The original town team, Accrington, were amongst the twelve founder members of the Football League in 1888, before resigning from the league after just five years. A team called Stanley Villa already existed at the time, named as such because they were based at the Stanley Arms on Stanley Street in Accrington. With the demise of Accrington, Stanley Villa took the town name to become Accrington Stanley.
The club re-formed after World War I and entered the League in 1921 with the formation of the old Third Division North, along with the other top northern non-League clubs.
In four decades of league football they never achieved promotion from the Third Division. Their best-ever league position was finishing second in that division, in the 1954–55 season and again in 1957–58.
In 1960, amid persistent financial difficulties mainly relating to the speculative purchase of the new Burnley Road stand, Stanley were relegated to the recently formed Division Four. However, they only managed to complete one full season in this division as bankruptcy followed shortly afterwards. On 12 February 1962 Edwin Slinger, the chairman, resigned and revealed that Stanley owed up to £4,000 in unpaid transfer fees and a similar sum to the Inland Revenue. Pilkington, as life vice president, brought in Bob Lord, who persuaded the rest of the board to resign by promising to buy shares, despite his chairmanship of nearby Burnley. Stanley lost their last League match 4–0 away at Crewe on 2 March 1962 and, at a creditors' meeting shortly afterwards, further unsecured creditors was revealed. The club sent a letter of resignation to the Football League and the resignation was accepted by Alan Hardaker, the League Secretary on 11 March, mid-way through the 1961–62 season.
Stanley were accepted into the Lancashire Combination Division Two for the next season, and with some local investors stepping forward to reduce debts to a more manageable level, it seemed like a new beginning for the club. They performed respectably well in their first season in the Combination, and earned their first (and only) promotion the following year. Unfortunately this proved to be a false dawn, as Stanley were immediately relegated after finishing bottom of Division One. By this point the club's debts had become overwhelmingly large once again, and the start of 1966 saw the final end for the club, who resigned from the Lancashire Combination and disbanded. Two years later the club was reformed.