Johnny Phillips: John Coleman looking to add to ‘Little Accy’s’ success story

It is just after six o’clock on a bitingly cold Tuesday night in Accrington.

John Coleman is working wondersat Accrington Stanley with his sideeyeing a push for the Championship
John Coleman is working wondersat Accrington Stanley with his sideeyeing a push for the Championship

The pitch at the Crown Ground – or Wham Stadium, in new money – is partially covered in snow. Accrington Stanley manager John Coleman has left the sanctuary of the home dressing room and is out on the grass with a large broom, joining ground staff attempting to the clear the surface ahead of a second pitch inspection.

No other side in League One has played fewer games than Accrington. Coleman cannot afford another postponement, with midweek fixtures scheduled all the way through until the final week of April.

The scene is typical of a club where everybody pulls their weight, and then some. The manager’s efforts pay off. After a half-hour delay, the match against Bristol Rovers goes ahead.

Coleman’s players do not let him down, with a 6-1 win that leaves Stanley eight points behind leaders Hull City, but with three games in hand. Five of the goals come from the impressive strike partnership of Dion Charles and Colby Bishop. Like many who come here, the pair arrived from non-league clubs and their stock is rising rapidly.

Two days later, Coleman is overseeing a training session on the synthetic pitch at The Hub, the Accrington Stanley Community Trust facility just around the corner from the ground. Tuesday’s win is still fresh in the mind but attentions have turned to Saturday afternoon’s home match against Northampton Town, and the opportunity to make further inroads on the clubs at the top of League One.

“I don’t think we’ll ever have a better chance,” Coleman says. “We’ve got good footballers with a good work ethic. I also think the coaches we’ve got at this club are underestimated: Jimmy Bell (assistant manager), John Doolan (first-team coach) and the others we’ve brought in are fantastic coaches and don’t get the credit they deserve.

“I’ve said for a while that a lot of people think it’s gung-ho spirit here, ‘Little Accy, they’re plucky and they roll their sleeves up’. It’s not that, it’s a lot of hard work analysing what we’re doing right and wrong, continually improving.”

Coleman and Bell go back years. They once made a prolific strike pairing in Liverpool’s competitive Sunday leagues, moving on to non-league football in the 1980s before Coleman took the Accrington manager’s job in 1999.

Famously winning three promotions to regain the club’s league status in 2006, their second spell at Stanley after a couple of years away has brought one further elevation in status.

A fifth promotion, to the Championship, would represent an astonishing achievement given the resources available. That they are competing with clubs like Hull City, Sunderland, Ipswich Town, Portsmouth and Charlton Athletic is little short of a miracle.

“We’ve struggled with the infrastructure here, catching up with the team at times, but the club is improving,” Coleman continues. “The ground is improving all the time and will be finished soon, and the training ground is the same.

“A lot of credit has to go to Andy Holt, the chairman, he’s been prepared to back us when needed. He’s realistic enough to know what we can and can’t achieve. He alleviates the pressure, he’s a good friend now, and we both look out for each other and try to do what’s best for each other and the club.”

One of the keys to the success has been acquiring the right players. There is no money for a chief scout or head of recruitment. Coleman puts in the hard yards himself, attending countless football matches during the course of every season.

Charles had spells at Fylde, Skelmersdale and Southport before he answered Coleman’s call, and worked for a barrister in his day job, attending some colourful court cases.

“Murders, drug deals, it was very eventful,” he explains. “One case was so bad they had snipers on top of the roof all the way around the court, it was a big drugs case.”

Bishop was signed from Leamington where he combined football with sports coaching at a primary school.

“I really enjoyed working at the school, but I’d rather being doing this,” he admits. “I used to leave the house at six in morning and wouldn’t get home until after 11 if we had training, but I think maybe I’ll go back into that work one day.”

“For every Colby and Dion you find, you’ve got to dismiss a hundred, then look at videos of more and do all the background checks,” Coleman explains.

“Not everyone is a diamond and not everyone you take works out, but if you get enough you can keep the club ticking over.”

Loan acquisitions play a crucial part in Coleman’s strategy, too, with goalkeeper Nathan Baxter and midfielder Tariq Uwakwe currently on loan from Chelsea and thriving in the first-team environment.

Perhaps the most remarkable aspect of the club’s promotion challenge is that it has come in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic severely afflicting the squad. Accrington went almost four weeks without a league match back in autumn when 19 players and coaching staff were struck down with the virus.

“It was frustrating, but we’re lucky that we have our health and we are all safe,” Bishop continues.

“You could tell it affected our fitness on our lungs and chest, but we’ve come back really well.”

“We’re still not one hundred per cent sure what the long-term effects of it are,” Coleman adds.

“You’ve got to take it seriously because there’s not a lot of research gone on about how it affects professional athletes in the long-term. What we’ve tried to do is not be too physical with them. We’ve been mindful of the fact that people have been ill.”

With another 24 league fixtures to fit in between now and May, the workload may yet catch up with the team, but in this most unpredictable of seasons the Accrington story is well worth keeping an eye on.

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