Fans fight to stop sun setting on Stanley

They owe the Inland Revenue £300,000 and have eight weeks to live but Accrington are desperate to avoid being the club that dies twice

By Tim Rich
Saturday 22 October 2011 21:27

They were waiting for the result and it had nothing to do with the number of goals scored out on the pitch. When you owe more than £300,000 to the Inland Revenue and have eight weeks to live, gate receipts are everything.

Accrington Stanley are famous for one thing; they went bust and were forced out of the Football League. The supporters sing about never forgetting 1962. Some have come in through a turnstile around which a bit of Christmas tinsel has been stuck, which the club have named the Golden Gate, where season ticket-holders could pay again to watch them beat Darlington on Friday night. They are determined not to die twice.

By the turnstile is a placard that tells you everything you need to know about Accrington Stanley: "1962 Resigned from the Football League. 2006 Returned to the Football League." It goes under the heading of "The Long Road Back".

However, the road has gone full circle. Accrington are where they were in the March of 1962 when Burnley's autocratic chairman, Bob Lord, brought in to advise his desperate neighbours, told them they should quit professional football and close the club down.

"I was a teenager when Accrington Stanley went under and it was devastating, absolutely devastating," said David Lloyd, the one-time Lancashire opening batsman and much-loved commentator who is probably Accrington's most famous son, unless you count Butch Cassidy, whose father came from the town.

"I went to a school adjoining the old Peel Park ground and my auntie was a housekeeper for a big house in Avenue Parade where the club put up players who weren't married. What did for them was a combination of gross mismanagement and dreadful gates. By the end, they were getting less than a thousand at Peel Park.

"Accrington's problem is like that song 'Stuck in the Middle with You', they are right between Burnley and Blackburn, completely hemmed in, and the other is the size of the town. Its population is 35,000 and the gates have simply not been good enough. It's all very well passing around buckets and saying 'Save Our Stanley' but there needs to be a longer-term plan than that. There needs to be more self-esteem about the place."

Robert Heys, Accrington's 32-year-old chief executive, who can boast of having taken the team's kit home to wash, felt little self-esteem when travelling to London to face the winding-up petition in the High Court that ended with an eight-week stay of execution.

"It was the worst day of my life," Heys said. "We hadn't made our plight public and we felt utterly alone. We believe the debt should be paid; it is a moral issue. We don't want to go into administration and, in any case, because we don't own the ground, Accrington don't have very many assets to offer an administrator.

"I feel humble at the way the public have responded since we launched the Save Our Stanley campaign but there is embarrassment, too, when a pensioner presses money into your hand. We are not a charity, we are a business, we are a football club. One day, when this is all over, we will look to pass round some buckets of our own for the good causes in this town."

There are serious questions – posed by Ilyas Khan, a millionaire merchant banker who grew up in the town and is prepared to invest £225,000 if the chairman, Dave O'Neill, gives up control to the Accrington Stanley Supporters Fund – as to how Accrington came to rack up a debt of £308,000 in the first place.

Heys, who like the players and the groundstaff worked for nothing on Friday, says there were simply not enough people to administer the club properly and the collapse of Stanley's main sponsor, coach company Fraser Eagle, "blew all our figures out of the water".

Accrington are in many ways better off than they were 47 years ago. Then in real terms they owed double the £308,000 the club have to pay the Inland Revenue by 24 October and were hopelessly bottom of the League. Their level of organisation in 1962 can be determined by the fact that their goalkeeper, Alex Smith, missed the bus for their final game at Crewe and had to drive to Cheshire, where he picked the ball out of the net four times.

Football did not rally round in 1962 and if Burnley's role in Accrington's demise was questionable then on Tuesday they staged a benefit game for Stanley at Turf Moor. More than 5,000 watched in driving rain, raising £35,000. On Friday evening, as the Pennine hills that frame the Crown Ground glowed pink in the September sunset, Accrington played some exhilarating football in front of a crowd of 3,228, proof that the Crown is of more use than it would be as a branch of B&Q. On the final whistle, fans waving what appears to be a giant Swiss flag launched into a chorus of "Kill the taxman".

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