WHEN WE WERE KINGS: ALTY IN THE APL 1979/80
by Barry Pikesley
The following articles appeared in the Robins' Review, during season 2009-10 and are reproduced here by kind permission of the author.
PART 11: THE MAN WHO WOULD BE KING
Whenever I hear football fans of a certain vintage lamenting the fact that many of the ‘characters’ appear to have vanished from the game, my thoughts instantly turn to some of the unique personalities who graced my formative years as an Altrincham supporter in the 1970s. Exceptional individuals such as the granite-like figure of that formidable centre half, Gerry Casey, or that eccentric, entertaining and yet highly proficient Scouse goalkeeper, Peter Eales, a man who patented such bizarre antics as leg-wobbling and belching loudly to distract opposition strikers long before Bruce Grobbelaar ever emerged onto the sporting scene.
Then there were those cameo performances from the likes of the eternally volatile Joe Flaherty (unforgettably booked at Wembley in the 1978 FA Trophy Final merely seconds after coming on as a substitute) and John Wood, that erratic goalkeeper who always seemed to be teetering on the verge of a psychotic outburst, who was brought to Moss Lane from Rossendale United by Les Rigby back in 1975. Indeed, Wood was the first goalkeeper I can ever recall being referred to disparagingly as ‘Teflon hands’ (Teflon being the brand name of a ”non-stick“ chemical used on cookware). In his post-Moss Lane career, I also seem to recollect that he gained some transient national notoriety when he refused to leave the field of play after receiving a red card, thereby inducing the referee to abandon the match!
In more recent times, such one-off originals have been at a premium in comparison. I could certainly make a case for Andy Green, that rambunctious and, at times, frankly terrifying, Alty centre forward of the mid-1990s or even our current Assistant Manager, Ken McKenna himself. And then there’s my own personal Moss Lane cult hero in the form of the peerless figure of Ian Tunnacliffe, the gargantuan centre forward signed from Emley in December 1992 by Gerry Quinn. They don’t make them like that anymore!
Left: John King with Graham Barrow.
However, for the majority of Alty supporters who have followed the fortunes of this club over the past four decades, the man they would nominate as the greatest ’character’ in the Non League sphere from that epoch would surely be none other than John King. On those occasions when I chat with fellow Alty fan and former journalist/editor of the Robins Review, Paul Brady, I habitually suggest that he should assume the task of writing the definitive biography of John King but, as Paul customarily points out, just how many of the myriad stories and anecdotes about the great man would you actually be permitted to publish?!
‘Kingy’ had started his football career as a junior with his beloved Everton before enduring an unproductive spell with Shrewsbury Town. His debut appearance at Moss Lane occurred on New Year’s Day, 1971, when he played in the Kirkby Town side that the Robins trounced 5-0. The profile of him in the pen pictures of the visiting team in the Robins Review reads as follows: “Quite a few Football League clubs have been at the Kirkby ground this season to run the rule over centre half John King. The 21-year old Kirkby skipper was once on Everton’s books as an amateur.”
In 1972, King commenced a successful tenure at Wigan Athletic and was now to be found in his ultimately more accustomed midfield role. He was a member of both the Wigan Athletic side that lost 2-1 versus Scarborough at Wembley in the 1973 FA Trophy Final (John Rogers scored the Latics’ goal that afternoon, incidentally) and subsequently the Springfield Park club’s 1974/75 Northern Premier League (NPL) championship winning team. His renown as one of the game’s ’hard men’ was established during this time; a player who you ‘loved to hate’ when he competed against your club but who deep down you coveted as a member of your own team. It also has to be recorded that his label as a fierce midfield combatant often caused people to overlook the fact that John King was indeed a skilful footballer - a perceptive passer of the ball who possessed a sweet left foot.
Following his transfer to Northwich Victoria in 1976, ‘JK‘ featured in the powerful Vics‘ team that reached the FA Cup Fourth Round and then narrowly missed out on the 1976/77 NPL title to Boston United on goal difference. In November 1977, after a pursuit lasting three months, Tony Sanders paid Vics £2,500 to bring the motivational and famously-bearded figure of King to Moss Lane and instantly appointed him as team captain. King’s Alty debut was somewhat inauspicious: a 1-0 NPL reverse at Worksop Town on 26th November 1977. However, on the following Saturday he scored on his home debut in the Robins’ 2-1 victory over Matlock Town.
