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The Rock & Roll Of Clubs: Tracing The Wyrd History Of Accrington Stanley FC
Richard Foster , February 15th, 2021 09:42

In our monthly subscribers only feature, Richard Foster looks under 'that' milk advert to a Lancastrian football club with an occult history

Walking down Whalley Road in Accrington, towards the Crown public house, the parish of Altham and the old industrial village of Clayton-le-Moors, the pedestrian will pass under a brown sign adorned with a football, stating “Accrington Stanley FC”. Following the sign’s arrow down Livingstone Road and taking a sharp left will lead the curious to the Crown Ground, now known as the Wham Stadium. This is the home of Accrington Stanley (1968) FC, a small football club close to the heart of the town, previously a “housewives’ favourite”, then “the club that wouldn’t die”. And now a club in the heart of the community, which is quite possibly the most rock & roll in the land.

The Wham mentioned above is not a reference to the London pop group who captured millions of teenagers’ hearts and bestrode the Great Wall of China. It did cause me a double take, though, when I first saw the signs erected outside the ground a few years back. True to Stanley’s current brand as a practical, community-based club living doggedly within its means, “Wham” pays tribute to the three-year deal done with What More UK Ltd, the UK's largest manufacturer of plastic household accessories and storage boxes. They’re based in Padiham, near Burnley. Wham (along with PushPan and Wham Cook) is one of the company’s brand names. To lower the blood pressure in East Lancashire (as putting the names of Burnley and Accrington Stanley in the same sentence can cause great unease to some) this partnership is entirely benevolent, unlike former Burnley FC chairman Bob Lord’s alleged machinations in 1962 that led to the original Stanley going bust.

Why should Stanley be seen as “rock & roll”? It’s my belief that the club is a shifting, mystic entity possessed of peculiar sociocultural powers, akin to the ravens in the Tower of London, or the best pop music these islands have produced. To re-employ an old Membranes song title, there are many myths and legends around Stanley. Some are entirely personal, such as a memory of the infant me playing with a giant white rabbit that lived under the old wooden stand. Some are comical: “What road is Stanley on? Livingstone, I presume.” (Surely that wasn’t planned by some local joker?) Others in this article seem more plausible, like the story that concerns another Accrington icon, Nori brickworks, namely whether New York’s Empire State Building rests on that legendarily hard, red Accrington brick. In the spirit of transparency and journalistic accountability, I can say that only some of these tales are wholly true. The white rabbit I played with has nothing to do with Grace Slick or Lewis Carroll, for example. But it wasn’t a brown or black rabbit. And we can dream that stories such as these signify greater things and add to the warp and weft of this tale.

“Rock & roll” is a phrase that can denote many things, of course, but in this article it signifies a link to popular music and popular culture, however tangential, undesirable, or odd. There is plenty to explore. Did the phrase “clean sheet” really come from a Stanley cup match? Did Stanley have a hand in the invention of Total Football? Why do Stanley fans sing a version of ‘Anarchy In The UK’? Did a structure used for community singing and watching British Army parades really cause utter ruin? Has Reg Dixon’s giant organ in Blackpool got a role to play? And why end up in court over a Phil Collins track? There is plenty to chew on for the amateur sleuth.

As with all football clubs, Stanley has a stock of cultural capital to dig into in the form of unique artefacts, such as the ill-fated rising-phoenix club crest from 1998, which was dropped after the team were relegated in the first season of its use. It would be easy to wade through this material and draw our conclusions solely from our search. My brother’s collection of Stanley ephemera, for instance (stretching back to the early 1980s) involves a wardrobe of tops, hand-painted Subbuteo teams, cuttings, programmes, photographs and tickets, and a red-and-white scarf knitted for him by a superfan gran. One of these items - and still a strong signifier to the outside world of a clog-wearing, matchstick-men Lancashire - would be one of the Holland’s Pies strips, often beautiful and clean designs that displayed the town’s crest alongside the Baxenden pie manufacturer and other local businesses such as Gibsons Sports on their fronts. Memory may be playing tricks, but the first of these, from 1990, was probably the first Stanley top to be openly and proudly worn in the town. It was a clear nod, in its collar design, to England’s Italia 90 adventure, invoking that first heady acceptance of football into the mainstream after years of public denigration. It’s doubtless the sort of retro top list-ticking enthusiasts would be happy to rock, even now.

