From Abu Dhabi to Accrington Stanley…

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?

It's a long way from Abu Dhabi to Stanley's Wham Stadium.

It’s a long way from Abu Dhabi to Stanley’s Wham Stadium.

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.

International break - City's Raheem Sterling provided the assist for Jermain Defoe to score England's opening goal against Lithuania.

International break – City’s Raheem Sterling provided the assist for Jermain Defoe to score England’s opening goal against Lithuania.

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.)

Pep took the day off last Saturday, so Read But Never Red swapped the Etihad for the Wham.

Pep took the day off last Saturday, so Read But Never Red swapped the Etihad for the Wham.

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’.

Accrington Stanley owner Andy Holt has League One ambitions.

Accrington Stanley owner Andy Holt has League One ambitions.

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.

Going for goals - Andy Holt and Accrington Stanley are focusing on League One status and big ground improvements in the coming years.

Going for goals – Andy Holt and Accrington Stanley are focusing on League One status and big ground improvements in the coming years.

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.

Have City fans ever had it any better than nowadays under the ownership of Sheikh Mansour?

Have City fans ever had it any better than nowadays under the ownership of Sheikh Mansour?

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.”

The 'before' picture prior to the creation of Accrington Stanley's Fan Zone, part funded with £25,000 raised by the fans.

The ‘before’ picture prior to the creation of Accrington Stanley’s Fan Zone, part funded with £25,000 raised by the fans.

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.

Fan power - Stanley's fans raised £25,000 towards the creation of a new Fan Zone on match days.

Fan power – Stanley’s fans raised £25,000 towards the creation of a new Fan Zone on match days.

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.

Sign here - Cricket legend David 'Bumble' Lloyd led the way in one of Stanley's novel fan fundraising initiatives.

Sign here – Cricket legend David ‘Bumble’ Lloyd led the way in one of Stanley’s novel fan fundraising initiatives.

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.

Lights out - floodlight failure at the Wham Stadium was caused by Stanley turning on the electric showers!

Lights out – floodlight failure at the Wham Stadium was caused by Stanley turning on the electric showers!

“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.

Positive perspective - Accrington Stanley are heading in the right direction.

Positive perspective – Accrington Stanley are heading in the right direction.

“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.

Bad taste - Josh Windass' move from Stanley to Rangers on a free transfer last summer didn't sit well with Accrington fans or the club's owner.

Bad taste – Josh Windass’ move from Stanley to Rangers on a free transfer last summer didn’t sit well with Accrington fans or the club’s owner.

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.

Fair play - Andy Holt brings a refreshing approach to football as he attempts to improve Stanley's fortunes.

Fair play – Andy Holt brings a refreshing approach to football as he attempts to improve Stanley’s fortunes.

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.

Indestructible? Stanley are here to stay if fan power and a determined owner are anything to go by.

Indestructible? Stanley are here to stay if fan power and a determined owner are anything to go by.

“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.

Community effort - the Official Accrington Stanley Supporters Club raised £25,000 last season and are doing the same in 2016/17. Peter Leatham (centre) presents the cheque to Stanley manager John Coleman (far right) and his assistant Jimmy Bell.

Community effort – the Official Accrington Stanley Supporters Club raised £25,000 last season and are doing the same in 2016/17. Peter Leatham (centre) presents the cheque to Stanley manager John Coleman (far right) and his assistant Jimmy Bell.

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.”

Best seats in the house - Stanley had a good sized crowd of 2,312 for the game with Grimsby.

Best seats in the house – Stanley had a good sized crowd of 2,312 for the game with Grimsby.

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.

Stanley essentials - match ticket, programme and the Official Supporters Club 2017 calendar

Stanley essentials – match ticket, programme and the Official Supporters Club 2017 calendar

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?”

Stanley Manager John Coleman - does Andy Holt really believe 'Coley' is better than Pep Guardiola?

Stanley Manager John Coleman – does Andy Holt really believe ‘Coley’ is better than Pep Guardiola?

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.

Close to the action - Stanley and Grimsby drew 1-1 last Saturday as the Premier League took a week off.

Close to the action – Stanley and Grimsby drew 1-1 last Saturday as the Premier League took a week off.

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.

Walking wounded - Grimsby Town's Scott Vernon lost his duel with Stanley's advertising hoarding.

Walking wounded – Grimsby Town’s Scott Vernon lost his duel with Stanley’s advertising hoarding.

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.

Hot stuff - the new Pukka Pies went down well at the Wham Stadium...even if the plastic cutlery bent under the weight of expectation.

Hot stuff – the new Pukka Pies went down well at the Wham Stadium…even if the plastic cutlery bent under the weight of expectation.

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.”

Coleman or Guardiola - Andy Holt backs his man over City's Catalan manager!

Coleman or Guardiola – Andy Holt backs his man over City’s Catalan manager!

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

 

16 Comments

  1. March 29, 2017  6:22 pm by Richard Cooper Reply

    Super read David, showing the huge gulf between Prem, League 2 and Non League. A few years ago we used to now and then go and watch Macclesfield Town. Different but enjoyable.
    Makes you wonder with all the money "flowing" in football (The game seems awash with it) there isn't a way for the lesser teams to have a bigger share.
    Just "Pie in the Sky" I guess.

  2. March 29, 2017  8:39 pm by Jim Curtis Reply

    Richard, Long time no see. I can tell you there will always be a welcome for you at The Wham Stadium. We even have electricity and flushing toilets nowadays! I had a Bovril at half time at last night's match so we aren't completely 21st century yet!

