ACCRINGTON England (Reuters) - Accrington Stanley chairman Andy Holt stood at the bar in his flat cap with a pint of bitter in his hand and took a moment to reflect on an afternoon few in the small Lancashire town had expected to see.
Stanley, who went bust in 1960 and then spent four decades in non-league football, went into Saturday’s game against League One leaders Portsmouth in fourth place.
While the 1-1 draw saw them slip to sixth in the third-tier division, “the club that refused to die” had more than held their own against the twice-English champions, who just 10 years ago won the FA Cup and finished eighth in the Premier League.
“Days like this are what we are here for – Accrington playing top of League One and feeling like we could have won, not feeling embarrassed. It has been fantastic,” said Holt, who took over the club in 2015.
Few expected Stanley to win promotion last season but even fewer predicted the club would find themselves, 16 games into the season, thriving as they compete with the likes of Portsmouth and Sunderland at the top end of the table.
Manager John Coleman, a former non-league player who first took over at the club when they were in the Northern Premier League, says the team have maintained their momentum from their promotion campaign.
“We didn’t think there was anything to fear in this league,” said the Liverpudlian. “Not being blase, but we said we will give it our best shot and never be found wanting for effort.
“We wanted them to stick their chest out and have a bit of swagger. There is a fine line between cockiness and big-headedness. You have to stick your chest out but you have to be able to back it up on the pitch.”
For Stanley, best known for a 1980’s Milk Marketing Board television commercial which gently mocked the team’s obscurity, League One is the big time, but for Saturday’s opponents it is simply a step on their way back from a decade of misery.
After a series of ill-fated changes of ownership, the debt-ridden club from the south coast went into administration and by 2013 they found themselves relegated to the fourth tier, League Two - becoming a byword for excessive spending and poor club management.
The chaos in the boardroom resulted in a massive turnover of players and managers but after a spell of fan ownership, the supporters agreed to sell the club in 2017 to former Walt Disney chief executive Michael Eisner.
After four years in the basement division, Pompey finished eighth in League One last season but the American owners showed the patience to stick with 56-year-old Kenny Jackett, who has won promotion from the division in the past with Wolverhampton Wanderers and Millwall.
The wisdom of that decision is reflected in Portsmouth’s league position and with more than 1,000 supporters making the 550-mile round-trip on Saturday, there is clearly a mood of optimism around the club, tempered by some understandable caution.
“The fans never cease to amaze me with their support. The club have been through tough times. Good people found themselves without a job. It was a tough period for a lot of people but the supporters have been amazing,” said the club’s former striker and manager Guy Whittingham.
“I think Pompey fans have learnt not to get too excited about what is going on because you never know what is around the corner. But the Americans are very astute. They see a manager in charge who has had promotion from the lower leagues to the Championship before and while they are backing him, I don’t think they will go too over the top,” he said.
To get back to the promised land, Portsmouth have to negotiate tricky encounters such as Saturday’s even contest on a cold afternoon at a tightly packed ground.
There are other clubs with proud histories who are also desperate to escape from League One - Sunderland, Coventry City and Charlton can all make claim to belonging above that level and it makes for a fascinating division.
“It is a good league, with good teams, good players, and in the main the games get played in a cracking spirit,” said Stanley’s Coleman.
“Anybody who spends £60 to watch Premier League football ... well, they’ve got a far better experience here for far cheaper. And the pies and the beers are cheaper, too”.
(The story has been refiled to add name of Portsmouth manager)
Reporting by Simon Evans; Editing by Ken Ferris, Neville Dalton