Swansea City are out of the FA Cup; there are a lot of fairly dull FA Cup ties on TV; it is also the first day of my half term holiday after a tough half term of teaching and I want to do something or go somewhere to counter the incoming boredom of a dull Saturday afternoon. All these factors added together lead to me sitting on the 11:26am X41 bus to Accrington, to indulge in some League Two football: Accrington Stanley v Plymouth Argyle.
(As I write this piece, I am determined not to reference a famous advert that many people will associate with Accrington Stanley FC, as the jokes have been done to death by now).
Having been to all three surrounding Lancashire clubs, Preston, Burnley and Blackburn, I had a rough idea of what to expect from the town of Accrington and my assumptions were correct as on disembarking off the bus I was greeted with a small market town with the remnants of industry surrounding it. Wikipedia actually tells me that the town was famed for creating the “hardest and densest bricks in the world” which were used to help create the Empire State Building and Blackpool Tower (whether you trust Wikipedia is up to you).
Whilst wandering through the town, there was very little reference that a football club existed in Accrington (or “Accy” as it is affectionately known by its inhabitants) with the only references to football being the locals wandering the streets in their various Blackburn and Burnley FC garments; even in the pubs there was no drunken crowd of fans launching into choruses of the Stanley songbook.
Maybe the explanation behind the lack of Stanley-ness around the town was explained when I found out that the ground was a 15 minute walk away from the town centre. After the walk under the town’s famous viaduct and a walk up a rather steep hill, I came across the Grey Horse Pub. Whilst in the Wetherspoons in town, a quick peruse on my Blackberry had told me that this pub was highly recommended, so despite its small stature I entered. The place was very dark and dingy (although it may have been dark so the punters could see the Chelsea game more clearly on the big screen) but it was certainly a pleasant place for a pre-match pint. The pub wasn’t too busy, but there was a group of Plymouth’s ‘Green Army’ in the pub enjoying some drinks before the 15:00 kick off. I was invited to join the ‘Green Army’ for a drink and they regaled me with their tales of what it has been like to be a Plymouth supporter over the past few seasons as they have plummeted down the leagues. I did entertain them though with my story of how I used to live with a Russian who had a strong love of the Pilgrims, for no particular reason. The fans loved the idea of a Moscow based Argyle fan and they told me to tell Garry the Russian that he is very welcome down in Plymouth and Home Park anytime.
I declined the Green Army’s offer of joining them in the away end, as I felt it would be rude to my Accrington hosts, but the offer was very much appreciated. After leaving the pub and taking a brief stroll down the road, I came across a road sign directing me to turn right into what looked like a housing estate, although if you look properly on turning into this road you can spot a League Two football ground and the home of Accrington Stanley FC. The ground is officially named The Fraser Eagle Stadium, but up and down the country everyone knows the ground as The Crown Ground.
You will regularly hear about how Accrington Stanley were one of the 12 founding members of the Football League, but this is not technically accurate, as the team that was actually one of the founding members alongside Everton, Aston Villa, Derby and others was Accrington FC – without the ‘Stanley’ suffix. Accrington played in the Football League between its creation in 1888, until the 1892/93 season when they were relegated. Instead of playing in the Second Division Accrington decided to resign from the league and eventually fell victim to financial problems in 1896. The Accrington mantle was taken up by another local team called Stanley Villa, named so because the club was based in the Stanley Arms on Stanley Street: Accrington Stanley was born. Although Accrington Stanley was born, the club was dead again by 1962 following financial difficulties. The club that we know today was officially formed 6 years later in 1968 and has battled its way up from the bottom of the English football pyramid and finally returned to the Football League in 2006 after a 44 year gap.
I would also be present for a historic day in Stanley’s recent history, as the club went into the game for the first time in 12 and half years with a new manager in the dugout, after club stalwart John Coleman answered Rochdale’s call to help them avoid League One relegation. Many people are unaware of the quite unbelievable job Coleman has done at Stanley. Coleman took over the club when they were residing in the Northern Premier League, essentially the 7th tier of the English league pyramid. Three promotions later and Stanley now reside in the bottom division of the Football League, a real triumph for a team with such measly resources. Coleman also has the incredible record of improving on his league position every season he was with the club – that’s 12 years of consistent improvement and development; I doth my cap to you John Coleman.
Coleman is now the past of the club and stepping into the dugout for today’s fixture was former Stanley player, Paul Cook, who the club recruited from Sligo Rovers. Cook is no stranger to the club and is a very popular figure among the Accrington fans having been a part of the historic Stanley team that clinched promotion to the Football League in 2006.
