On, Stanley, On!
Property, plastics and the improbable resurrection of Accrington Stanley
David Lloyd is best known for his playing, coaching and commentating in cricket. He won nine caps as a batsman, coached England from 1996 to 1999, then joined the Sky commentary team. With his broad east Lancashire accent and wry observations, he has become one of the most popular and recognisable voices in the game.
Lloyd has another claim to sporting fame, one less well known. He played football for Accrington Stanley in the mid-1960s, soon after they had become the first club ever to resign from the Football League before the season had ended.
He has supported his home-town team since boyhood. He followed them through their “glory years” in the mid-1950s, when they came close to being promoted to the old Second Division, and was heartbroken when they went bust and lost their League status in 1962. He was proud to wear the red shirt for Stanley in the Lancashire Combination, which was “not much better than a local parks league”.
Lloyd was as excited as any of their fans when Stanley, who became synonymous with failure and were mocked in a famous television advert about a quarter of a century ago, returned to the Football League in 2006 after a remarkable 40-year journey that began soon after he stopped playing.
They are still perennial strugglers, who have never been higher than the lowest level of the Football League. “If there’s anything to be bottom of – smallest crowds, lowest turnover, wage bill, worst pitch, that’s where you’ll find us,” says the chairman Peter Marsden. But last season Stanley enjoyed the most successful campaign in their recent history, even if, just like the near misses 60 years ago, it ended in heartbreak. They have a new owner, and new hope. Even their tatty home at the Crown Ground, renamed the Wham Stadium in a £200,000 sponsorship deal, is undergoing improvements. “There’s a real buzz about the place,” says Lloyd. “It’s great. Stanley are going places.”
The first game Lloyd saw at Peel Park, Stanley’s old ground which is now a school playing field, was in 1955. “I was about seven, I went with my dad,” he says. “We had quite a team then and a very good Scottish manager, Walter Galbraith. I can almost recite the line-up.”
There is no “almost” about it. “It’d be McQueen in goals, that’s Gordon McQueen’s dad, Ashe, Harrower, Hunter, Ryden, Bodle, Cocker… you’ll remember him, Les Cocker, he worked with Alf Ramsey when England won the World Cup… Wright, Stewart, Dick – Wattie Dick, what a name that is! – and Bert Scott. That’d be a good team.
“That was the best period, when they nearly won promotion. The worst? When they were going out of the League, gates dwindled to around 1,000. It was a sad time in the town when you knew they were on the brink. There were a lot of SOS’s – Save Our Stanley.
“Have you heard the song, by the way, On Stanley On? I’ll not sing it to you, but these were the words. It was On Stanley, On Lads…” But Lloyd cannot resist, and he breaks into song.
On Stanley, on lads – on Stanley, on!
We'll cheer our heads off
When you get that ball in the net; and so it's
On Stanley, on lads; we'll fight until we've won.
Be sure we'll never be downhearted
Cos it's on Stanley on
It was a decent rendition, but Lloyd knows a man who can sing it much better. One of his boyhood friends was Jon Anderson, another famous ‘Accy lad’. While Lloyd’s career took off in cricket, Anderson became lead singer of Yes, one of the biggest rock bands of the 1970s. He has had a hugely successful career as a musician and songwriter, has lived in the United States for 30 years and still performs to big crowds.
Anderson was also proud to wear the Accrington Stanley shirt, as a mascot. “I was always number seven, like Stanley Mathews,” he says from his home in California. “I played at school, on the local car park at Peel Park, up against the wall for hours, on the cobbled streets against David Lloyd’s team.
“I sold programmes and cleaned the boots when I was around nine years old. I swept away the snow, cleaned the stands, you name it. Les Cocker gave me an old pair of boots one time, it was the best day of my life. They were a bit too big so I stuffed them with cotton wool.
“My mum and dad ran the supporters club bar. They came home one night so excited, telling me that Stanley wanted me, and I was on cloud nine until they told me it was to be the mascot. I thought they wanted me to play in the team – I was 10 years old! So I started travelling in the team bus, running on the pitch at Tranmere, Southport and Grimsby. Lots of laughs, and I got half a crown every match.
“Whenever I meet a team of football players in a hotel while I'm on tour, I always tell them the unique history of Accrington Stanley. They always look at me as though I'm nuts.
