A club reborn

After promotion back to the Football League, Ashley Shaw finds renewed optimism in a corner of the north-west

Few small clubs can match the fame of Accrington Stanley. Synonymous with a lost era, Stanley’s premature and unnecessary exit from the Football League in 1962 lent the club a certain romance, especially as, only a few years before, they had been riding high, attracting gates of more than 10,000 to Peel Park.

The death of the club prompted much sympathy. After all, an Accrington club were among founders of the Football League (Accrington FC dropped out in 1893, to be replaced by Stanley in 1921), while the £30,000 debt owed by the club at the time of their demise was trifling even then. Yet Stanley’s directors reacted in panic and unwisely dispatched a letter to the Football League suggesting voluntary euthanasia before coming up with a plan to save the club. When they received a prompt reply from the League Committee that enthusiastically turned off the life support, the famous name became a part of the game’s history.

Forty-four years on, Accrington are preparing to return to the league. A 1-0 away win at Woking on Easter Saturday confirmed the club’s resurrection. Who knows, if Stanley can stage a comeback perhaps bile beans, dubbin and leather caseys are set for a return.

It was 1968 before Stanley set off on the long road to recovery. “Accrington Stanley 1968” were technically a new club but, as with Bournemouth and Middlesbrough, the supporters feel that the old club and the new are one and the same. The old Peel Park ground was unusable, however, so they decamped to the Crown Ground.

For most of the past 38 years Stanley’s rise has been anything but spectacular. They won the Lancashire Combination League in 1975 and were elected to the North West Counties Division One in 1982. Floodlights were erected in 1985 in anticipation of promotion to the Northern Premier League and in 1993 a Crown Ground attendance record of more than 2,000 witnessed Stanley’s FA Cup first-round victory over Gateshead.

Yet it was the arrival of manager Eric Whalley in 1994 that truly kick-started Stanley’s renaissance. Accrington born and bred, Whalley is a popular figure among supporters having played as a reserve during League days, been manager in two spells and chairman since 1995. According to sources in Accrington he lives and breathes the club and is said to sleep at the ground during busy periods. He appointed John Coleman as manager in 1999 and the club haven’t looked back. Whalley has been a manager’s dream, backing Coleman through the ups and downs and over the past seven years the pair have turned Stanley from a semi-pro club languishing in the lower reaches of the pyramid to the newest (and joint oldest) members of the Football League.

Club legend Paul Mullin and recent signing Gary Roberts have been the main reasons for Stanley’s success this term. Between the sticks Darren Randolph and Rob Elliot, two teenage keepers on loan from Charlton, are responsible for Stanley’s strong defensive record. Yet success really has been a team effort, built around an unbeaten run over winter. Between October 29 and April Fool’s Day Stanley drew just four of 20 fixtures and by spring the Conference race had become a coronation.

As for next season, Michael Welch and Leam Richardson have already played at that level, while the squad also contains a number of former trainees from clubs such as Manchester United and Liverpool. With a few additions, most are optimistic that Stanley can cope with the demands of League Two.

Stanley’s promotion has certainly rekindled the town’s love of the game. In the week following promotion the club were given the freedom of the borough of Hyndburn, while Eric Whalley’s standing as perhaps the town’s favourite son is unquestioned for the moment. His no-nonsense philosophy for success remains the same – “If a pound comes in, a pound can be spent” – and this fiscal conservatism together with Coleman’s motivational prowess has seen the club flourish despite having one of the smallest budgets in the Conference.

Nevertheless, Accrington’s geography looks problematic. This corner of Lancashire is hardly short of professional clubs: Burnley, Blackburn, Preston, Bolton, Bury and Rochdale are little more than a bus journey away from Accrington town centre, while the behemoths of Manchester and Liverpool lie just over the horizon. Yet the north-west was the birthplace of the professional game, so close competition between a plethora of clubs is nothing new. Moreover, Stanley are a special case, so their return is bound to be of interest to even the most casual football watcher – current gates average 1,700, while the Crown Ground has a capacity of just over 5,000, so larger away supports can be accommodated.

Stanley’s promotion highlights the north-west’s footballing renaissance. The area can now boast seven top-flight clubs and, from next season, 19 League teams in total (provided Stockport and Bury survive). Stanley’s promotion (like Wigan’s top-flight success) on comparatively small budgets is certain to be eyed enviously by desperate football followers elsewhere.

From WSC 232 June 2006. What was happening this month