With small attendances and full-time wages the Football League is proving costly for Accrington Stanley, as Karl Sturgeon reflects
The Racecourse Ground, April 2008. Wrexham are playing their last home game as a Football League team, and it’s not hard to see why they’re going down: they’re losing 3-0 to Accrington Stanley, a team with a goal difference of minus 29. In the final seconds, however, Wrexham win a penalty. 3-1. Little consolation for fans already more concerned with finding Ebbsfleet on a map, but, up in the flimsy old directors’ box, someone is happy.
A man in a mid-priced suit, who has watched the previous 90 minutes with a fixed expression of austerity, suddenly grins and punches the air. To watch, you’d think the home team were going up, rather than down, but this man has no connection to Wrexham. He is Eric Whalley, Accrington chairman, and Wrexham’s late goal has just saved him a few grand in clean-sheet bonuses.
Running a league team is an expensive business. Watching the recent ITV documentary, Accrington Stanley... Exactly!, it’s tempting to see Whalley as an escapee from a Peter Kay sketch as he wanders the Fraser Eagle Stadium, turning off lights and muttering about the clubhouse takings. Tempting, yes, but unfair on a man who has brought success to his club.
That success has come at a cost, a problem which Whalley might not have anticipated ever having when he bought the club in 1995. Back then, Stanley were semi-pro and happy enough treading water in the north west non-League. Certainly, the modern club – despite being founded in 1968, two years after the original, debt-choked Stanley folded – were perceived as little more than a faintly nostalgic reminder of times gone by. Accrington’s rise over the past decade – three promotions and a transition to professional status – has been remarkable, and Stanley have so far held their own in the League, but have a club of such meagre means overextended themselves?
Money, as ever, is king. At the highest level clubs spend, and then – the occasional Leeds aside – reap the rewards. Lower down the ladder, clubs like Accrington achieve success, and then have to pay. The move from semi to fully pro is a traumatic one. Players who were happy turning out for little more than beer money now have to give up full-time day jobs. Those unable, for whatever reason, to make the step up need to be replaced with players accustomed to League wages. Television money and the rare but welcome prospect of selling a player to a bigger club helps, but not much. Brett Ormerod scored 32 goals in 54 games for Stanley, but it’s hard to argue against the thought that his biggest contribution came four years after he’d left, when Southampton bought him from Blackpool, triggering a lucrative sell-on clause. Thus is the paradox of the lower leagues: selling a star – weakening the team – is something to actively hope for.
Stanley have also been hobbled by the requirement to make expensive and unnecessary changes to their stadium. To fall in line with Football League rules, the club have until May to add another 1,200 seats to the Fraser Eagle. Chief executive Rob Heys recently went to Scotland, to see if he could save a few quid buying second-hand seats from St Mirren. It’s hard to see what use Accrington will get from erecting a new stand: gates hover around 1,600, the lowest in the league, similar to those of the 2005-06 Conference-winning season. In the club’s first season up, attendances rose past 2,200, but it seems that for the Accrington public the novelty of League football has worn off; a recent game with Barnet drew in just 1,056 punters, Accrington’s lowest attendance since entering the League. It doesn’t help that the Premier League is so close: a seat in the Fraser Eagle costs just two pounds less than at Ewood Park, five miles down the road, and that’s not considering the rise of Sky and the omnipresent “Big Four”.
Even as Accrington closed in on promotion in 2006, Eric Whalley saw the problems ahead. He told the Independent: “All the clubs in the top half of the Conference get more fans than we do. I’ve asked the fans, do they really want to be in the Football League?” It’s a question you could ask the men in charge of clubs like Histon and Stevenage who are currently competing with bigger clubs – Wrexham among them – around the Blue Square Premier play-offs.
Hopefully, the answer is yes. Coping with success might be difficult once the initial euphoria has ebbed away, but that’s no excuse for not competing. Whalley and his staff are rightfully proud of what they’ve achieved at Accrington. The Premier League has been watered down by the proliferation of over-cautious clubs just happy to survive. Hopefully, the lower leagues won’t go the same way.
From WSC 266 April 2009