ACCRINGTON, England (Reuters) - They call themselves ‘the club that wouldn’t die’ but born-again Accrington Stanley are no longer just surviving.
The East Lancashire club, overcame the odds, winning promotion to League One on Tuesday to take their place in the third-tier of the English pyramid for the first time since 1960 and prompting scenes of jubilation at their tiny, ramshackle ground.
The fans that poured onto the pitch at the final whistle of the 2-0 win over Yeovil Town; those in the stands that embraced each other and the players who downed beers with the supporters in celebration, were all proof that Stanley are back.
So too were the older fans, stood quietly, observing the celebration and no doubt remembering when it seemed Accrington, a town of 35,000, was doomed to be without a professional football team.
Accrington FC, founder members of the Football League, went out of business in 1896 and their local rivals Stanley took over as the town’s main club.
But after decades in the lower divisions, overshadowed by their close neighbours Burnley and Blackburn Rovers, they went bust in 1962. Unable to pay their debts and taxes, Stanley were forced to resign from the Football League.
Their former Peel Park ground was left to rot and covered in weeds, it remained for years a ghostly reminder of one of English football’s rare club deaths.
For many born after the club’s demise, Stanley were best known for a Milk Marketing Board television commercial which gently mocked the team’s obscurity.
But Stanley fans always knew exactly who they were.
“I was there in the 50s and 60s,” Accrington’s former England cricketer turned television commentator David Lloyd told Reuters, “We’ve had despair, no home, out of the league, then we were re-formed by some wonderful people and then got back into the league.”
The modern-day Stanley were reformed as a non-league club in 1968 but there was to be no swift return to the professional ranks.
In the late 1970s, they were playing in the Cheshire County League Division Two and it was not until former player and manager Eric Whalley took over as chairman in 1995 that Accrington began their climb back.
After working their way up the ladder, Stanley returned to the Football League after a 44-year absence in 2006, with current manager John Coleman in charge.
The step-up proved tough and the club struggled for several seasons in the bottom half. However, two years ago, with Coleman back at the helm after having managed elsewhere between 2012 and 2014, they just missed out on promotion in the playoffs.
The club’s chairman Andy Holt, a local businessman, took over in 2015 and has injected valuable finance but also a new sense of optimism for a small town side with one of the lowest average attendances in the league at 1,853 in a stadium with a capacity of 5,057.
But as he stood, pint of bitter in hand, after Tuesday’s triumph, he was keen to play down his own role.
“I take no credit for it. All I have done is put down the floor, from which they can work from,” he said pointing in the direction of the coaching staff and players, including 25 goal striker Billy Kee.
“For Accrington to get to League One is immense. People worked here for years for nothing, just to get it going. A lot of folk have put so much into this over the years and they deserve their day in the sun. I am proud of what they have done – it is their moment,” he added.
Bearing in mind the club’s history, Holt says his goals are not based around which division the team play in.
“My remit is to make sure that in 50 years time this club is still here and that is what we are going to do. That is all that matters. The only survival of this club is in the community,” he said.
The history is never far from the minds of Stanley fans and staff. The raucous supporters singing in the Clayton End reference the 1962 bankruptcy and their antipathy for the ‘tax man’ in one chant.
The players certainly know the story – in the middle of this season, assistant manager Jimmy Bell made them sit down and watch a documentary about the club’s chequered past.
The ground itself, surrounded by housing, certainly offers reminders of non-league football and a halftime cup of tea costs just a pound.
Lloyd, quietly watching the celebrations in his flat cap, senses that the history being made now is on a more stable footing than in the past.
“Andy has been absolutely magnificent, he gets it. He gets that Accrington Stanley is community, it is what we are about,” he said. “The support, the atmosphere here, it just rolls back the years.”
Reporting by Simon Evans; Editing by Christian Radnedge