There is a sign on a gate at Accrington Stanley’s Crown Ground home which reads “The Long Road Back”. It is a reference to the Lancashire club’s rebirth and eventual return to the Football League after bankruptcy in the 1960s had led to four decades in the wilderness. Yet those words also hold a certain resonance for the club’s leading scorer, Josh Windass.
Windass, son of the former Hull City and Bradford City striker Dean, ended up working on a building site after a long-term injury led to his rejection by Huddersfield Town when he was 18. Today, at 21, he is one of the top marksmen in League Two with seven goals, yet he is grateful for the unwanted detour that gave him a valuable taste of real life.
Sitting in Stanley’s trophy room, he recalls how his problems began. “When I was 16, I missed six months with a torn cartilage in my hip and then, in the first game of the next season, had a double leg break and dislocated my ankle, so I missed most of that season. At the end of it, I got let go.”
Lee Clark, Huddersfield’s manager at the time, had promised him an extra year’s deal but Clark’s sacking meant Windass was released after 10 years with the club, heralding “the hardest year of my life”. He ended up playing and training with non-league Harrogate Railway – albeit until breaking a wrist – while also working two or three days a week as a labourer, with 7am starts on a building site.
“It was horrible,” he remembers. “My mum and dad said, ‘you’re going to have to go and earn your own money’. I didn’t want to be there at all but looking back it has helped me loads. Now I know what it’s like to not be a footballer and not many other lads do – they’ve just played football. You don’t want to go back to doing that so you work your hardest.
“[With] my first contract here I thought I was a millionaire because even if it was only a small contract it was a lot more than I’d been earning. It’s nice to come in and do what you love every day and not pick loads of bricks up while freezing.”
For Windass, the road back into league football opened up in summer 2013, thanks to Paul Stephenson, one of his coaches at Huddersfield, who was by then on the staff at Accrington. “Luckily Stevo gave my dad a ring and asked if I could come down. I got a contract from there.”
In a sense, Josh is following in his father’s footsteps. At 39, Windass Sr struck the play-off final goal that won a Premier League place for Hull, the club which had released him as a teenager. “He [Dean] played non-league for North Ferriby for a couple of years and then Hull re-signed him,” says his son, though the pacy, long-haired midfielder plays down the similarities. “I don’t think I’ve got any of his attributes. I wouldn’t class myself as a goalscorer. I can chip in with goals but I am not a 20-goals-a-season man.”
And does it help being the son of a footballer? “When I was younger it didn’t because all the kids used to say, ‘you’re only here because of your dad’. It has swung now because now you’re doing well, people know your name. At school they were all Leeds fans and he helped send them down one year so they were all just caning me, saying, ‘your dad’s a prick’.”
Windass is part of a young Stanley team – eight of the XI who started last weekend’s win over Dagenham & Redbridge were 24 or under – who are aiming high under John Coleman, the Liverpudlian who led them back into the Football League in 2006 in his first spell as manager.
Accrington have the smallest crowds in League Two but the club’s shareholders approved on Wednesday a proposed takeover by a local businessman, Andy Holt, whose company already sponsor the club and Crown Ground, now called the Wham Stadium. Holt has promised to clear debts of £1.2m and provide £600,000 of investment to improve the ground and facilities, though Coleman has said his young guns can push for promotion with or without investment.
“We said it from day one in pre-season,” Windass explains. “The manager said, ‘if you’re not aiming to get promoted then walk off the field now because that is what we are here to do’, and all the lads agreed.”
They sit seventh in League Two before Saturday’s trip to Leyton Orient and if Windass, in the final year of his contract, keeps up his form, it can only strengthen their prospects. “My aim is to get 10 goals by Christmas and then see what can happen from there.”
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