Right: John King leads out Alty for the 1978 Trophy Final.
Just under five months later, he skippered the Robins to that unforgettable 3-1 FA Trophy Final triumph over Leatherhead at Wembley, scoring Alty’s third goal himself, whereupon he memorably celebrated by removing his red-and-white-striped shirt and waving it above his head deliriously as he ran back to receive the congratulations of his team mates (many years before it became such a fashionable ritual of goalscorers!).
On the evening of Wednesday, 10th January 1979, the Robins faced Tottenham Hotspur in a delayed FA Cup Third Round FA Cup tie at White Hart Lane that conjured up the truly fascinating prospect of a midfield duel between King and Osvaldo Ardiles, a key member of the Argentina team that had won the 1978 World Cup. During the post match interviews in the wake of the Robins having achieved an illustrious 1-1 draw against their First Division opponents, King was asked to comment on a particularly crunching tackle that he had perpetrated on Ardiles in the opening minutes of the encounter. This enquiry duly elicited the ensuing classic riposte from the Scouse scaffolder: “It was just two world class players going for a 50/50 ball."
Following his sending off late in the game against Gravesend & Northfleet at Moss Lane on 27th October 1979, Alty’s inspirational captain was facing the likelihood of a prolonged spell out of action due to suspension. King’s dismissal would automatically rule him out of the next scheduled Alliance Premier League (APL) fixture at Barrow but there were also fears that he would incur an additional three match ban, as it was believed that he had now accumulated a total of 28 disciplinary points. However, the club confirmed that they intended to appeal against any further suspension (reportedly backed by Gravesend & Northfleet) at the impending FA disciplinary hearing.
In his programme notes for the Gravesend & Northfleet match, Tony Sanders had revealed that: “Since the start of the new season, we have chalked up 72 penalty points as a result of bookings on the field; 68 of these being away from home.” Whilst not condoning this statistic, the Alty boss commented on the increased pressure that this imbalanced fixture list had imposed upon the Robins’ players and noted that it had meant that “each game had to be treated as a virtual cup tie if we were to be in striking distance of the top of the league. It was paramount in our minds that good results were needed, otherwise our home crowds would have suffered.”
Sanders also sprang to the defence of John King in the press, intimating that his captain‘s notoriety as a ‘hard man’ was preceding him and singling him out as a marked man: “It’s common knowledge that the referees know him. It makes you wonder if they have it in for certain people. Southern clubs, particularly, seem to know of his reputation and some of their players seem to take advantage of the situation.”
Sanders duly paid tribute to his midfield dynamo: “John is all-action, all-enthusiasm. He wants to win more than anyone else and, like Tommy Smith and Norman Hunter, he seems to be paying the penalty. What people don’t seem to realise is that he takes the knocks as well. It costs me a fortune in physiotherapy bills just to keep John on the field.”
The Robins found themselves without an APL fixture on Saturday, 3rd November 1979 by virtue of other teams having commitments in the FA Cup Fourth Qualifying Round. Alty’s exploits in the competition against Spurs back in January of that year had resulted in them receiving a bye to the First Round proper and, consequently, Tony Sanders opted to give six members of his first team squad a run-out in the Lancashire League fixture versus Burnley ‘A’ at Moss Lane. Thus, Mal Bailey, Graham Barrow, Ivan Crossley, Graham Heathcote, Graham Tobin and Phil Wilson all turned out in Alty reserves’ eventual 3-1 victory, featuring goals from Brian LeBoutillier, Stan Pearson and Bailey himself.
