John Coleman has been trawling the country, training on plastic pitches and performing footballing miracles for years, but it hasn’t put him off the taste of overachieving.
A little over 20 years since he first became Accrington manager, non-league stalwart Coleman has taken his side from what is now the National League North to League One, while still playing in front of crowds of less than 3,000 and with the smallest wage bill in the division by some margin.
Even in the third tier, Stanley are forced to train on a 3G pitch, which proves a great source of irritation for the 57-year-old. Last season, they were kicked off so Burnley Ladies – who share the ground – could play a first-team match.
Coleman himself spends more time in service stations than he would like, acting as the Accrington’s one-man recruitment team and always insisting on running the rule on potential new recruits first-hand.
The sheer gulf in infrastructure between the likes of Accrington and other clubs like Sunderland and Portsmouth is rarely noticed because, on the pitch, there’s little to tell between them.
It’s more than 30 years since the club earned brief infamy when a Milk Marketing Board national TV advert asked ‘Accrington Stanley, who are they?’ and now Coleman is dreaming of dragging them back into the spotlight.
“I think we’ve got one more promotion in us, believe it or not,” he tells Sky Sports after picking up December’s Sky Bet Manager of the Month award for League One. “That would be a fairy tale if we could get to the Championship.”
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Not many pundits outside of east Lancashire will share that belief about a club with the lowest home attendance in League One and a revenue stream that would barely sustain a number of League Two sides. Their income every year wouldn’t be enough to pay even one average Premier League wage.
Lucky then that Accrington have never relied on material desires. If they had, there is no way they would have made it as far as they have. Coleman racks up more miles than your average Uber driver to watch players up and down the country – ability alone won’t be enough to earn you a place in his tight-knit dressing room.
Character is at the heart of all of Accrington’s success. In an era where players are criticised for having bigger priorities outside their football career, Coleman revels in the team spirit he has created at the Wham Stadium, and matched significantly weightier playing budgets with a group of players who will go the extra yard for the shirt.
“People think you just get players lined up and select the best, but you’ve got to sift through a lot,” he says. “It takes a certain character to be able to play for Accrington and to be able to perform the way we want them to perform.
“When you get out on the pitch, a player isn’t better than you because he drives a better car than you, or he’s had a better dinner than you. It’s what you show in your heart and your passion.
“I do a lot of hard yards, going around the country and watching a player to say no, rather than yes. I’ve built up a network of contacts to get a real feel for what someone is like, as a player and a man. There’s been one or two bad apples down the years, but the environment we’ve built means they get weeded out quickly by the other players. I don’t even really need to get involved.
“It’s depressing to see the way the professional game has changed, but we’ve created an environment where people come in and play for us, and enjoy the experience. There won’t be many people who come to Accrington and go away without good things to say about it.”
Things are starting to change as Accrington look to put their increasing, but still inconsiderable, windfall from the added TV money and higher attendances in League One into building a legacy. Three home games were called off earlier this year due to problems with the pitch but since owner Andy Holt paid for the Wham Stadium surface to be relaid over the summer, Coleman now considers it one of the best in League One.
A dedicated training ground – including real grass – is set to follow and has been in the pipeline for some time, but has been held up because of problems with nearby electricity pylons.
“By the close of play this season we’re hopeful to have something in place on that front,” Coleman smiles. “It’s been my hardest challenge to get a proper training ground in place, to be honest. I can’t stand the fact we’re training on a plastic pitch while playing on grass, so I don’t know what it’s doing for the players.
“The infrastructure of the club has grown already in the last few years under the owner. The ground is one we can be proud of. Eventually, when we get the training ground, we’ll leave a legacy when we’re all gone that this club can thrive for years to come.”