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.

  • Parts 1 & 2
  • Parts 3&4
  • Parts 5 & 6
  • Parts 7 & 8
  • Parts 9 & 10
  • Parts 11 & 12

    PART 3: MR. DARCY: SLIDE AND PREJUDICE

  • "It is a truth universally acknowledged, that an Altrincham FC manager in search of good fortune in the Alliance Premier League must be in want of a first-class goalkeeper".

    Well, that's what Jane Austen might have written if she had been the sports reporter assigned to document the fortunes of the Robins for the Altrincham Guardian back in August 1979.

    Alty's goalkeeper during the opening six fixtures of the APL was Colin Darcy, who had joined the Robins in March 1979 after being released by Bury. Darcy, a 6ft. 2in. tall character with curly hair and a prodigious kick, enjoyed an excellent start to the 1979/80 league season by achieving three successive clean sheets. However, just three games later, his drastic loss of form was threatening to wreck the Robins' chances of challenging for the inaugural APL title.

    The Robins' third APL fixture pitted them against Maidstone United at Moss Lane on Saturday, 25th August 1979. On their debut at Moss Lane, the team from Kent fielded three individuals who had played for Wimbledon against (the then mighty) Leeds United in a renowned FA Cup Fourth Round tie on 25th January 1975: Billy Edwards; Glenn Aitken and, most famously of all, their goalkeeper Dickie Guy.

    Guy had risen to national prominence as a result of saving Peter Lorimer's 83rd minute penalty in that clash at Elland Road and thereby making an immense contribution to the (then) Non League side's memorable 0-0 draw. By a happy coincidence, Dickie Guy is currently the President of AFC Wimbledon, who are making their own first visit to Moss Lane this afternoon.

    I recollect dashing back from a family holiday in Devon on that sunny day in order to attend the Maidstone United fixture, a hectic journey that, in truth, wasn't really rewarded with the most scintillating of games. A crowd of 1,433 saw the Robins start promisingly and they duly opened their account after just 15 minutes. On the edge of the Maidstone penalty area, John King tapped a free kick to Graham Heathcote (left), whose shot hit the defensive wall and then rebounded to John Davison, who in turn promptly struck a sweet half-volley past Guy and into the back of the net.

    The rest of the match was principally a tale of the Robins failing to capitalise on a hatful of chances with the chief culprit being the clubís leading goalscorer in the previous season, John Rogers. His uncharacteristically profligate afternoon culminated in the dying minutes of the game. Barry Howard delivered a perfect cross and, notwithstanding having the goal at his mercy, Rogers inexplicably hit the ball wide. Nevertheless, this 1-0 victory ensured that the Robins had accumulated five points out of the opening six available and were still to concede a goal in the APL.

    Alty supporter Steve Wilson recalls alighting from the train at Altrincham station on that day whilst heading to Moss Lane and falling into conversation with a Maidstone United fan, who was very complimentary about the reputation of the Robins. He bumped into the same supporter on the journey home, whereupon the visitor predicted that Alty would go on to win the APL. Steve notes that he was somewhat taken aback by this prophecy, as the media in those days generally regarded the Southern Non League clubs as being of a higher standard than their Northern counterparts.

    Tuesday, 28th August 1979 saw Alty facing more familiar foes in the shape of Bangor City at Farrar Road. The North Wales club were now being managed by a certain Stan Storton, an old enemy of the Robins who had guided a Runcorn team including the likes of Mal Bailey, Phil Wilson and Barry Howard to the NPL championship in the 1975/76 season. With Graham Heathcote indisposed owing to a stomach upset, John Davison reverted back to midfield; Mickey Brooke filled the left full back berth and Graham Tobin was named as the Alty substitute.

