Accrington Stanley’s Brave New World
At the League Two match between AFC Wimbledon and Accrington Stanley a little over two weeks ago, a curious incident occurred which warranted comment only from the tidbits columns of the weekend’s sports pages but may yet come to have a significant bearing at the end of the season in League Two. With the clock ticking down to half-time and the score still goalless, a shot from Accrington‘s Billy Kee squeezed through a crowd of players and into the corner of the goal, only for it to become clear that the referee, Trevor Kettle, had blown for half-time as Kee took the shot, meaning that the goal didn’t count.
The match finished goalless, and with just five points separating third placed Bristol Rovers from seventh placed Leyton Orient, that all connected with Accrington Stanley should be indignant at a perfectly good goal being ruled out because an over-officious referee chose that exact moment to call time on the first half of the mach should be both unsurprising and understandable. At the time of writing Accrington Stanley are in fifth place in the League Two table, just one point off the automatic promotion places in this particular division, one point and two places below Bristol Rovers, But perhaps we should be more surprised at the fact that Stanley are in a position to be challenging for a place in League One in the first place rather than at this one particular piece of eccentric refereeing.
The story of Accrington Stanley is, of course, an oft told one – the club that was shunted from the Football League mid-season in 1962 after a resignation letter was rather too hastily by a body under the guidance of the chairmen of one of their local rivals, the rebirth several years later and the slow and gradual back to reclaim a place in the Football League. The story didn’t, however, end there. Once back amongst the top ninety-two, Accrington have found that a hand to mouth existence on attendances that rank amongst the lowest in the Football League in a division with a salary cap has turned out to be something of a hand to mouth existence of struggle at the wrong end of the table, with the sole exception to this coming in 2011, when a surprise fifth place finish led to a play-off semi-final appearance but ultimately defeat against Stevenage.
The sort of performance achieved that season, however, has been the sole exception rather than the rule since the club won promotion to the Football League eleven years ago. The 2010/11 season has been the only which has ended with the club finishing above the halfway point in the final League Two table, and there have been times when the club’s limited finances have seemed to nudge it towards insolvency. At the end of October, however, it was confirmed that the club was under new ownership. Andy Holt, whose company What More UK have been sponsoring the club’s stadium since last summer while a partner company have been sponsoring their shirts, took a 75% shareholding in the club, providing £600,000 in funds to the club and clearing a debt of £1.2m at the same time.
There is no questioning the scale of the task that faces Holt if he is to turn the club into that which he wants it to be. Problems with the pitch meant that the club went from the second week in November to the last week in January without a home fixture on a Saturday, and this causes obvious problems at a level of the game at which gate receipts remain a significant part of overall income. Holt has described his involvement with the club as “my community service,” and it is the size of the community that Stanley represents which provides the most likely stumbling block to getting pulling the club much further up from where it is now. The town of Accrington has a population of just over 35,000 people, and in addition to this it sits roughly halfway between the towns of Burnley and Blackburn, just seven and a half miles from the former and six miles from the latter. With clubs like this on their doorstep – not to mention Manchester being just twenty miles away – even attracting locals to watch the club has been a significant challenge.
One significant achievement that Holt has already managed for the club has been to secure improvements to one of the Football League’s more rustic venues. Agreement has been reached with the local council for a fifty year lease on the ground, and plans are now in place to begin the first phase of the proposed development, which will see a new 1,500 capacity all-seater stand built which will include a concourse with new facilities for supporters and the potential to be split to accommodate home and away supporters when required. The redevelopment is not planned to increase the ground’s capacity of 5,000, but with current average home attendances currently steadfast at just over 1,500 – still the lowest in the entire Football League – this would seem to be a sensible step. Spending further money increasing the capacity for people that may never turn up would not seem to be a terribly sensible way for a club that has had its fair share of financial woes in recent years to proceed.
On the pitch, meanwhile, in a – surprise runaway leaders Northampton Town aside – tight division, it is perhaps unsurprising that Accrington’s recent form has had a stop-start feel to it. The team recently went four games without a win not long after a highly impressive win at second placed Oxford United, a result which greatly opened up the race at the top of the table, and their ability to compete with the best in the division was confirmed when they ended that short win-less run with a home win against Plymouth Argyle, who are currently one position above them in fourth place in the table. With nine matches of the season left to play, however, there are few easy games left to play. Leyton Orient are their visitors on Friday afternoon and this is followed by a far from foregone conclusion of a trip to play Newport County and then a home match a week on Saturday against another team may may still consider itself to be on the outskirts of the chase for a play-off place, Cambridge United.
To be competitive at this end of League Two, however, is an achievement in itself for Accrington Stanley. In the overall scheme of things, not every football club can scale the heights of the Premier League or the Championship, and perhaps it should be enough for this club to represent its small local community with distinction, to have facilities that are comfortable for supporters and of benefit to the community, and to be able to occasionally have a go for promotion from League Two and chance its arm amongst bigger, better resourced clubs without too much pressure to succeed if any success is going to come at a cost that may endanger the club. The club that wouldn’t die has spent enough time attached to defibrillators over the years. It’s time for it to look forward to a modestly brighter future.
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