickly."

So, with a squad of only 18 that John Coleman praises for their spirit and a French-born captain, Romuald Boco, who is not yet 21 but who has won 14 caps for Benin, Accrington are back where they and their followers feel they have always belonged.

There remains plenty of hard work to be done, and with his partner due to give birth in August, Heys has told her "any day except Saturday". By then Eric Whalley will have sunk a few and will be sleeping better, and Dave Barnett's scarf, free of moth holes after all those years hidden away, will be waving Stanley on to even better times.

1937 REPLAY: Making a name for themselves

A team who in over 40 years (1921-1962) of League football never managed to achieve promotion had to look elsewhere for recognition. Their name was perhaps their biggest asset in this, although its origins are unclear; it is thought the club's founders either lived in Stanley Street or met up in a pub called the Stanley Arms. In common with other lower-division clubs, Accrington Stanley looked to the FA Cup for a chance to step into the limelight, but their record was modest, to put it mildly. In 1925 they went down bravely to Bolton Wanderers in the third round, losing 1-0 after selling home advantage, and two years later reached the fourth round only to be overwhelmed 7-2 by Chelsea in London. Their best run undoubtedly came in the 1936-37 season, when after disposing of Wellington Town and Tunbridge Wells they were drawn away to neighbours Blackburn Rovers, then in the Second Division. Prompted by the crosses of their veteran winger George Mee (front row, far right) - the brother of the later Arsenal manager Bertie Mee - they drew 2-2, centre-forward Bob Mortimer scoring both. In the replay back home at Peel Park they won 3-1 after extra time, Mortimer scoring twice again and going on to end the season with 33 goals from 37 games. But their reward, a fourth-round tie against Man-chester City at Maine Road, proved too stiff a hurdle; they lost 2-0, and City immediately signed their defender Willis Gregg. Early in the following season, Blackburn took their revenge by signing Mortimer.

Simon Redfern