It’s the start of the season and starts don’t come much bigger than this (or so I initially thought): a match between two clubs that famously folded mid-season finally meet once more in the Football League*. On top of that the game marked the 40th anniversary of Stanley’s reformation and was a top of the table clash (by virtue of both sides’ names beginning with ‘a’). The fixture then fair jumped out of the list. The first day is always sunny too like FA Cup Final day, I thought, as I put the date in my diary. Except this one wasn’t. It lashed down.
I struggled to keep hold of my umbrella in the wind as I began my Stanley heritage experience by checking out the club’s former League home, Peel Park. Today the site of the ground is a primary school playing field (below). There is a mural (above) depicting the club on the playground wall and you can easily make out the shape of the pitch with an embankment on one side denoting a terrace. Above the door of a small brick building is a plaque (below). I think the players changed here and the pupils do now.
Afterwards I visited an exhibition at the town’s library entitled “Accrington Stanley: the club that wouldn’t die”. I expected some artefacts from the former League days – a pair of baggy shorts or something – but just about all I got was a plaque presented to the club by the National Sports Council to mark a tour of Barbados in 1995 and panels full of text lifted straight from a (recommended) website. At least it was free.
I arrived at the ground planning to go in with the Shots lads but when I saw that admission to the away end incurred a £3 surcharge and that it appeared to be open to the elements my new found loyalties were tested. As it happened, there was shelter around the corner.
As a fan of Aldershot’s traditional local rivals, Reading, I felt like a real interloper. The sprinkling of ex-Reading players mentioned in the programme – most notably the player-coach Ricky Newman – and the similarity of the away end to the Tilehurst End at good ole Elm Park connected me to my roots. I later even spotted a fella in a Reading shirt. It was rather quaint last season when the Reading fans at Middlesbrough chanted “You’re so quiet you sound like Aldershot”. That’s an unfair allegation now. Two drums made a great noise. The Shots fans need all the rhythmic guidance they can get given the problems of devising chants for teams that have three syllables in their name. Just try it: “We love you Aldershot, we do …” and “Aldershot are back, ey-oh, ey-oh …”
The kick-off was preceded by a minute’s silence for the mother of Jimmy, Stanley’s assistant manager. Whatever next? A minute’s applause for the kitman’s hamster?
The Shots got the only goal of the game two minutes before half-time, a Beckham-esque curling free-kick into the top corner. The scorer of their first goal back in the League was Donnelly who also scored the goal that took them into the League. They could’ve wrapped it all up in the second half but a shot from a breakaway hit the post. Stanley piled on the pressure towards the end with their gangly Nigerian sub blowing a couple of good chances.
Despite being a reasonable match I felt disappointed. The occasion wasn’t special or historic but then it was probably never going to be and my expectations had been too high. Getting into the League is little more than promotion from the Fifth Division these days and nothing short of the rebuilding of Peel Park would have satisfied my yearning for an impossible return to that black and white footballing world. Still, as wet afternoons in Accrington go, it was a cracker.
Talking of wet afternoons in Accrington, the above pic is one of my all-time archive favourites. It shows the first Stanley's final non-league game (against Glossop) in January 1966. Oh, to have been one of those boys on the wall ...
* They only met once previously – in 1961. Stanley went bust and left the League the following year and Aldershot in 1992.
Click here for that Stanley milk ad.
My other first game of the season: While playing tennis at Aldborough one club night I spotted a team in red and white hoops – and, moreover, spectators wearing replica shirts – playing AFC Boroughbridge on the football pitch around the hedge. Yes! It was a Doncaster Rovers XI playing the West Yorkshire League’s finest. Donny won 3-1, I think. I watched the last 20 minutes.