This month marks the 40th anniversary of Accrington Stanley's controversial ejection from the Football League. Mike Gent explains what went wrong
“Probably the most famous football team in the land” is how a Lancashire County Council website describes Accrington Stanley. A contentious claim, but there is no doubt that the Stanley’s continued notoriety stems not from the club’s modest playing record but from a series of off-pitch calamities which culminated in their departure from the Football League in March 1962. Since then, the spectre of Accrington Stanley has been regularly invoked whenever football clubs sink towards bankruptcy.
History was not on their side. Stanley were not the first team from the town to drop out of the League because of financial difficulties. Accrington FC, one of the 12 founder members of the Football League in 1888, resigned because of crippling losses just five years later, before the start of the 1893-94 season.
The remnants of th’Owd Reds, as the original club was known, merged with junior side Stanley Villa to become Accrington Stanley. In 1920-21, the Football League expanded with the formation of the Third Division South and the northern section was added the following season. Accrington Stanley were founder members. Fifth place in that first term was their best for many years, though Stanley like to remember that they were top of the division with three wins out of three when league football was suspended in September 1939.
The immediate postwar period showed little improvement, but Glaswegian Walter Galbraith transformed the club on being appointed manager in 1952. In an era when only the champions of the Third Divisions went up, Stanley finished second, third and third from 1955 to 1957, often playing with an all-Scottish team.
The reorganisation of the League at the end of the 1957-58 season led to promotion, of a kind. Runners-up position in the final Third Division North table meant that they played in the new national Third Division in 1958-59. Their elevated status was short-lived, however. Stanley were relegated in 1959-60, nine points adrift at the bottom, having conceded 123 goals. Their demise after that point was painfully swift – 18th in 1960-61, then, instead of 24 clubs, the final Fourth Division table for 1961-62 shows only 23.
The club had been no strangers to penury – a bazaar held in the town saved the club from extinction during the Depression in 1932. It was in late 1961 that Stanley’s latest financial difficulties became public and in December they were barred from making any transfer deals because they owed £3,000 to other clubs. A local Alderman launched a “Save Stanley” fund, hoping to raise £20,000, but the appeal only netted £450. Gates fell to 1,500, half the break-even point, a far cry from their first season in the League when season tickets for the unfinished Peel Park were over-subscribed.
In February 1962, with the club at the bottom of the Fourth Division, former Stanley chairman Sam Pilkington, together with Bob Lord of neighbouring Burnley, tried to put a rescue package together. However, a debt of £62,000 proved insurmountable. The only advice that Lord could ultimately offer was that Stanley should resign from the League, leaving disappointed supporters with a convenient scapegoat for their club’s downfall. A 4-0 defeat at Crewe on March 2 turned out to the their last League game.
A letter of resignation was sent to the League’s headquarters in Lytham on March 6. Two days later, the club’s president Sir William Cocker sent a second letter withdrawing the resignation and claiming that a group of local businessmen had put up the money to save Stanley, with the approval of the creditors. The fate of the club hung in the balance for three days, awaiting a meeting of the League in London on March 11. The town’s mayor sent a telegram in support of the club and the directors and club solicitor attended the meeting to argue their case. It was to no avail. The League’s decision, read out by its secretary Alan Hardaker, relied on “well-established legal precedent” and claimed that the League had no alternative but to accept the first letter. Accrington Stanley were out of the League. The results of their matches were declared null and void and the records of the players for the season were expunged from the official statistics.
The club’s fall from grace was shockingly sudden. Only a few years earlier they had been one of the first teams to use floodlights and had attracted big crowds to Peel Park for friendlies, usually against Scottish First Division teams. The ground record of 17,634 was set on November 15, 1954 for the visit of Blackburn Rovers for a floodlit friendly. Ambitious plans for a new two-tier stand at the Burnley Road side, including a suite of offices and a ballroom, were drawn up, then shelved. Instead, the club purchased a second-hand 4,000-seater stand from the Aldershot Military Tattoo. Not only did it end up costing the club ten times the purchase price of £2,000 when dismantling, transportation and re-erection costs were added, but it was impossible to see the pitch from certain parts of a stand not designed for watching football. The episode effectively crippled the club.
For his part, Sir William Cocker was in no doubt where the fault lay – the Football League. Angered by its high-handed reliance on legal precedent, he claimed the League had actively tried to rid itself of smaller clubs like Stanley by reorganising the regional Third Divisions, arguing that the inevitable result was prohibitive expenses.
The club’s place in the League was taken by Oxford United, but the name of Accrington Stanley refused to die – it is, after all, such a great name. The original club struggled on in the Second Division of the Lancashire Combination before folding in 1963. Peel Park fell into disrepair and became derelict before ending up as a school playing field. Accrington Stanley reformed in 1968 but didn’t play a competitive game until two years later when the team rejoined the Lancashire Combination. Turning out for them that season was Terry Tighe, a wing-half who had played for the old club in the Football League. Since then, Stanley have risen to the Premier Division of the Unibond League.
Forty years on, the feeling lingers that Stanley could have been saved. The Accrington public and its business community seem to have been unaware of the seriousness of the club’s plight until it was too late. The League’s attitude is puzzling, falling back on legalities in spite of Cocker’s salvation plan. Teenage inside-forward Mike Ferguson was sold to Blackburn Rovers in the same month as Stanley’s resignation and then on to Aston Villa for £60,000 – just short of the club’s total debt in 1962.
In the intervening years, only two other clubs have been forced to resign from the Football League for financial reasons. Almost exactly 30 years later, Aldershot did a Stanley, dropping out of the League mid-season in March 1992. Six months later, Maidstone United resigned just before the start of 1992-93, after only three seasons of League football. Despite the concentration of wealth in the Premiership and the regular choruses of doomsayers, League clubs continue to display remarkable survival instincts. Perhaps the best tribute to Accrington Stanley can be found in the successful efforts of other clubs to avoid following their example.
From WSC 182 April 2002. What was happening this month