Accrington Stanley: If You Have To Ask That Question
Good Friday turned out to be a particularly good day for Accrington Stanley. They beat Mansfield Town by a goal to nil at Field Mill, whilst Luton Town, who are now below them in second place in the League Two table, were beaten by two goals to one at Colchester United. It was Accrington’s ninth win in their last ten games, and it leaves the club sitting three points clear with two games in hand on the three clubs immediately below them in the table. With this sort of momentum behind them, it becomes difficult to see how they can not get promoted automatically. The gap between them and fourth placed Notts County is now ten points.
Much has been written about the success of this club over the course of the last few weeks. The Independent ran a feature on the club. So did the Guardian. It’s hardly surprising that they should be feeding us these stories at the moment. It seems reasonable to suggest that many of us could do with a bit of cheering up when it comes to the football at the moment, and in particular with regard to its relationship to money. Manchester City are finally reaping the reward of being able to combine being richer than Croesus with being able to pick the right people for the right job. Familiar hegemonies are continuing to assert themselves in Europe.
So, we’ll take the good news stories. Accrington Stanley have, with Morecambe, the joint-lowest wage budget in the Football League, and to take that money and stretch it all the way to the to the top of any division is a significant achievement. In a football world stratified by money, Accrington Stanley’s this ascent has been astonishing to witness. Since the club won promotion to the Football League in 2006, Accrington have only finished above halfway in the League Table on two occasions. The last of these, two years ago, was remarked upon but felt as though it was the outlier whilst, in a broader sense, it was also overshadowed by Leicester City winning the Premier League at the same time. This season’s success is likely to be greater – it’ll be a story and a half now, no matter what happens – and less is going on in the background. Small wonder the spotlight has fallen upon the club.
The timbre of many such articles, however, is that they run the risk of being patronising towards the clubs that they seek to eulogise. It’s fair enough to say that the popular public perception of Accrington Stanley does still milk at the teat of that advert from the 1980s. An albatross foisted upon its neck in the name of primitive “banter”, as performed by a proto-Tim Lovejoy, it set Accrington Stanley’s place as the definitive “little” club, forever to be patted on the head before any other interaction can take place. The club was playing in the North-West Counties League at the time, and in a way, it almost seems odd that this particular advertisement should have lodged so firmly in the public’s head. But it has, and there’s nothing they can do about it.
Despite the fact that there are many who consider relegation from the Football League to be some sort of terrible fall into the great unknown from which one can never revocer, the truth is that there is a full spectrum, in terms of clubs at different levels of the game. The lowly conditions described in the Independent article are far from universal at this level of the game, but they’re not unique, particularly not a step or two lower. Running a professional or semi-professional football club is, for the vast majority of those who exist in numerical terms, at least, a hand-to-mouth existence to some extent or another. The vast amount of money that exists within the game could be more evenly distributed, but it isn’t.
Where Accrington do struggle is in relation to attendances, and this particular club has one specific problem which affects it. The town has a population of around 35,500, putting it between Woodley in Berkshire and Falkirk in the UK population list. On top of that, the town is four miles from Blackburn and six miles from Burnley, both towns with clubs whose attendances are remarkable, considering their size. They’ve always been there, of course. Since the very beginning of the Football League, in fact. But Burnley are having their best season in more than four decades, whilst Blackburn have problems off the pitch but at least winning games on it. For those who like that sort of thing, the two best teams in the country are twenty miles away.
Then, there’s the other thing. The bankruptcy thing. Perhaps this is fading as common knowledge, but for those amongst us of a certain age Accrington Stanley were the Football League club to go out of business during a season, during the 1961/62 season. They’re not. They weren’t the first and, with both Maidstone United and Aldershot following them, they definitely weren’t the last, but there is an extent to which the residual collective consciousness still knows that story, of a £62,000 debt sending a club to the wall in the middle of a season. What can be overlooked is how shady all of that was, how the club attempted to withdraw its resignation after hastily handing it in, the shadowy involvement of the chairman of a bigger local rival. It’s not the common football knowledge that is definitely was, say, thirty years ago, but it’s still there.
What we’ve seen at Accrington Stanley this season may be little more than a stopped clock telling the right time. None of this is a criticism of anybody connected with the club. They’re three points clear at the top of League Two with two games in hand on the three sides immediately below them in the table. This is more a matter of how we understand success in football, and how out of reach absolute success can only ever be. We know that the greatest players in the world aren’t playing in League Two for Accrington Stanley, and our curiosity leads to us to demand an answer. We place great value in some attributes, such as “togetherness” and “heart”, even though we know them to practically difficult to measure, or even perhaps define.
Perhaps the answer is the club having exactly the right people in exactly the right place at exactly the right time. Perhaps a combination of this and others missteps has taken Accrington to the top of League Two. Recreating such a mixture elsewhere, however, is not guaranteed to succeed. And this is what ultimately keeps us all engaged. We know that we’re ultimately looking for the answer to an equation that we can never fully understand. Accrington Stanley have, however, busted through long-held preconceptions about their club and stand at the crest of a promotion that would, on the basis of current league tables, see them play Birmingham City and Sunderland as equals next season. This is not a club that needs to be patted on the head. At the moment, Accrington Stanley are doing just fine.