On Monday, 5th November 1979, the draw for the First Round of the FA Cup paired the Robins with those perennial Fourth Division strugglers Crewe Alexandra in a tie to be played at Moss Lane on 24th November 1979. The resulting reaction to this prospective encounter from the Alty camp was one of both delight and measured confidence. Tony Sanders remarked: “I wanted a league club and I wanted them at Moss Lane because I fancy that we could beat anyone at home. The pressure is all on Crewe.“
Meanwhile, the Robins’ Chairman, Noel White, immediately recognised the contest as a golden opportunity for the club to prove their worth and enhance their case for subsequent admission to the Fourth Division: “Clearly, a good performance against Crewe will not do our Football League claims any harm. The Football League are looking at the new Alliance Premier League very seriously. They know the strengths of the clubs in the new competition rather better than they did in the days when the Northern Premier League and Southern Premier League were the main set-ups.”
On the same day, there was further good news for the Robins when John King learned that he had escaped any potential additional three match ban in the aftermath of the red card received during the clash with Gravesend & Northfleet, which represented his second sending-off of the campaign to date (the other dismissal having occurred during a pre-season fixture at Witton Albion).
It emerged that King had been given his marching orders for “persistent misconduct”, which in fact added a penalty of only four disciplinary points to his record and meant that the sole APL fixture for which he would serve a suspension would be the imminent game at Barrow on the following Saturday.
Writing about the Robins’ captain’s unexpected reprieve in the Manchester Evening News Pink Final, Doug Peacock expressed the following pertinent caveat: “King, who is not known for his imperturbability on the field, must now be on his guard if he is not to let his temper interfere with Altrincham’s march to success.” In fact, King would not be sent off in any of the Robins’ remaining 24 APL games and was only absent from four of the club’s total of 38 APL fixtures during that glorious season
PART 12: VENUS IN FURNESS
According to my calculations, this evening’s fixture against Barrow marks the 61st competitive meeting between the Robins and the Bluebirds during the past half-century. Of those previous 60 matches, Alty hold the upper hand with a record of 29 wins; 19 draws and 12 defeats.
I sincerely hope that I am not tempting fate by citing the statistic that Barrow have accomplished only three victories at Moss Lane from a total of 31 post World War II visits to date. [Barrow were to win 1-0!]
The first of this trio of rare away wins occurred in an FA Cup Second Round tie back on 6th January 1968. At that juncture, the Holker Street side were under the guidance of player-manager Colin Appleton and lying in 13th position in the old English Third Division. Notwithstanding the former Oldham Athletic and Stockport County striker Bert Lister scoring a first minute goal for the Robins, Barrow eventually progressed to a Third Round home tie with Leicester City courtesy of two strikes in the 22nd and 42nd minutes respectively by Ron “Cassius” McGarry (a flamboyant character who reportedly once had his business cards printed with the legend: "Have goals, will travel") in front of an attendance of 8,462.
Incidentally, the Robins’ pre-match preparation for that fixture consisted of an overnight stay for the squad at The Bowdon Hotel on the Friday, which was preceded by manager Freddie Pye leading his players en masse to Hale Cinema in order to watch Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor in The Taming Of The Shrew. I wonder whether Graham Heathcote has ever contemplated using a dose of Shakespeare as a pre-match motivational aid for inspiring his players…..?
Almost 35 years would elapse until Barrow managed to register a second victory at Moss Lane - at their 26th attempt. On 5th November 2002, Ian Craney (left) put the Robins ahead in the 48th minute but goals from Steve Gaughan (a 65th minute penalty) and Steve Housham (85 minutes) finally broke the Bluebirds’ Moss Lane hoodoo. The gate that evening was a relatively meagre 574.
Of course, Barrow’s third success at Moss Lane is, alas, rather more fresh in the memory: that jaw-dropping 4-3 triumph in torrential rain on Tuesday, 12th August last year, which was attended by 1,312 spectators.
Barrow completed the 1970/71 campaign in 24th position i.e. the bottom of the old English Fourth Division but they duly survived the challenge of the likes of Hereford United and Wigan Athletic and were re-elected to the Football League. However, their good fortune was to desert them at the conclusion of the following season, despite finishing slightly higher in 22nd position (above both Stockport County and Crewe Alexandra). In the first re-election ballot, both Barrow and Hereford United received 26 votes each. The resulting second ballot saw Hereford United poll 29 votes to Barrow’s 20, thereby confirming the termination of the Bluebirds’ membership of the Football League after 51 years.
