“Accrington Stanley. Who are they?”
On Tuesday 17 April 2018, the entire English football league knew who Accrington Stanley were, as the small Lancashire club secured promotion to League One for the first time in their history.
For a club known primarily for an 1980s milk advert, hailing from a town of approximately 37,000 people most known for producing the densest bricks in the world, last week’s promotion-securing victory over Yeovil was all the more remarkable.
Having been formed in 1968 two years after the original club collapsed, Accrington have spent the majority of their history consigned to the quagmire of regional non-league football. That began to change in 1999 with the appointment of affable Scouser John Coleman. Just 37 at the time of his appointment, the former Runcorn and Southport striker began to develop an identity around this small club east of Blackburn. The zenith of his achievements came in 2006 with the National League title, won at a relative canter, which saw the club enter the Football League for the first time since 1962.
20th in their first Football League season was as much as even the pluckiest Stanley fan might have expected, and that was followed by a series of mid- to lower-table finishes. Staying in the league was enough for a team whose ground only has 2,000 seats and whose fans are some of the most loyal in the country.
Things began to change in 2011, when Coleman led his team to fifth, and a maiden appearance in the League Two play-offs. A defeat to Stevenage in the first round soon followed but that success set the pulses racing in the league above and soon, after twelve-and-a-half years at the club, Coleman moved onto the slightly brighter lights of Rochdale.
Yet, he seemed to be missing something. Often in this weird and wonderful game, teams and managers are just made for each other. Coleman struggled at Rochdale and tasted minimal success in his subsequent ventures at Southport, the club he’d made his name at as a player, and Ireland’s Sligo Rovers. On September 18th 2014, 968 days after he’d left the club, he was back at Accrington and since then things have continued to shine brighter at the Wham Stadium.
A 17th place in his first season back wasn’t tremendous, but he topped that in 2016 by guiding them to fourth and another play-off spot. Wimbledon emerged victorious in that encounter, but there was a new hunger at the club, a greater sense of self-belief that they belonged in the upper echelons of League Two. Some key players left the following season and inconsistent form only saw them finish 13th.
Then came 2017-2018.
Tipped by some pundits for a play-off spot, Stanley sat 9th at the turn of the year. A run that saw them only lose once in 16 games followed, winning 13 to skyrocket them up the table. They now sit just a point away from clinching the League Two title in the most improbable of success stories for the English Football League.
Much like Leicester’s 2016 Premier League title triumph, this was the story that no one ever expected to tell. Accrington are a no-frills club; they rent a 3G pitch to train on as they don’t have the resources for a training ground of their own and their owner, the enigmatic Andy Holt, has bought his players fast food after every home win this season. That’s not to mention his decision to make pints in the club bar just a £1 to treat the lads either…
Averaging just 1,853 fans per home game, which does mean they are filling 92.7% of the ground, Accrington will be by far and away the smallest club in League One next year. The Wham Stadium will play host to Sunderland, Bradford and Blackpool instead of Barnet, Forest Green and Port Vale. But they won’t care, they’ll be happy to be there. Because in a footballing world increasingly dominated by financial clout and intense organisation, Accrington are anomalous and proud. They are a good news story in a game filled with corruption and vitriol from ever more entitled fans.
If the statistics weren’t enough, one look at the squad cultivated by John Coleman sums up everything there is to love about this plucky underdog. At the start of this campaign they said goodbye to Omar Beckles and Matty Pearson, their two best defenders from last season, and striker Shay McCartan, who had been so integral to their attacking threat. What did Coleman replace them with? Mostly players from non-league or those available for free. No flashes, no frills, just hard-working footballers with something to prove. 31 players used across the season, eight of whom are no longer there, and each one has played their part.
Imposing goalkeeper Aaron Chapman, who stands 6 ft 8, has kept 17 clean sheets on the way to promotion, indubitably supported by rock-solid centre-half Mark Hughes. 24-year-old Jordan Clark, formerly of Shrewsbury and Hyde, has been the bedrock of the midfield, often partnered by Irishman Seamus Conneely or Scott Brown.
If they’re the foundation, Coleman’s front line provides the glitz and glamour. Scouse wide man Sean McConville, who played for Stanley in the manager’s first spell with the club, was brought back in 2015 and is now playing the best football of his career. 12 goals and ten assists in 40 appearances put him amongst the most productive players in the league, whilst young striker Kayden Jackson has to be one of the buys of the season. Got on the cheap from Barnsley, the 23-year-old scored on debut against Colchester and has since bagged another 15 in the league.
Still, there’s one man who epitomises the club’s breakthrough more than any other, and that’s leading striker Billy Kee. A Northern Ireland youth international, Kee has rattled in 24 goals this season. At just 5’9, he’s not a target man, but he is a talisman. The team works around him, provides for him and is driven by his contributions. It’s perhaps fitting that his two goals against Yeovil were the ones that secured promotion.
You’d think by scoring that many, Kee’d had an easy season, but you’d be wrong. Kee spoke openly in February about his battles with severe anxiety and depression. It’s a powerful interview, and I have no shame in admitting some of it brought me close to tears. A father, a husband, a lad doing his dream job – you’d think everything was perfect. Yet here’s a man struggling to cope with everyday tasks and someone who 18 months didn’t want to play football anymore and quite frankly, didn’t want to be alive either. John Coleman stood by him through his lows, gave him time off and has nurtured him. Kee is now playing his best football, is dealing with his demons and wants to help educate others, especially those in football, about dealing with these issues. It won’t be easy but he has my full support, as he should every self-respecting football fan.
Billy Kee, John Coleman and Accrington Stanley. A team that for so long has been little more than footnote or a joke in English football will be playing in the third division of the pyramid for the first time next season. Stories like this are normally reserved for the realm of fiction, but this one is for real. They might need a map to get there, but next season very few people will need to ask who Accrington Stanley are.