Updated: Nov 16, 2020
The obscure club from a small Lancashire town that is climbing the football fairytale ladder against all the odds
Occasionally football throws us effortless romance to remind us all why we love the game so much. This week the small Lancashire town of Accrington is celebrating their team’s promotion to League 1. Accrington Stanley are more famous as the punchline of a cruel joke from a Milk advert in 1989 which played on the fact that they were an unknown minor football team, but the club that revels in it’s image as “ the club that wouldn’t die” will be playing matches next season in stadiums that hold more than the population of their own town.
The reasons for the curious name have been lost to history but it is believed it derives from a group of patrons of the Stanley Arms pub who first formed a football team, Stanley Villa in 1890. The original Accrington Stanley FC went bankrupt in 1968. The small town is sat between Blackburn and Burnley and in the shadow of the Merseyside giants so were always struggling for followers and to attract quality players. The club was reborn by devoted followers only two years later and settled into non-league anonymity.
The team achieved long lasting fame through the Milk advert that lampooned them in 1989, the advert was so popular it ran for 6 years and the phrase “Accrington Stanley? Who are they?” and the answer “Exactly!” in a heavy scouse accent, has become part of British popular culture. It is believed that the advert originally planned to name my beloved Tottenham Hotspur, who objected to the derisory reference, but Accrington lapped up the infamy.
The advert was even remade shot for shot for Black cow Vodka using the grown up child actors, although it was banned for encouraging irresponsable drinking
The long climb up the football pyramid began in 2001 when former Accrington Stanley player Brett Ormerod was sold by Blackpool to Southampton for £2m and 25% of the fee of the sale was due to Accrington Stanley. The club has never been far from bankruptcy and has survived through the generous support of benefactors connected to the town. Former England cricketer David Lloyd is enraptured with his home town team, fascinated with their determination to “fart against thunder”.
The club have an unorthodox approach, the manager got in trouble with the League for suggesting he gave his team money to eat at Macdonalds when they won and pints of beer are served to supporters at the ground for £1 if the team win. The town has a renowned streak of steely determination in the face of insurmountable odds. When Lord Kitchener put out the call for volunteer recruits in World War 1, Accrington was the smallest town to raise a full Battallion of men. The Accrington Pals, or more formerly known as the 11th Battallion of the East Lancashire Regiment was raised in just ten days. Those brave volunteers were almost entirely wiped out on the morning of the first battle of the Somme in 1916.
Approximately 700 men from the Accrington Pals went into action on 1 July; 585 men became casualties, 235 killed and 350 wounded in about half an hour, a rumour spread through the town that only 7 men survived and they gathered angrily outside the Mayor’s house demanding information. It was said there was not a single household in the community that did not experience a loss that day and the church bell tolled for an entire day. Our documentary on the Somme "Hope & Glory: the Somme Centenary" featured a letter from Sam Hardman to his family on the eve of the battle, there is something fitting in the town’s obscure little club overcoming absurd odds and giving the people of the town something to celebrate. A character all of their own, a dogged spirit of determination and quiet pride.
Football is not about fame, fortune and success. At a fundamental level it is a binding factor for communities. Football, it is often said in England, is more vital, more alive, more honest and more enjoyable at the humble lower league levels. If you ever have the opportunity to make the pilgrimage to the North West of England, do not seek out the bright lights of Liverpool or Manchester, head to the mill town of Accrington and join the voices celebrating their humble success together, and hopefully toast it all with a cheap pint after victory. Accrington Stanley? In League 1? Exactly!