WITH the Reds putting their feet up this weekend (or at least some of them) while the country snoozes through Roy Hodgson-led international football, The Anfield Wrap is seeking its football kicks elsewhere tomorrow, namely the Crown Ground (aka the Wham Stadium due to a sponsorship deal), home to Accrington Stanley.
NOW we’ve got THAT out of the way, let me tell you about who they are and why everyone should know the story of “The Club That Wouldn’t Die”.
We recently did one of those TAW Specials, you might have heard: it was Neil and myself chatting to John Coleman, manager of League Two outfit Accrington Stanley.
It was possibly my favourite interview that I’ve been involved in so far. Normally, I book the interviews and let the other lads work their magic but having interviewed John in my previous life as a lower-league roving reporter, I wanted in on this one.
As expected, it was a brilliant interview and if you’re a TAW Player subscriber and haven’t had a listen, give it a go here. If you’re not a subscriber, here’s a snippet of our chat with John.
Coleman’s and Stanley’s stories are inextricably linked after he arrived at the club in 1999 with his assistant and fellow Kirkby resident Jimmy Bell following a two-year spell as player-manager (remember them?) at Ashton United.
The former non-league striker extraordinaire took the job with Stanley playing their football in what’s now known as the Northern Premier League Division One — the seventh tier of English football in old money — and with just one player on their books.
In their 12 years together, Stanley under Coleman improved their league position season on season and in April 2006 a third promotion in in six years sealed a return to the Football League after a break of 44 years for the Lancashire side.
Coleman would continue to improve Stanley’s position year on year, with finishes of 20th, 17th, 16th, 15th and then fifth, with the club narrowly missing out on reaching the League Two Play-Off final with defeat to Stevenage at the semi-final stage.
The former Kirkby Town striker left the club after a 12-year stint, a spell that at the time made him the third longest-serving manager in England behind Alex Ferguson (who would later buy shares in Stanley) and Arsene Wenger to take up the vacant manager’s position at Rochdale.
But that doesn’t tell half the story. That the club still exists is nothing short of a miracle in itself.
Having reformed once before in 1968 following the collapse of the previous incarnation six years earlier, Accrington Stanley — a rose between the two thorns of Blackburn Rovers and Burnley — was, in 2009, minutes away from being wound up due to an unpaid tax bill of £308,000.
Step forward Ilyas Khan, a merchant banker and lifelong Accrington Stanley fan, who over a 20-year association has invested in the region of over £2million in the club, putting his hand in his pocket when floodlights were already listed for auction as the walls closed on a seemingly doomed team.
Khan, having stabilised the club, stepped down as chairman in 2012 and shortly after gave his shares away to other existing stakeholders for free.
Nevertheless, with an average gate of around 1,500 — a tenth of the team occupying the place above them in the league on goal difference, and less than half of some teams two divisions below, merely keeping up appearances is a massive achievement.
And yet hope springs.
After a two-year “break” that would put Ross and Rachel to shame, Coleman and Stanley, following indifferent spells with other suitors, returned to each other’s loving arms in September last year with Stanley struggling in 20th place in League Two.
Having avoided relegation last season, the club are now handily placed in fourth spot to better their 2010-11 finish of fifth with a league record so far this season of played 16, won eight, drawn four, lost four.
And it’s not just on the pitch that Accrington seem to be on a roll.
Only two weeks ago, another local businessman and long-term supporter, Andy Holt, gained majority control of the club and in doing so wiped out the club’s long-term debt and committed to investing a further £600,000 working capital into the club.
With historic debts of over £1.2million now cleared and money in the kitty to push on, a club so often seemingly on the brink of extinction are enjoying their best-ever start to a campaign since they returned to the Football League.
That the club’s resources still pale into insignificance compared to most of their supposed peers means that it will have to continue to punch leagues above above its weight to progress.
But Coleman, in one short summer, has reinvigorated Stanley and has worked his contacts book cannily to his advantage again, recruiting former Liverpool forward Adam Morgan and Real Madrid starlet Gerardo Bruna in midfield to supplement a side with a balance of youth and a few returning old trusted heads.
Accrington Stanley, who face a trip to Portsmouth in the FA Cup second round after beating York in the competition last week, in the same division as Wigan Athletic and Sheffield United next season? It’s certainly, and incredibly, not as far fetched as it sounds.
But this has long been the norm, and the rise and rise of this proud, small, community club is one that should be celebrated, not least for the helping hand it has had from Merseyside.
So, with that in mind, we’ll be there to watch Accy take on struggling Newport County tomorrow, managed by Stretford-born John Sheridan, in a game that could see Stanley gatecrash the automatic promotion places.
So there you go, the next time some smart arse acting the clown tries a shit imitation of the Scouse accent and asks, “Oooh are dey?” you can tell them.
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Pics: PA Images