As 2010 began, the mood around Accrington Stanley was one of optimism.
After the trauma of the club almost going out of business in late 2009, Stanley were seemingly in a stable position thanks to businessman Ilyas Khan, they were in the FA¿Cup third round and the Reds were challenging for a fourth promotion under John Coleman, lying just two points off the promotion places.
In fact the record at the turn of the year was 22 league games played with 10 wins, three draws and nine losses making a total of 33 points – and Stanley in 11th place ready to push for the top seven.
However, the league was put to one side with the welcome – and unusual for the Reds – distraction of the FA Cup.
Although the third round draw wasn’t a bumper tie against League One Gillingham it was certainly winnable and the twice postponed cup clash finally went ahead on 19 January – Stanley’s first action of the year.
Still it was worth waiting for as a John Miles goal earned a superb clash at home to Premier League Fulham – a match Stanley needed to boost their finances further and it rewrote the Reds history books as they reached the fourth round for only the fourth time in their history
A 3,700 crowd packed into the Crown Ground but a Darran Kempson red card ruined what could have been a celebratory day and the Cottagers won and made a swift exit from Accrington without sampling the delights of the Reds changing rooms.
Despite a battling show against much more prestigious opposition boss Coleman was not happy: "The frustrating thing is that, if we had played to our level, then we could have come out of the game victorious."
Still it meant those play-off places could be concentrated on although the Reds were rattled by a £100,000 January transfer bid from Grimsby for 14-goal top scorer Michael Symes which they, happily, could afford to reject.
The Reds had the top seven in their hands with games in hand which could get them into those coveted spots.
They grabbed the scalp of fellow play-off contenders Shrewsbury with a Bobby Grant goal and twice came from behind to see off long-term rivals Morecambe thanks to a wonder goal from Jimmy Ryan. The promotion places seemed ever closer.
However, then the wobbles started. A 4-0 loss to Northampton on a Tuesday night was the Reds’ biggest loss of the season and they then conceded two goals in the last 10 minutes at Lincoln as they dropped to 13th spot.
A 2-0 win over Bradford kept them in the hunt but a Kempson own goal in the 95th minute at Torquay followed by a loss to Notts County meant the play-offs were out of their own hands .
The matches ebbed and flowed as no- one seemed to want to secure their place in the play-offs, leaving it wide open.
Stanley once more closed to within two points of the top seven with two games in hand with a victory over Rotherham. And once again there was a massive buzz that Stanley – after all their problems in 2009 – could make 2010 a year to remember.
But the turning point of the season came against Rochdale on March 20 with the Reds 2-0 up and seemingly on course to do the double over Keith Hill’s league leaders.
Dale, however, came back to win 4-2 – former Reds loanee Kallum Higginbotham scoring a half-way line fourth – Symes was sent off in dubious circumstances, and got a three-match ban, and Stanley's season fell apart.
"They are the best team in the league, we gave them a good game but we let them get their tails up," said the Reds chief.
Defeats to Burton "I cannot ever remember witnessing a performance like that," said Coleman, was followed by a loss at Bournemouth – "That was an even worse performance" – and then a loss at fellow play-off chasing Dagenham saw the Reds fall to 14th in the table.
Then came what the Stanley boss described as "the lowest point of my career" when his side led 2-0 against Grimsby – set to be relegated – and the struggling Mariners won 3-2 with three goals in six minutes.
"I am ashamed and I take the blame," said Coleman.
One point out of 24 and an eight-game winless run saw the Reds fall out of the play-off picture and then all turned sour with a 5-1 loss at Crewe where assistant Jimmy Bell was involved in an altercation with some stewards at the end which led to a mini-pitch invasion from Stanley’s fancy-dress clad fans.
The sight of a dalmation, Austin Powers, Superman and an oompa-loompa invading the Gresty Road pitch will live long in some fans’ memories.
The Reds did rally to beat Barnet and Chesterfield but a 1-1 draw at Cheltenham ended what had been a roller-coaster season.
The club had gone from being almost extinct, to hopes of a massive cup scalp in Fulham, to high hopes of a play-off place to eventually seeing the season peter out with the Reds finishing 15th on 61 points – although it continued Coleman’s record of improving in every one of his 11 seasons in charge of the Reds.
"It had been a really good season until the last two months when we hit a dodgy patch and picked up one point in nine games," said ever-present defender Phil Edwards.
"When you look back it was a big chance missed as 10 more points would have got us there and it was so frustrating to have a dip in form."
Skipper Andy Procter admitted: "No one wanted to seal a place-off place and one was there for the taking but we just fell short."
There were big changes in the summer – off went 19-goal scorer Symes to Bournemouth for free, with many fans feeling short-changed after the striker had been offered a new deal in January.
Then 18-goal Bobby Grant signed for Scunthorpe with the £250,000 fee tempering that switch.
