Accrington Stanley, 1999-2012 & 2014–
Years ago, I managed to change my attitude towards defeats.
Losses used to hit me really hard; sometimes I’d be down for weeks on end. I was replaying games in my head over and over and over again.
It was affecting my life and my family’s life. It just wasn’t healthy.
Something had to change, and a dark spell after I was sacked by Rochdale in January 2013 brought about that change.
My assistant, Jimmy Bell, and I had chosen to leave Accrington Stanley in 2012, after 13 years there. We’d gone in with Rochdale bottom of League One mid-season in 2011/12, and we weren’t able to save them. Then, the half-season we had in League Two was painted out to be a complete failure, and I got the sack.
We hadn’t been given the budget we’d been promised. Although we were 14th in mid-January, we’d taken 10 points from a possible 12 in away games against the four teams that ended up getting promoted. We were only six points off the playoff spots. It really wasn’t as bad as some people made out.
That sacking hit me really hard. So did the fact that lots of people were saying we had failed, which I thought was unfair.
I suffered from depression quite badly for the next 10 months. It had a huge effect on me as a person. I was wallowing on my own for days.
Eventually, I got myself up and went to see the doctor.
"When we lost 7-0 to Peterborough, my mind had moved on to the next game by the time we were on the bus home"
But I didn’t want to go down the antidepressant route. Luckily, the LMA provide a brilliant confidential service you can access; through that, you can book an appointment with a therapist.
At the time, you didn’t want to be seen as flawed or damaged goods, so having that anonymous service was a huge help.
I had six sessions – I could have had more, really – and the therapist was very good. She gave me some books to read, and one had a really profound effect on me. It was called Stop Thinking, Start Living. It was all about living in the moment, and not dwelling on the past or worrying too much about the future.
That helped me when I got back into football, because I was able to temper my approach and not get too emotionally involved.
Now, I don’t stew over defeats. When we lost 7-0 to Peterborough in March 2021, I had moved on to the next game by the time we were on the bus home. In the past, that result would have floored me for weeks. This time, I was able to turn my attention to what came next.
I’m not as vocal or as loud as I once was, and I don’t take things to heart like I used to.
I’m still passionate – anyone will tell you that – and I still have my moments, but I’m able to be more rational in my thinking, and that helps me with my decision-making. It’s made me both a better manager and a better person.
I’ve always strived to be a better person; I’ve always wanted to look for ways to improve myself. I think being a good person goes hand in hand with being a good manager.
"Scoring goals was like a drug for both of us. That’s how it is for any striker"
These days, you have head coaches and managers. I would say I’m more of a leader.
Maybe those types of managers are a bit of a dying breed, but I think the length of time I’ve been in the game shows there’s still value in them.
When you’re at a club like Accrington, you get a lot of experience in being the underdog. Being a leader – having a certain type of character – is really useful for a team like that.
Being able to communicate with the players, and build relationships with them, is a really important part of my job. Players can relate to you, and you can get your ideas across more easily.
My players are willing to go the extra mile for me because they know I’d do anything for them.
I’ve always tried to treat my players as I’ve wanted to be treated. I feel I can empathise with players, and that’s always been one of my greatest strengths.
I might be harsh sometimes, but I’m always fair and I think I’m always consistent. I’m nearly 60, but I still think like a player.
I played non-league football for 23 years, and both me and Jimmy Bell, who is still my assistant, were strikers when we played.
"I want my teams to attack like Sir Alex Ferguson's Manchester United sides"
Scoring goals was like a drug for both of us. That’s how it is for any striker.
As a manager, you get that high every time your team scores, just like you did when you scored as a player.
We’re always chasing that high – again and again. Sometimes I wonder if we’re a bit too gung ho with our football. We conceded 80 goals in 2021/22 and came in mid-table! That’s just crazy!
So, even now, I’m constantly thinking about how we can change; what we can adapt to improve; how I can improve.
I was heavily influenced by the way Liverpool pressed teams in the 1980s, but it was Sir Alex Ferguson’s attacking Manchester United teams that probably influenced me the most.
As much as I’ve been brought up not to like United, I loved watching them, and I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t influenced by them. I want my teams to attack like Ferguson's teams did.