Liverpool - Who Are They?

But just cluttering this piece with standard “footy” material, or ironic, lad-mag appropriations and connections, with dreary takes from talking heads and famous fans, would miss the point and leave Stanley’s wyrder tale untold. That it is untold, or at the very least misrepresented, is for a very British reason. Like many things in British life, established tropes about our nation’s history and the manner of its telling dominate. It’s a telling, moreover, that is top-down and centralised. And the smaller or more marginal your story or experience is in this country, the more chance you have of being misrepresented, patronised, abused, mocked, or ignored. Or worse. This narrative process usually goes unchallenged, sometimes dangerously so, especially in the man-creamed, beardie-groomed, teeth-like-Stonehenge world of modern British football punditry. In this soul-dead arena of stats and big screens, provincial oiks and orcs are expected to act out a predesignated storyline and zip up when their tale is told, regardless of any display of local pride and knowledge. In this world, unless there is an event of biblical proportions at the Wham Stadium, the name of Accrington Stanley will continue to be associated with bottled milk.

Many of the links between the fashions, football and music of the postwar era are now the stuff of popular myth, and play an important part in forging elements of British male identity. The terrace and hooligan cultures of the 1970s and 1980s have been particularly fetishised, with a growing number of academic treatises joining the plethora of street-level memories (some rehearsed, some accurately documented, some just blurted out in the pub). Popular manifestations often walk a line between nostalgia and a masochistic, even homoerotic narcissism, such as the film Awaydays, with its nods to Merseyside’s scally culture, post punk and Eric’s, and Thatcherism’s looming, slate-grey shadow. Believe me: there are earnest reports on whether the inflatable bananas waved at Maine Road in 1988 actually heralded the arrival of acid house.

Stanley’s role in this culture is enshrined in around 40 seconds of a late-80s television advert from the Milk Marketing Board. We see a young Scouser (actor Carl Rice in his first role) clad in his Liverpool strip, opening his ma’s fridge and grabbing a glass of milk in preference to lemonade. Milk glass in hand, Rice turns to his off-camera mate and cites the advice of the Reds’ No 9, Ian Rush, to “drink lots of milk”. Otherwise both lads would only be good enough to play for Accrington Stanley.

Apart from causing witty types to attempt a phlegm-rattling Scouse take on Stanley’s name and the word ‘exactly”, (usually served up with an unspoken expectation that we’ll all “get the joke”), the advert seemed to cement the image of Accrington Stanley as a humdrum lower-league curiosity, an update from being the club housewives used to like to put a bet on, or one of the ones that “went bust”.

For the record, this article will not be banging on and on about the advert. I suppose, just like that infamous “fuck the napkin” moment in Spinal Tap, we Accringtonians should say, “bugger the milk”. But we don’t. We are too polite for that. Even when the writer of said advert fruitily called Stanley “Accers” in an online comment…

No, the milk advert hasn’t really hurt the club. In fact, it may possess high-magick properties, being recently held up in a highfalutin article in the Times of London as an example of iconic advertising. It can even be seen as a curse. One of “the world's longest running - and least successful - indie groups”, Southampton’s Accrington Stanley, viewed the nationwide popularity of “that damned milk advert” as something of a death knell to their chances of being heard, despite John Peel playing them. This malaise only got worse when the internet took a stranglehold on our lives. Who could find the band’s music when there’s that catchy advert floating round? (Especially now the club’s now punching hard and clean in the actual Football League again?) It’s a fair point.