“A few years ago [in 2004] Stanley were live on our Fox channel here in California in the third round of the FA Cup at home to Colchester. My brother Stuart was behind the goal and we were on the phone cheering on the lads. I wore my Stanley shirt and scarf and screamed at the TV. That day was just the best.”
Stanley, then a non-league team, failed in their attempt to reach the fourth round, which would have equalled their best effort in the competition. It was a proud moment for them, though; it was their second FA Cup tie broadcast live that season, one in the UK and one overseas. It was the most times they had been on television since the famous milk advert.
The club’s name, given to them because the founding team played in the Stanley Street area of Accrington, had already been taken in vain by several stage performers by then. In 1979 a local singer called himself Stanley Accrington. He is still a big draw on the north-west folk and acoustic circuit and has performed more than 2000 times in Britain and beyond on what he calls “the non-league level” of music.
“I wanted an alias and I nicked the name when they had tumbled into the depths of non-league,” he says. “Many people only know me as ‘Stan’ and my sister calls me Stanley.
“Having taken the name, I met a few problems from the presence of several other ‘Stanley Accringtons’ in the entertainment business. There was a comedian from Bolton, a sixties cover band from Northampton and a Sunderland-based ceilidh band called Stanley Accrington and the Third Division North. I think I am the only performing survivor.”
‘Stanley’ was at a game at the Crown Ground with a friend a few years ago when he met the club secretary and joked about his stage name. “Apparently the young actors who had done the infamous milk advert [Carl Rice and Kevin Staine] were the guests the previous week,” he said.
Ten years after Stanley Accrington’s stage debut, the Milk Marketing Board used the boys to poke fun at the club on an altogether larger scale. The advert, which ran for six years, features two young Liverpool fans discussing the merits of drinking milk as opposed to lemonade. One tells the other that Ian Rush drinks milk. “And he says if I don’t drink lots of milk, when I grow up I’ll only be good enough to play for Accrington Stanley.”
“Accrington Stanley? Who are they?”
At the time, it was a fair question. Stanley started the 1980s in Division Two of the Cheshire County League. They should, by rights, have been in Division One but they could not go up because their ground was not up to scratch. The pitch is so poorly drained that in 1978, 10 years after Stanley had started playing there, a game was postponed on August Bank Holiday.
Carl Rice, whose strong Scouse accent helped to popularise the advert, went on to bigger and better things (Holby City, Benidorm and Coronation Street). So did Stanley (North West Counties, Northern Premier, Conference). When they won the Conference in 2006 the whole club was given the freedom of the borough. 44 years after their ignominious resignation from the Football League, they were back.
There were many who helped them on their journey: from local chairmen and directors with deep pockets to supporters who gave their skills, equipment and time to help knock the Crown Ground into shape over many years. There were players from the Football League days who helped on and off the pitch, coaches, fund-raising volunteers and above all the legendary management team of John Coleman and Jimmy Bell.
All of them played their part in changing Accrington Stanley from a national joke to The Club that Wouldn’t Die – the title of a book by lifelong fan Phil Whalley, which was published soon after the Conference triumph 10 years ago. That book, too, played a role in Stanley’s survival.
Accrington, which has never had a population of more than 45,000, first hosted professional football in 1888 when the town’s original club, Accrington FC, were founder members of the Football League. They were relegated after five seasons and folded in 1896.
Accrington Stanley, founded in 1891, eventually joined the Football League’s new Third Division North in 1921. They were never once promoted and by the time they resigned they had overstretched themselves and gone broke. Crowds had dropped sharply from a seasonal average high of around 9,000 in the late 1950s. At the time of their demise in 1962, Peel Park hosted matches watched by only 1,500.
Life was so difficult, after their remarkable return 10 years ago, that it nearly happened again: Stanley were on the brink of going bust and losing their League status a second time. “Accrington Stanley have perfected the art of running a professional Football League club on an unfeasibly small amount of money,” says Whalley. “Even so, we were always about £200,000 short every year, and it reached a head in 2009 when we came very close to being wound up in the High Court.”
Supporters raised £96,000 but it was nowhere near enough to pay off a tax debt of just over £300,000. The men who came to the rescue were Ilyas Khan, then chairman, and Peter Marsden, who replaced him in 2012 and is now the club’s honorary president.