Lots of people think Accrington are all about ‘rolling our sleeves up, being aggressive and having a go’, but that preconception of us couldn’t be further from the truth. Jimmy and I love the tactical side of the game. I love trying to outwit the opposition.
"The goal is to take Accrington into the Championship"
Myself, Jimmy and John Doolan, our first-team coach, put a huge amount of effort into match preparation and tailoring our tactics for each individual opponent. John and Jimmy's work on video preparation is really valuable to what we do and how we prepare. Our tactics have evolved over the years, too. We had a heavily possession-based period, and we’re far more than people give us credit for.
Obviously, I’ve had a bit of luck in being at Accrington for so long – from 1999 to 2012 first time around and then since 2014 the second time around – but I’ve also had to make sure I was improving myself. That included evolving our tactics.
I also had a fair bit of loyalty from the club along the way. When we came in in 1999, there had been a change in manager every year for the past seven years. We turned out to be the exception to the rule!
Eric Whalley was the chairman back then, and I think he saw a lot of himself in us. We hit it off straight away.
Of course, you also have to be successful to keep a job for as long as I have. We’ve had four promotions, each time as champions, and no relegations in that time.
The club is getting bigger and better, and we’re getting better, too. We’re loyal to the club and we’re aiming for big things together. The goal is to take Accrington into the Championship.
But of everything we’ve achieved so far, and whatever we go on to achieve – however high we go – nothing has ever beaten or will ever beat the feeling of that first promotion back in 1999/2000.
"My whole family was there to watch in packed stands. It was impossible not to feel pressure"
We were in the Northern Premier League Division One – the seventh tier of English football. The only thing that hasn’t changed at the club between now and then is the main stand. Everything else is like night and day.
When we first came in in 1999, one of the stands was known as the 'cowshed' because that is almost literally what it was. The office was a Portakabin and the pitch was horrendous!
One positive of that was that it wasn’t a very inviting place for away teams.
Even as late as 2010, we played Premier League Fulham in the FA Cup (below) and Roy Hodgson wouldn’t let his players get changed in the changing rooms. He insisted they changed at the hotel and got on the coach in their kits!
Back in 1999, it was an even more difficult place to come.
We were the biggest team in the league when I joined – Accrington had been relegated the season before – so when the opportunity to join came along, I saw it as a great chance to go up a division. I’d been offered jobs at higher levels, but Accrington appealed. I felt there was huge potential there, so I joined as player-manager.
The season didn’t start well at all, though. Around Christmas, we were 17th, playing for a chairman who was known for being trigger-happy with his sackings!
"I’ve won titles since, but none will come close to that"
He stuck with us, though, and we went on an incredible run. We hadn’t been in the top two all season – two teams were promoted – but we had a chance to sneak in there on the final day.
It was a boiling hot day, and the stadium couldn’t have crammed another person in there. Every other team in contention at the top had already finished their season, so we knew exactly what we needed to do.
With a win we’d be promoted as champions; draw and we’d finish third and miss out on promotion completely.
My whole family was there to watch in the packed stands. It was impossible not to feel the pressure.
We went 1-0 up, and then I scored to make it 2-0. Then we got a man sent off, and we were clinging on to our two-goal lead. Luckily, we then broke up the other end to make it 3-0.
The sense of relief I felt was just unbelievable. I don’t think that could ever be replicated for me. I’ve won titles since, but none will come close to that – even the one to get Accrington into the Football League for the first time. To have my family there, including my dad – who passed away a year later – was really special.
There was another promotion into the Conference a few years later, which led to us going full-time. By that time I was working full-time as a teacher alongside being a manager!
"I had a footballing epiphany watching Spain at the 2010 World Cup. I decided that was how I wanted my teams to play"
And, when we got into the Football League, the joy on the faces of the people in the crowd was something to behold. But none of it felt quite as special to me as that first title.
It was almost like some people thought there was a ceiling for Accrington Stanley, and getting into League Two was the club hitting that ceiling. There wasn’t a great deal of hope that we could go any higher.
Attendances dropped over the next couple of years, as we established ourselves in the Football League. We finished further and further from the relegation spots, so it was like there was less at stake for the fans with each passing year.
