Until last week, for a few days at least, those basking in Arsenal’s struggles frivolously floated the idea of the club sparring with Accrington Stanley in the Championship. Such a meeting may seem incomputable but part of the sentence could soon ring true. It is increasingly difficult to ignore Accrington’s promotion credentials and, with at least two games in hand on those above them, John Coleman’s side are primed to supersede some of League One’s most famous names.

On Saturday they plan to upstage second-placed Portsmouth and, if they earn maximum points from three games in hand on the leaders, Lincoln – collected following Covid-19 outbreaks at rivals – eighth-placed Accrington could soar to the summit.

On the eve of the season Coleman gathered his squad to tell them he believed they could ruffle feathers – again. “Two years ago we won League Two, quite comfortably in the end, when everybody fancied us for relegation,” says Coleman, who claims the club operates with a “bottom two” wage bill. “The three teams who went up with us are all in the Championship now: Coventry, Wycombe and Luton. They haven’t overly spent on their teams, so why can’t it be us?”

Coleman has an intriguing cocktail of players. They have three loanees from Chelsea – the goalkeeper Nathan Baxter and the midfielders Jon Russell and Tariq Uwakwe – two from Newcastle and one from Watford. Coleman speaks to Anthony Barry, the former Accrington midfielder who joined Frank Lampard’s staff in August, a couple of times a week and Chelsea’s first-team coach helped to smooth those arrivals. Until last month Baxter was backup to Toby Savin, a promising 19-year-old goalkeeper who progressed through Accrington’s academy after spells at Everton and Crewe.

Meanwhile another midfielder, Joe Pritchard, who spent 14 years at Tottenham, has thrived since landing in Lancashire in May 2019 and Matt Butcher has impressed in the anchor role following his release by Bournemouth. The front two of Colby Bishop, a former PE teacher, and Dion Charles earned their stripes in non-league. The experienced trio of the captain, the 32-year-old Seamus Conneely, Mark Hughes (34) and Sean McConville (31) vet the dressing room.

Pritchard captained Tottenham’s under-23s, playing alongside Harry Winks and Kyle Walker-Peters, but his career stagnated and the death of Ugo Ehiogu, a former coach, left him “crushed” and “broken for quite a while”. At Accrington the facilities are modest and the players are not pampered but the club have reignited his love for the game.

“No food [after training] and we wash our own kit, but I’d do that for the rest of my career if it meant I could play in a first team,” says Pritchard. “When you’re a young player and you’re caught up in the atmosphere of a big club, you can easily be blindsided by how grand it all is: ‘Look at this training ground, I work here every day.’

“When I was at Tottenham I was told by Wayne Burnett, the under-23s manager, that until you’re playing regularly in a first team you can’t call yourself a player of that club; it was one of the best pieces of information, which I needed to hear. I’d never stepped foot on a first-team pitch for Tottenham and I never played for Tottenham; I’d call myself a Tottenham youth player but that’s as far as it goes. And that stuck with me when I went to Bolton. I wouldn’t even have called myself much of a Bolton player. I only had five appearances and two starts. I didn’t establish myself, but I’ve just touched 50 appearances at Accrington and I actually feel like an Accrington player.”

John Coleman’s Accrington start 2021 eighth in League One but with games in hand on all the sides above them.

John Coleman’s Accrington start 2021 eighth in League One but with games in hand on all the sides above them. Photograph: Kevin Warburton/A Moment in Sport/ProSports/Shutterstock

They work hard but have fun. In pre-season Coleman challenges signings to a relay race against his staff – “the lads get one of their quickest to run 400m and we generally get about six to run about 65m each” – and on away trips the manager and his longstanding assistant and best friend, Jimmy Bell, moonlight as quizmasters. “We’ve developed a game, a cross between the Krypton Factor and The Cube,” Coleman says. “We even had a message off Gordon Burns telling us how well we were taking his ideas forward.”

Coleman’s jovial character was encapsulated in a video of him channelling Elton John before Christmas. He can, Savin says, often be heard singing at training at 9am and his players feed off such energy. “If you have a positive spirit around the place, I think people work better,” the manager says. “But it’s not a holiday camp – far from it, because you have to have discipline and you have to work hard. No one gets treated any better or worse than anybody else – everyone is valued. There are no superstars and the blend is good. But people who just think we get by on hard work and gung-ho are missing the point. The players are very well coached by a solid staff, which might not be big in numbers, but are very good people and leave no stone unturned.

“I think they think a lot of it is based on team spirit – but they couldn’t be further from the truth. A lot of it is based on analysis of opposition, hard work on the training ground, shape, patterns of play – that’s what we’ve always based our philosophies on. That can get lost because we like a singsong and we do like the lads to enjoy the experience, but I’d like to think most people who come and spend time at Accrington leave as better players and better people.”

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Uwakwe scored a debut hat-trick in September and a peach against Peterborough four days later. “Since Frank Lampard has come in [as Chelsea manager] everyone is seeing that, if you’re good enough and playing well, the opportunity is there,” says Uwakwe, who stays in touch with Tore André Flo, one of Chelsea’s loan coaches.

For now, the focus is on propelling Accrington, who have lost two of their past 12 matches in all competitions, up the table. League One was supposed to be Stanley’s ceiling but Accrington, a prudently run team rooted in non-league until promotion under Coleman in 2006, have form for surprising people. “I think we are on our way to making people believe that we are not really ‘little old Accrington’ any more and we’re pushing for the Championship,” says Savin.