Defender Mark Hughes has written his review of a historic season for Accrington Stanley.
Accrington Stanley, who are they? We are League Two champions, that’s who we are!
I am writing a summary of the proudest season in my career. I did make my debut for my boyhood team Everton but I can honestly say that winning the league against all odds at Accrington Stanley has been the biggest achievement of my career.
I am looking back on a key game, defining season moments and getting the views of my team-mates of what they thought were factors of us being crowned champions.
For me, it was the first day of pre-season when the gaffer sat us down and gave us a five-minute speech, with a certain sentence that remained in my head ever since. He said: “We are getting promoted this year, if you don’t believe it then go home now and don’t come back.”
I remember Janoi (Donacien) turning around to me and saying: ‘That’s one of best speeches I have ever heard.’
From that day on, he made players feel wanted, gave us a belief, telling us that it is ‘the best squad he’s ever worked with.’
We started the season with an opening day victory at home to Colchester and in the same week beat Preston in the Carabao Cup in the same week. We were consistent all the way to December without hardly venturing outside the top seven.
In December we lost twice against Lincoln (once in the Checkatrade Trophy), lost at Exeter 2-0, followed by a home defeat to Crawley Town.
We played Carlisle away on Boxing Day to stop the rot of five consecutive defeats. We were terrible that day losing 3-1, which dropped us to ninth place. Sean McConville admitted: “After the Carlisle game I honestly thought we had a chance of going down, we lacked any heart, passion and couldn’t see where our next win was coming from.”
We were lucky the fact we had a game a few days later. On the 30th December, I remember it well as this was the game that for most of the players and staff turned our season around.
There was a steeliness and determination that day when we ran out 3-0 winners at Grimsby.
It’s a game assistant manager Jimmy Bell remembers well: “This was the game that turned our season around.
“We went back to basics that day, stripped everything back, we just wanted the lads to go out on the pitch, do their jobs well and win individual battles against their opponent.”
Captain Seamus Conneely agreed that the Mariners match was the season decider.
“After beating Grimsby it gave us a belief to kick on. You could see the confidence growing and growing after that.”
Billy Kee added: “In my eyes, it was the game that turned us into a unit.”
After Grimsby, we went on an unbelievable run, winning 17 out the last 21 games. During this run, there were two comebacks from 2-0 down, to win 3-2 on both occasions – against Stevenage and Port Vale.
Both games were in the space of two weeks. Who said lightning doesn’t strike twice especially as we had the same goalscorers in both games.
Also, there was a 2-0 win at Coventry City in the middle of February. This was Callum Johnson’s favourite moment.
Johnson said: “To play in front of 30,000 was such a buzz. To go there, put on the performance we did that day was amazing. It was the match I thought ‘We are going to get promoted.’
My personal favourite was the top-of-the-table at Luton Town, our main title rivals, in mid-March. We needed to win to go top and it was 1-1 going into the last minutes.
I remember, in the final minutes, first team coach John Doolan telling Jordan Clark to run to corner for the point. Not us, Jordan squared to Billy Kee who did the rest and fired home. A 2-1 win in the 95th minute to go top of the league. Yes please!
The scenes and the feeling after Billy’s goal were emotions I haven’t felt before. Jordan admitted: “When we beat Luton to go top of the league we never let up.” Scotty Brown said: “The Luton win was my favourite moment of the season,” while Sean McConville described it as, “the best game I’ve ever played in my career.”
We went on to win promotion against Yeovil at home in mid-April with a 2-0 victory, after a brace from Billy Kee.
It was a night that will live in the memory of the players and fans forever. We all enjoyed the night together as one, which is what it was like all season long. The scenes and memories that night will live with us all forever.
We wanted to go on and the league after securing promotion, yet another goal we achieved against Lincoln at home. To lift the trophy in front of our fans on the final home game of the season was the icing on the cake in a historic season.
One lad I got close to as the season went on was 19-year-old centre back Jimmy Dunne who joined on loan from Burnley at the turn of the year.
My shoulders were a bit sore carrying him (!) but here’s what the big Irish lad said on his loan move.
“I had no idea I was about to become part of a team that had the ambition of becoming title champions, I was just interested in getting in the team and developing my skills as a defender so that I could show Burnley I had learnt something and improved!
“But everything changed when I realised our position in the league, I started wanting to play for the team rather than myself and everyone around me felt the same. League champions is an amazing achievement and now I’ve experienced it I want to do it again.”
Jimmy and all the rest of the lads played a massive part in history, getting Accrington Stanley promoted to League One as champions with trips to Oakwell and the Stadium of Light on the agenda for the fans, who deserve this, as they have been our 12th man all season long.