Win against Exeter on Saturday and Accrington Stanley will be in the third tier of English football for the first time since the club was reformed in 1968. John Coleman speaks to Adam Bate about this amazing journey and why the smallest of budgets works for them.
Ask John Coleman for his greatest moment as Accrington Stanley manager and he does not need too much time to think about it. May 2000 and the 3-0 win over Farsley Celtic that secured the UniBond first division title in front of a then record crowd of 2,468. Coleman even scored one of the goals. “Nothing will ever beat that,” he tells Sky Sports.
Saturday might come close. Almost 20 years since Coleman first took charge of the club, his team are one win away from a fourth promotion that would take Accrington Stanley into the third tier for the first time since being re-established from the ashes of the famous old club in 1968. It is an astonishing accomplishment on one of League Two’s smallest budgets.
“A lot has changed since I first arrived back in 1999,” says Coleman. “If somebody had told me that we would be playing Coventry when I first walked into Accrington, let alone beating them home and away, I would have laughed at them. This really would be an amazing achievement for these players given the facilities that we have.”
Training is on “a plastic council pitch” – not the ideal preparation for the weekend, but it is far from the only issue. The club’s standing was put into sharp focus just last month when they were kicked off because Burnley Ladies had a game to play. “You can take it two ways,” says Coleman. “You moan about it or you laugh about it. We try to laugh about it.”
In truth, he would not want it any other way. “We have always had our model here,” he says. Accommodating big earners with bigger egos does not appeal to him. “We want young and hungry players. Yes, we want them to earn good money but just not with us. They can use this club as their platform for one or two years. That is the model that works for us.”
Across his two spells at the club, that model has been an extraordinary success – but it has never worked quite like this. Defeat at Carlisle on Boxing Day was the fifth in a row and saw Accrington drop to ninth in the table. They have won 15 of the 17 games since including each of the last seven. They have not even conceded a goal in the last five hours of football.
So how exactly have they turned things around? “We just needed a bit of confidence,” says Coleman. “We needed a springboard. We got that with a 3-0 win at Grimsby and it took off from there. The key has just been basic hard work. They run themselves into the ground in every game and they are getting the reward for the hard work they are putting in.
“The attitude has been great all season, to be fair. They have got a great work ethic, they are very enthusiastic and they enjoy their work. It is a pleasure to be around them when they are in that mood. Winning helps, of course, but I think the results are a consequence of the way they are behaving and how well they are operating on a day-to-day basis.
“Everyone knows exactly what their job is and we have a certain pattern of play. We might adapt it a little bit but we all know what we are trying to do and that’s important. But I am not likely to experience this again as a manager and it is the same for these players so they have to enjoy it while it is happening and try to keep the run going as long as possible.”
Highlights of Accrington's 1-0 away win over Colchester last time out
It is refreshing to hear a manager talk with such humility and an awareness that luck plays its part rather than casting himself as the agent of all Accrington’s success. But it would be wrong to understate his influence. This is a club cast in his image. He is the architect behind the rise and it is his decisions, big and small, that have helped create the culture at the club.
For example, there is the peculiar penchant for not making substitutions. Despite naming a full quota on the bench, Coleman has not made a substitution since the draw at Barnet in mid-February. All seven of the games since then have been won. Five of them with the winner coming in the second half. “That shows that the lads are putting a shift in,” he says.
More significantly, there was the meeting called with the club’s senior players in the midst of their winter dip in form. “There are five who went through the heartache of losing the play-offs two years ago – Mark Hughes, Seamus Conneely, Billy Kee, Sean McConville and Scotty Brown. I sat them down and made it clear that they had to rally these players.”
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The call to arms had a galvanising effect but then Coleman has always known how to get the right response. In particular, his relationship with Kee, the division’s top scorer, illustrates that. Physically, the 27-year-old striker does not look like the typical footballer. Mentally, he opened up about his difficulties with anxiety and depression earlier this season.
In the hands of another manager, Kee would be seen as a problem. For Coleman, he is the solution. “Billy is a smashing lad,” he explains. “You have to understand Billy to manage him and once you understand him, he will give you his all. But you have to treat him in a special way. It is a match made in heaven between Billy and our club so long may it continue.”
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The same could be said of Coleman and Accrington, of course, but there are those willing to tempt him away from the club for a second time. “To be honest, I have had quite a few calls over the last few years,” he admits. “The chairman is more like a mate now than a chairman so if a really big club came in then he would be advising me as a mate.
“But it is so good here. With the people I am working with here, it is just so enjoyable. Some managers would probably jump ship first chance they get. But I went to Rochdale and that didn’t work out for me. Sometimes you have to realise what you have got and enjoy that rather than go chasing something else that might not turn out to be as good.”
Coleman has already accomplished so much at Accrington. Three promotions and countless victories, including a famous one against former European champions Nottingham Forest. But one wonders whether anything, even the thrill of scoring in that win over Farsley Celtic, could really surpass the achievement of taking Accrington Stanley into League One.
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