Of all the clubs that once graced the Football League surely one of the most charismatic must be Accrington Stanley. The name alone sends tingles down the spine of every true football fan. However, Stanley’s story cannot be complete without the mention of another local team, Accrington FC. They were formed in 1876 from a local cricket eleven, but did not start playing until 1878, by which time their move from Peel Park, the home many years later of Stanley, to the Cricket Ground had already taken place.
Like Accrington, the majority of clubs were offshoots of local cricket or rugby clubs or founded as school, factory or church teams. It seemed an obvious choice for newly formed football clubs to adopt their founder’s colours in those early years. On other occasions clubs were inspired by the towns or county’s colours or the choice of colour was merely random, being chosen from whatever was available in the local shop. In Accrington’s case it was the latter – the shopkeeper could offer only scarlet and black. Thus from the outset Accrington became known colloquially as ‘The’ Owd Reds’ or simply ‘The Reds’.
The club was not without competition in the area. Darwen, from just outside Blackburn, was the first Northern side to reach the FA Cup Quarter-Finals in 1879, the short-lived Blackburn Olympic were the first Northern winners, and Blackburn Rovers were the pick of the lot, winning the FA Cup three times on the trot in the 1880s, using some Accrington FC players too. Soon other clubs sprung up in town, including Bell’s Temperance, Church Rovers, Accrington Grasshoppers, Peel Bank Rovers and the Accrington Remnants and Ramblers (they certainly know how to name their teams up in Accrington!). Oh, those derbies on grounds nothing more than poorly drained unenclosed patches of land, lacking any players’ or spectators’ facilities and sheep having to be chased off the pitch a minute before kick-off to make play possible.
It was the era of handwritten fixture lists, disputed goals, clandestine professionals, raised timbered terracing, receipts of 52 pounds sterling, encouraging attendances of 400, countless friendly fixtures and County Cup ties. Not quite “jumpers for goalposts”, but you catch our drift. By 1888 it was recognised that true competition was vital to improve interest in the game. In March of that year William McGregor, a committee member at Aston Villa, wrote to five other clubs with the proposal that each should play each other, home and away, on set dates.
Bolton Wanderers replied with the suggestion that the number of teams should be extended to fourteen, including Accrington. Eventually, due to only 22 available dates for matches, twelve were chosen: West Bromwich Albion, Notts County, Blackburn Rovers, Aston Villa, Bolton Wanderers, Burnley, Derby County, Stoke City, Accrington, Wolverhampton Wanderers, Everton and Preston North End. And so, on 8 September 1888, Accrington played their first ever Football League match against Everton. They lost 1-2. Shortly after, by the early 1890’s, Accrington were in the throes of a rapid decline and their league days ended in 1893.
Meanwhile, for another club, playing at Moorhead Park in red and white shirts (our local shopkeeper was a marketeer pur sang) things were beginning to look more prosperous. They were the aforementioned Stanley Villa FC, so named because several of the members lived in Stanley Street. This team was renamed as Accrington Stanley, at least from 1894. The ‘Stanleyites’ as they were known in those early days, first entered a league of any note in the 1894-95 season and were enjoying a great deal of support. Yet, Stanley were unable to afford the rental of Moorhead Park and so the 1897-98 season saw a change in home venue when the club moved to the Bell’s Ground at Woodnock.
By 1900 Accrington Stanley had become an established semi-professional outfit, and by now known as ‘The Reds’, in recognition of their predecessors who had held the title as Accrington’s top football team. The club started to attract bigger crowds and their healthy financial status allowed them to move back to Moorhead Park. In February 1907 Stanley played away from home to Bradford City for an FA Cup tie. Their goalie was the legendary and gigantic Willie “Fatty” Foulke, whose jersey clashed with the red of Stanley. Not surprisingly a suitable other coloured replacement could not be found. The problem was eventually overcome by the use of a sheet, borrowed from a nearby house, which was wrapped around the man’s giant frame. Bradford City won by a single goal and since Foulke didn’t dive during the game you now know where the expression ‘to keep a clean sheet” comes from.
By the start of the 1919/20 season Stanley left Moorhead Park again, this time to what was to become their permanent home during their league days, Peel Park, ideally located due to its convenient position in town. In 1921 the Reds were elected to form the twenty strong Northern section of the Third Divison but as has been recounted in many forums elsewhere their Football League days ended at Peel Park part-way through the 1961/62 season. They reformed phoenix-like in 1968 as Accrington Stanley (1968), playing at the Crown Ground, rather pompously renamed The Interlink Express Stadium in 2003.
During the first decade of the twentieth century Stanley sported red shirts and “dark” shorts probably until around 1910. From then on Accrington Stanley have always been faithful to their all-red shirts and white shorts, barring a few seasons in the mid-Thirties when a large white “V” appeared on the shirts and an Arsenal-inspired look (see their chapter) between 1947 and 1952. Their last Football League outfit before re-entering was a white shirt with a striking red chest band and black shorts. It is heartbreaking to notice that the only season the Reds didn’t play in red ended in disaster.
Accrington Stanley’s badge would not have appeared on player’s shirts in the early years. Since most of the early club badges were in fact heraldic emblems of such intricacy they were very expensive to embroider and probably would have faded away due to frequent washing. These heraldic emblems were mainly saved for stationery, match programmes, special occasions such as Cup Finals or sewn on club official’s blazers or ties only.
Stanley’s symbol has always been the town’s coat of arms, granted in 1879. The shuttle in the shield stands for cotton spinning, and the cylinders and calico for the industry of printing that material. With this business the local family of Hargreaves, of Broad Oak, were closely connected, hence the stag in the chief, part of their crest. The lion is that of the ancient family De Lacy, who held Accrington by grant of Henry II. The oak branch in the crest is trebly allusive to the name. It is bent into the shape of its initial letter; oak (Anglo-Saxon ‘ac’) expresses the first syllable; and the acorns recall the old form of the name, Akerenton. We thought you’d just wanted to know when you cheer on ‘The Reds’ at the Crown Ground, their home since 1970.
And having read this hopefully now no-one can ever base an advertising campaign around “Accrington Stanley. Who? Exactly!”