LONDON (Reuters) - For vastly different reasons, Accrington Stanley and Bobby Charlton are two of the most iconic names in English soccer.
Charlton is revered for his gentlemanly play and for collecting every major honor during a glittering career that included winning the World Cup with England in 1966 and the European Cup with Manchester United two years later.
Accrington Stanley, on the other hand, are famous for winning very little in more than 100 years of stunning under-achievement, for having an unusually romantic name, going out of existence in 1962 before reforming in 1968 and a famous 1980s television advert for milk which poked fun at their failure.
The advert later become a global internet sensation and helped to spread their fame so that they now have fan clubs in Australia, the United States and Scandinavia.
Charlton is among many who admit a soft spot for Stanley of England’s League Two (fourth division), saying such clubs are vital to the game and sharing in the fans’ delight when the club last week escaped being wound up for a second time.
“If you love football then Accrington Stanley are very important — never mind their results — because they, and many other smaller clubs like them, are the lifeblood of our game,” Charlton told Reuters.
“But Accrington is a bit more special. The name has a romantic attachment to it,” added Charlton, who was at Wembley for the unveiling of a bust of England’s World Cup-winning coach Alf Ramsey.
Accrington survived a winding-up order from the British tax authorities because investment banker Ilyas Khan, a lifelong Accrington fan, long-time benefactor and now the club’s non-executive chairman, organized a rescue package.
He helped to settle what remained of a 308,000-pound ($516,800) tax debt and promised to put the club on a more sound financial footing, hopefully allowing them to move up the league.
Khan, 47, was born in 1962, the year that the old Stanley folded, and recently returned to England after working as a banker in Hong Kong for 20 years.
A man of many business interests, with companies in Australia and Colombia, he is also chairman of the Leonard Cheshire Disability charity, one of Britain’s most prominent care organizations.
His real passion lies at Accrington’s Crown Ground in north-west England. Over the years he says he has lost count of the “hundreds of thousands of pounds” of his own money he has put into the club.
He helped to buy their floodlights from Bury and has sponsored matches, kits and away travel. Part of the ground is now named the Sophia Khan stand after his mother.
An out-and-out optimist, he is realistic about the club’s prospects.
“Like every person involved in football I am a dreamer but we have to stay grounded so that we never get into financial trouble again,” Khan said in a telephone interview with Reuters.
“In the next six months to a year, our aim is stability and being able to finish as high as possible in League Two, and certainly higher than we finished for the last three seasons.
“Within the next three to five years we need to be able to jostle toward the Championship (second division).
“We have a lot of positives, we are blessed in many ways. We are situated right in the crucible of League football.
“Five miles in one direction are Burnley at Turf Moor, five miles in the other direction are Blackburn Rovers at Ewood Park. We are not that far from Bolton, Everton, Liverpool, Manchester City or Manchester United.
“And the whole town is passionate about the football club. It is a big part of the town and there was euphoria when we survived last week’s winding-up order. Nobody wanted to go through the trauma the town went through in 1962 again.”
Both Burnley and Blackburn played Accrington to help raise money for their survival fund and Khan believes the time has come for the team to start improving on the field and attract bigger gates.
Accrington likes to call itself “the biggest little club in the world” and Khan optimistically states: “After your own favorite team, be it Barcelona, Manchester United, AS Roma, whoever — Accrington is everyone’s second-favorite team.
“Of course a club like Accrington faces many obstacles, but equally the opportunities are there if you get it right.
“I believe the opportunity for lower league clubs today is better than at any time in the last 40 or 50 years.
“Because of sponsorship money in football now, even clubs at our level have the opportunity to rise. We are on the television now, on the internet. The profile of England’s lower league clubs has never been higher.”
That pleases Charlton, as it does thousands of Accrington fans across the world.
“It is vital they have survived,” he said. “All the big clubs still have really good networks to watch clubs at the lower levels and even though there are so many more foreign players now, Accrington could find their own gem.
“Everyone thinks that an opportunity of a lifetime could be just around the corner, and why not?”
Editing by Clare Fallon; To query or comment on this story email email@example.com