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World Cup heroics inspire Accrington

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Paul Fletcher | 09:00 UK time, Friday, 13 May 2011

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.

Accrington Stanley manager John Coleman.

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."

Accrington Stanley play at the Crown Ground.

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.

You can follow me throughout the season at



  • Comment number 1.

    Paul - enjoyed your blog

    I have followed Stanley since my dad took me 40 years ago when we got back playing in the old lancashire Combination League

    My eldest lad is a Man Utd fan, not impressed by that by the way, and I have always said we will play at Old Trafford one day, much to his amusement and we now we have a great opportunity to move this club forward

    Going up with Jimmy and John

    Come on Stanley

  • Comment number 2.

    Despite being a Man.United fan I have a soft spot for Stanley, there's is always one of the 1st results I look for, so me and my lad have got tickets for the play off home game and will be hoping that Accrington can win, I know that if they do win through to the final a lot of Blackburn/Burnley fans will be cheering them on as well, Old Trafford would be a noisy place with a big following for Stanley.

  • Comment number 3.

    Great post Paul,

    As an Accy lad living in Birmingham their result is always the first to look for when the results are coming in. (As well as a sneaky look for Blackburn and Burnley!).

    It's important to understand that these teams mean so much to the East Lancashire people, when they do well, they lift the whole community and district.

    Watching Stanley move progressively through the leagues, when as a boy it was always the Northern Premier One, has given me so much pride to be from Accrington, and still the forward momentum continues.

    We may start to dream of Old Trafford but the folk up North will settle for 100% commitment, a grand day out and a trip to Preston next season.

    Come on Stanley!

  • Comment number 4.

    Enjoyable as ever Paul, they deserve any success they get. Great to hear about an experienced manager willing to try new ideas, especially at a level where managers are quick to claim it's difficult to play entertaining football. Interesting to hear of his viewpoint for the final, it's can certainly be a different game from different seats. Indeed if I was scouting a team, I would sit high up behind the goal to track the formations and tactics.
    Must say the formation works for me on the online management game I play, just won my league easy and beaten Arsenal (four leagues above) in the cup final... Ha, anything is possible.
    It's also a nice story about our game ahead of our FA Cup final, which should have it's own day at the end of the season.

  • Comment number 5.

    When I was young I used to drink loads of milk, I still do. But I've never been good enough to play for Accrington Stanley. Good luck in the play-offs.

  • Comment number 6.

    Now then,

    Thanks for the comments so far.

    There has certainly been a few downs at Stanley over recent years but they are on the up now.

    Fair play to the club for sticking with John Coleman and a massive shout to the manager for spotting something that at first glance might seem a little crazy but having the courage of his convictions to introduce it. I'm talking here about the 4-2-3-1 formation.

    It would be a great story if Stanley went up - but Stevenage might have something to say about that.

  • Comment number 7.

    As a young (and rather foolish) child, Accrington Stanley seemed like a bit of a joke...and club with 'Stanley' in it's name. However, it's been good to watch their progress this season, they're the only current league 2 club I really keep an eye on, and good luck to them, they deserve League 1.

  • Comment number 8.

    Well done John,Jimmy and all the players at Stanley..
    The football being played in exciting and entertaining and is a great credit to football in general..
    Best wishes for Sunday and cant wait till the second leg next Friday should be a cracking atmosphere from hopefully a full house..
    I have often thought whilst watching Stanley this year its like watching Spain and now i know why.
    Great blog and COME ON STANLEY

  • Comment number 9.

    Very interesting read Paul, Stanley seem to be one of many teams who have been influenced by the Spain/Barca tactical model.

    I would love to see a piece on Micky Adams' return to my club Port Vale, it has been an eventful couple of years but I'm over the moon at today's news! :)

  • Comment number 10.

    Nice blog this.
    Having seen both teams though this term i have a feeling Stevenage will edge this over both legs.

    I predict a low scoring couple of games though

  • Comment number 11.

    Paul, not only is this piece up to your usual high standard of journalism - it's the best I've read anywhere this season about Stanley.
    Well done, and thank you !

  • Comment number 12.

    I was at accy v stevenage league game, 1-0 to accy on a dreary november day. hoping for better games this time -obviously with a Stevenage triumph - but fair play to both teams, been a long way back for accy and having followed Stevenage in the 14 years it took to get in the league after being denied in 1996 its a shame we haven't had more coverage this year but there you go...may the best team beat torquay in the final!

  • Comment number 13.

    As a PNE fan whose closest football league club is A. Stanley, I've always followed their fortunes and been my second club. I put John Coleman's name forward for PNE's manager after Darren Ferguson left the club. My suggestion was dismissed out of hand. John was a record scoring striker in non league circles for many years and has worked out how to win matches by being tactically astute. He speaks his mind,fosters comraderie in his teams,and is destined to have even more success.

  • Comment number 14.

    After spending hours searching out pubs on Thursday and Friday so that I could watch the Forest-Swansea and then Reading-Cardiff games, I'm hoping that Stevenage and Accrington deliver on the goals front!

  • Comment number 15.

    I'll admit to being much more impressed by the manager than by the club. Average Attendance: 1868, Max Attendance: 2815 (v Bradford City), Capacity: 5057.
    Only Macclesfields's figures are worse. I can't see how they could possibly hope to survive if they get promoted.

  • Comment number 16.

    What's attendances got to do with it?

    If we were to get promoted I would think our attendances would jump by at least an extra 1000.

    What has been achieved by Stanley again this year has defied and surpassed all the odds & expectations once again.

    The football we have played this season and laughable as it may seem has been more continental and has brought a new edge & extra dimension to the Stanley which has made us hard to beat but also thrilling to watch.

    If this were a Premier League team we were talking about the pundits would be lapping it up and dribbling at the mouth and putting it on a par with the Gunners in terms of watchability.

    Budgets may be tight, attendances may be small and we may not have household names in our team but when you have a great work ethic, a great team ethos, flair, pride, passion and a belief backed by the most passionate supporters in football then there is nothing that can't be achieved.

    I would urge anyone in East Lancashire who has not seen this team play to snap up a ticket and come to the Crown Ground next Friday and judge for yourselves.

    On Stanley On

  • Comment number 17.

    I agree, attendances irrelevant, Stanley always going to find it hard as so many teams in the nort-west, Stevenage support mainly made up of spurs and Arsenal fans (like myself) due to proximity to London. Counties with one 'big' team like oxfordshire and bedfordshire gonna get bigger crowds, plus their teams have a more illustrious (long gone) history. Hence teams like stanley and Stevenage try harder to garner support which sometimes creates a tighter community/fan environment.

  • Comment number 18.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • Comment number 19.

    Accy are really going to have to pull all the stops out if they're going to beat us on Friday. We just have to keep our tempers in check.

  • Comment number 20.

    Would love to know why my comment needs further moderation... BBC can't take some helpful criticisms? :)

  • Comment number 21.

    Great read Paul. Many thanks.

    It's these sorts of stories that make the lower leagues such an interesting and absorbing way to follow the football where you can't buy success. I spend as much time reading about League 2 as I do my team in the Prem.

    Having a lot of roots in Lancashire, the Accy story really appeals to me and I've a real soft spot for them now.

    They may be 2-0 down, but by rights it's amazing this club has survived, and it's due to the brilliance of John Coleman and his players - people who get paid very irregularly. They are playing great footballl and are a great credit to their Town, the County of Lancashire and the Football League.

    Well done Stanley!


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