Both men contributed hugely to Stanley’s survival, as did their predecessor Eric Whalley, who appointed Coleman and took the club full-time, after decades as amateurs or part-timers, two years before their return to the Football League.
Whalley the author – no relation to Whalley the chairman, who died in 2014 – says of Marsden, “He’s a total hero, no question. He was basically a fan from down south who kept putting in his own money. It must have been close to a million before the new owner came in last year. He could have resigned at any time but he didn’t. I take my hat off to him.”
Marsden, a London property financier with family roots in the Accrington area, lays part of the blame for his involvement on Whalley’s book. He was tempted into an adventure that he describes as “a real slice of northern life” and remained as chairman until this summer despite the club having been taken over by the new owner Andy Holt, who owns a thriving local plastics company. His round trip for home games was 450 miles.
“I had to go to Accrington one Friday on business and, being a bit of a football anorak I went to the club and asked if they would open the shop for me,” he says. “I had about £20.” He bought the programme of Stanley’s first game back in the League, and a copy of The Club that Wouldn’t Die, which covers the remarkable journey from League exile to return.
“I couldn’t put the book down. I sent a letter to Eric Whalley, the chairman, and said I’d put some money into the club, and Eric rang me and said, ‘Are you some sort of loonie?’ I met him at the next game and have been involved in the club ever since.”
Phil Whalley, who comes from Accrington, is a politics teacher in west London. “By coincidence, he taught my niece,” says Marsden. “When I see him I tell him he cost me an awful lot of money. I’d recommend his book to anyone who likes football, but if I hadn’t read it none of this would have happened.”
The challenges for a succession of chairmen and directors have been plentiful. There has never been enough money, the pitch is still a big problem, there has never been a training base or a gym, no network of scouts. With Burnley and Blackburn only a few miles away and Manchester and Liverpool within easy driving distance, attendances are usually the worst in the Football League, though last season’s average of 1,834 was at least better than Morecambe. Stanley pay their players less than any other club: some earn £200 a week and nobody was on a basic of more than £850 last season. The away end toilets have a seating capacity of one; the referee’s changing room “is an absolute disgrace” according to manager Coleman, who once lost his Portakabin office overnight when bailiffs repossessed it because of unpaid club bills.
“Everybody in the history of Accrington Stanley had just tried to keep the club going,” says Marsden. “Then, last season, Andy Holt came in and decided he had the money to take it to another level. I have a lot of time for Andy and I’m sure he will do well.
“We still have to keep the essence of what Accrington Stanley’s about. This is a unique club, very friendly, the most famous minnow in English football and, dare I say, even world football. The name resonates, it is known by everyone who has any knowledge of football history.
“It’s very authentic. You tend to get the type of supporter who loves football and likes to feel part of it. We’ve gone through so much over the years that everyone has had a part to play.
“We have one advantage over the others. We have in John Coleman the greatest manager in the Football League by a mile. His recruitment skills are phenomenal. He has an encyclopaedic knowledge of everyone, particularly from Merseyside and Ireland, and he brings together players who tend to have the right mentality.
“He comes across as a bit abrasive but he’s actually quite a philosopher at heart and a really nice guy. I think he’s a football genius. I can’t imagine Accrington Stanley without John Coleman.”
When ‘Coley’ took charge of Stanley in 1999, as a non-contract player-manager, they were in the first division of the Northern Premier League, drawing crowds of 350. His first game in charge was away to Lincoln United. “We battered them but we lost 1-0 and I went ballistic,” he says. “I told the players we could and should have won that game 10-1.” In the home game in October the score was precisely that: Accrington Stanley 10 Lincoln United 1.
There was a remarkable 19-game unbeaten to finish that first season for Coleman. Even now he looks back at the final game, a home win against Farsley Celtic watched by nearly 3,000, as a career highlight that can never be bettered. It was a fifth straight win and it landed the title. “It was the original shit or bust, and not only did we win it but I managed to score,” he says. “The ground was packed to the rafters. We had to win our last five games and we did. For pure drama, nothing can beat that.”
When Stanley went up again, to the Conference, “there were 20 teams paying more wages than us, so us winning it was a bit like Leicester winning the League now. Nobody gave us a prayer but we steamrollered everyone”.
