(Photo: Action Images)
By John Lyons
ONLY an eternal optimist – or manager John Coleman – could have imagined at Christmas that Accrington Stanley would have a shout of reaching the League Two play-offs.
At that time, the only way Stanley looked like leaving League Two was by the trapdoor. A 2-0 defeat at Grimsby Town on Boxing Day left the Lancashire club looking like turkeys.
They were 22nd in the table, just outside the relegation places by the narrowest of margins on goal difference. It was the culmination of a nine-match winless run that left them in the mire.
Since then, though, they’ve gone from chumps to champs. After bagging 21 points from their opening 22 games, they’d snaffled 41 points from their next 21 games. It left them 11th – just two points off the play-offs – in an incredibly tight table ahead of yesterday’s crunch clash at relegation-threatened Newport County.
If Stanley had shown that form all season, they would br fighting it out with top two, Doncaster and Plymouth, for the title.
Ask experienced manager Coleman what is the secret of his side’s turnaround in fortunes and he puts it down to taking their chances, momentum and a dollop of luck.
The 54-year-old said: “We haven’t played much differently, but the ball has been going in the net.
“We had an horrendous run late last year when we scored two goals in nine games.
“We couldn’t seem to score, we were hitting the woodwork, keepers were making great saves and, when you don’t feel like you’ve got a goal in you, it’s very difficult to get a 0-0. Eventually, the defence cracks and you concede a silly goal.
“The players get a bit despondent. They lose confidence and belief and, when you get on that run, it’s hard to get out of it. The pressure keeps mounting.
“Our performances hadn’t been that bad, but sometimes luck can play a big part. It’s how you react to luck that’s important. We weren’t responding too well to bad luck. You can feel sorry for yourself, but one way to try to make a change is to play the game in your opponents’ half.
“If you’re playing in and around your box, then don’t be surprised if you give penalties away. On the other hand, if you are dominating possession and playing in your opponents’ last third, you give yourselves a chance.”
But did Coleman believe, after that grim Boxing Day at Grimsby, that his side could really still challenge at the other end of the table?
“This might sound bizarre, but even after Grimsby I told the players ‘if you go on a run, you can catapult yourselves up the league’.”
A battling 1-0 win at Crewe on New Year’s Eve proved the catalyst. It was the start of a run of 11 wins, eight draws and two defeats. Before the weekend, their last defeat was a 2-0 reverse at Portsmouth in mid-February and their unbeaten run had stretched to 15 games.
“It would be a shame if we didn’t get into the play-offs now with the form we’ve shown,” he said. “We have to keep on winning. The frustrating thing is that Portsmouth have been promoted with 78 points and we got 85 last season and didn’t go up.
“Historically, 71 points gets you in the play-offs and we have a chance to do that.
“We’ve got three big games left, but when you believe and expect to win it’s amazing how things work for you. The players are showing the character of winners.”
If Stanley are to reach the play-offs for a second successive season, then striker Shay McCartan is likely to be a key man. The 22-year-old scooped the Sky Bet League Two Player of the Month award for March after notching six goals in seven games, including four free-kicks.
Coleman added: “You won’t get anyone in the world who’s scored so many free-kicks in such a short space of time.
“I spoke to him in the early part of the season when things weren’t going for him and told him not to let it put him off, not to be scared to miss. I see him scoring every day in training.
“Shay’s quick, strong, powerful, got two great feet and an eye for goal. I set him a target of 13 goals when he scored his first goal in January and now he’s got 11 – he’s well on his way.”
*This article originally featured in The FLP’s 23 April 2017 edition.