The Reds were unable to sign anyone until July with an embargo in place as the financial worries never quite went away and the battle behind the scenes between Khan, managing director Dave O’Neill and major shareholder Eric Whalley was never resolved and turning increasingly bitter.
To this day, it remains up in the air as to who actually owns the club with Whalley still having the shares, O’Neill still having a base at the Crown Ground and Khan trying to turn it into a club run by the fans – but not having the approval of the other two.
Finally the embargo was lifted and Coleman began to put together a new-look squad with the additions of Sean Hessey, Charlie Barnett, Jonny Bateson, Alex Cisak, Rory Boulding, Andy Parkinson, Ray Putterill and Craig Lindfield.
They were bursting with numbers as Coleman admitted he probably had the healthiest squad size-wise he had ever had in his 11-year tenure at Accrington.
There were quick highs with a Carling Cup extra-time win at League One Doncaster and then Premier League Newcastle came to town in the second round, with the match live on Sky and another massive occasion for the club that had come so close to extinction.
Putterill scored a superb equaliser on the stroke of half-time but it was Newcastle who ran out 3-2 winners although it was the Reds who grabbed a lot of praise.
However Coleman was not happy: "I hate getting beat no matter who we play,"¿he said. "If we were playing Real Madrid or Barcelona’s first team I would be disappointed because, at home, we should be able to beat anyone."
The league form was going well as, although there were a number of draws, the Reds weren’t conceding goals, something which had plagued Coleman’s side over the years.
They had only conceded one league goal in their first seven matches and that meant they had the same record as Chelsea, featuring in a couple of national newspapers due to that statistic. They moved up to seventh in the league – the play-off spots at last – and signed striker Terry Gornell permanently from Tranmere, who has notched six goals in his 17 Stanley games.
But then it became a hit and miss campaign.
The Reds hit the headlines for the wrong reasons, forced to withdraw from the Johnstone’s Paint Trophy after playing Putterill in their win over Tranmere when he was banned.
On the league front things were still going well, with a 3-0 win over Lincoln on a Friday night taking them two points off the top before Saturday’s games – the closest Stanley have been to the top of League Two in recent history.
Their first league loss didn’t come until Port Vale at the end of September and that sparked, after shutting up shop at the back, a free-for-all.
Struggling Stockport battled back from 2-0 down to draw and then there was the extraordinary 11-goal thriller at the Crown Ground with the 7-4 win over Gillingham and Parkinson admitted: "I lost count of the score."
Coleman and his assistant Bell finally signed a four-and-a-half year deal, mooted for months before it finally happened, before the Bury game but it wasn’t a good luck omen as Procter and Bateson were sent off and the Reds lost 3-0 at Gigg Lane.
"That hurt because we gifted them the goals," fumed Coleman.
"We didn’t turn up and the game I am most looking forward to is Bury at home this month to show them the real Accrington."
The Reds boss added some height to the backline with the addition of Burnley defender Kevin Long but his league debut lasted just 17 minutes before he was sent off against Rotherham and the Millers scored two goals in the last 10 minutes – including a 93rd minute winner.
A draw at bottom club Hereford was a battling one but a poor show at home to Cheltenham at the end of October ended in a 4-2 loss and Stanley’s drop had been swift – to three points off the relegation places.
In the next seven league games, after just conceding one in their first seven, the Reds had shipped 19 goals.
And it got worse with a 5-2 Tuesday night loss at high-flying Chesterfield.
There was finally some relief when Stanley charged into a 3-0 lead against League One Oldham in the FA Cup first round, but it was a nervy ending as the Latics came back to 3-2 and hit the post in the dying minutes. Still, it brought some much-needed finances to the Reds’ coffers as the uncertainty behind the scenes continued.
Phil Edwards finally missed a Stanley game with a one-match ban – a rarity in itself after almost three years of continuous games and more than 150 consecutive appearances – in a 1-1 draw at Southend.
And finally Stanley won their first league game in seven against Stevenage thanks to a Sean McConville goal –¿his sixth goal of the season.
But Stanley couldn’t kick on as they crashed out of the FA Cup at fellow League Two side Port Vale on a freezing Friday night and dreams of a repeat of last year’s heroics disappeared with a Justin Richards goal.
Ex-Reds Ian Craney and Joe Jacobson returned to the club on loan as Coleman looked to freshen up and get results out of what was already a large squad by Stanley’s standards.
The weather put paid to much more action and a 2-0 loss to bottom-two club Barnet – making it 16 away league games without a win, stretching back to March – left the Reds, at the turn of the year, just two points off the drop zone and in 19th place in League Two.
Unlike last year, where Stanley dropped down the league, the hope for this year is that they can start a swift climb up the table.
While they are closer to the bottom, Coleman’s side are still only seven points off the promotion places in a tight league.
There are still dark shadows behind the scenes with the ownership issue a murky, complex scenario although, at the moment, there seems to be some kind of status quo in place.
Let’s hope in 2011 it is all about the football rather than the football club – and the long-term ambition of a League Two play-off place can be achieved.