Less than two years after helping Hibs make history, John Doolan is on the brink of doing so again with Accrington Stanley.
The 49-year-old Liverpudlian was a vital member of Alan Stubbs’ coaching staff when the Easter Road club ended a 114-year wait for Scottish Cup glory in 2016. Now he’s all set to be part of another piece of football folklore as first-team coach at Stanley, who can today seal promotion from the fourth tier of English football for the first time ever if they win at home to Exeter City. The Lancashire minnows currently sit three points clear of Luton Town at the top of League Two after winning 15 of their past 17 matches. An unlikely promotion party beckons at the 5000-capacity Crown Ground this afternoon.
“The media – Sky TV and all that – have been all around the place this week, so everyone’s buzzing,” said Doolan. “Our crowds have been getting bigger every week, and you can sense the buzz around the place in the bar at the club after every game. The fans have been loving it.”
Doolan left Hibs after the Scottish Cup triumph to follow Stubbs to Rotherham United in a move which didn’t work out. He spent the final few months of last season at Wigan Athletic as they dropped out of the Championship before John Coleman, his fellow Scouser and former manager when he played in the non-league ranks, invited Doolan to join his backroom staff at Accrington last summer.
“It’s been unbelievable – you couldn’t have written the script,” he said. “We’ve got the second-lowest budget in the league, so to be where we are is incredible. Accrington just missed out on the play-offs last season but they sold three of their best players in the summer, so to have coped with that and be sitting top of the table at this stage is phenomenal. At the start of the season John sat everybody down and said ‘we’re going to get promoted’, and after we got our first couple of wins, we grew in confidence and it snowballed from there.
“Once we get promotion ticked off, we’ll want to go and win the title and finish the season on a high. If we do that, it would be on a par with Leicester winning the Premier League. We’re in with the likes of Notts County and Luton Town who have got far bigger budgets. At one point Luton were top and sitting about 14 points clear of us but we’ve clawed them back. We played them last month and beat them with a 93rd-minute winner to go top. The lads have just kept at it.”
Such has been Accy’s consistency recently, they have made only one change to their starting line-up in their last seven games, and that was enforced by a pre-match car accident involving their goalkeeper. Remarkably, manager Coleman hasn’t made a single substitution in those matches – all of which have brought victories. “He sometimes feels it’s a waste of time making subs,” said Doolan. “He will make subs, but only if he needs to from a tactical point of view or if someone’s injured. If we’re winning, like we have been, his attitude is generally ‘if it’s not broke, don’t fix it’.”
Doolan’s job at Accrington is similar to the one he performed alongside Stubbs and Andy Holden at Hibs. “I’m doing pretty much the same role I had at Hibs,” he said. “I have a lot of input into what we do in training and team selection and things like that, although the manager obviously has the final say. I get to have my say in the dressing-room at half-time and I do a lot of the analysis of strengths and weaknesses of our opponents. I’m loving it. It’s great being out there on the training pitch and we’ve got a great bunch of boys.”
Doolan is relishing today’s match. “I’m excited about it – you work hard all season for days like this,” he said. “I won a couple of promotions as a player. I didn’t manage to do it at Hibs, but it would be a special thing to have on my coaching CV to have won promotion and possibly even the league with Accrington.”
Even in a chat about Stanley’s impending glory, Doolan can’t resist taking the conversation back to Hibs – a club forever in his heart after two memorable years at Easter Road. “I was actually doing a bit of research recently because I was curious to see if there was any connection between Accrington and Hibs, and it turns out there was a Scotsman called Walter Galbraith who managed Accrington in the 1950s and then went to Hibs in the early 60s and gave Pat Stanton his chance in the first team,” said Doolan, who is pleased to see his old club continuing to flourish in the Scottish Premiership. “I look for Hibs’ results even before I look at the result of Everton, the team I’ve got a season ticket with. They’re doing really well and hopefully they can finish second in the league. The club’s buzzing at the moment so long may that continue.”