IN MARCH 1958, Accrington Stanley were challenging strongly for promotion to the Second Division of the Football League. Their manager, a young Scot named Walter Galbraith, had just been the subject of an approach by Blackpool, then a First Division club.
The Accrington Observer reckoned six reserve team youngsters were each worth £2,000 on the transfer market, such was the calibre of the playing staff. The ambition of the club was underlined the following month by their purchase of a grandstand, for which planning permission had already been obtained.
From these facts alone, it would seem that Accrington Stanley was a robust organisation. All the more baffling that Stanley would resign from the Football League four years later, a mere shell of the vibrant club. However, even at this point, with Stanley at the top end of the Third Division (North), there were indications the club had over-stretched itself to try and gain promotion.
A common explanation for Stanley's demise was the financial drain of the Burnley Road stand, bought by the club's directors in April 1958.The stand was an impressive edifice by any standards, providing seating for 4,700 in a two-tiered construction. The estimated cost of a new stand was £40,000 but they secured the Aldershot stand with a bid of £1,450. The directors budgeted for further costs of £10,000 for the transportation and reconstruction of the stand at Peel Park.
The Observer commended the purchase of the stand, seeing it as evidence of the club's ambition and enterprise, but from this point on things began to go wrong. When the stand had finally been transported to Accrington in the summer of 1958, it was discovered that it was too big to rebuild completely, and those at the back of the stand had restricted views of the pitch.
Worse still was the redirection of funds from the playing staff to meet the rising costs of the operation. The sums of money involved with the stand irritated Walter Galbraith, who thought the club ought to be strengthening the squad. In August 1958, just days before the start of the 1958-59 season, the directors summoned Galbraith and told him that, in the light of the club's financial commitment to the stand, they wanted to cut the running costs of the team. The manager, perhaps sensing that the club had taken a wrong turning, decided to resign.
In terms of possessing a manager who could find good players for modest fees and motivate them to play above themselves, Accrington Stanley would never replace Galbraith. Somewhat predictably, Stanley found nationwide football tougher than the regional variety. To make things worse, the club was forced to sell its top performers to reduce the wage bill. Looking back at the issue of the stand, it is harsh but probably true to say that the directors let their own ambitions obscure the reality of the club's circumstances. Even then, Accrington was one of the smallest towns to support a Football League club.
Another factor that seems not to have been taken into account was that Stanley's success under Galbraith was not typical of the club's Football League history. Under Galbraith, Stanley quickly established themselves as a high-ranking Third Division (North) outfit, but until this point the club had had a remarkably ordinary existence. So spectacular had been the rise of Stanley under Galbraith that it was tempting to forget from what depths the manager had dragged the club, and how easily it could sink back to those levels.
It is worth noting here that Galbraith's achievements at Stanley were aided by the efforts of many people. Chairman George Pratt re-organised the club's finances and provided decent resources for the manager.
Despite four consecutive seasons between 1954 and 1958 in which Stanley challenged strongly for promotion to the Second Division, gates fell in each successive season, and Stanley never once posted a profit.
In the 1957-58 season, a prolonged promotion challenge by Blackburn saw a significant drop in Stanley's core support, the first sign that Stanley's revival would be overshadowed by those of Blackburn and Burnley. While Stanley missed out again on promotion, Blackburn went up as runners-up to West Ham. This dashed long-held hopes of Stanley facing Blackburn Rovers in a genuine local "derby''.
In quick succession, Stanley sold some of their most senior players while minimising the amount spent on replacements. Legendary striker George Stewart was sold to Coventry City. Bob McNichol, Wattie Dick and Jimmy Mulkerrin were also traded in for much-needed cash. Harvey McCreadie was sold just three months into his first professional contract when Luton offered £5,500.
Stanley were forced to experiment with Friday night football as a means of avoiding clashes with Blackburn or Burnley games. These went well, and the novelty of nationwide Third Division football, with the visit of many new teams to Peel Park, helped to bring people through the turnstiles. But at the end of the 1958-59 season, Stanley vice-president Sam Pilkington warned that falling support at Peel Park would have disastrous consequences.
The departure of manager George Eastham in July 1959 did not help Stanley's quest to rally the townsfolk to the cause. It seemed to reinforce the perception that the club was unable to halt its decline.
It was in the disastrous 1959-60 season that Stanley's support began to crumble. Gate receipts halved to just under £11,000, and the club posted a crushing loss on the year of over £9,000. Stanley's campaign ended in relegation to the Fourth Division and the resignation of manager Harold Bodle. On average, just over 4,000 people were attending Peel Park, but this figure obscured some very poor end-of-season gates.
The 1960-61 season offered no respite. A poor run of form in December saw gates slump to around the 2,000 mark.
In November 1960, the PFA, led by Jimmy Hill, succeeded in abolishing the maximum wage. The immediate rise in wages, coupled with falling attendances, saw many clubs surviving only through fund-raising by supporters. Stanley were no exception, receiving over £300 per week from their Supporters' Club, and Fourth Division supporters raised nearly £250,000 in total during the 1960-61 season alone. Despite this cash, just seven of the 24 Fourth Division clubs posted a profit. Stanley went into the 1961-62 season in a fragile way, but this was entirely typical of the state of many Fourth Division clubs.
In the close season manager Jimmy Harrower, worked ceaselessly to add some free signings to his skeletal squad. However, there was precious little strength in depth. In September, Stanley lost the services of two pivotal figures. A severe injury to Garbutt Richardson weakened the defence, but far worse was the sale of striker George Hudson to Peterborough United. Without Hudson, Stanley could not score goals, and the team slowly sank from a mid-table position to the bottom of the Fourth Division.
On 20 February 1962, a letter arrived at Peel Park from the Football League, asking for a statement of the club's financial position. This letter triggered a series of events which ultimately led to the end of Accrington Stanley as a Football League club on 12 March 1962.
Reactions to Stanley's demise in the national press were sickeningly patronising, but they also illustrated the social mood of the time. Esther Rose, writing in the Daily Express, had a greater sensibility to the town's loss: "Accrington lost more than a football team. It lost its identity. Everyone knew Stanley. It sounded human and quite unlike all the other 91 teams in the League. It wasn't fierce like Hotspur, or flip like Chelsea, or fey like Partick Thistle. He sounded dependable, Stanley did. Now Accrington is on its own and it faces a kind of odd oblivion.''
A few years after Stanley's resignation, Alan Benson, then the Mayor of Accrington, was interviewed in the Football League Review, and his comments are tinged with a bitter regret: "People do not realise just how important a League club is to a town's status and prestige until it is too late. Accrington was known nationally by reason of its soccer team. When you travelled to another part of the country and mentioned where you were from, people immediately linked Accrington to its football club. Now they say, 'Ah, the town which couldn't keep its football team'. Accrington Stanley could have survived with the proper backing."
Forty years down the line, the matter is irrelevant. But you can learn from mistakes. Today, another Accrington Stanley carries the town's standard in the football world. It isn't the same team that competed in the Football League, but that shouldn't matter. It is still our town's team. Forty years after Accrington lost her Football League status, I can't think of a better commemoration than for all of us - the town together - to make our way to the Crown Ground and take responsibility for the Accrington Stanley we are fortunate to have today.