By Chris Dunlavy
As the heroes of Accrington Stanley’s promotion to League One cavorted on the pitch, one man was missing from the maelstrom.
Andy Holt, the reluctant owner whose cash, care and business savvy made it all possible, was sat in the stands, too stunned to move.
“I’d already made my mind up to not get too happy or too sad whatever the result,” said the 52-year-old. “I’m bad enough as it is, so in the emotive times I make a big effort to control myself.
“When the whistle went, it was surreal, like living a dream. It was probably an hour before it really started hitting me.
Then I just sat there, had a pint and watched the proceedings.
“All the fans on the pitch, the players celebrating. For a little community club, it was a special, special moment.
“That night, we were at it until God knows when. Two, maybe three in the morning. Too long, anyway. I was suffering on Wednesday!”
Suffer is pretty much all Accrington supporters have ever done. Founding members of the Football League, the club went bust in 1966, reformed in the Lancashire Combination and didn’t scramble out of Non-League until 2006.
Ever since, they have existed on football’s breadline, performing an annual slalom around winding-up orders, invoices and unpaid wages.
Holt’s arrival in 2015 changed everything and, on Tuesday, a 2-0 victory over Yeovil saw reformed Stanley reach the third tier for the first time in their history.
“I never wanted to own a football club,” admits Holt, who garnered his modest fortune in the plastics industry.
“I wasn’t even a fan. I just sponsored the club because it needed some cash. I was invited to watch us play Burnley in a friendly and the place ran out of beer. They didn’t have enough money to pay the suppliers.
“It was plain as day they were in a very bad way. So, when somebody asked me to help, I couldn’t really say no.”
Over subsequent months, Holt swiftly came to appreciate the importance of this ramshackle old club to Accrington, a town of 35,000 inhabitants sandwiched between the relative powerhouses of Burnley and Blackburn.
“Some people talk about our facilities and our budget,” he adds. “But, to us, it’s a fantastic little club. What other people see as sub-standard we see as unique. It’s got charm and character and it means something to people.
“I’ve spoken to a man who said ‘I welded that stand together’ or ‘I went and got those breeze blocks from the coalyard’.
“You’ve got supporters coming in painting and cleaning, doing all sorts of stuff. Our supporters’ club actually put the big screen up.
“Fans at the so-called big clubs have lost that connection, which is sad. They move stadiums out of town, chase foreign markets and forget the people who really matter. Because a club is more than just football. It’s community.
“That’s why I always say I don’t really own this club. I’m just doing my bit for the town, like all of those people who built the stands.”
Holt’s ‘bit’ was two-fold: to stabilise the finances of a club far too familiar with bucket collections and, in the process, end the boom-and-bust cycle that brought a depressing annual exodus.
“It was all snakes and ladders,” explains Holt. “Every time Accrington got a team that was any good, they lost all the players because they couldn’t afford to give them contracts longer than a year. At the end of the season, they were always back to square one.
“When we lost in the play-offs against Wimbledon (in 2016), only four of the team that started the game came back next season. The rest all left for bigger clubs.
“And I can understand why. If a lad has got only a one-year contract, he’s got to try to find security somewhere else.
“In all honesty, I wasn’t disappointed to miss out against Wimbledon because we weren’t in any fit state to go up. By Christmas of the following season, we were third-bottom of League Two!
“A year ago, things got better. Instead of having only four or five lads who stayed, we’d have ten or 12. Billy Kee, our top scorer, has been here three years now.
“This year, we’ll probably have 18 under contract. We’re in much better shape and Coley has told me that three or four more signings will do him nicely.”
Coley, of course, is John Coleman, the manager who – bar a two-year hiatus – has led Stanley for the last 19 years.
“I was joking with John before the Yeovil game,” says Holt. “I said ‘You’ve been at it for 20 years – if you can’t get promoted now, nobody else is going to!’ He said the rest were all practice runs.
“I get on well with John and his assistant Jimmy (Bell). We’re all good mates. We don’t take ourselves too seriously and we work through things, good and bad.” Of course, those long contracts don’t come cheap.
Yet Holt is no flash benefactor. While his company, WHAM, sponsor the stadium, all other revenue comes from central funding, gate receipts and advertising, which Holt and his board have worked tirelessly to increase.
“It makes no sense to me to run up big losses,” he says. “People in football tell me they’re losing millions every year.
“My question is: once you’re on that roundabout, how can you get off? It’s like overfeeding a dog until it dies.
“The only way out is if the club goes bust or you find some other mug willing to come and lose two million quid a year.
And there aren’t many mugs like that around. I’m certainly not one of them.”
Nor will that philosophy change now that Accrington are mixing it with the likes of Bradford, Peterborough and Sunderland.
“It makes no difference to us what division we’re in,” he says. “We’ll be run properly. Maybe it’s a Lancashire thing, because Burnley have a similar philosophy.
“Basically, we’ll never have one or two lads paid massively more than others. That way, you don’t have any of the back-biting or nastiness that goes on when you start to get superheroes in your squad. We don’t have superheroes here.
We have a super group who earn a modest wage and get it supplemented by the odd burger!”
So can this ‘supergroup’ aspire to even greater things? Burton, after all, have shown what stability and business sense can achieve.
“For me, it makes good business sense to stabilise as a League One club,” says Holt. “But it’s not just me. It’s Coley and Jimmy and the lads. They don’t want to stabilise. They want to keep winning.
“I think we’ll do OK next season. But, whatever happens, this will always rank up there as one of the things I’m most proud of in my life.”