Jimmy Bell is having his testimonial match – in which the Reds will take on Burnley – on Wednesday 18 July. Stanley’s former assistant manager, who helped the club’s rise from the UniBond First Division to the Football League alongside boss John Coleman, talks frankly about his time with the Reds.
What does Stanley mean to you?
The club was a massive part of my life and my family’s life. It was 13 years where we lived and breathed the club and me and John gave everything to the cause.
I love the place, it was my second home. The fans were magnificent and you couldn’t ask for a better club.
It was the hardest decision I have ever had to make leaving the club but me and John felt the time was right and Accrington possibly needed a fresh start.
We said when we were in League Two that we still thought there is one more promotion in Accrington and I still think there is. We put the club on a really good footing and we went from 250 fans when we took over in 1999 to almost 2,000 in the Football League.
The fans are so warm and they made me and John feel welcome from day one and I am proud to be part of the history of the club.
Former Liverpool player Mike Marsh was influential but you can never get past Paul Mullin.
He was an absolute gentleman on and off the pitch and there are not many like him. He gave so much to the club and scored a lot of goals including the crucial one at Woking which took us up into the Football League.
He was an all-round fantastic person who was a joy to manage.
It is hard singling people out as 98 per cent of the players we signed played their part in our rise up the leagues.
I was pretty selfish in that I didn’t want players to move on from the club but a number of them went to bigger clubs, played at a higher level and, after I got over the initial disappointment of them going, I wanted them to go on and do well.
I know Gary Roberts has been released from Huddersfield but I was one of the Terriers’ fans at Wembley cheering him on last month.
Similary I was disappointed when Ian Craney went to Huddersfield the first time and when Anthony Barry moved on, Bobby Grant and Jimmy Ryan and more recently Terry Gornell and Alex Cisak. I took it badly at first but now I have high hopes for them. I think Alex Cisak could go on to be a Premiership keeper, I think he is that good.
He is only young and keepers do not tend to mature until their late 20s and already he has played a lot of games and got a lot of experience. He will go onto bigger things than League One.
Me and John always had a fantastic relationship with our players and I think the team spirit is what first attracted a lot of players, and why most still have a soft spot for Accrington Stanley.
After 13 years at the helm, there have been a lot of games including Huddersfield, Newcastle, Fulham and more. What was your favourite?
I know it sounds crazy but nothing will eclipse Farsley Celtic and that first season in charge of Stanley in 1999/00.
After 23 games of that season, we were sixth in the UniBond First Division and 15 points adrift of eventual runners-up Burscough. Out of our final 19 games we needed to win 15 to reach what was thought an 80-point target for promotion and we were written off by many.
But that’s what we did. We went on a 19-game unbeaten run, drawing four, winning the rest, and I remember after every game as we kept winning and it got closer and closer.
Looking back, there was a lot of stress before every game week after week having to win and we kept doing it and the pressure kept increasing.
The sheer tension of it, the drama and then going into the last game where only a win meant we were promoted – a draw and a loss wasn’t good enough and it was all about goal difference. It was like Manchester City this season for us.
It was true pressure but we won, got promoted and that was when the Accrington bandwaggon really began. That was the start of something big.
How did the winding-up order of 2009 affect you and the threat of the club going out of existence again as it did in 1962?
It was a really hard time, knowing the club you love and care about could disappear.
To be honest, I don’t think we ever believed it would happen and thankfully it didn’t. Neither me nor John knew the extent of the debts.
I also thought there was something about the club – there was a fighting spirit among everyone involved and that’s why I believed we would keep going.
It was hard – I kept going home and saying to my wife ‘we may not have a club this time next week’ but, like I said, I never firmly believed it.
All me and John could do was keep the club going, try and keep winning and try and get a few more fans through the gate that could maybe make a difference.
We tried to concentrate on the football, keeping the lads upbeat amid uncertain times and just doing our job.
We tried not to think too long about the club going under as I think that would have pushed us over the edge.
Thankfully, it all came good. It was a huge relief to hear the tax bill had been paid, the winding-up order was gone and we could carry on.
After so many promotions with Accrington and surviving relegation battles, how did it feel to be relegated with Rochdale and now face Stanley next season?
It hurt us as we went to Rochdale really believing we could save them. And, if we had continued our form of the first seven games, then we would have. We only conceded seven goals and we thought that was the start of something.
Then we lost four vital players and, in the next seven games, conceded 26 goals.
There were various cases where it went wrong for us – Gary Jones missing a late penalty against Sheffield Wednesday and, against Walsall, going 3-2 up in the 94th minute only for them to equalise from the kick-off. It seemed we were fated to go down and it’s something we don’t want to experience again as managers.
As for coming back to Accrington, it will be weird. I always remember the joke about Paul Mullin returning and going into the wrong dressing room and that will be the same for us.
Wanting Accrington to lose a game will be weird too – but we have moved on and Accrington have – not that I don’t wish them all the best.