Fair play, too, to Carl Rice, who has been back to Stanley many times as a guest of the club and supporters club, and as an invited guest for televised games. He's also attended matches off his own bat on occasions. One could see the advert - and Rice’s apparent on-off love affair with the club - as a cultural precursor of Stanley’s policy of taking on young players from the city. Longstanding manager John Coleman had a knack of picking young Liverpool lads from reserve and youth teams; all “ballers” who could play, all whippet-thin and all 5-foot-something, or so it seemed from the stands. And not just unknown Liverpudlians, either. Liverpool and England captain Steven Gerrard was once pally with a couple of players on Stanley’s books and was rumoured to have watched a game or two. Indeed, Gerrard’s association with his Stanley pals spawned mild controversy when a fracas with a DJ at a Southport nightclub saw him and some Stanley first-team players answering questions from the Old Bill. One (unverified) account at the time blamed the unfortunate misunderstanding on a refusal to play a Phil Collins record, which unduly rattled the lads. Urban myth or not, it is certainly a bizarre reason for an honest disagreement.

Soldiering Kills Football Clubs

Accrington Stanley’s fan group, the Stanley Ultras, have one of the most comprehensive song lists of all British clubs. This can be seen as further proof of the town’s wider musical heritage, one that boasts genius avant-garde composer Sir Harrison Birtwistle, Jon Anderson from Yes, DJ Mike Pickering and Jeanette Winterson’s hymn-singing mum (check her debut novel Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit for the lowdown on that). The Ultras’ repertoire is a key element of a Stanley matchday. You can’t avoid it, especially if you stand on the corner of the singing stand, the Sophia Khan Stand - AKA the Clayton End - and the bleak Whinney Hill Terrace, known to its initiates as “Moaner’s Corner”. (Believe me, there is nothing more bracing than mingling with this select group of diehards - some with flasks - who like to give “the liner” the benefit of their rapier-like wit.) Songs far removed from the standard bleary football dirges roll nonstop down the Clayton End, such as a very popular number about the wonderfulness of Accrington. In one mildly remarkable and most rock & roll instance, the Sex Pistols’ ‘Anarchy In The UK’ has been re-employed. It took shape originally as a riposte to the taxman, when Stanley faced a winding-up order for not paying a £300,000 bill from HMRC. Although, according to some, it hasn’t been sung with anywhere near the same gusto since the tax problems of 2009, ‘Anarchy’ is now employed as more of a general war cry for Accrington and surrounds, and sounds strident enough. Here are the lyrics, for those who fancy a change from the original.

I am a Stanley fan
I am an Accringtonian
I know what I want
And I know how to get it
Fuck the tax man and his billls
Cos Iiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiii wanna beeeeeeeee
Stanerleeeeeeee

Community singing - whether giving Lydon a leg up into the 21st century or mouthing hymns at the FA Cup Final - has long played a part in British football life. As has paying continual tribute to this country’s strong military traditions. It can be argued that both these elements have intertwined in an insidious way to be the undoing of the original Accrington Stanley. It’s the sort of malignant ley line Mark E Smith (God rest his soul) would feel the vibrations from and somehow crystallise into song. Interestingly, Mr Smith once told me over a jar of finest Dutch ale that he had been “run out of Accrington”, at the business end of a shotgun. And that he didn’t trust the bus drivers there.

The phrase “an ironic twist of fate” is one that could be employed throughout this article. But we reserve it for the ironic twist of fate that links community singing, the British Army, the demise of Accrington Stanley and another provincial town with strong military ties that lost its league football club, Aldershot. Stanley’s association with the military is fairly constant. Remembrance weekend is strictly and proudly observed, usually with a military representative on the pitch. Accrington has traditionally played its part in being one element of a wider recruiting area for the British Army, too; it serves a number of Lancashire-based regiments and the Coldstream Guards. And, of course, the club is “the other thing” the town is known for, its rival for fame being the 11th Service Battalion of the East Lancashire Regiment, AKA The Accrington Pals, many of whom were killed in action on the first day of the Battle of the Somme in 1916. (Interestingly, both Stanley and the Pals were the beneficiaries of revivalism in the creation of a local memorial culture in the late 1960s.)