In truth, we were a non-league club in everything but name, and it took a lot of hard work to keep the club afloat. If ever there was a club primed for administration, it’s Accrington Stanley, but I’m proud to say we’ve never had that happen to us.
That, and the fact we’ve been in the Football League ever since we were promoted, are two things for the club to be extremely proud of. That’s taken huge collective effort.
We steadily improved over the years, and the football we played changed as we got better. Any apathy in the fans was left very much in the past.
I had a footballing epiphany at the World Cup in South Africa in 2010, sitting high up in the stands to see the Netherlands play in the semi final and then against Spain in the final. It was impossible for opponents to pick up their players.
I decided that was how I wanted my teams to play, and we became virtually unplayable with three attacking midfielders rotating behind a target man. You could see the rest of the league taking note, and some even started copying us.
"I don’t remember complaining about any refereeing decisions because everything was just falling into place for us!"
We had the odd flirtation with promotion, but the club’s financial problems were getting worse. So, when Rochdale came in for me and my staff a couple of years later, we decided to go. Accrington got some money for that, which we were pleased about, too.
After short spells there, at Southport and in Ireland with Sligo Rovers – which I loved – Accrington asked me to come back. If it had been any other club, I would probably still be at Sligo. I just couldn't say no to Accrington.
Then, after a few seasons back in England, including one season in which we missed out on promotion on the final day of the season, something clicked.
Ahead of 2017/18, I sat the entire staff down.
“We’re getting promoted this year,” I told them. “Everything we do has got to be geared towards getting promoted. It doesn’t matter how small your job is, you’re all going to play a part.”
I think that galvanised everyone. We all got fully behind the project.
We had some great players and a fair bit of luck along the way with injuries. The team was really consistent, playing game after game with exactly the same starting 11. Over the Easter weekend that year, we were the only team of the 92 in the Premier League and Football League not to make a single substitution.
The challenge for me, all week every week, was keeping the rest of the squad happy. I knew I would need them eventually, but for weeks on end there were 10 players who weren’t used at all. Keeping everyone on side and motivated was really difficult.
"We’ve just got to believe if they can do it, why can’t we?"
But they did come in useful as the season went on and injuries came. We just kept winning and winning. I don’t remember complaining about any refereeing decisions because everything was just falling into place for us!
The best moment was when we won 2-1 at Luton with the last kick of the game in March. That was the moment we knew we were getting promoted, which was a brilliant feeling.
After that game, we went so far ahead that we all knew we were going to win the league with weeks of the season to go. That was a massive achievement for us. Accrington Stanley were in League One!
Up there, there was a noticeable difference in the physicality. I remember one game against Barnsley, which felt like men against boys. It was a real wake-up, and we’ve made an effort to make the team bigger since.
We’re still a good footballing side, but being a bigger team has helped us cope with League One football. That helped us establish the club in this league.
The year that we won League Two, the other teams that went up were Luton, Wycombe and Coventry, all of whom went on to make it into the Championship. And we finished above all of them!
We don’t have the money that they had, but they’ve got a settled group of players. At Luton, many of them were playing together in League Two, and they’ve got a manager in Nathan Jones who believes in them.
We’ve just got to believe that if they can do it, why can’t we? There’s plenty of inspiration for us there.
"we can keep on breaking the glass ceilings that people think Accrington have"
And there’s still plenty of motivation to get up into the Championship on my part, even though I’ve been at Accrington so long.
When I left the first time, I was the third longest-serving manager in the top four leagues, behind Sir Alex Ferguson and Arsène Wenger. When I came back, I went down to 92nd again, but in 2022 I’m back up to third again. This time, I’m behind Harrogate’s Simon Weaver and Wycombe’s Gareth Ainsworth.
I think we’re a good fit for each other. The current chairman, Andy Holt, gets how I operate, and I understand him, too. We’re like two mates working together.
I’ve gone well past 20 years here, but I’m still really, really happy, and I think we can keep on breaking the glass ceilings that people think Accrington have.
Nobody would have predicted in 1999 that we’d take seventh-tiered Accrington Stanley to League One. So going one step further and getting into the Championship shouldn’t be out of the question, either.
On a personal level, I’ll keep on looking for ways to get better.
And I’ll keep on enjoying myself, even if we do lose the odd game.
Author: Ali Tweedale