The long read: Accrington Stanley - 'who are dey?' - a club at the heart of the community. 'Exactly'
'Football at this level is honest,' says long-serving manager John Coleman, 'and we’re not a club that is going to bankrupt ourselves in the chase for glory'
Only an hour to go before relegation-threatened Accrington Stanley take on League One leaders Luton Town on a bright East Lancashire afternoon 32 kilometres north of Manchester.
Framed by the east Lancashire moors above the town of 35,000, Accrington’s thoroughly modernised ground sits amid a quiet residential area. No manager in England’s 92-team football league has an office quite as modest as John Coleman, the man who has been Stanley’s manager for 18 years. No current manager in English professional football has managed their current club for longer.
“Come inside,” says the Liverpudlian, 56, inside being a portable steel container where his friends and family are relaxing before a hugely important match. Fleetwood Town manager Joey Barton stayed there for two hours after a game weeks previously.
There are photos of legendary Liverpool managers Bill Shankly and Bob Paisley on the wall, plus a local newspaper report from 1985 of a match which ended Accrington Stanley 1 Burscough 2. Dated February 26, it reads "Accrington Stanley still find themselves looking for their first point of 1985". Burscough’s goalscorer is one John Coleman "who scored a hat-trick in the match between the sides on January 1st". Jimmy Bell got Burscough’s second. Bell has long been Coleman’s assistant. They were born and raised in Kirkby, a Liverpool overspill. Coleman gets away from the all-encompassing job by watching Liverpool as a fan.
Accrington Stanley under his leadership continue to punch well above their weight.
“We won League Two last year when nobody expected us to, but we did,” he says, in explanation of how this tiny club arrived in England’s third tier.
“We had a good set of players and added to them in the summer. I sat them down and said: ‘The realistic aim is automatic promotion. If you don’t think you can do it then go elsewhere.’ The players bought into that. At one point we won 17 out of 18 and had the best record in Europe. We did that on the second lowest budget in League Two. We didn’t even have our own training ground.”
There are other factors which make life more difficult for Accrington. It’s sandwiched between Burnley and Blackburn – two historic English clubs who draw fans from Accrington. The Manchester giants - City and United - are less than an hour to the south.
“Our attendances have a direct correlation with what we can pay players,” explains Coleman. “And we’re not a club that is going to bankrupt ourselves in the chase for glory.”
Helped by larger away followings and more home fans, Stanley’s crowds shot up by an average of 1,000 per game to 2,827 – impressive but still comfortably the smallest in a league where the average is nearly four times that figure.
So how do they do it when far better resourced teams don’t?
“Players must enjoy playing and have the love I had when I played non-league football,” Coleman says. “We do a lot of scouting ourselves and have a network of connections that we rely on. We don't have a single scout.”
The prevalent accent in the temporary office is Liverpudlian. Several of Accrington’s players are Liverpudlian, their support staff too. Liverpool is a city that has long produced footballers. Kirkby, where Coleman grew up, boasts four European Cup winners alone. Merseyside has no football league clubs below Liverpool and Everton; Greater Manchester has six below United and City.
Liverpool is therefore a happy hunting ground for Accrington. “I’ll know someone who knows a player in Liverpool and my first words to that person will be ‘is he our type of player, does he have the character to fit in our dressing room?’ If there are good players from Liverpool and I miss them then I’m doing something wrong. Arsene Wenger didn’t miss French players. He wouldn’t and he shouldn’t have.”
Coleman watches a lot of under 23 matches and it helps that Everton’s U23s play in Southport close to his home.
“Leicester have got a great U23s side,” he says. “But you don’t know if a good U23s players can became a good League One player. The U23s players from the big clubs are different. Their centre-halves don't head the ball, the keepers don’t catch the ball. It’s a huge learning curve for them and it works for some and they’ll benefit hugely playing here. Rob Elliot came here, did well and has played Premier League football.”
Coleman is proud of Stanley’s entertaining football.
“We try to play an expansive game, though our pitch hinders us. We play through the lines and we're probably the first team in League One to play 4-2-3-1. That came from when I watched Holland in the 2010 World Cup semi-finals in South Africa and saw how they interchanged. We don’t have the players Holland have to do it like they did, but we took their ethos and we had energetic players of our own. Teams found it hard to play against us, then they copied us.”
Coleman left Accrington in 2012 after more than 12 years.
“We don’t speak about him leaving,” explains one club staffer. “That’s the forgotten period.”
“I thought the club was in danger of not surviving,” Coleman says of his departure. “I wasn’t jumping from a sinking ship. I had an opportunity to manage a team in League One with a bigger budget. I took it but the bigger budget didn’t materialise.”
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Coleman went to Rochdale for a year, Southport a year later and Irish side Sligo Rovers, with whom he beat Norwegian champions Rosenborg away in the qualifying rounds for the Europa League in 2014. “Like Chesterfield beating Barcelona,” he smiles. Then he came back.
A strong relationship with Stanley owner, Andy Holt, is key to his longevity.
“He’s fantastic to work for. He leaves the football to me and he does the business side of it. He knows I won’t ask him for money he doesn’t have. We will always be a selling club and my job is to keep us as high as we can, hopefully in this division. I want to threaten for the play-offs, want to develop players, want to see the facilities continue to develop and get a training ground.”
A year ago, Accrington sold players for £1.75 million and £750,000 (Dh8 million and Dh3.5 million) to Ipswich Town.