Over the subsequent seven seasons in the Northern Premier League (NPL), Barrow‘s record against Alty was far from impressive. In those 14 NPL meetings between the two clubs, the Bluebirds gained only four points out of a possible tally of 28 against the Robins: losing on 11 occasions; drawing twice and managing just a solitary victory in the shape of a 2-0 success via late goals from John Martin and Roy Moxham at Holker Street back on 1st February 1975.
The 1978/79 NPL fixtures between Alty and Barrow had seen the Robins collect maximum points whilst hammering home 10 goals and conceding only one. On the arctic afternoon of Saturday, 30th December 1978 (and in their final fixture prior to facing Spurs at White Hart Lane in the FA Cup Third Round), the Robins outclassed the Bluebirds in a 4-0 drubbing at Moss Lane in front of a shivering crowd of 1,408. The Alty goalscorers were John Rogers; John Davison and Graham Heathcote (2).
Indeed, I can still recall the marvellous fourth goal to this day: Graham Heathcote controlled the ball on the edge of the penalty area at the Chequers End and then unleashed a mesmerising, swerving shot into the Barrow net. To quote the match report in the Altrincham Guardian: “Everyone thought his ’bender’ was going to flash outside the far post - but not Heathcote. He had his arms raised in triumph almost as soon as he had struck the ball!” It was a truly stunning piece of skill, which some of us spent the ensuing weeks attempting to re-enact (in vain) on the playing fields of Altrincham Grammar School!
Just a few weeks later on Wednesday, 21st February 1979, further misery was to befall the Bluebirds on their home territory, as they imploded to a 6-1 trouncing at the hands of the Robins courtesy of goals by Jeff Johnson (2); John Rogers; Mal Bailey; John King and John Davison. Colin Cowperthwaite replied for the hosts.
In truth, Barrow could consider themselves somewhat fortunate to have been invited to become one of the founder members of the Alliance Premier League (APL) for the 1979/80 season. They had finished the preceding campaign way down in 16th position in the NPL and, therefore, were the lowest placed qualifiers for the new league.
Before their scheduled encounter with league leaders Alty on Saturday, 10th November 1979, the Bluebirds had gathered just eight points from their opening 12 APL matches and were located in 19th position in the table. Their manager, Brian McManus, was already under mounting pressure from the disgruntled Barrow faithful, who had endured witnessing their side go 616 minutes without scoring a goal prior to a 3-1 win versus the only team lying below them, Redditch United, on the previous Saturday. In fact, McManus would be replaced as the Cumbrian club’s manager by Micky Taylor merely a few weeks later.
Amongst the Barrow players who faced the Robins at Holker Street just over three decades ago were the likes of young midfielder Glen Skivington, who went on to win five England Non League International caps, and Kevin Thomas, a bearded goalkeeper who I principally recollect for his idiosyncratic tracksuit bottoms, which were ostensibly worn to offer some protection to his dodgy knee(s). A Barrow supporter recently submitted this succinct and poignant description of Thomas: “He walked like Darwin’s missing link and struggled to lace up his boots - but he was class.”
Also present for the Bluebirds was their recent signing, the erstwhile Oldham Athletic left full back/midfielder Maurice Whittle, who had converted an 88th minute penalty at Moss Lane whilst playing for Southport in that memorably epic FA Cup First Round tie on 25th November 1978, which Alty eventually won 4-3 in dramatic fashion by virtue of a header from Jeff Johnson (right) in the second minute of injury time.
Lining up in front of Whittle was winger Mick Worswick, a £750 acquisition from Chorley in the Summer of 1979, who had played at Wembley for Skelmersdale United in the 1967 FA Amateur Cup Final and later became a team mate of both John King and John Rogers at Wigan Athletic in the early 1970s (including lining up alongside JK and JR in the Latics’ team that lost against Scarborough in the 1973 FA Trophy Final at Wembley). Rather bizarrely, I found myself purchasing some Altrincham FC related programmes from him via eBay just a couple of years ago!
