IT IS A bright, warm spring afternoon but the gloom around Accrington Stanley's Crown Ground is tangible. The club have just been relegated for the first time in their 111-year history. Stanley, self-styled "most famous little football club in the world", lost their Football League status 36 years ago but even that doesn't seem to compare to the current woes.
"They have dragged me out of the canal three times," the commercial director, John DeMaine, mutters into a telephone, drawing deep on a cigarette. "I was really gutted," says Stanley's chairman and saviour, Eric Whalley. "I don't feel right. I am a diabetic and my blood sugar has gone all to cock."
Despite a five-game unbeaten run leading up to yesterday's last match of the season, at home to Whitby Town, Stanley finished bottom of the Unibond League Premier Division. It is a savage blow to their ambitions of promotion into the Conference and, eventually, reclaiming that place they held in the Football League from their historic position as one of the 12 founder members in 1888 until 1963.
The irony is that, in these times of debt and desperation for so many clubs, Accrington are in a healthy financial state, their prudence buttressed by the steady cash flow provided by people from all over the world who want to own some memento or item of clothing bearing the magic name Accrington Stanley. "We sell shirts, scarves, caps, car stickers, key fobs, pens, owt you can think of," says DeMaine. "We do very well out of it."
"We get several hundred orders a week for name items," says the club administrator, Liz Rackstraw. "Last week a man from Austria turned up here. He wanted to look at the ground and bought four scarves. Today I've got four orders to send out to Italy and America."
Accrington acquired the name that sells so well when, having started life as plain old Accrington FC, they amalgamated in 1893 with Stanley Villa, a team run by a group of young men who lived in Stanley Street. Almost as famous is Peel Park, the ground where they played from 1921 until league status was lost. It still exists but is derelict. "It was a bloody good ground," says DeMaine, "one of the first to have floodlights, even before Blackburn or Burnley."
The club name crops up all over the place, from commercials to comedians' patter. One TV advert's punch line ran "If you don't drink your milk you will never be good enough to play for Accrington Stanley," while Terry Wogan once compared something to "being as empty as Accrington Stanley's trophy cabinet." A scandalous slur, Tel. A quick count revealed a cabinet stuffed with 27 cups, plaques and statuettes. Stanley take most of the ribbing in good heart but they are in dispute with an insurance company that advertised its difference in values with the line "You wouldn't expect Michael Owen to play for Accrington Stanley". "They've offered us a pounds 250 goodwill payment which we have rejected as insulting," says DeMaine.
Eric Whalley, a former player, manager and director until he bought the club four years ago, insists, "Our name is known for the wrong reason. We dropped out of the Football League without fulfilling its fixtures. The club decided they were skint, pounds 64,000 in debt, so they sent a letter of resignation. They then tried to rescind it but the League refused."
Whalley, whose packaging company is Stanley's main sponsor, says, "I have felt sentimental about this place for a long time but it's more than sentimentality, it's a way of life." Among the several racehorses he owns, Whalley has one called Accystan that, he smiles, "has won a few races", and he has poured his considerable business skill into the club.
"Saturday is the end of our season. Full stop. Next season will start the next day because we were so upset about going down. The aim is to be back in the Football League within five years. Mark my words, one step down to go two back up."
The job of the manager, Wayne Harrison (former Sheffield Wednesday and Blackpool), is secure. "He will be in charge next season," says Whalley, "but he's looking to change his backroom staff. He had better do or else he won't be here. He has no contract, that's partly to do with me. I managed for 20-odd years, never had a contract and never got sacked. He is manager as long as he wants us and we want him."
Harrison arrived in the New Year on the heels of a dire run which saw Stanley collect five points from 14 games. "I was hoping to work a miracle," he says. "Unfortunately I didn't, but we will be back. On the results of our last 10 games we would be second in the table."
Accrington, who have poured money into the once-scruffy Crown Ground they lease from the council to bring it up to Conference standard, made a profit from the football club and its social side of pounds 176,000 from 1995 to 1998. They have a squad of 20, including five contract players, two full-time, at an annual cost of pounds 58,000. Whalley's most urgent task will be to hang onto the option he has on Billy O'Callaghan, the League's leading scorer with 32 goals. "In a team that's bottom he's brilliant," says DeMaine.
The club, bottom or not, is so brilliant that Phil Collins is an honorary vice-president. How can you not like Stanley after reading this notice on the wall: "On a match day if we have sold out of programmes please ask in the office. We will be happy to print one for you for pounds 1.10."
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