HUNDREDS of sports fans united in grief to say goodbye to the man who guided Accrington Stanley back into the football league yesterday.

Mourners packed into St Wulstan’s Church, in Rushton Street, Great Harwood, to bid farewell to Eric Whalley, the club’s former chairman and owner, who died last weekend aged 73.

Footballers, managers, and fans, braved heavy downpours to pay their respects, with dozens of people forced to stand outside after the church filled up.

Among the congregation were Blackburn Rovers star David Dunn, former Stanley player Brett Ormerod, current players Nicky Hunt, Dean Winnard, and captain Luke Joyce, and ex-Stanley managers Leam Richardson, and Paul Cook.

Hymns were sung, scriptures were reading, and a eulogy was given. After a final blessing by Father Anthony Clarke, Mr Whalley was interred at nearby Great Harwood Cemetery.

A wake was later held at Rishton Cricket Club to celebrate his life and to share fond memories.

The club’s offices at the Store First Stadium remained closed all day yesterday, and the flag at the ground was flown at half mast.

Mr Whalley was also well-known on the Lancashire League cricket circuit. He 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 profession football in 2006.

Mr Whalley, who lived in Whalley Road, Great Harwood, had been in hospital after struggling to breathe properly.

He suddenly deteriorated last Friday, and later passed away.

Tributes were led by Rishton Cricket Club’s Andy Proctor, who said: “The word legend is vastly overused in society these days, but Eric was a genuine legend.

“[He was] a true Lancashire League icon and stalwart and, for many years, the patriarch of my club Rishton, where he will be sorely missed.”

Long-time friend Frank Martindale, 67, a former Stanley director and team mate at Rishton Cricket Club, added: “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.”

Mr Whalley’s family request family flowers for the funeral, but donations to Cancer Research UK are being accepted.