Accrington Stanley are one of the most iconic names in English football, but the fact that this small club from the North West of England are still in existence and even able to play in the game’s lower reaches is something of an achievement in itself.
Most of Stanley’s existence has been played out against an enduring battle to survive in a dog-eat-dog world that continues to this day, even so, they have still enjoyed flirtations with on-field success; not to mention instant fame thanks to an advertising campaign for milk.
As well as that famous 1980s television commercial Accrington are best known for being the club that wouldn’t die and the motto even greets teams as they enter the pitch at the Wham Stadium as it’s also known thanks to a recent sponsorship deal.
But over the years this mantra has been tested to the limit due to an ongoing threat of extinction which hangs over the club like an executioner’s axe year-after-year as they are confronted with dwindling crowds, shrinking budgets as well as being surrounded by teams who are, in all honesty, more attractive.
Birth of Accrington Stanley
The small town of Accrington, in Lancashire has had their own football club, in one form or another, since 1876 but don’t be fooled; the current incarnation shares little with their forefathers other than perhaps the name itself and the location of their home ground.
If truth be known, it's never really been confirmed where the name Stanley originated; but the general consensus is that patrons of a pub on Stanley Street, in Accrington, called the Stanley Arms, formed a club called Stanley Villa in the early 1890s, and the rest, as they say, is history.
Around about the same time Football League founder members Accrington FC were struggling to make ends meet and were forced to withdraw from the league in August 1893. Phoenix like, a number of local amateur teams, including Stanley Villa, were only happy to fill the void and so it was that Accrington Stanley came about.
After initially playing in the Accrington & District League they then joined the Lancashire Combination in 1900, taking just three years to win their first title in 1903 – the first non-league side to do so.
When league football resumed after World War 2 the “Reds” then moved to their new home at Peele Park and just 12 months later later accepted an invitation to play in the new Third Division North.
But despite a spell of relative stability in the post-war years by 1960, amid persistent financial difficulties, mainly relating to the speculative purchase of a new stand, Stanley were relegated to the recently formed Division Four.
They only managed to complete one full season in the lower tier as bankruptcy followed shortly afterwards. On 12 February 1962 chairman Edwin Slinger revealed that Stanley owed thousands of pounds in unpaid transfer fees, not to mention an unpaid tax bill and on the 6th of March they resigned from the Football League, weighed down by debt debt and unable to even pay a number of outstanding utility bills.
But having sent the resignation letter they soon changed their mind; but it was too late and the 33 League matches they had played that season were void – the town of Accrington was now without a football club.
True to their nickname, though, it was only to be a matter of time before the club were reborn once more and like a phoenix rising from the ashes the club’s current incarnation was formed in 1968 and one of the most turbulent footballing journeys was about to begin.
The Whalley Years
Under the guidance of local businessman, Eric Whalley, who over the years played for Accrington, was twice manager, before eventually buying the club for £80,000 in 1995, Stanley began their march back through the minor leagues.
Whalley, who died in 2014, is generally considered to be the club’s saviour and let’s be honest, Accrington have needed plenty of them over the years. The much-loved chairman was responsible for overseeing promotion back to the Football League in 2006 when, in a bizarre twist of fate, they leapfrogged Oxford United, the very club elected by the League to replace them in 1962.
Since then the story has been a relatively settled one by Accrington’s standards, on the field at least as a number of modest seasons and even a promotion play-off campaign saw the club flirt with third-tier football.
But in true Stanley fashion trouble was never far away and in 2009 the club were issued with yet another winding-up order over unpaid debts, before non-executive chairman Ilyas Khan and club president Peter Marsden came to the rescue to settle the deficit and ensure the club lived to fight yet another day; but it was only a short-term fix.
When former England striker James Beattie took the reigns in 2013 he quickly found out how difficult it was to keep the club afloat as once again it was down to the board to stump up the cash to pay the player's outstanding wages. “It’s tremendously difficult trying to keep a League Two football club going,” explained former managing director Rob Heys.
“We have got the lowest gates and the smallest wage budget and it is a battle to stay in League Two, but it’s where we want to be. We accept that battle because if we wanted an easy life we’d drop down a couple of levels. Everyone who works here goes over and above what they’ve been asked to do.”
— David Presley Burgess (@dpb1961) March 6, 2017
The fine margins still remain but in true Stanley style, where there is adversity, a true Dunkirk spirit continues to persevere. The supporters and staff have dragged this club through its entire existence before and it seems they will continue to do so for as long as they need them.
The Family Friendly Club
Accrington Stanley isn't about glory or for money, if you want that, head down the M6 to Liverpool or Manchester and for fans and players alike, it all boils down to enthusiasm and an unwavering love of the club.
During Beattie's time in charge it wasn't unusual for him to discuss tactics with fans before sweeping the changing rooms and cleaning the toilets – it’s not in the job description but it's just what's expected of you
When Roy Hodgson’s Fulham travelled to the Crown Ground in 2010, such was his disgust at club’s facilities that he even took his players back to the hotel to get changed there. The state of Stanley’s dressing rooms was only addressed thanks to former England cricketer and Accrington fan David Lloyd who organised a rund-raising event.
People will pull up trees for the club, quite literally. The club’s owner has been known to cut down branches behind the goal at the club’s training ground if they start to overhang, while on a trip to Wycombe Wanderers last season the coach driver was sent to a nearby branch of Domino’s to get pizza for the players and staff for the long journey back.
But despite the adversity tings do look more promising for the club and their loyal band of supporters than they have for some time. They now have new owners who, if nothing else, seem to get what the club is all about and what it means to the local community, a priceless commodity in the days of hollow words and speculative investments.
— Accrington Stanley FC (@ASFCofficial) March 6, 2017
When Andy Holt, owner of stadium sponsor Wham, purchased the club in October 2016 he quickly set about dispelling rumours that he was the Roman Abramovic of the lower leagues and instantly endeared himself, not just to the Accrington faithful but to anyone who cares for the existence of football clubs everywhere.
“Whatever individual, company or other entity owns the club is largely irrelevant, because this isn’t a business venture,” he said on his arrival. “Has anyone ever made a profit out of Accrington Stanley? In 50 years I will be dust blowing in the wind. Hopefully our input will mean the club is not.”