This is a sporting story to warm even the flintiest heart. But to understand what I’m talking about it helps to have a long memory, a taste for obscure footballing facts and a patience with failure not normally associated with the investor’s newspaper.
Does the name Accrington Stanley mean anything to you? Let me explain. Forty-four years ago this week Accrington Stanley Football Club decided they were broke and resigned from the Fourth Division of the Football League in mid-season, something that had never happened before and has been repeated only once since (Aldershot). Stanley’s home fixture against Exeter, scheduled for March 10 1962, just never happened.
Their results for the season were expunged, to the extreme annoyance of the teams that had beaten them; the club eventually just vanished and their ground, Peel Park, was demolished. Six years later, a group of enthusiasts reformed the club, playing in leagues so far down the ladder as to be almost subterranean.
On Saturday afternoon, Accrington go to Hereford, their nearest rivals, holding a Chelsea-esque 16-point lead at the top of the Conference, the division just below the League. If they can avoid defeat, and they are unbeaten since October, confidence will harden into near certainty. Accrington are on the brink of the most improbable comeback in footballing history.
The daft thing is that they should never have gone in the first place. Accrington went bust for want of £63,000 – a figure that current chairman Eric Whalley points out “wouldn’t buy you a decent non-league player these days”. It wasn’t a huge amount even then. The final straw was said to be an electricity bill. Days after sending a letter of resignation to the League, the directors realised they could carry on after all. They sent a letter un-resigning. They were told it was too late.
In Accrington folklore the villain is Bob Lord, the bossy butcher who was chairman of Burnley and the epitome of the bluff northern businessman who dominated football politics in those days. Lord was brought in to advise the club and, after attending a creditors’ meeting, he recommended closure. But Burnley is only five miles east of Accrington, just as Blackburn is only five miles west. These are the old Lancashire cotton towns, football’s original hotbed: they were among the 12 original League members in 1888.
Even today in Blackburn and Burnley, it is considered a social faux pas for a kid to walk around in some other club’s replica shirt. And Accringtonians believe Lord was anxious to get Stanley out of the way so Burnley could pick up their fans.
The town had only 30,000 people, though, and not many of those attended Peel Park. It was not just Lord who was fed up with failing clubs such as Stanley. There was no automatic promotion into the League then, and for years operation of the Old Pals’ Act had ensured clubs forced to apply for re-election would be nodded back in.
Two years earlier, however, Peterborough, having screamed for admittance for years, had finally beaten down the door and won the Fourth Division by a street. Now Oxford – a vibrant, expanding city with no rivals nearby – were rattling the door handle. Who wanted bloody Accrington Stanley?
As late as 1998, the club was still going nowhere. Parties of Swedish groundspotters would wander through the town, hunting for the last chunk of wall that was all that remained of Peel Park. But hardly anyone was interested in the team playing up the road. Jim Wilkinson, former sports editor of the Accrington Observer, reckons the low point came the day Stanley lost 5-0 to Bamber Bridge on the way to relegation from something called the Unibond Premier League.
Yet salvation was at hand. Having tried eight different managers the previous year, Whalley hired a scouser called John Coleman. He is still there, and the chairman is happy to hand him the credit: “He knew a lot of good Liverpool lads who were happy to play for us, and he’s a good man-manager.”
For years, Accrington stood as a template for what other lower-division clubs should never do. The lesson of their demise was: “Don’t panic”. In the past four decades, dozens of clubs have come through financial crises that would make Kenneth Lay blanch, never mind Bob Lord. Yet there always seems to be some mad moneyed fool who will come along and save them, out of enthusiasm, egotism or eccentricity.
Now Accrington can teach us something else: “Never, ever give up.” And if they do get back in the League then surely this time they will not yield so easily.
Their ancient problems have not gone away. It is still a small town with limited potential, and their gates will never be huge. But even in modern football, passion and tradition and determination all still count for something. And that should make everyone glad.