“Two and a half million – clubs pay properly for our players now,” Coleman says, satisfied. “That would have been £250,000 two years ago.”
Once mocked with "Who are dey?" in a 1980s TV advert, the relative success of its current team keeps the town on the map.
“Accrington is famous for three things,” says Coleman. “Nori brick, Stanley and the Pals. It’s a proud, historic town.”
There’s a poem dedicated to the Accrington Pals, on the wall behind the manager. Otherwise known as the 11th Service battalion of the East Lancashire regiment, the Pals were an infantry division of men from the town who served in the First World War. Seven hundred of them went into battle on the Somme on July 1, 1916. 585 became casualties, 235 of them killed, in the first half-hour of the battle. It was, and is, a close-knit community.
“I’m on first name terms with 200-300 of the fans here because they’ve been on the journey with us. I said to some of the main ones last week that we needed some of their flag shows [from the Stanley Ultras] for the run-of-the-mill games, not just the big games. I asked; they delivered. Then I can meet them after the game for a drink where fans can tell me where I’m going wrong and how I should be picking the team!”
Accrington – "Accy" to locals – is hard-bitten and working class. Over 66 per cent voted to leave the EU in the 2016 referendum, far higher than the national average. The high street, like most British high streets, is struggling. Fast food shops, charity shops and bookmakers prevail and the relatively prestigious M&S store closed two years ago.
That a football team without a benefactor should rise out of this is surprising as the foundations of New York’s Empire State building being made of Accrington "Nori" brick.
Stanley have the lowest wage bill in the league, with the lower paid first-team players on £400 a week (Dh1,870).
“Sunderland’s wage bill is 20 times ours. Away from Sunderland, who are admittedly an anomaly, you have players on £6,000 a week in this league. We can’t come close to that and nor do we intend to because it’s not fair on the players we have who don’t earn that and who run through a brick wall for me. I treat players the way I wanted to be treated when I played [Coleman was a prolific non-league striker] and I say to them ‘if I can play you or pay you, what would you choose?’ They all want to play. Football at this level is honest.”
Stanley started the season very well and were pushing towards the play-offs, then it started to go wrong.
“We lost a couple of loan players and we struggled to score,” says Coleman. “We’re the third highest chance-makers in the league but the second-lowest scorers. We lost too many games 1-0 where we peppered teams but then the other team nicked a goal. As a former striker that hurts, but I also believe that strikers make the best managers because they need the drug of scoring. I still need that as a manager.”
The goals have not been coming and Stanley are fighting relegation. There is now 35 minutes to kick off against a Luton team which Stanley pipped to the League Two title last season.
“They’re a big club but we blindsided them last season to win the title,” says Coleman.
Coleman, 56, signed a new four-year contract in 2018 with no break clauses.
He became a father to the first of his three daughters at 19.
“I had my family young. They grew up with me playing football. I’d be ringing them when they were kids and they’d be sat by the Teletext giving me the different football results, from Droylsden, Whitby or Radcliffe. My immediate family are here today. They like football and were there when we drew 2-2 at Sunderland. If someone had said that Stanley would play Sunderland in a league game 20 years ago when we were playing in the seventh tier of English football they wouldn’t have believed it.”
Stanley’s rise started in 2000 when they won the Northern Premier League Division One in front of average crowds of 500, followed by the Premier League in 2003 to reach non-league football’s highest level. Against expectations they were promoted to the Football League in 2006 and despite being the smallest supported club, survived for 12 seasons in the fourth tier. Then came promotion to the third in 2018.
“We’d better be going, the game is going to start,” says Coleman hurriedly as he leaves his container. Away fans don’t spot him as he walks into the stadium and onto the pitch where flag waving Stanley ultras comprised of young, local, lads in the Clayton End sing: “John Coleman, football genius.” He applauds them and urges support. There are families and children in attendance all around the redeveloped stadium, helped by grants, which now holds 5,450, of which 3,100 are seated. It feels like a football club at the heart of the community and the owner is one of the most respected in football. He tweets facts and figures which show the reality of life for a minnow club among the bigger fish. He doesn’t ask for sympathy, just that other clubs simply abide by financial rules.
Luton are top of the league and closing in on automatic promotion. Stanley goalkeeper Dimitar Evtimov saves a penalty after four minutes, then the Bulgarian receives a red card after 22. Down to 10 men, they can’t compete and lose 3-0.
“Stanley till I die,” sing the ultras over and over again as the 3,271 crowd disperses. It’s a sunny day but Coleman’s disposition is anything but when he returns to his container after speaking to his players and the media.
The players are leaving in their tight three-quarter length tracksuits. Urban music pumps from the victorious Luton dressing room and hardcore Hatters fans ask for photos with players on their way to the Championship.
No music plays in the container and a space is quickly made for the boss to sit down and talk among friends about the game.
He is joined by rival manager Mick Harford, himself a former, hard, effective striker in England’s top tier. Harford, like Coleman, is a football man. The conversation flows, the respect clear, but Stanley are sliding and Coleman knows it.
Accrington sit 16th out of 24 teams, but the position isn’t as secure as it seems. They are only three points clear of the relegation zone with three games to play, but they have won only two of the last 13 and tough away games at promotion chasing Doncaster Rovers and Portsmouth await.
“You’re coming on the team bus with us to Doncaster on Tuesday aren’t you?” asks Coleman by way of an invite. “Come in the dressing room and see how things really work.”
It’s a huge game. How could I refuse?
Updated: May 21, 2019 10:55 AM