It is probably fair to say that 2012 hasn’t been the greatest year for British football clubs so far, financially speaking at least. Rangers, Portsmouth, Darlington and Port Vale all languish in administration and it is possible that others will join them. The language of the discussion of these clubs carries many tropes that are easily identifiable, but there is one that sends a cold chill down the spine of supporters more than any other: the possibility of a club failing to complete its fixtures. More than anything else, it is this possibility more than anything else which confirms a suspension of reality, and it is mercifully infrequent that it should ever come to pass. In recent years, the spectacle of a club folding in the middle of a season has been limited to non-league football, but it has happened in the Football League and this week marks the fiftieth anniversary of probably the most famous financial collapse of all.
The sign outside The Crown Ground in Accrington welcomes visitors by identifying Accrington Stanley as “The Club That Wouldn’t Die”, but Accrington Stanley did die in the spring of 1966, havng been forced to resign its Football League in the most public way possible four years earlier. The club’s financial problems had been evident since the end of the previous year when the club had been put under a transfer embargo over unpaid debts to other clubs which already totaled £3,000. The club launched a “Save Stanley” appeal, but the response was poor and only £450 was raised towards it. Meanwhile, crowds – which had always been small at the club – spiralled downwards as the club remained rooted to the bottom of the Fourth Division. On the 12th of February 1962, the club revealed that it also owed £4,000 to the Inland Revenue. Chairman Edwin Slinger resigned his position, and Club President Sir William Cocker took over the running of the club. A week later, a letter arrived from the Football League, seeking clarification of the club’s financial position.
Club President Sir William Cocker brought in vice-president Sam Pilkington in order to keep the club alive, and it was this point that the decision that finished Stanley off was made. Pilkington called on Bob Lord for help. Lord was the idiosyncratic chairman of Burnley Football Club, and his first action was to request the resignation of six members of the club’s board of directors. The possible ramifications of seeking advice from the infamously ruthless chairman of another local club doesn’t seem to have occurred to Pilkington. The club struggled through its next three league matches – a home match against Rochdale, which was followed by away defeats at the hands of Doncaster Rovers and Crewe Alexandra, but a considerably bigger battle was awaiting the club.
A meeting of the club’s creditors held on the fifth of March finally revealed the extent of the club’s debts, and they were far greater than anyone had realised. Accrington Stanley owed a total of £62,000, including a £9,000 overdraft with their bank, the £3,000 owed to other clubs and a £400 utility bill which was required to be paid immediately. Lord stood up and told those assembled that the situation was hopeless, that Stanley’s only option would be to resign their place in the Football League. Pilkington, who had introduced Lord to the situation at the club, resigned his position that evening, and the following morning the four remaining directors of the club drafted a letter of resignation to the Football League.
The issuance of this letter, however, didn’t quite prove to be the end of Accrington Stanley – or, at least, it shouldn’t have been. As the sports pages of the press filled with stories of the club’s demise, offers of money started to come in – including one man who walked into the offices at the club’s Peel Park with a bag containing life savings of £10,000 – and Sir William Cocker went immediately to the press, stating that he would fight to keep the club in the Football League and that enough money had been raised to keep it afloat until the end of the season. A second letter was sent to the Football League requesting that the resignation letter be withdrawn, and the League’s Alan Hardaker confirmed that they would consider the facts, with a meeting between the club’s chairman and its solicitor with Hardaker and the Football League’s Management Committee agreed for the eleventh of March.
At the meeting, chairman George Clarkson and club solicitor Harry Disley stated their position. They had the funds required to keep the club trading until the end of the season, and requested three weeks to come up with a longer term rescue plan. Hardaker had the power to call an EGM of all ninety-two members of the Football League to discuss the matter further, but this was not done. Instead, Hardaker confirmed that “well-established legal precedent” meant that the Football League had no alternative but to accept the first letter sent in and expunge the club’s playing record. There was briefly a likelihood that legal action would follow, but this never came. Legally speaking, the club had tendered its resignation. Accrington Stanley would continue to field a side in the Lancashire Combination league until 1966, before calling it a day. A new club – the club which has since won its place in the Football League back – was formed in 1968.
How, though, did the club find themselves in such a desperate position in the first place? There were probably three signifcant reasons for this. Firstly, the club had lost money during when a lottery that it run was declared illegal in 1955, and this was compounded three years later when the club paid £2,000 to purchase a new stand from the Aldershot military tattoo without having taken into account the costs of dismantling, transporting and reassembling the stand elsewhere. By the time it was complete, the cost of it had swollen to more than ten times its original cost, and on top of that the stand was not designed for watching football from, meaning the pitch was not viewable from some parts of it. Finally, the Football League de-regionalised its bottom divisions in 1959 – a piece, it could be argued, of very bad timing, when we consider the increased travelling costs that clubs were now incurring which coincided with crowds across the country declining after the post-war boom.
In those final weeks, though, there were many more that could be considered to have had some explaining to do. The directors of the club could certainly be criticised for keeping the full extent of the club’s problems quiet for as long as they did, while the decision of Sam Pilkington to bring in Bob Lord as an advisor was also a questionable one. Two names, however, stand out as as being key to the demise of the club: Bob Lord and Alan Hardaker. It has been said that Lord couldn’t be held responsible for the size of debt that the club had accumulated, but there is little to suggest that his advice did anything but hasten the club’s departure from the Football League, whether intentionally or not. Hardaker, meanwhile, could easily have done more to save the club had he been so inclined, but he was not.
Oxford United replaced Accrington Stanley in the Football League for the start of the following season, and in an extraordinary coincidence, it was Oxford who were one of the clubs that fell from the league when the reincarnation of Accrington Stanley completed its journey back to the Football League in 2006. Two clubs – Maidstone United in 1989 and Aldershot in 1992 – have had to resign from the Football League during the season since then, and it is perhaps a tribute to the changing attitudes of the Football League and the FA, along with the excellent work of Supporters Direct and numerous Supporters Trusts the length and breadth of the country that none have befallen that fate since, although the spectre of financial crisis has loomed large over much of the English game for much of that time. The last twenty years have not proved that football clubs are better at managing their money at the time that Accrington Stanley left the Football League – they have, however, proved that the game is better prepared to deal with clubs in their position.
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