As far as off-the-field goes, the club are still steeped in their non-league routes, although this is something I found quite endearing about the Crown Ground. The ground consists of 4 stands, only one of which is all seating; this is perhaps the highlight of a trip to the Crown Ground: standing terraces! Superb! I made a bee-line for the Stanley standing area, the Clayton End (or the Sophia Khan Stand if you want to call it by its official name). I had also been informed that the more vocal contingent of the Stanley’s support was housed here – the Stanley Ultras. However, on proceeding through the turnstiles I was disappointed to be greeted by a £16 ticket price and this disappointment was further compounded by the fact I did not even get a match ticket as a memento of my day at Stanley. The facilities were equally non-league, as on entering the ground I was greeted with some portacabins acting as toilets and a little booth selling bottles of Fosters; this however was not a bad thing as they were being sold for £2 a bottle – an unheard of price for alcohol at a football ground.
On to the game, where probably the less said, the better. I found a nice space at the back of the standing terrace to admire the game, but there was very little to admire. Within 5 minutes of the game I witnessed a succession of long balls aimlessly pumped up either end of the pitch. Being a Swansea fan, we are taught these days that every time Swansea’s opposition play a long ball you are to shout “HOOF!” in disgust at the audacity of playing an aimless long ball. When the first long ball was played by a Stanley defender, I instinctively shouted “HOOF!” only to be greeted by skeptical glares from the Stanley faithful around me, who were clearly used to this style of football. Plymouth found themselves deservedly 2-0 up at half time after a brace from Burnley loanee Alex MacDonald. Plymouth were the better team, but they did not have to work hard for this as Stanley were victims of their own calamitous play.
The second half continued in the same vain as the first with very little constructive football being played by either side. The only player that was slightly catching the eye was Argyle’s tricky young winger, Ashley Hemmings, who was on loan from Wolves; on a side note I had actually created Hemmings for the FIFA 11 database whilst I was doing some work for EA Sports. As well as Hemmings, young midfielder James Devitt on loan from Hull City came off the bench and was making quite an impression. The introduction of debutant Devitt gave Stanley a much needed boost of energy. Devitt was the only Stanley player that came out of the game with any credit, especially after an exquisite volley nearly nestled in the top corner, only to be clawed away by an excellent save from Argyle’s long serving French goalkeeper, Romain Larrieu. Devitt did eventually beat Larrieu with a brilliant free kick only to be cruelly denied by the underside of the cross bar.
Another impressive 2nd half performance came from the Stanley fans who were creating a great atmosphere behind the goals. They delivered a great performance of terrace favourite ‘Dale Cavese’ and the usual songs found at most clubs with the aid of an enthusiastic drummer. My personal favourite of the day, perhaps even of my season watching football so far, was their rendition of “Twist and Shout”, a song I have never witnessed performed on a football terrace; it was not quite Ferris Bueller, but it was truly brilliantly to see/hear and I could not resist joining the Stanley fans in the singing.
After 70 minutes, veteran defender and Argyle captain Darren Purse got a third goal, something his performance certainly warranted. I felt on the day Purse was the main difference between the two clubs, as the long balls constantly played by Stanley, were easily picked out by the astute Purse. Purse is coming towards the end of his career which has seen him play for Leyton Orient, Oxford, Birmingham, WBA, Cardiff, Sheffield Wednesday and Millwall, but there was clearly evidence here that he could play for a few more seasons yet and that he should probably still be playing at a much higher level than this. With 90 minutes on the clock Luke Daley added a 4th goal to embarrass Accrington Stanley, with the sky opening up as soon as the ball hit the back of the net; pathetic fallacy gracing the Crown Ground heaping further misery on the Stanley fans.
The final whistle blew and the Argyle fans let out a loud cheer to celebrate a game which they had sewn up in the first 20 minutes. As much as the Stanley fans left in a despairing manner, I did feel like reminding them that their team, who had just lost one of the most influential figures in their history, was still residing just outside the League Two playoff spots. After a couple of drinks in the Oaklea Tavern, where I was randomly joined by a man claiming to be Manchester United youngster Oliver Norwood’s uncle (he was a bit strange) and a 50 year old man that claimed to be the ‘best disabled goalkeeper in the UK’ and who was known on the 5-a-side fields in Burnley as “Messi”, I was content with my day in Accrington and I decided to make my way home with a pint of milk (damn, I got so far).
Highlights: Grey Horse Pub, noise created by Stanley fans, friendly fans standing terraces, cheap beer/nice pies
Low Points: Quality of football, poor facilities