That's another fine mess you've got yourself out of, Stanley

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Those people who rate Manchester United and Real Madrid the best-known football clubs on the planet are invited to think again. A few miles north of Old Trafford, down a quiet Lancashire lane, lie Accrington Stanley, dubbed "the most famous little club in the world".

The Chinese crave Stanley's signal-red shirts, Thais clamour for their inscribed mugs, Americans and Canadians covet videos and histories. "Name a country and we have sent something to it," said Rob Heys, the club administrator. And all because of that unique name.

It can't be for any other reason, since Stanley have been out of the League for the last 41 years. But that may soon change. Accrington have won their way into the Nationwide Conference and are just one more promotion away from a return to League football.

The name is what has kept Accrington going through decidedly lean times since their ignominious exit from the old Third Division North in March 1962. The name, plus the dedication and determination of Eric Whalley, who played for Stanley, managed the club twice and finally bought it eight years ago.

"It is not me who has kept Accrington afloat, it's the name," insisted Whalley, the 62-year-old owner of a local packaging business. "People wouldn't let it die. We have a supporters' club in Denmark and others in Scotland and Ireland. Since we got a website we've been inundated with applications from footballers: Frenchmen, Germans, people in Argentina, Thailand, Canada, all wanting to play for us."

Instead, Stanley have strengthened the playing staff with five British signings, including Paul Cook and Gordon Armstrong from neigh- bours Burnley, and the manager, John Coleman, will start the Conference season next Sunday with a live televised match at Aldershot, who also used to enjoy League status. To be live on TV is another first for Accrington.

The game's most enduring and endearing name goes back to the very roots of English football. Accrington FC were one of the 12 founder members of the Football League in 1888, and acquired their name in a later merger with a pub team whose home was the Stanley Arms. They resigned from the League in 1962 because of debts of £45,000, a laughable sum now. As Whalley observed: "You couldn't buy a good non-league player for that money these days."

Stanley were reformed in 1968 and ever since have been fighting their way up through local leagues. Last season they were Unibond champions with 100 points and 97 goals, losing just four of their 44 matches. "From the North West Counties to the Unibond to the Conference we have taken three almighty steps," said Whalley. "The next one might be even higher and harder, but it is my dream to get this club back in the League. Within the next three years is the deadline I have set my manager. Not putting him under any pressure, am I? It would be absolutely brilliant for the people of Accrington."

This despite the presence, five miles either side of them, of a Premiership club, Blackburn, and a First Division one, Burnley. "We are lucky," he added. "Nobody from Burnley will ever go to watch Blackburn, or the other way round, but both sets of supporters come here. We are the second club of people in Blackburn and Burnley." That was clearly shown when more than 3,000 turned up for last Wednesday's friendly 1-1 draw against Burnley at a neat, freshly painted stadium with a capacity of 5,500 and plenty of expansion possibilities.

Formerly the Crown Ground, also named after a pub, Stanley's home, which is leased from the council, is now the Interlink Express Stadium, a reflection of the care with which Whalley has assembled an impressive line-up of backers, to the extent that they possess sponsor suites and have done a shirt deal with Hyndburn Council.

"Six years ago, you would not have recognised this place," said Whalley. "But we have tried to get it right off the field first, and now we have a stadium capable of presenting League football as a reality, not a dream. Now we have to get it right on the field. And we are going about it the right way, having won the Unibond last season, breaking a lot of records along the way."

Whalley declines to say how much he has put into the club ("Ee, I daren't say that, my wife would go mad") but acknowledges it has been a labour of love and mentions that they owe him "millions".

He doesn't take a salary now, nor did he get any money when he was manager, preferring to direct the cash towards players and new signings. "The most I ever got from Accrington was in 1957 when I played for the A team and was paid 10 shillings and sixpence travelling expenses."

The club now are self-sufficient, not least because of a remarkable piece of business involving their most successful player, Brett Ormerod. Stanley sold him to Blackpool in 1997 for £50,000 but with a clause guaranteeing 20 per cent of any sell-on fee. Accrington became £235,000 the richer when Ormerod moved to Southampton.

"That helped to stabilise the club financially," said Whalley. "Now we have no money worries. We do a budget every year and try to stick by it. This year the Conference salary-cap rule, where you are allowed to spend no more than 65 per cent of your annual turnover on players' wages, has been brilliant. It means you won't overpay anybody. The Football League will be following that shortly. They have to do, to get their house in order."

Accrington are expecting home crowds in excess of 2,000 if they do well, and two coaches have already been booked for supporters to travel to next Sunday's match at Aldershot, despite the live TV presence, which Whalley says will fill the Accrington pubs able to show it and leave empty those which aren't.

"It is," he adds, "all quite exciting for us." And all because of that name. "I think a lot of it was to do with that TV advert for milk. You know the one, where the little Scouser is told, 'If you don't drink your milk you'll finish up playing for Accrington Stanley'. Obviously, that went all over the world."