Coleman, 53, who played alongside his fellow Merseysider Jimmy Bell for years, took him on as assistant manager at the outset and cannot imagine working without him. Both gave up other careers, Coleman as a teacher and Bell as an electrician, to work for Stanley full-time. “They say teacher and football manager are two of the top ten most stressful jobs and I was trying to do two at once. It just wasn’t possible,” says Coleman. Bell “took a massive, massive pay cut to do this” after 14 years as an electrician. The lure of football, of Stanley, was too strong.
There was a time away from the club, when Rochdale took on Coleman after Stanley had made it as far as the play-offs in 2012. He also managed Southport and Sligo Rovers, building an ever bigger network of contacts. But he was back in 2014, with Bell.
They sign players from non-league, from Irish and Welsh football, take cast-offs from elsewhere and they get the best from them. “There are diamonds everywhere,” says Bell.
Coleman does not want big earners at Stanley. “If someone said to me you can sign two or three players on £3,000 a week what would they be signing for? They wouldn’t be signing to come here, to play for me or the team, they’d be coming here for the three grand. I don't need players like that. I want them to come here hungry, to want to earn three grand a week but not with us, to go on somewhere else and improve themselves, and do well for me along the way.”
The constant stream of players moving is a part of life for Coleman and Bell, but they were unhappy when two of last season’s top performers were signed by Rangers when they were out of contract. Stanley got no fee for midfielder Matt Crooks – “the best player in League Two” – and striker Josh Windass.
Coleman and Bell were also unhappy about a great deal more that went against them last season. There was the goal disallowed in the 0-0 draw at Wimbledon because the referee blew for half-time as the ball was entering the net. There was the two-month run of no home games, because of record levels of rainfall. There was the disappointment of a goalless draw at home to Stevenage Borough on the last day of the season, when victory would have clinched a first Football League promotion. They finished fourth on goal difference and there was further disappointment in the play-offs when Wimbledon, who finished 10 points back in seventh, scored in stoppage time in the first game, then recovered from 2-0 down in the second leg. “That was hard to take,” says Coleman.
“I think others respect the way we play and they’re amazed we assembled such a good squad. We’re more the envy of chairmen rather than managers, because they might have spent a lot of money and we’ve spent no money, and our squad is better than theirs.
“But we’ve already lost two players and we’ll maybe lose another two or three. We’ll just have to rebuild and go again next season.”
At least, thanks to new owner Holt’s money, there will be more stability at Stanley, improved training facilities, the chance to offer long-term contracts rather than a few months or a season, and a better stadium. Plans have been approved for a new 1,500-seat stand.
Coleman described Holt’s arrival as a watershed moment. “It’s one of the biggest events in Accrington Stanley’s history – and that includes going back into the Football League. We’ve always been swimming against the tide. Now we are just jumping into a boat.”
Holt cleared the club’s £1.2m debts and started investing in the future when he took control last October, which had one immediate result. “It started changing Peter Marsden’s hair back to black from grey,” says Holt, who lives a few miles from the ground and whose local accent is as strong as David Lloyd’s.
“The club was bust, bankrupt, couldn’t pay the wages, finished. That was my view when I got involved. It was a case of needs must. The area can’t afford to lose Stanley.
“The first three months I did have regrets. Every time we stripped away a problem there were another 10 behind it – there had been years of underinvestment and neglect. But that all sounds like doom and gloom here, and that’s coming across wrong.
“There’s a real good feeling around the club. It started with what John and Jimmy have done on the pitch, and there have been so many volunteers who have done a lot over the years. People like Nick Westwell, the supporters’ club chairman, who opened a new shop in the town’s market hall. And all those previous chairmen and directors – their generosity kept the club going.
“I’ve had boxes at Old Trafford, been to Wembley to watch European Cup final, but it just doesn’t compare to being close to the touchline at Accrington. You hear every kick, every knock.
“My plastics company has a total turnover of about £55m, and Accrington Stanley is about £1.5m. Whatever Accrington throws at me, I can cope with it. Despite popular opinion, I’m not mad. We can get a sustainable model here, a club that’s good for the community and everybody around Accrington. We have a trust that interacts with 10,000 people every year, we have 120 kids in our academy from nine up and they’re starting to do well. There’s a lot of thinking about the future at the club. We couldn’t do that before.”
On, Stanley, On…