It was the season when John Coleman’s fairy tale came true. “You never know what happens in football, it’s littered with fairy tales,” he told award winning writer Gavin Bell in the autumn of 2017.
Bell’s account of his meetings with club officials, players and fans in our promotion winning season is a highlight of his new book Because it’s Saturday, A Journey into Football’s Heartlands, a compelling portrait of life in the lower leagues far from the glitz and glamour of the Premiership. Seven clubs feature with Accrington in a timely reminder of their huge importance to the communities that support them.
The publishers and the author have given us permission to publish an extract from the Stanley chapter which you’ll find below. If you’d like to buy the book as a Christmas stocking filler, visit:
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“Malcolm Isherwood is the kind of supporter any club would love to have. A retired gas fitter, he is a lifelong Accy fan and former chairman of the supporters club, attending matches with his mates are social occasions, and the chances of him supporting Premiership neighbours Burnley or Man Utd are on a par with Christian Ronaldo signing for Scunthorpe. I first met Malcolm in the Unibond Premier days, when returning to the EFL was an improbable dream. His parting comment then was: ‘We’re just like lots of little clubs with big ambitions. A lot of it’s dreams, they might never happen, but you can always hope.’
When we meet again in the club’s Founder Members Lounge he says realising the dream hasn’t changed the ethos of the team. ‘We’ve moved on thanks to chairmen that have invested a lot of time and money in the club, but we’ve still got the non-league spirit,’ he says. ‘We’re a good family club, everybody says we’re friendly.’
We are sitting in red leatherette chairs embossed with the club badge, surrounded by framed shirts of the founding members of the English League signed by current and past players. Beside Accrington are the shirts of Aston Villa, Blackburn, Bolton, Burnley, Derby, Everton, Notts County, Preston, Stoke, West Brom and Wolves, all of them from the Midlands and North of England. All of them from working class roots of the game when legions of flat-capped men crowded terracing in all weathers to cheer local heroes who earned no more than them. It is a modest lounge for club staff with a small bar in one corner and not much else. When I meet the team manager later he describes it cheerfully as a glorified Portacabin.
Over cups of tea Malcolm recalls the days when the previous chairman went around turning off lights to save money. ‘We had lads in the past playing with curfew tags, you could see them above their socks. Now we can afford to give decent players two-year contracts but it’s still a small club, you feel part of it. Match days are social events. You don’t just turn up at quarter to three and go home at five, you come early to meet friends and stay afterwards in the club sports bar and the Crown. Win or lose it’s always a good day out.’
He has brought along Peter Leatham, a company manager and his successor as supporters club chairman, and Rob Houseman the supporters’ liaison officer, who earns his living as a supply teacher. Last time I was here Rob had just won himself a bride after taking his girlfriend to a Unibond away game at Pickering. After the match he asked her to say slowly the name of the team they had just played. ‘Pick-a-ring’, she said. So she did, they were wed a few months later and Kerry was
named Accy Stan female supporter of the year. His second favourite memory was when Stanley beat Gateshead at home in 1992: ‘I remember crying because it was the first time we’d qualified for the first round of the FA Cup.’ He was 21 at the time.
Rob stresses there’s more to the club than football. ‘We have a social responsibility, we have to look at social deprivation and help get kids off the streets. It’s fine having the community working for the club, but the club has to work for the community.’ The talk is of how to aim higher with the lowest attendances of the 92 members of the Football League. The club lost a generation of supporters when it disappeared for six years in the 1960s, and their last home league match on a Tuesday night against Grimsby drew a meagre crowd of 1,288. ‘If 70,000 didn’t turn up for Man Utd it would make no difference to them because of corporate revenues and sponsorship, but if a hundred don’t come here it affects us,’ Malcolm says. A vital source of funds is the transfer market. ‘We can’t sell players for a million, but a youngster rising up through the leagues can be worth a lot with sell-on clauses and add-ons. We sold a teenage lad to Blackburn for a pittance, but he’s moved on to Bournemouth and earning thousands for us in appearance money.’ In the close season three players stepped up leagues with transfers to Barnsley, Bradford and Shrewsbury. ‘They didn’t say what we got for them, but it’ll be a lot of money for Stanley.’
There is a sense that Accrington Stanley is the epitome of northern soul with a gritty determination to survive against the odds. I am warming to a club that fosters companionship and romance, and makes grown men cry, and it seems fitting the badge on the shirts is the town crest bearing the motto Industry and Prudence Conquer.
Honest endeavour on the field and careful husbandry off it by successive benevolent major shareholders are key to Stanley’s survival. Promotion and financial stability have allowed the club to offer players decent contracts, and Peter says: ‘It means we’re not at the beck and call of big clubs any more, we don’t have to lose players for next to nothing. Now we only sell for the right reasons, for the club and the player.’
Peter is the most recent convert, having been a season ticket holder at Bolton until a friend brought him to a match at Accrington. ‘I found I was enjoying myself more here, so I gave up my Bolton ticket and I’ve been here ever since, I’m happy to say. As an outsider, I can say this town doesn’t realise how lucky it is to have this football club.’”