The history of football is littered with players and managers who have become associated with one club despite occasional forays into unfamiliar territory, and John Coleman is a prime example. Coleman never played in the Football League, but certainly made an impact as a non-league centre forward par excellence: over 500 goals in 20 years playing in the densely-populated Football League stronghold of the north-west begs the question of how he was never picked up by any of them. It goes without saying that such a man would start his managerial career in the same non-league circles, becoming player-manager of Ashton United in 1997, and he found immediate success in his first season as the unfashionable club finished third. He showed it was no fluke by repeating the trick the following year.
But it was only after moving to fellow-Northern Premier League Division One side Accrington Stanley and officially hanging up his boots that Coleman began to make a similar mark as a manager as he had a player. Two promotions in four seasons carried the club with the romantic name into the uncharted waters of the Conference, although the expectation was for a swift return to the newly-created Conference North. Quite the opposite happened: after two years of mid-table consolidation, Stanley cantered to the Conference title and a place in the Football League for the first time in their history, although they were the third club from the town to take their place in the League. Consolidation was the sole objective in order to establish themselves as a League club, and that is what they did over the next four seasons. Simply to stay in the League for those four seasons was a huge achievement, but their fifth season took them to the play-offs for the first of two occasions under Coleman. A 3-0 semi-final defeat to Stevenage ended the promotion dream, and perhaps suggested to Coleman that a move away might be the only way of progressing up the League ladder.
Midway through the following season, struggling League One side Rochdale came calling to save them from relegation. Unfortunately it could not be done, and Rochdale ended the season in last place. The following season started poorly, and Coleman was dismissed almost a year to the day after his move to Spotland. The grass was certainly not greener in that part of Lancashire. It was not greener in Southport either, where he spent another undistinguished six months managing one of the sides he had played for twenty-five years earlier. His departure came after the club claimed his touchline behaviour towards match officials threatened the club’s family values, and branded his away record ‘a disaster’. For his own part, Coleman had made it clear on several occasions that he felt he should be managing in the Football League, so it was no surprise when the two parted company after 25 games.
A short but very interesting spell in Ireland with Sligo Rovers immediately followed in the summer of 2014 when Coleman succeeded former Imp Ian Baraclough as manager. Besides anything else, it is the first and only time Coleman has managed a club outside his native Lancashire. Despite some lukewarm league form, Sligo surprised the football world by reaching the second round of the Europa League and then by beating mighty Rosenborg 2-1 in Norway. Unfortunately they lost the home leg 3-1 to exit the competition, and Coleman exited shortly afterwards. The reason? Accrington Stanley had come calling. In just his second season back in 2015-16, Coleman led Accrington to the League Two play-offs for the second time, but the result was unfortunately the same as the first time: a semi-final defeat, this time to AFC Wimbledon. Another bid for League One was anticipated last season, but Stanley were destined to fall five points short of the play-offs.
At the end of 2016-17 season, John Coleman had managed Accrington Stanley in 687 league matches. At the time he left for Rochdale in 2012, he was the third longest-serving manager in the League behind Sir Alex Ferguson and Arsene Wenger.
In a town of just 54,000 people, and with Blackburn Rovers just seven miles to the west, Burnley seven miles to the east, and the Manchester clubs twenty miles to the south, life has always been a struggle for Accrington. Indeed, that is one of the main reasons why the original club disappeared off the football map in 1962. What Coleman has achieved in his fifteen seasons at the helm has been nothing short of miraculous. There has been no Dale Vince, no Stewart Donald, not even a Jack Walker to buy their place in the Football League. They are one of the very last small clubs to reach the League without substantial amounts of money being lavished on it, and that is largely down to John Coleman and his undoubted talents as a manager. Can he take Stanley up to League One next season? On average gates of 1700, he has a real job on his hands if that is to be realised.
P = Promoted; R = Relegated; SF = Lost in play-off semi-final; F = Lost in play-off final; PO = Won play-off final; D = Demoted.
Figures are league games only; cup matches and play-offs are not included.
League position shown is either the position at the end of the season or the position at the time of departure.
** Spell at Sligo was one third of the 2014 season – the Irish Premier League is a summer league.
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? Vital Lincoln City (@VitalLincoln) May 26, 2017