Accrington Stanley are struggling to stave off the possibility of going bust for a third time. Neil Billingham looks at how the generosity of the Lancashire people is helping them through their latest crisis
To go bust once is unfortunate. To go bust twice is careless. But to go bust three times? In August when Accrington Stanley were given eight weeks to pay an outstanding tax bill of £308,000 or face being wound up the other north-west clubs came together to help. Neighbours Burnley hosted a friendly match against Accrington which saw more than 5,000 fans turn up at Turf Moor, raising £50,000 for the club. Three days later, fans from across the region turned up at Stanley’s League Two match against Darlington to swell the attendance to 3,228, more than doubling the season’s average.
The local and national media were out in force and the people of Accrington also dug deep. “An eight-year-old girl came up to me tonight and emptied the contents of her piggy bank into one of the buckets,” says Accrington Stanley’s chief executive Rob Heys. “I felt ashamed to be honest. What’s it come to when we need the generosity of an eight-year-old to keep us going? We don’t want to be a charity but we’re fighting for our life and we need everybody’s help.”
Heys’s sense of shame is understandable. Plenty of other clubs have suffered a similar plight but have failed to find the funds and have paid the penalty in the shape of a fine, points deduction or a winding up order. But Accrington Stanley seem to have a special place in the hearts of English football fans. Being immortalised thanks to a 1980s milk commercial has undoubtedly helped. But should the smallest town in England to host a Football League club, with average attendances of 1,500 and a history of financial mismanagement, be propped up by fans from other clubs and schoolgirls?
The original club, Accrington FC, were relegated from the First Division in 1892 and were prevented from joining the Second Division by crippling debts. Local amateur side Stanley Villa took the name Accrington Stanley the following year and the team returned in 1921 as a founder member of Division Three (North). In 1962 the club resigned from the Football League due to unpayable debts and despite re-forming in 1970 Stanley continued to struggle in an area where money for football has never been a priority.
History appears to be repeating itself but Heys insists the latest crisis is a one-off and once the tax bill is paid off the club’s long-term future will be secure. “A combination of events have conspired against us that any club would struggle to cope with,” he says.
In March, Accrington’s main sponsor Fraser Eagle went bust, costing the club a six-figure sum. Finding a new sponsor in the middle of a recession was never going to be easy but off-field scandals also caused unwanted publicity. In July, three Stanley players were suspended and fined by the FA for betting on their own team. A month later, goalkeeper Ian Dunbavin and midfielder Robert Grant were convicted of affray after a nightclub brawl in Southport involving Liverpool midfielder Steven Gerrard. The Football League also proved unhelpful, refusing Accrington’s request for dispensation on installing 1,000 seats which would cost the club £60,000.
Accrington had raised £80,000 and had until October 24 to pay the outstanding amount. With a friendly match against Blackburn, a possible share issue and continued fundraising events all being talked about the “Save Our Stanley” campaign faces a battle against the clock. Manager John Coleman has had to sell players, slash his wage bill and is now under a transfer embargo. Not that he’s complaining: “It wouldn’t be Accrington Stanley if it wasn’t a rollercoaster ride. When we won promotion from the Conference we had the lowest wage bill so we’re used to this situation. If anything it works in our favour. Some of our lads are on buttons, but they’re young and hungry and you can see that in the matches.”
But for all their efforts on the pitch it’s the club’s chequered and colourful history that could help save it. Accrington Stanley’s almost mythical status in English football has helped them generate support, cash and publicity that no other club could hope to match. If the “Save Our Stanley” campaign is successful it will have a lot to be thankful for.
From WSC 273 November 2009