Accrington Stanley are in dreamland after securing a historic promotion to the third tier of English football for the very first time.
The table-topping Reds needed one more victory to guarantee going up and capped a superb campaign with an emotional victory over Yeovil Town on Tuesday night in front of a crowd of 3,176 overjoyed fans at the Wham Stadium.
Stanley, who now turn their attentions to silverware in their quest to be named champions, have produced an unstoppable surge of victories at the end of an unforgettable season which has done the town proud. The achievement is all the sweeter considering the financial turmoil which blighted the club in past seasons.
With one of the smallest budgets in the entire football league, the ‘Club That Wouldn’t Die’ have defiantly beaten the odds, in this their 50th anniversary year since their reformation.
Cheers filled the air on Tuesday as the referee’s final whistle blew and within seconds players, hundreds of fans and staff embraced on the pitch on a night of fervour and high emotion at the Wham Stadium.
Joy, relief and barely disguised incredulity were the overriding sentiments on the evening which saw John Coleman’s Stanley attain a high watermark league position of the last half a century.
Even though promotion was almost a mathematical certainty Reds’ fans did not wish to tempt fate, especially after playoffs heartache two years ago.
But there were no jitters this time, just a jubilant atmosphere as talisman Billy Kee’s brace of goals in the space of three first half minutes kickstarted the 3,000-strong Stanley party.
The singing never stopped as the Clayton End army serenaded their heroes on a night that will be talked about for generations.
Main stand season ticker holder Daniel O’Rourke, from Clayton-le-Moors, said the achievement had not quite sunk in 24 hours after the against-all-odds triumph.
Daniel, a history student at UClan, Preston, said: “At the final whistle I just shook my head. I couldn’t believe it. I saw the scenes in front of me, the players screaming with joy and the fans running on. I just tried to take it in. It was the best atmosphere I can ever remember. I eventually got on the pitch and joined in the singing and later I got a picture with Billy Kee and Scott Brown. I only left the social club at 1am and there were plenty still there. I’ve never seen it as packed.”
The champagne had had to be put on ice just three days before when another bumper crowd packed out the Wham Stadium, hoping to witness a promotion-confirming defeat of Exeter City. That match ended with honours even, but it only served to ramp up the expectation ahead of Tuesday’s clash under the floodlights.
Peter Leatham, supporters’ club chairman, savoured a special night that would live long in the memory.
He said: “It was a great night for everybody. The players did their bit on the pitch and the fans did their bit off the pitch afterwards. Everybody got together and it was a night that will go down long in the club’s history. We thought it was inevitable that we would get there. It would have been nice for it to happen on Saturday but in fairness to Exeter they are a good side and it was a well-deserved, hard-fought point.
“Tuesday night was never in doubt once Billy scored his two goals in quick style. It was over and done with and we should probably have scored three or four.”
Owner Andy Holt told the Observer: “It’s fabulous for the town, the lads and everybody involved. I have been contacted by people from Japan and all over the world. It’s a well known club is Accy Stanley and it has captured a lot of people’s imaginations.
“It’s just a great story and a positive story. I’m just happy to have played a little part in it. It’s so important for the town.”
He added: “I want to win the league now. I’ve told them - don’t you worry about that. I don’t want any messing about, it’s not over yet.”
Manager John Coleman said: “You can’t help but get emotional, but it’s all about the players. The fans have come out in their numbers and I am delighted for them as well.”
Peter Leatham, Stanley supporters club chairman, reflected on the magnitude of the achievement and some of the key figures in the club’s recent history - past and present - who have all played a key role in this week’s triumph.
He said: “Tuesday night was a touch of karma really because it’s the 50th anniversary of the club’s reformation but it was also the exact date that the Football League was formed 130 years ago with Accrington as one of the founder members.
“There’s been a number of people who have kept the club going and unfortunately some are no longer with us.
“John De-Maine passed away last week and he was instrumental in keeping the club afloat, along with the Eric Whalleys and Jack Barretts of this world. Without those people there wouldn’t have been a club for Andy Holt to come and work his magic on. Long may it continue.”
Celebrating supporters said the ‘unbelievable’ performance of the club had exceeded their wildest dreams.
Paul Iddon said: “John Coleman’s done brilliantly considering we have one of the smallest budgets, smallest crowds joint with Morecambe in the league and we don’t have a lot of money to pay players big wages. The team ethic has been key from the players to the crowd, everybody’s been on board.”
Stanley author Darren Woodhead said: “Never ever did I believe it would be possible in a million years to be playing teams like Sunderland in the league.”
With promotion now secured, the Reds get back down to business on Saturday with a tough-looking trip to promotion chasers Wycombe, one of just two teams - along with Luton - who can still deny them the title. Stanley need a maximum of six points from their remaining four games, but a victory on this weekend could see them crowned champions if second-placed Luton slip to defeat at mid-table Carlisle. Stanley then play their game in hand on Tuesday night at 12th-placed Newport County.