With more than a quarter of the league season now played, the tables are starting to take some sort of shape. Over the rest of this week, we’ll be looking at four clubs who sit at the very foot of their divisions, starting at the bottom of League Two and a club that has rather got used to a life of struggle in recent years, Accrington Stanley.
It was, on the surface at least, one of the great romantic football stories of recent times. The story of Accrington Stanley, ‘The Club That wouldn’t Die’, winning its place in the Football League back after almost five decades in the relative wilderness was one that touched a raw nerve amongst football supporters. Many of us have suffered our our own near death experiences over the years and this redemptive tale, of a club cast asunder by the Football League on account of a few weeks of madness buried deep in the mists of time, has one to gladden the hearts. Over the course of the last seven years, however, the fairy tale has come to increasingly resemble a war of attrition, an apparently perpetual battle to keep this football club solvent in an unforgiving era during which money, one of the things that Accrington Stanley FC has less of than everybody around them, has come to dominate everything else.
It’s now more than half a century since the previous incarnation of Accrington Stanley made national headlines and wrote their own chapter in the history of English football by resigning their place in the Football League with three months of a season left to run. This in itself is a story that has come to be rewritten in recent years, as the realisation came to grow that the club probably shouldn’t have lost its league place at that time. Its debt at that time, £62,000, should have been manageable, and a sense of injustice has come to grow over the involvement of the Burnley chairman Bob Lord at the club, the hurried resignation letter sent on his advice and the refusal of the Football League to accept a retraction of that resignation when it started to become clearer that perhaps the club could dig its way out of the difficulties that it had been experiencing. There was, it has come to be believed, nothing inevitable about the club’s departure from the Football League after all.
Accrington Stanley, however, didn’t die at that moment in 1962 when the Football League refused to allow the club to retract its resignation. It limped along in the reduced circumstances of the Lancashire Combination league until 1966 before finally closing, and reformation followed just two years later. From here on rests a more familiar story, that of a name from the past that stubbornly ‘refused to die’, scrapping away in the anonymous suburbs of the non-league game before shoving its way, often, it seemed, through a sheer strength of will, back into the Football League in 2006. That supporters should have allowed themselves a small smile at the club reclaiming its place amongst the top ninety-two is completely understandable.
Since getting that place back, however, scarcely a season has gone by without talk of some degree of financial crisis being apparently set to engulf the club. Against this background, there is an element of surprise about the fact that the club has managed to cling onto its Football League status at all. But it has managed it thus far, and even though Stanley sits at the foot of the League Two table as October makes way for November, it feels as if it is too early to write the team off completely for the season just yet. A run of two wins and two draws from their last four matches has ended a dismal run of twelve matches without a win from the start of the season and now only goal difference leaves the club at the foot of the heap. Over the last couple of weeks, the club that wouldn’t die has started to show signs of the fight that has kept it in the League for much of the previous seven seasons again under new manager James Beattie, whose nascent career had, up to that point, been showing signs of stalling before it had the opportunity to really get going.
Still, though, the repetitive nature of the stories relating to the club’s financial position gives the impression of a glass ceiling having been reached for this particular club. Romance alone doesn’t pay the bills and the period following the club’s return to the Football League has become characterised by sporadic and occasionally apocalyptic warnings regarding its ongoing financial viability. Here’s a report on an unpaid £308,000 tax bill from 2008. Here’s a report from 2010 which indicated that the club’s debt had swollen to just over £1m by that time. Here’s a story from March 2012 in which the club’s financial difficulties were described as “a thing of the past”, but here’s a further story from eleven months later confirming that some of the club’s players hadn’t been paid on time.
This season’s first dire warning concerning the club’s future came from chairman Peter Marsden, who warned a little over a month ago that a “calculated gamble” reduce ticket prices in order to increase attendances wasn’t working, with an average home attendance of just 1,300 for the club’s first few home league matches of the season against a break-even figure of 2,000, and the club might cease to exist if more people didn’t start to turn out for matches. Marsden stated that:
I say, do people still want there to be an Accrington Stanley? It is like a dripping tap at the moment, the longer you put it off the worse it will get. If it goes on like this for months and months there won’t be an Accrington Stanley.
But how, we might well ask, can Stanley increase their attendances if reducing ticket prices won’t work? Sandwiched roughly halfway between Blackburn and Burnley and with the sparkling lights of Manchester a little further away to the south, it may well be that only a winning team will tempt back anything like the numbers that Marsden believes the club needs in order to stay afloat, and therein rests the club’s perfect storm. Without higher attendances, Accrington Stanley will not be able to afford better players, and without better players it seems unlikely that the team will climb the league to an extent to which supporters will start flocking to The Crown Ground. Apart from the 2010/11 season, when the club surprised many by finishing in fifth place in the table to reach the League Two play-offs, the club has not finished above half-way in the table since clambering into the Football League in 2006.
And this is the heart of the club’s problem. After seven seasons in the Football League, attendances have fallen rather than risen. In other words, the club has failed to build a fan base that can realistically sustain anything above this constant battle to survive at this level on a hand to mouth basis. Recents signs on the pitch have been reasonably encouraging. After a dreadful start to the season, perhaps James Beattie may yet build a side that is capable of competing in League Two. But there is a broader point that must be addressed here. Accrington Stanley Football Club has probably been punching above its weight for the last few seasons, and it would be surely be preferable to see the club find its level back in the non-league game than gamble its entire future in a bid to maintain Football League status. For now, though, Accrington Stanley Football Club is clinging on. The Club That Wouldn’t Die, for now, continues to live up to its name.
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