Accrington stanley defying all logic to sit top of league two exactly ben fisher football the guardian bbq lamb chops marinade

“if the league was based on budgets, we’d be relegated at the start of every season,” says the accrington stanley midfielder sean mcconville. As it is, though, the lancashire club, with 10 games to play, are on course for an overdue promotion to league one after missing out on goal difference on the final day of the season in 2016. Last year it was a case of too little, too late.

On the first day of pre-season before this campaign john coleman sat his squad down, plus the kit man, chief executive and other non-playing staff, to set the bar high, with automatic promotion the explicit target. After a december dip accrington’s form since christmas, with 11 wins from their past 13 matches, has accelerated them to the summit of league two.“the lads

More recently, after training, coleman informed his squad that the top-scorer billy kee, his strike partner kayden jackson and mcconville had more league goals and assists combined than mohamed salah, roberto firmino and sadio mané.


“we were all laughing with each other, to have stats like that is frightening with how liverpool are playing,” mcconville says. In the process accrington are eating away at their image as the country’s minnows, exacerbated by the infamous milk marketing board television advert in the 1980s. “I think our performances over the past two years have helped to shake that tag to be honest,” he says.

Promotion would be remarkable given the club’s resources and the manner in which they were plucked apart for their best players last summer.Coleman says the northern ireland international shay mccartan signed for bradford city, matty pearson exited for barnsley the day before the campaign started and omar beckles joined shrewsbury town. Coleman, though, has an eye for a player – an educated punt as he puts it – and he has found a way to do more even than plug the gaps.

“we can’t pay riches but what we can do is give them opportunities,” the 55-year-old says. “we are not signing players on one-year deals any more, so we can protect the clubs’ interests as well. For me it’s the perfect model if you can get it right: we sign players who are hungry, develop them, they give you two good years and then you move them on. They get a lot more money and we get a few bob.”

mcconville says

When players sign, coleman offers them a race to the halfway line, with £50 at stake. “the new lads will look at the gaffer and think: ‘he must be 50-odd, I fancy myself here,’” mcconville says, laughing. “he will put his money down and say: ‘the only stipulation is you have got to drink a cup of water halfway through.’ the new lads will think: ‘well, yeah, I can drink a cup of water and still beat him.’ then the assistant comes out with the water that has just been boiled from the kettle. It’s on the marks, get set, go and the new lads get to the water and they just can’t physically do it. He’s then just running past them as they are trying to drink boiling hot water. It’s just a little thing but he makes it a fun environment to come into.”

“the lads

These days, while accrington operate on a budget of around £15,000 a week, thought to be the joint-lowest in the football league, the owner andy holt, a local businessman who made his money in the plastics industry and took over three years ago, has given the club a sound footing.

“he has cleared the debts and tried to get it as a working business so that we are not haemorrhaging money,” coleman says, adding one of the things he is proudest about is the fact the club has never gone into administration “despite being one of the ones that maybe should have”.

Accrington did not have to sell players last summer – coleman was able to “accept or decline decent offers” – but it made financial sense.Coleman says the manager has been able to pay fees – albeit modest – for players, with harvey rodgers arriving from fleetwood town in january. It is a world away from 2009, when mcconville and his team-mates would worry about getting paid on time. “the manager would have had to sell those players to make ends meet,” he says, “to make sure the lads got paid the next month because it was hand-to-mouth type stuff back then.”

Not everything is perfect, though. Accrington train a mile from their stadium, on a rented 4G pitch at the council-run hyndburn leisure centre. They are told when they can and cannot train and turfed out at midday. “that hampers us more than anything,” coleman says. “the lads probably complain to each other but they don’t complain to me.Coleman says once that gets rectified, and I know the chairman has got plans in the pipeline, my job will be easier again.”

Stanley, who play 19th-placed forest green rovers on saturday, continue to punch gloriously above their weight. “if somebody would have told me when I first came here that we would be playing coventry in a league game and would beat them home and away, I would have laughed at them,” says coleman, who is in his 17th season in charge across two spells.

“there has never been a better time to be at accrington stanley than right now. The club is going in the right direction.” the club’s 15-year journey from playing part-time in the unibond premier league to here might yet become even more astonishing.Coleman says “it’s scary to think that accrington could be playing sunderland or birmingham in a league fixture – it’s dizzy heights for a club of our size but it’s one we are all striving for,” mcconville says. Talking points

Facebook twitter pinterest patrick bamford is thriving under tony pulis at middlesbrough. Photograph: andrew varley/varley picture agency/REX/shutterstock

• it seems middlesbrough are not finished yet and kudos to tony pulis for quietly steering the championship club into the play-off places. Patrick bamford’s goals have been a big plus in winning four of their past five matches. Pulis, though, is staying typically grounded. “we have nine games to go,” he said.

• in the seven weeks since sacking pep clotet, oxford united have picked up only one victory and are yet to name the spaniard’s successor.Accrington stanley but the club’s recently appointed chairman, sumrith “tiger” thanakarnjanasuth, the former majority shareholder at reading, expects to name a new manager next week.

• swindon town have appointed their ninth manager in seven years, with phil brown drafted in to sneak the club into the top six over what the 58-year-old described as a “10-game season”. Meanwhile, in league one, walsall are looking for a manager after sacking their longstanding coach jon whitney, who arrived at the club as a physiotherapist in 2003. Adi viveash, the former chelsea development squad manager currently assisting mark robins at coventry, is the leading candidate.

• and saturday’s derby between notts county and mansfield town will see the clubs compete for the matt salmon trophy, as well as local bragging rights.Coleman says salmon, who worked in both clubs’ medical departments, died of cancer aged 25 last may.