Only via a cursory glance at an A-Z of global destinations could you put Abu Dhabi anywhere near Accrington.
Never mind the 4,500 miles geographical distance, the cultural divide or the billions upon billions of dollars difference in material wealth, investment and assets, what could possibly provide a link – however tenuous – between a small town in Lancashire and the capital of the United Arab Emirates?
Admittedly, it is indeed gossamer thin, but the words ‘international break’ did the trick last weekend.
World Cup qualifiers and friendly matches meant withdrawal symptoms for a Manchester City fan addicted to, but deprived of, his regular Premier League ‘fix’ at the Etihad or a City away day.
An invitation from the Chairman of the Official Accrington Stanley Supporters Club, Peter Leatham, combined with an opportunity to visit a dear City friend, Philip Entwistle, stricken with cancer and living in nearby Nelson, sealed the deal last Saturday.
It all came down to swapping City for Stanley, the Etihad for the Wham, Pep Guardiola for John Coleman and sky blue for red and white (albeit that last comparison wasn’t strictly true, as Read But Never Red was rooting for Stanley’s opponents on the day, Grimsby Town, given that the author was ‘created’ in Cleethorpes, many Blue Moons ago.)
A six-hour, 280-mile round trip would afford me the opportunity to compare and contrast the fluctuating fortunes and aspirations of my beloved City, and those of Stanley, forever known as the ‘Club that wouldn’t die’ after going bust, dropping out of the Football League in 1962, only to be reborn six years later.
A 40-minute chat with Stanley’s owner, Andy Holt – including a stroll onto the well trodden Wham Stadium turf as the players went through their pre-match warm up routines – provided a fascinating insight into what the passionate Stanley fans refer to as ‘real football’.
Given that shallow glory-hunting, Johnny-Come-Lately types, who hitch a ride on any successful team are derided as ‘plastics’, there’s a certain irony about Andy Holt’s involvement at Stanley.
A successful businessman and local Lancashire lad to boot, Andy’s wealth derives from the plastics industry, but make no mistake, he’s totally authentic, always putting Stanley’s best interests first.
Describing himself as a ‘casual Burnley fan’, he was invited along to a pre-season friendly between Stanley and the Turf Moor outfit in the summer of 2015.
Accrington Chairman Peter Marsden was desperately seeking £100,000 from new investors, and wondered if Andy would be prepared to trade his ‘part-time’ claret and blue colours for a full-time red and white commitment?
Andy underplays it when he says, “I was happy to come along, take a look and put in the £100k, either as part of my investment in the club or, if I didn’t want to get involved, it’d simply be a gift.”
Generous in the extreme and not in the least bit ostentatious, Andy was true to his word and soon ‘bitten’ by the idea of resurrecting Stanley’s fortunes.
There’s a parallel of sorts – albeit on a different scale – with Sheikh Mansour’s 2008 takeover at City after Thaksin ‘Frank’ Shinawatra found himself unable to safeguard City’s status or finance future investment.
The onerous task facing Andy was immediately apparent at that Burnley game. Having had one beer he couldn’t have another as it ran out…Stanley hadn’t paid the brewery and things literally dried up.
“The club was in chaos, it was folding but nobody fully realised. The players, staff and suppliers weren’t being paid, it was a total shambles.”
Andy took up his 75% controlling interest in Stanley in late October 2015, describing it as a ‘great challenge’, but one he relished. The remaining 25% is effectively held by Stanley fans who do ‘their bit’ in helping raise funds.
In the past two years the hardcore supporters have raised an impressive £50,000 to help create a new Fanzone and, by the end of the season, see the installation of a giant electronic screen-cum-scoreboard, with instant replay facilities of live games, as well as opening up a myriad of new commercial and advertising opportunities.
Peter Leatham elaborated on some of the innovative ways they raise funds.
“Fans can pay to be a ‘Director For A Day’, travel on the team coach and enjoy all the trappings of Boardroom hospitality on match days.
“Alternatively, they can sign a genuine EFL contract with Stanley, flanked by manager John Coleman and his assistant, Jimmy Bell, conduct a media interview and then undertake the obligatory club shirt and scarf photo call in the Wham Stadium.
“It’s novel, it’s fun and it’s effective in producing a new revenue stream.”
Stanley’s most famous fan, former England Test cricket captain and now Sky Sports cricket commentator, David ‘Bumble’ Lloyd, was the first to sign on the dotted line, albeit he has yet to swap the commentary booth for an appearance in Stanley’s colours.
Peter said the type of things fans of Premier League clubs take for granted – tarmac car parks, refreshment bars, electronic screens and flushing toilets – are, or were, considered something of a luxury at the Wham Stadium, until recently.
Andy Holt cites what some people might see as amusing, but nonetheless serious, instances when things haven’t gone to plan.
“We were live on Sky in the play-offs against AFC Wimbledon when the floodlights failed. We’d turned the electric showers on in readiness for the end of the game and the system just couldn’t cope – hence the lights went out.
“Earlier in the season we’d discovered that if we had the sprinklers working on the pitch, the toilets wouldn’t flush. It sounds daft to an outsider, but it was what was happening.
“The whole infrastructure of the club needed overhauling, both on and off the pitch – the electrics, the plumbing, the player’s contracts…you name it.”