I’ve argued previously in this publication that the town could be seen as an unwitting mausoleum for the Pals. At time of writing, a huge banner showing officers and men of the battalion is still draped over the 1960s extension to the Victorian town hall. The Pals are inescapable, and they get into places you don’t expect. In a remarkable squaring of this hypothetical circle, the club printed a poem from my tQ Pals article and attributed it to me in a recent Remembrance weekend matchday programme. In fact, the words are the work of a gentleman called Cricketer Mick, who, “whilst preparing drawings of Stanley’s ground to improve the facilities to enable the club to gain entry to the Football League in 2006”, worked out that “the entire original battalion of 36 officers and 1,076 men could fit into the Coppice End terrace”. And he wrote a poem about it, wrongly attributed to me. Mick, lad, whoever you are, contact the club!

Stranger, in retrospect, is Mick’s waking vision of a stand populated with the fallen from a regiment of foot as a sign of the club’s rejuvenation. This is cemented with lines like: “When the Pals come home they'll have Stanley to cheer, / At the football ground on the other side of town.” Or maybe it’s a premeditated action, a waking dream used as an ingenious way to rid the club of the curse of the Aldershot Stand.

To understand the root of this curse we need to go back, briefly, to community singing. Massed crowd singing at major events became popular after 1926, often at the behest of national newspapers such as the Daily Express and News Chronicle. The public promotion of community singing could be seen as a populist attempt to diffuse the widespread unrest that led to that year’s bitter General Strike. Folk songs, shanties and old war songs were encouraged as efforts to imbue a sense of wellbeing in the subjects of the empire. This increasingly popular activity spread to the Aldershot Military Tattoo in 1927, taking root in a stand that, over 30 years later, would lead to the ruination of Accrington Stanley.

In the mid-to-late 1950s, Stanley were a team going places, usually near the top of the old Third Division North and pulling decent enough crowds, attracted by the play of the famous “Scottish teams” put together by manager Walter Galbraith. Peter Leatham, chairman of the Official Accrington Stanley Supporters Trust, explained that, in 1958, Stanley had an opportunity to purchase the Aldershot Military Tattoo stand. Huge and sprawling, it could seat thousands. The old Peel Park ground had grown to a capacity of 24,000, but only had seating for around 700. Crowds could hit 10,000 for certain games, so it was decided the stand was essential. The estimated cost was £10,000 (L.S.D.) to purchase, dismantle, transport and erect it at Peel Park. What could go wrong?

Tragically, the whole operation was massively underestimated, according to Leatham. “Only once we were fully committed to the project did it dawn on us that we hadn’t actually bought a flat-pack stand, but rather a huge amount of parts that all needed modifying in some way.” The stand was originally built to watch the British Army parade, often from hundreds of yards away, “so the pitch of the seating was far shallower than what is required for viewing a football match”. The project “was an unmitigated disaster”, leading to unpayable debts and, eventually, in 1962, the end of Accrington Stanley Mark 1.

One Organ Of Admittance

There is an expression, supposedly Russian or Ukrainian, that runs, “they lie like an eyewitness”. As I intimated earlier when writing about the infant me playing with a giant white rabbit that lived under the rickety old wooden stand that served the reborn club, I only have myself as proof for some of the stories I relate. And it is time for another personal, “eyewitness” reminiscence I can’t prove, not even with the help of the club. But, not only am I convinced this happened, it is surely the ultimate proof of Stanley being more rock & roll than any other club in the land. And I will devote the rest of my life to finding out the truth.

These are the fragments of my memory, then, laid out for public inspection. It is an overcast Saturday afternoon, around Christmas, sometime in the mid-00s when all-action midfielder Andy Procter is the dynamo of the team. I am back in Acc, visiting my folks from my current base in the Netherlands. Stanley run on to the pitch, not to the heaving thuds and groans of pop music, but to a mini-symphony played, unmistakably, on a grand organ. The players look at each other, confused by this alien noise, whilst the Tannoy fellow announces that the music was part of a longer piece written to celebrate the new club rising from the ashes of the original Accrington Stanley. And a piece played on Blackpool’s mighty Empress Ballroom organ, the organ made famous by virtuoso player Reginald Dixon. This was all too much for me to take in after a few pre-match pints. I remember Stanley losing, the players doubtless affected by what they heard. This memory is not a dream; it happened, but stupidly, I ended up back in the pub happily wasting time instead of running round to the club offices and demanding that I have the CD. And sadly, no one seems to be able to officially verify that this actually happened.

