“To manage a Club for 20 years is unheard of.”
Much can happen in the space of two decades and Accrington Stanley manager John Coleman – who celebrates his 20-year anniversary with the Club on Christmas Day – has crammed a lot into that time.
Those were the words of Accrington midfielder Sean McConville, describing Coleman – his boss of nine years and the man he looks up to not just as the boss of the Sky Bet League One side, but as family.
Across two spells representing the Club, the Liverpudlian has got to know the gaffer quite well, and despite departing for Stockport County, he was welcomed back with open arms by the manager.
“He’s like a second dad to me – I have that close bond and relationship to him,” McConville proclaimed. “Mine and his relationship is above and beyond, which I hope will continue long after I finish playing and long after he’s retired from being a manager.
“Beyond being a manager, I’d say he’s one of my best mates, which is probably rare in football. Any struggles I have, he’s the first port of call. He’s helped me massively on the pitch and off the pitch.
“I was lucky enough for him to give me my first chance in the EFL. I’ll always have that gratitude for him. He put his faith in me and paid money for me when I was 18 years old. I made a bit of a bad decision to go to Stockport. I was young and naïve. Even though I was at other Clubs, I’d still go and see him for a pint on a Sunday, or go for a coffee with him during the week.”
McConville’s first encounter with his future boss came long before joining Accrington from the non-League pyramid, but one thing was clear from the start: Coleman’s desire for success. In fact, look up the word 'winner' in a dictionary and it's likely that a picture of the Stanley boss will appear.
“He used to play for the ‘over the hill’ mob with my dad and I’d go and watch their team play,” he said. “I’d always go and watch them on a Sunday. I must’ve been 15 or 16 just standing on the side-lines watching them.
“For an over-35s game, you’d think it was a Premier League game with how competitive it was. That struck me straight away. They’d be diving around and buying fouls. In essence, it’s meant to be a friendly game with all the dads getting together, but they took it that competitively because they just want to win. I loved that because I’m a winner myself.”
Similarly, the 59-year-old hand-picked probably the most over qualified kit-man in sport – whom Coleman described as ‘integral’ to the set-up – from the lower echelons.
A trained lawyer, the former Stanley kitman Naz Ali occasionally chipped in to offer legal advice as everyone came together – as is the culture within any Coleman team.
“He treats everybody equally and everyone has the same respect, be it the kitman or the assistant manager, everyone is the same,” Ali, who recently departed to take up a role at Wigan Athletic, explained. “The way he’s looked after everyone was an absolute credit to him. The assistant manager was an electrician and I’d done a law degree, so we all got involved.
“Football was never an option for me – I was always going to follow my law degree and my career. I was there for 14 years and one of the reasons I stayed there was because of John. I started off as a volunteer and he said, ‘listen, I need somebody to help me out on matchdays’.
“John himself was a primary school teacher before football took over his life, so he had an education and degree about him. At that time, I was getting my degree and going on to do my Master’s, and he’d give me days off to go and do that on a part-time basis.”
Many a football manager is in awe of Coleman’s feats at Stanley, taking the Lancashire side from the Northern Premier League to the EFL, adding three promotions to his CV in seven years.
But it has never meant more than when it comes from best friend Paul Cook, who played under Coleman at Stanley between 2003 and 2006 when they won promotion for the EFL for the first time in their history, and briefly managed the Club when his childhood pal tried his hand elsewhere.
“John’s achievements at Accrington have been absolutely frightening,” the recent Ipswich Town boss gushed. “To have a Club of that size and stature and to have them where they were.
“I don’t think John’s achievements are even properly acknowledged at Accrington. Now, we just take it as a given that Accrington will be a top-half League One team.”
And it wasn’t the first time the Merseyside duo have teamed up.
“We’re going back a long, long, long time to when we were young children. I was lucky enough to play in a football team that John was playing in. John was a little bit older than me, but we played in a team called St Joseph’s in Kirby and that was my first recollection.
“We’ve supported each other, gone to matches together, gone on holidays together, working together, going on to be competitors, if you like, but we’ve always stayed friends.
“By John’s admission, we both fiercely want to win. That comes from everything that we’ve done. There are very few people you can talk to properly, and there’s very few people who want you to do well because our industry is a selfish one, if you like, but John’s certainly someone.”
Although, the Accrington Stanley that John Coleman manages now is not the Accrington Stanley that record appearance holder Paul Mullin remembers, the forward, who retired in 2011, credited his ex-boss with turning Stanley’s fortunes around.
From a team that had to, in his words, “beg, borrow and steal” to survive, training in local school gyms in the absence of their own training facility, the Lancashire Club is now unrecognisable, in the best way possible.
“There was a lot of potential in Accrington at the time. It was always quite an attractive Club in non-League circles to go and play for,” he stated.
“I’d played against John’s teams before, so I knew what they were about. They were always difficult teams to play against – very aggressive and attacking. It was a no-brainer the second time they came in for me.
“John and Jimmy were talking about getting into the League when I met them that first night. You take it with a pinch of salt, really, and think, ‘they’re just trying to get me to sign’. They drived that and made it happen, six years after I signed.”
And they did just that. Top scorer Mullin’s goals fired Accrington from the Northern Premier to what is now known as the National League, and eventually, going one step further and ascending to the EFL.
“Every time we moved up a level, there was always a period of adjustment, and a season where we’d consolidate and improve, and then third year, we’d go ended up storming both Leagues. John and Jimmy improved in that period, as well. They’ll probably admit their coaching methods improved and the Club got on a better financial footing which took a lot of time.”
More often than not, Coleman’s successes have gone hand-in-hand with his nearest and dearest.
Named in the 2018 League Two Team of the Year alongside McConville as Accrington sealed the title, Coleman’s Stanley side ascended to League One in style, going up as champions with four games to spare at home to Yeovil Town.
“It was a rollercoaster of a season,” McConville continued. “To go into that League with one of the smallest budgets and one of the smallest squads but to win the League quite comfortably was an achievement we didn’t think would be possible. Lifting that League Two trophy together was a big moment for us both.
“He’s proven over so many years how good he is with the five promotions he’s had and the talents of player that he spots and sells on for big money. He’s tactically very astute, but probably his best attribute is how he manages his players and gets the best out of his players which is probably a dying art in football now.”
Coleman, who clocked over 500 goals whilst on the books of non-League Clubs, never got the chance to try his hand at League level, but that was the true secret behind his hunger to win.
“I think that sort of pushed him on to be an EFL manager,” Mullin surmised. “That was the source for a lot of his passion in what he did."
Away from the pitch, an infectious personality has made the Wham Stadium an enjoyable place to work, according to his former and current colleagues.
“He’s always cracking a joke or telling us how many goals he scored in his career!” Accrington star McConville exclaimed.
“He’ll have a go at you after the game and tell you if you’re not good enough, so you might have a falling out or a disagreement with him, but then you come into training on a Monday morning, and he’ll be the first person to come over to you. He gives you a hug and you move on.”
“He’s always been a character, John has,” Ali added. “Winning away games was fun because there’d be a bit of a karaoke session on the way back. He loves singing! He was always a winner, whatever he did. Either playing cards on the coach on the way to away games or having a kick-about with the players, he always wanted to win.
“When we won the League Two title, there were only six of us in the backroom staff daily and we were competing against teams with 10 to 12 staff, but we were so close. Every day was a fun day, and you came in with a smile. That was because of John.”
Accrington Stanley, who are they? Well, thanks to John Coleman, they’re now on the map.