Players would, at the most, be on one-year deals, and at the end of last season Stanley lost three-quarters of the squad on free transfers.
The subject of transfers is particularly thorny one, revealing Andy’s inherent sense of fairness.
When Rangers took two of Stanley’s top players – Josh Windass and Matt Crooks –without a fee last summer, it left a sour taste. Both had signed pre-contract agreements with the Glasgow outfit in January 2016, without any prior notification to Andy.
Andy believes the two midfielders could’ve commanded a joint fee well in excess of £1million – a veritable fortune to a club generating a total turnover in the region of £2m.
Obviously a man of principle, Andy doesn’t bear any ill will towards the players, but believes Rangers acted in an underhand fashion.
“The tapping up of players goes on all the time in football. I don’t blame the lads for wanting to better themselves, but there was a complete lack of integrity in how Rangers went about it.
“All I wanted was a fair deal – reasonable compensation – and for all parties to act with integrity.”
This principled football club owner stood firm when Rangers offered Stanley £400,000 to hasten Windass and Crooks’ departure to Glasgow in that January transfer window.
He refused, instead opting to take the mandatory £120,000 compensation payment from Rangers under UEFA regulations last summer.
“Yes, we lost out on £280k, but I had to make a stand.
“If Rangers had approached Stanley up front instead of going behind our backs it would have been totally different. We’re a small community club, not a club that can hold onto its best players – we know that – but it’s about being fair.
“I couldn’t have people in the game thinking Accrington Stanley were an easy touch, I had to set a precedent. Historically Accrington Stanley had been an easy touch…but not anymore.”
Having established his desire for fairness in the game, Andy gives a further example – one which might be unique in English football.
The away fans at The Wham stand behind the goal at the Coppice End – exposed terracing without a roof – accommodating up to 1,800 fans.
“If it’s pissing down with rain and people have travelled hundreds of miles it’s not very fair to leave them out in the elements is it?
“We try to put them undercover if we can, getting some of the Stanley fans to shift along the stand, so everybody can stay dry while watching the match.”
You can’t say fairer than that, can you? It’s not something that you’ll be seeing at the Etihad or any other Premier League ground anytime soon.
And, when it comes to harmonious crowds, Andy is proud of the fact that Stanley are the only club in the Football League who don’t have a police presence on League Two match days.
“They’re not needed. We have our own stewards. We never have any problems.”
While we’re in conversation, a member of Stanley’s commercial team tells Andy the visiting Mariners from Grimsby have brought approximately 500 fans, boosting the attendance to 2,312.
It’s a good sized crowd for a Stanley home fixture and serves to emphasise the gulf between the likes of Accrington and City.
Whereas City are planning to unveil The Tunnel Club next season – a new ‘Fancy Dan’ match-day ‘experience’ which, in the words of the promotional literature, will provide ‘…hospitality without restrictions, and unrivalled backstage access that will immerse you into the game like never before…’ Andy is pushing back at Football League regulations stipulating The Wham needs more seats.
“We haven’t enough fans to put bums on the number of seats required, so where’s the sense in it?”
He is driven to improving the facilities at the Wham Stadium as well developing the team in a ‘symbiotic’ fashion.
“It’s no good having a good club with a shit team, or a good team but a shit club – we have to get the right balance.”
The match itself is pleasantly entertaining as the two mid-table teams battle out a 1-1 draw – a fair reflection on the play, but a missed opportunity for Stanley to create a tiny piece of English football history.
Had they taken the lead, Accrington would’ve set a new record of having done so in 10 consecutive games, but Akwasi Asante’s 70th minute opener put paid to that.
A superb Shay McCartan free kick in the 89th minute rescued a point, after Stanley had twice hit the woodwork prior to Grimsby going 1-0 up.
Of course, I’d rather have been watching David Silva, Sergio Aguero, Leroy Sane, Kevin De Bruyne & Co, but what struck me about the whole ‘Stanley Experience’ was the inherent honesty and transparency of it all.
Neither side attempted to con the officials.
There was no ‘simulation’, no petulant hissy fits, no snide off the ball incidents, in fact nothing contentious for referee, Peter Gooch to have to deal with all afternoon.
Grimsby’s Scott Vernon was worse the wear after being tackled by ‘Stanley Barrier’ – the Town striker colliding with a pitch-side advertising hoarding – but even then fans of both sides applauded sympathetically as he went off with a heavily bandaged head wound.
The only real debating point of the day was if the new Pukka Pie match day fayre was better than Stanley’s previous pie supplier?
As I drove down the Livingstone Road with The Wham in my rear view mirror, I reflected on what had been a thoroughly enjoyable, gloriously sunny day in East Lancashire and the words of Andy Holt earlier that afternoon, when he’d said, “I think John Coleman is better than Pep Guardiola.”
Fair comment or not?
We agreed to disagree.
By David Walker
My thanks to Peter Leatham for his kind invitation to watch my hometown team Grimsby up close and personal against Accrington, and to Stanley’s owner Andy Holt for his time, consideration and candour. Andy is leading a #Redvolution and I can but wish him every success.
www.readbutneverred.com @ReadButNeverRed @djwskyblu