Talk to anybody involved with Accrington Stanley and they all say the same thing: “This could be our year. There’s a real buzz around the place.” And so there should be, because Accrington Stanley, under new ownership, are on the march.
Not once has Accrington, whose population has slowly shrunk to 35,000, celebrated promotion in the Football League. The town’s first club, plain Accrington, were original members of the Football League. This is the 48th season of league football in the town and even bookmakers are feeling that buzz, because Stanley are as short as 11-10 to go up from League Two.
Accrington Stanley are famous not for a memorable FA Cup run – they have not been to the fourth round since 1937 – or the players who have worn the red shirt. Their greatest moment of fame was in a television advert in the 1980s, when two young boys discussed the merits of drinking milk. One told the other he would end up playing for Accrington Stanley if he did not keep up his intake.
“Accrington Stanley? Who are they?”
At the time, it was a fair question. Stanley – whose name is taken from Stanley Street in Accrington – had gone bust and out of the league in 1962. The “club that wouldn’t die” was reborn six years later and started the 1980s in the Second Division of the Cheshire County League. While Carl Rice, who spoke the “Who are they?” line, went on to bigger and better things (Holby City, Benidorm and Coronation Street) so did Stanley (North-West Counties, Northern Premier, Conference). In 2006, they won the Conference. Forty-four years after their resignation from the Football League, they were back.
This season has not all gone smoothly. Their pitch was unplayable from mid-November to mid-January, meaning no gate money, while they are losing two of their best players to Rangers without a fee as they will be out of contract when the Scottish club complete the deal. Their home attendances, despite their form, have been low, averaging 1,488, partly because so many weekend games were switched to midweek. A prime example was the game against Portsmouth, frozen off when about 1,000 Pompey fans were already in town.
“They would have probably brought about 1,800 for that game,” said Stanley’s new owner, Andy Holt. “For the rearranged midweek fixture [next Tuesday] we’ll be lucky if it’s a third of that number. You put a few hundred on the gate at Fratton Park and you don’t notice, it’s like pissing in the Irish Sea. But for us it makes a big difference.”
Holt is a successful and popular local businessman who made his money from the plastics industry, largely through making plastic boxes and bins. His What More UK company (Wham), started as sponsors and gave their name to the stadium, previously the Crown Ground. Last October, he took over the club.
“It was needs must,” Holt said. “My first game was a friendly against Burnley and we were 3-0 up in no time. It was fantastic. But the club ran out of beer that day. They hadn’t paid the bills. It soon became evident the club wasn’t paying players, staff, suppliers. They needed more support or they were finished.” Holt gave it and has been rewarded, thanks to the recruitment and management of John Coleman and his assistant, Jimmy Bell, who have worked together since the 1990s and are in their 15th year at Accrington. Just as everybody talks about “the buzz” they also talk about Stanley’s manager as “John and Jimmy”, as if they were one person.
“I’ve had boxes at Old Trafford, been to Wembley to watch the European Cup final,” said Holt, “but it doesn’t compare to being close to the touchline at Accrington. You hear every kick, every knock. I love watching the teams John and Jimmy put out. I don’t want to miss a game. My lad loves it too.”
Since Holt took over, Stanley have become much more businesslike. They have signed players on long contracts, among them the Irish right-back Seamus Conneely. They had never been able to do that before. “Seamus has been brilliant, absolutely outstanding,” said Coleman.
Holt shies away from taking the credit for Stanley’s improvement. Former owners Eric Whalley and Ilyas Khan plus current chairman Peter Marsden, a London property financier, have all contributed hugely to the club’s survival – as has former director and avid fan David Lloyd, the ex-England cricket coach. “The club survived only on the generosity of a few directors who kept putting money in,” said Holt.
Some say he has already put in £2m. Is it true? “I don’t know what it is, but it’s going on. I prefer to see it as my community service. Our staff [at Wham] come from the town, we are a part of the town and do a lot of business here. As a part of local society, you have to play your part. It’s not because I’m mad or think I’ll get the money back but because I think we can be a sustainable club that’s good for the community and everybody around Accrington.
“I’m humbled by the fact that people are ringing me and saying, ‘Put me down for the board’. A local security company rang up to say they’ll sponsor the back of the shirt next year and pay now. Crown Paints [also local] are giving us the paint to repaint the ground and a local college will supply trainee decorators to help us. It isn’t just me, there’s a groundswell of people getting behind the club. There’s a real good feeling – and it started with what John and Jimmy have done on the pitch.”
Lloyd played for Stanley in the Lancashire Combination in the 1960s, when one of his friends and team-mates was Jon Anderson, an Accrington lad who became lead singer of Yes and Jon and Vangelis. Lloyd is a hardcore fan, so much so that he reeled off the entire starting XI from the 1950s, when Stanley came closest to that elusive first promotion. He even sang the old club song, “On, Stanley on”.
“It’s obvious real improvements are going to happen,” Lloyd said. “Andy Holt is a local bloke, he’s done bloody well and he’s respected in the town. He has a lot of clout with the local council, which hasn’t been the case before. The manager is fantastic, absolutely brilliant the pair of them. They know the club and they’ll be excited as to where it’s going because they have been farting against thunder.”
Their biggest test is upon them. Starting at Wimbledon on Saturday, Stanley have four games in 11 days, all against teams challenging for the play-offs or automatic promotion. Three in a row are at home: against Portsmouth, Plymouth and Wycombe.
They need not fear any of those teams. They went to second-placed Oxford a fortnight ago and won 2-1 – “our single best result since we got back into the league” said the supporters’ club chairman, Nick Westwell. The winner was scored by Scott Brown, a free transfer signing from non-league Grimsby in January and another great example of Coleman’s recruiting skills. Stanley also have to operate on a restricted wage bill: the top earners, said chairman Marsden, are on £800-£850 a week and some youngsters earn only £200 a week.
“Recruitment is everything in management – people can overplay the coaching,” said Coleman. “I only want players who are hungry. A lot of the lads who don’t make it at Premier League academies are no good to us, because they’ve been taught a game they’ll never play in the lower leagues. For them it’s all tippy-tappy and nobody gets hurt, but in League Two it’s blood and thunder – it matters.”
Coleman said Stanley had been in good form at home since October and he was looking forward to the four-game stretch. “This is the run that will define our season,” he said. “Hopefully, we can secure a place in the play-offs with a few games to go, then we’ll see.”
That 1980s milk advert did the club no harm. “It helped to make us what we are,” said Marsden. “In our way, we are as historic as somebody like Manchester United. We are the most famous minnow club in England and, dare I say it, the world.”
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