There are other Accrington memories that seem to be only to be mine. There’s the the sight of Don Estelle, who played Lofty in the now-extremely-questionable 1970s TV comedy, It Ain’t Half Hot Mum, DJing in the 1980s in the newly built Accrington Arndale shopping centre, resplendent in pith helmet and Bombay bloomers. Or a children’s roundabout in full swing on Accrington Broadway, soundtracked by the obituary section on BBC Radio Lancashire.

There is no real proof either (just a collation of circumstantial evidence), that the concept of Total Football has its heart in East Lancashire, maybe even Accrington. The Wunderteam of Austria and Golden Team of Hungary both apparently cited Jimmy Hogan, from nearby Nelson. The great Burnley sides of the early 1960s, run by Harry Potts, could also lay some claim. But Jack Reynolds of Radcliffe, who famously coached Ajax, is the man who probably has the strongest claim to be the inventor of Total Football. And an obscure match in the Lancashire Combination league’s 1902-03 season between Accrington Stanley and Manchester City reserves - one Reynolds, in his only season at City, could have played in - may have been the spark that lit the fuse. The Stanley side, known for swashbuckling football, won the league with a +78 goal difference and would certainly have impressed Reynolds, had he been present at the match. Then there is a cup tie in 1907 that may, or may not, have planted the seed for a commonplace footballing term, “keeping a clean sheet”. Stanley were playing against Bradford City and their goalkeeper at the time was the legendary William “Fatty” Foulke.

His top clashed with Stanley’s strip, so they had to find a new one. But Foulke’s imperial proportions meant that no strip would fit him. The City officials reputedly went to a nearby house and purloined a bedsheet to clothe their star player. Bradford won and Foulke didn't even make a dive all game - hence he kept a clean sheet. Had Stanley played a bit better, this expression would never have existed. We think.

Sacred Geostanlies

All these stories suggest something rum, illicit, altogether naughty about Accrington Stanley. The situation of Stanley’s grounds may play a role here, adding a psychogeographic wobble. If one draws a line from Stanley’s current home at Livingstone Road to the old ground’s site at Peel Park, and then (for reasons that will be disclosed later) to Altham Industrial Estate, we note that the three locations form a rough scalene triangle. We can even permit a bit of a psychic bend to include Accrington Cricket Club’s ground, which nestles in the shadow of Whinney Hill. (After all, the world’s not flat, cock.) This triangle can be situated over another, more equilateral one, where the M65 meets the Accrington Bypass (A56). The third side of the equilateral triangle is created by drawing a straight line from the two roads that then cuts through the sites of both grounds and the cricket ground. So far, so self-explanatory.

It is worth noting that both the M65 and A56 cut through and bypass hills; the aforementioned Whinney Hill and Hameldon Hill, the latter of which leads on to the famous Coppice, a promontory of sorts, much walked up and over, that overlooks the town. All should be viewed as sacred mounds; muddy and windswept, they survive human scarring with an implacable patience.

The two triangles contain, and are surrounded by, sources of heat and light; formidable energy centres to remake and remodel. We can point to the old shadow factory (set up specifically to make aircraft engines in secret, most probably for the Bristol Beaufighter), now just off Junction 7 of the M65. Or the old gas and leccy power stations in Accrington, on Argyle Street, and in Huncoat, and the pits in Accrington (Scaitcliffe) and Altham (Moorfield and Whinney Hill). Whinney Hill itself, now a huge recycling centre, was also once home to the world-famous Nori brickworks. The brick stacks were a feature of Stanley games in the 1970s, lined up overlooking the Crown Ground like Easter Island statues. As did the famous Nori chimney. It is worth remembering that the letters on the chimney, NORI, were supposed to read IRON but, due to some secret masonic ritual, never revealed, it was written the wrong way up. Regardless of whatever dark art was practised, the Nori chimney held a magical power for many.

