World Cup heroics inspire Accrington
It was while watching the latter stages of the 2010 World Cup in South Africa that Accrington Stanley boss John Coleman first thought about implementing a 4-2-3-1 formation.
"I was sat very high in the stadium for the final so I could see a lot of the pitch and I was very impressed with the work rate," Coleman told me. "It got me thinking - could I translate this to League Two?"
Fast forward 11 months and the answer would appear to be an emphatic yes.
Stanley have tasted defeat once in their last 19 games, a run of form that has seen the Lancashire side surge up the table and get into the play-offs, where they will take on Stevenage for a place in the final at Old Trafford.
Coleman was inspired as he watched the World Cup final in South Africa. Photo: Getty images
Long-serving midfielder Andrew Procter explained: "The gaffer could see something in the way that Spain played and we have worked extremely hard on the training field all season to make the system work."
Stanley had lost key players such as Michael Symes and Robert Grant at the end of last season, while numerous others were released by the cash-strapped club. Many bookmakers made Accrington one of the favourites for relegation. However, Coleman had other ideas and rebuilt his squad with the sort of skilful and hard-working players he thought might flourish in his new formation. He was impressed by how quickly they embraced it.
"We will obviously never be as good as Barcelona or the Spanish national side but we can adopt principles of working hard for each other and trying to pass the ball," added the Stanley boss.
"We have tried to encourage the players to retain possession and make sure they have a real purpose when they have the ball. Most managers have been complimentary and the players seem to enjoy it."
Coleman might not have been around to rebuild last summer if Accrington had been as trigger-happy as some other clubs. Stanley's hopes of winning a play-off place last season perished when the club claimed just one point from a nine-game spell towards the end of the campaign, but I like to think that they are reaping the rewards for the faith they have shown in their manager.
"We tend to stand or fall as a club," explained Stanley chief executive Rob Heys. "One of the reasons that we are different is that we share responsibility.
"I think back to that period last season and wonder if we would we be in a better position now if we had got rid of John. Hand on heart, I honestly do not think we would be. He works wonders on a modest budget."
Coleman is in his 12th season in charge at Stanley after his appointment in 1999. Only Sir Alex Ferguson and Arsene Wenger have been in charge of clubs for longer in the top four divisions. Procter has been at the club since 2001 and reckons that his boss has built at least four different teams in his time at the club.
"I would say that the current side is the most talented," said Procter. "We have players such as former Liverpool trainee Jimmy Ryan, who has been linked with all sorts of clubs. The gaffer is great at bringing in young lads from Premier League academies and developing them."
Coleman, who spent the vast majority of his playing career rattling around the non-leagues in the north west, has recently been linked with Port Vale and Bury - and Heys reckons it is no surprise clubs are keen on his manager.
"I don't like talking him up too much but we have got him tied down for another four years," added Heys. "He will go somewhere at some point, the right job will come and we will wish him all the best.
"He is a good man manager; excellent at motivating the players, especially in times of adversity. I don't know exactly what it is he does but it is quite special."
Liverpudlian Coleman took over after the club had been relegated to what is now called the Northern Premier Division One. His first season saw Stanley promoted to the Northern Premier League as champions. Since then the club has won two more promotions, returning to the Football League in 2006 after a 44-year absence.
Accrington finished 20th, 17th, 16th and 15th in their first four seasons back in the League. Coleman reckons they were good enough to make the play-offs last season, and points to away wins at Rochdale, Notts County, Shrewsbury, Port Vale and Bury as proof. However, Stanley had been placed under a transfer embargo that restricted Coleman to a squad of 20 players - and injuries and suspensions eventually caught up with Accrington in the latter stages of the long campaign.
This season Accrington have stayed relatively injury free and, under the new formation, tightened up at the back, conceding 55 league goals this year compared with 74 during 2009-10. In fact, Coleman sounds disappointed that his team did not finish in the top three and claim automatic promotion.
"We only lost nine games but we drew 19, far too many, particularly away from home," he said. "I think our form has warranted automatic promotion but now it comes down to the play-offs, which we know will be very difficult."
Stanley have shown great tenacity on and off the field. Photo: Getty images
I'm not sure that it could be any other way at Stanley, a club where nothing seems to be particularly straightforward.
In the early months of the 2009-10 season they were scrapping for their lives. They launched a 'Save our Stanley' campaign as they attempted to raise £308,000 to clear an outstanding tax bill. Furthermore, several of Accrington's major sponsors have gone under in recent years, while a long-running ownership battle has done little to boost their image. Earlier in the current season there was a period when the club could not afford to pay its staff.
"If anything we have been a source of embarrassment to the town over recent years," admitted Heys. "However, at the moment there is a bit of a buzz around the place and we have not had that for a while.
"One of the biggest problems was the ownership issue. It became a soap opera; nobody knew who owned what or when it would be sorted out. It made it difficult to sell the club to potential sponsors."
Chairman Ilyas Khan completed his majority takeover at Stanley at the start of April and the club recently agreed a deal with a local IT supplier, who will be the shirt sponsor from next season. The hope is that the club has emerged from turbulent times off the field at a time when they are reaching new heights on the pitch.
As Procter watched the match between Manchester United and Chelsea on television last Sunday he could not stop himself from dreaming about finally playing at Old Trafford in the play-off final. A couple of the squad have had to postpone their stag-dos but they are happy to do so in pursuit of the great prize.
Coleman has never been involved in a play-off campaign but he is far too canny to entertain any thoughts of reaching Old Trafford just yet. He knows that Graham Westley's Stevenage lie in the way. They are feisty and determined opponents who will take some shifting as they bid for back-to-back promotions.
Accrington had the second best home record in their league this season but won just three of their 23 away fixtures. The first leg is at Stevenage on Sunday - and Stanley must ensure they bring the tie back to the Crown Ground in as strong a position as possible.
"It might not be a long way from Accrington to Old Trafford but it is a long way to Stevenage," Coleman wryly observed.
It is even further to Johannesburg - but an idea that started at the World Cup might just help take Stanley to the third tier of English football.