One of the more welcome surprises of the last ten years or so was the return to the Football League of Accrington Stanley. The original club bearing that name famously resigned from the league in 1962 and, in doing so, became one of those great rarities – a Football League club that doesn’t even complete the season. A new club was founded in 1968 bearing the same name (although it didn’t begin league football until 1970), and fought their way back to promotion back into the League in 2006. For many Stanley supporters, who felt that the club has resigned its place in the League in haste and that the League accepted it too readily, this was vindication in itself. Now, however, there are concerns amongst the clubs supporters that they may be in danger of losing a piece of their identity.
The problem is that old thorn in the side of promotion between the Blue Square Premier and League Two – ground-grading. During the 1990s, there was a major problem with the Conference champions. A lot of the time, their grounds weren’t up to the exacting standards required by the Football League and three clubs missed out on automatic promotion – Macclesfield Town, Kidderminster Harriers and Stevenage Borough. Kidderminster and Macclesfield eventually made their way into the league, but Stevenage have yet to make it that far again. Something had to be done, and the decision was eventually made to relax the admission criteria. Rather than having to satisfy the League’s criteria immediately, clubs have to have a capacity of 4,000 with an ability to reach 5,000, and with 500 seats and the ability to reach 1,000 seats under cover. After three years, they need to have achieved a capacity of 5,000, with 1,000 seats with the ability to reach 2,000 seats under cover. At the time of writing, Accrington’s Fraser Eagle Stadium has a capacity of just over 5,000, but with only 1,200 seats. These improvements have to be complete by the first of May.
Accrington, therefore, faced a dilemma. Replacing terracing with seats has a tendency to reduce capacity, so a delicate balance of retaining their capacity whilst increasing the number of seats had to be reached. To make things even more difficult for them, the option of simply building a new stand isn’t there. They haven’t got the money, even with the promise of a 40% grant from the Football Foundation. The decision ultimately taken by the club was to install seats in the front of the home terrace at the Clayton End of the ground, the home supporters’ terrace. This has, unsurprisingly, upset a few people. Some don’t understand the League’s rules. Why should they need a 5,000 capacity stadium when their current home average crowd is 1,500 and they seldom attract more than 2,000 to home matches? Others are concerned that the changes will ruin the atmosphere at the home end of the ground. More still are bothered by the fact that they will no longer be able to stand in the position that they have stood in for many years.
It’s important for these fans to understand the reasons why the rules are as they are. The decision to change the rules on ground grading weren’t merely an exercise in face-saving after the handful of failed applications to join during the 1990s. There is a sound practical reason for it. The Football League and Football Conference didn’t want clubs spending all of their money on players and avoiding their responsibilities with regard to facilities. Every time a club failed to get promotion on the basis of their facilities falling short, there was a certain amount of bellyaching about how unfair it was that teams were being denied promotion on the basis of events off the pitch. The flip side to this argument, however, is a convincing one. Everyone knows the rules at the start of the season. Why should some clubs ignore the rules and spend all of their money on players, hoping that degree of emotional blackmail will force the Football League to backdown and bend its own rules, especially while other clubs spend hundreds of thousands of pounds bringing their facilities up to scratch and trimming their playing budgets accordingly?
Once in the Football League, clubs assume new responsibilities. For a Blue Square Premier club, a home cup match against Premier League opposition might come along once every ten or twenty years if they’re lucky. Once in the League, however, they enter the FA Cup at a later stage and have the League Cup too. They might draw a home cup match against a Premier League every four or five years or so, and they have to be able to safely host these matches. They are, in entering the Football League, cementing themselves as professional football clubs, and they need the facilities to back up the players that they have on the pitch. They are given time (Accrington have had two and a half years) to do it. It is an unfortunate fact of life for the average non-league supporter that enjoys the non-league game for what it is that promotion into the Football League may entail a certain “watering down” of the match day experience. The alternative to making the changes by the Football League for Accrington Stanley is expulsion from it at the end of the season. This is, of course, no alternative. At this stage in proceedings, Stanley’s supporters are just going to have to grin and bear it.