    • March 29, 2017  11:08 pm by David Walker Reply

      Pardon me for intruding on a private conversation, but thanks for reading and do you think the half time Bovril played a role in the need for the flushing toilet? ;-)

  3. March 29, 2017  8:50 pm by Will Reply

    Great read and many parallels with Exeter City which is my bit on the side to supporting MCFC. I love it too, standing on the Big Bank (Englands largest standing terrace) and watching honest players who earn normal wages. I went last Saturday too but embarrassingly left with 5 minutes to go with City three down to Yeovil only for me to miss three Exeter goals! P.S. In Ethan Ampadu and Ollie Watkins Exeter have two players who will play for top ten Premier clubs.

    • March 29, 2017  11:02 pm by David Walker Reply

      Sounds like your timing was a tad off young Will :-) As for Messrs Ampadu and Watkins does it warrant giving PG a tip, or is the clue in the words'...top ten Premier clubs'? Once again, great to have your feedback. Thankyou.

  4. March 29, 2017  9:03 pm by Trevor Makings Reply

    Sounds like a proper day out David. Always nice to have a change

    • March 29, 2017  10:59 pm by David Walker Reply

      It was a good day - great to spend time with a fellow Blue and friend - and then to pop down the road to see my hometown team and make new friends on my first ever visit to Accrington.

  5. March 29, 2017  10:34 pm by Bumble Reply

    Summed up nicely ...Community Club .... in for the long haul ...more people will come ...to support THEIR team
    Our management , staff and players are very special

    • March 29, 2017  10:58 pm by David Walker Reply

      What an honour to have you not only read and digest my words, but to also comment on them - many thanks Bumble, it is very much appreciated ;-)

      I'm a City man through and through and a Mariner from birth, but henceforth I'll be keeping an eye out for your special club under the guidance of a good man.

      Thanks again.

  6. March 29, 2017  10:37 pm by Mike Berisford Reply

    As a longtime city fan, I found it difficult to accept when my son started following the red enemy ( 😊) - many heated debates were had in our house, derby days, the Mrs would just disappear for the afternoon! Living in Accrington, we decided to draw a truce to all this malarkey & both went to the Stanley instead - possibly the best move we've made. Seen some tremendous games, lived some highs (and a lot of lows 2 play-off near Misses being amongst them) seen players come & go ( & come back again, which is testament to the club & it's staff), seen the good work of recent times in improving the ground - long may my hometown club flourish. Andy at the helm has steadied a leaking ship, Coleman & Bell have worked miracles on meager funds BUT never bemoan their fate,, credit to them. Implore any fans of the so called "bigger " clubs to come and join us for a Saturday afternoon - satisfaction is guaranteed, ask my friends who support Burnley & Man U - regularly appear on the Clayton End with me, they love it...

    • March 29, 2017  11:06 pm by David Walker Reply

      City and United's loss is Stanley's gain. If the good ship Stanley has indeed been steadied you now have a very able Captain and his crew to sail you into sunnier climes. Bon voyage.

  7. March 30, 2017  10:18 am by Peter Leatham Reply

    A good assessment of how the other half lives and believe me there are many pleasures to be had away from the bright lights of the PL.
    As one who swooped his PL season ticket of many years and fell for the whiles of lower league football and it's a decision I don't regret in the slightest.
    Ok the standard is obviously nowhere near the upper echelons but conversely neither is the levels of,shall we politely say, "professionalism".
    These players given their honest endeavours for a working wage and not much more, one of the top PL earners will comfortably cover the entire annual playing budget at Accrington in 3/4 weeks, which starts to highlight the imbalances in our game. These guys still run around once or twice a week, don't have the inconvenience of international call ups or travel, but play 50+ games a season showing great endeavour and more than a modicum of ability.
    The facilities we enjoy / endure are a million miles away from the top tier but it's what we have and we get on with it. We now have a local owner who is prepared to spend some of his own money providing the standard facilities that have been previously lacking, and a supporter base who have followed the club through thick ( occasionally) and thin ( more than often) and are therefore very appreciative of even the smallest of improvements.
    I would suggest that those who don't follow their PL team away on a Saturday/Sunday/Monday ( delete as appropriate) please try and take in a local game, you will be surprised by what's on offer and the reminders of why we all started watching this wonderful game in the first place!

    • March 30, 2017  10:37 am by David Walker Reply

      Superb sentiments and feedback and more than a little food for thought Peter. Thanks for the invitation, for a great afternoon, for your comments and for your friendship.

  8. March 30, 2017  11:10 am by Bernard McCall Reply

    As a Stanley season ticket holder living near Bristol, I usually travel by train to home games. I often share parts of the journey with fans of Premier League teams and the vast majority know all about the mighty Stanley and its seemingly constant battle for survival. At first they are mystified as to why I should be making a round trip of almost 500 miles every couple of weeks but I point out that it is something that they do for their chosen team - so why should I be any different? Thanks for a great article.

    • March 30, 2017  12:25 pm by David Walker Reply

      Well done Bernard - that isn't meant to sound patronising in any way shape or form - that's a helluva journey for any supporter, irrespective of which team they follow. Saturday was my one and only experience of Stanley thus far, but it was heartwarming and enjoyable...it probably helped that we had glorious weather and I spent some quality time with your club owner and the Chairman of the official supporters club. Thanks for reading and thank you for your generous feedback. Best of luck on all your future travels - apart from when you come up against The Mariners or, if miracles happen, Manchester City ;-)

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