The Robins travelled to Furness minus a key figure: Tony Sanders, who was at home recuperating from a dental operation (and reportedly devising his tactics for the impending FA Cup First Round tie at home to Crewe Alexandra). In the absence of the Alty manager, team affairs and selection were being supervised by the Robins’ coach, Peter Warburton, with assistance from club captain John King, who was serving an automatic one match suspension incurred as a result of his recent sending-off versus Gravesend & Northfleet.
Graham Barrow was duly delegated to deputise for the ineligible King in central midfield; Graham Tobin had recovered from an injury and was restored to central defensive duties alongside John Owens and Ivan Crossley was the nominated substitute.
Watched by an attendance of 785, the Robins made all the early running and opened the scoring in the 13th minute. Graham Heathcote’s corner was headed on by Graham Barrow and the predatory Barry Whitbread was on hand to hook the ball into the net for his sixth goal of the season in only his seventh appearance.
As the visitors continued to dominate the game, John Rogers fired a shot just over the bar and Kevin Thomas had to scramble across to the edge of his area in order to intercept a through ball bound for the lurking Whitbread. At the opposite end, the home side’s only really meaningful attempt on goal comprised a Roy Taylor volley, which produced a good save from Alex Stepney.
The referee at Holker Street on this occasion was a certain Peter Willis, a tall, bald police officer and reported Freemason from County Durham. He went on to achieve his fifteen minutes of fame as the match official who issued a straight red card to Kevin Moran for his foul on Peter Reid during the 1985 FA Cup Final at Wembley between Manchester United and Everton. Moran thereby became the first player ever to have been sent off in an FA Cup Final.
The Robins accentuated their supremacy by increasing their lead merely two minutes into the second half by dint of a move of clinical efficiency. Collecting the ball in his own half, Heathcote released Whitbread down the right wing via a pinpoint pass and the Robins’ forward waited for support to arrive before delivering a precise low cross, which was promptly swept home by Barry Howard.
Kevin Thomas kept Barrow in the game with saves from a Davison free kick and a close range diving header from Rogers and then, somewhat out of the blue, the Bluebirds rallied to pull a goal back in the 62nd minute. A raking cross from right full back Micky Richmond eluded Stepney’s fingertips and central defender Neil McDonald pounced to score with a diving header.
I believe that the selfsame Neil McDonald currently occupies the role of Vice Chairman of Barrow AFC. In the player profile of him in the match programme (priced at 15p) issued back on 10th November 1979, he reveals that he weighed 12½ stone; was employed as a Gas Board Surveyor; admired Jimmy Greaves and Denis Law and enjoyed steak as his favourite food.
With Barrow suddenly looking a different proposition, the prospect of Alty being made to rue squandering their opportunities to kill the game off began to loom, especially when Rogers went on to crash a drive against the top of the crossbar.
However, four minutes from time, Alty rediscovered their goal touch and finally put the match out of the home side’s reach. Heathcote floated a free kick into the Barrow penalty area and the unmarked Graham Tobin capitalised on being granted a free header by picking his spot and thereby scoring his first (and what would transpire to be his only) APL goal for the Robins.
With their nearest challengers, Worcester City, having recorded a 1-0 home victory over Stafford Rangers on the same afternoon, Alty’s success at Barrow served to maintain their four point lead at the apex of the APL.
In the following Saturday’s edition of the Robins Review, Tony Sanders reflected on the team’s win at Barrow (their sixth consecutive league victory) and their ascent to the summit of the APL in the face of an arduous opening sequence of 15 matches in the new league, 10 of which had taken place away from Moss Lane.
“Credit must go to my assistant Peter Warburton, who last Saturday handled the team at Barrow along with absent skipper John King. Their enthusiasm and verve epitomises the staff attitude and strength which we here at Moss Lane now have.”
“Our position at the top of the new Alliance Premier League is a testament to the durability and character of the players and staff that I manage at the moment. Having gone through half of our away games and to still be at the top is no mean achievement and speaks volumes for the squad as a whole.”