TRIBUTES have been paid to the ‘inspirational’ businessman Eric Whalley who led Accrington Stanley’s famous return to the Football League.

The former club chairman, owner and non-league legend, who was also well-known on the Lancashire League cricket circuit, died aged 73 after suffering long-term ill health.

Mr Whalley was a combative amateur footballer in his youth and also managed Stanley for a spell, before taking over as chairman in 1995 and launching the club’s rise through the football pyramid, achieving an emotional return to professional football in 2006.

Current chairman Peter Marsden said: “Eric was Accrington Stanley. His tireless efforts made the club what it is today and we will forever be grateful to him. We’d probably still be a middle ranking non-league club if it wasn’t for him.”

Mr Whalley, who had diabetes and lived in Whalley Road, Great Harwood, had been in hospital after struggling to breathe properly. He suddenly deteriorated on Friday and medics are investigating whether he could have suffered a heart attack.

Long-time friend Frank Martindale, 67, a former Stanley director and team mate at Rishton Cricket Club, said: “Eric had this thing about him and was just a winner. People were afraid of him sometimes but he was a very inspirational man and wanted other people to be winners too.

“He was a fantastic guy and always looked after the Stanley players. I remember when we got promotion in 2006 he paid for them all to go to the Algarve because they had done so well.”

John Coleman, who was manager of Stanley from 1999 to 2012, winning three league titles, said: “Everyone said it was a mad ambition and it could never happen, apart from Eric, me and my assistant Jimmy Bell.

“It was so emotional when we did it and I think Eric might have been a bit disappointed once we did, because the town seemed to become a bit apathetic after that.

"A lot of people maybe saw it as the end of the journey. But they were such happy times and the best days of my life. Eric was a real football man.”

Mr Marsden added: “I’ve been involved with the club for eight years and worked alongside Eric for two or three years when I was a director. He was a very determined and forceful person, who was totally focussed on bringing Stanley back into the Football League.

"He had the vision and put a lot of money into the club and we all owe him a great debt of gratitude.”

Mr Whalley was also a keen cricketer and made his Lancashire League debut for Rishton in 1958. During his career he scored 6,373 runs at 16.6 per innings, including 18 half centuries and he also picked up 105 stumpings and 350 catches, mostly as wicketkeeper.

He led Rishton to Worsley Cup wins at Accrington in 1967 and Enfield in 1973. He was also a member of the Rishton team that won the famous 1964 Worsley Cup Final at Burnley against the rampant Charlie Griffith.

An astute businessman, Mr Whalley’s Rishton company EW Cartons also sponsored the Lancashire League from 1997 until 1999 and the Worsley Cup in 2000.

His sons Russell, the late Ian and Paul, have also played for Rishton during their cricket careers, and the Lancashire League clubs observed a minute’s silence before yesterday’s matches in his memory.

Duncan Warburton, the league secretary, said: “Eric was a really good friend and this is a very sad loss to local sport.”

Son Russell, who paid the perfect tribute to his father on Saturday when he hit a half-century for Great Harwood, said: “It’s come as a real shock to the family. There were so many good things about him.

"He did have faults but he had a heart of gold and was passionate about everything he did. He was the best dad in the world and he’ll be sadly missed. He absolutely lived Accrington Stanley and took them back to where they belonged.”