Stanley may pitch itself to the wider footballing world as a humble community club (paying its dues to the dead-eyed British football tropes we spoke of earlier) but it is literally ringed by these power sources, and there have been moments when white light/white heat energy has played a role in the club’s history that can be matched by few others. And, for a heady few months at the end of the 1980s, the Crown Ground felt the reverberations of another, more tribal beat on the tip of the scalene triangle, marking one episode of this country’s more remarkable youthquakes. In the lavishly illustrated album made for the centenary of the FA (1963), a reproduction of an old print shows a floodlit game taking place at Accrington, most probably where Accrington Cricket Club now stands. The game features Th’ Owd Reds (the Accrington team who played in the original football league). Was this one of the first ever floodlit matches? Done for the craic of it?

According to Leatham, “the floodlight thing is neither true nor untrue [...] but legend has us playing one of the early Blackburn or Darwen teams in a Lancashire cup match in the late 1800s”. This phantasmagorical match seems, then, to be one of the first unofficial games under floodlights, set up by goodness knows what combination of local ingenuity and unofficial winging it. Stanley would build on this legacy as an unofficial pioneer of floodlights during the 1950s, unveiling their lights in 1954 and playing a series of games against Scottish opposition and one on 15 November, 1954, against one of their famous neighbours, Blackburn Rovers, when the ground record attendance of 17,634 was set. This is before the FA’s official adoption of floodlit matches (England v Spain, November 1955) and for league matches (the first being Portsmouth v Newcastle United in February 1956). (Though it must be noted some other clubs, such as South Liverpool were playing floodlit friendlies in 1949, and that Southampton FC had permanent lights in 1950.)

Regardless, imagine the scenes; Stanley ablaze with light and noise, doing what needed to be done to keep thousands of local enthusiasts happy. This mirrors another unorthodox, if more illicit, use of public lighting for a similarly enthusiastic crowd that happened over t’other side of Whinney Hill, on the Altham Business Park (or “the industrial estate” as most called it then). From 1988 onwards, East Lancashire was a hotbed of the acid house scene, often powered by ingenious rewirings of the county’s mains. A recent article in the Guardian convincingly argued that it was Blackburn, not Manchester, that set the scene in terms of acid house in the north-west of England. And given this, the fact that the M65 forms part of one of the Stanley triangles is auspicious. This highway enabled mobility, a key factor in the north-west’s rave scene, opening up spaces for parties and club nights happening in villages around Blackburn such as “Shad” (Shadsworth), Tockholes, Ewood, Edenfield and Helmshore, amongst many other unexpected places, such as Great Harwood. Altham Business Park, a spit and a stride away from Junction 8, was the scene for one of the last great “informal” gatherings in early 1990.

Tapping into these distant drums to signal the wider story of Stanley has been an inescapable and an unexpectedly personal experience. Looking back, it seems, rather scarily, that Stanley has been a silent witness to many aspects of my life; there when I wasn’t looking, even. My junior school was Peel Park, and as a child I often ran around on what was the old pitch. The Scotsman Fred Pirie was our window cleaner in the 1970s, a left-back in one of the last early 60s Stanley sides. Stanley continues to turn up in surprising places I have visited, such as The Hallamshire House, a pub in Sheffield, when Les May was the landlord. May was on Stanley's books as a lad, and, despite being primarily famous in that corner of South Yorkshire for his sausage and dripping sandwiches, kept framed evidence of his playing days for all to see. And daft things still happen on the Crown Ground: a local opera singer belting out Nessun Dorma on the pitch as a precursor to the home game against Colchester United in the FA Cup in 2004 is just one example. Where will it end? A fatuous question. Like many great British cultural signifiers, such as Dame Vera Lynne and Baroness Floella Benjamin, Blake’s poetry and the singing head of Bram, how could there be an end to Accrington Stanley?