    Despite having been in the ascendant during the first half, the Robins fell behind in the 53rd minute, as Meilir Owen became the first man to score against Alty in the APL by placing a low shot beyond Colin Darcy. As the Robins pushed hard for an equaliser, the match exploded into life in the 72nd minute when both Barry Howard and the home sideís goalkeeper, Kevin Charlton, were dismissed by referee Kevin McNally, a frequently controversial official who once had the temerity to send off none other than Bobby Moore! The drama erupted after Charlton had gone to smother the ball at Howard's feet just inside the penalty area and the pair were involved in a collision. A melee featuring several players ensued, during which a punch that Barry Howard received left him nursing two broken teeth. Following a consultation with a linesman, the referee ordered both players to the dressing rooms.

    Bangor installed their goalscorer Owen as their emergency goalkeeper and almost succeeded in withstanding the storm of Altrincham attacks until, to the disappointment of the majority of the 1,491 spectators, John Davison salvaged a point in the 89th minute by hammering home an unstoppable 15 yard shot and thereby preserved the Robins' unbeaten record in the APL.

    Alty's next challenge looked to be their most daunting to date - a trip to the reigning Southern League Premier Division champions Worcester City on Saturday, 1st September 1979. However, the Robins went ahead after only six minutes, when John Rogers collected Jeff Johnsonís flick from Colin Darcy's goal kick and proceeded to lash a shot past the oncoming home goalkeeper Chris Ward. Once again, Alty were largely dictating the pattern of the game whilst squandering opportunities to increase their advantage, a malaise typified by Jeff Johnson (right) contriving to miss from point blank range just prior to the half-time interval.

    The home side drew level in spectacular fashion in the 67th minute, when the former Stafford Rangers midfielder Barry Lowe unleashed a 35 yard shot which the forlorn figure of Darcy could only watch as it sailed over his head and into the net. Things got even worse two minutes later, as Deehanís high cross induced confusion and the ball eventually hit Graham Allner on the knee and crept into the back of the net. Allner of course went on to manage Kidderminster Harriers and guided them to the GM Vauxhall Conference league title in 1993/94.

    The Robins rallied and John Rogers restored parity in the 74th minute via a 30 yard chip over the home goalkeeper to register his second APL goal. Alas, the midfielder Allner popped up again in the 87th minute to clinch a 3-2 victory and condemn the Robins to their first APL defeat. Tony Sanders was not amused by the whole experience and lambasted his players: "Worcester were the worst side we have played this seasonÖbut we were disgusting."

    There were 2,101 spectators at St George's Lane for that fixture and Alty supporter Paul Murray recalls that it was rather a hostile and intimidating atmosphere with no segregation whatsoever. He specifically remembers a surreal encounter with "a bloke in a long leather coat, who looked like the leader of The Ant Hill Mob (from the TV cartoon Wacky Races), screaming in my Dadís face every time that he dared to shout for Alty and getting more and more annoyed as my Dad completely ignored him for 90 minutes!"

    My own abiding memory of the Worcester City team in those formative years of the APL is of their regular right full back, Graham Selby, who looked like a member of the heavy metal band Iron Maiden due to his extremely long hair.

    Two days later, the Robins were back on the road again for their first visit to Telford United's Buck's Head Ground since a 3-2 win in a pre-season friendly there on 9th August 1975. After the portents of his shortcomings had surfaced at Worcester, alas, this was the night on which Colin Darcy's Altrincham career effectively imploded as his errors aided the home team to their first victory in the APL.

    The Robins conceded the opening goal on the half-hour, when Roger Jones met a right wing cross and slammed the ball home from close range. John Davison almost equalised with a shot that just cleared the crossbar early in the second half but in the 51st minute Darcy's nightmare began to unfold. A long clearance by Telford's goalkeeper Caswell was aimed to set their left winger John Allcock on a run. Darcy raced out of his box to intercept the pass but he failed to control the ball, fell over and lost possession to Eddie Hogan, who couldnít believe his luck as he duly floated the ball into an empty net from 25 yards.

    A piece of cunning quick thinking five minutes later saw the Robins reduce the deficit, as Graham Heathcote curled a trademark 20 yard fee kick into the net before Telford had got around to organising their defensive wall. However, Darcy's charity to the home side continued in the 67th minute. Whilst attempting to save a tame shot from Jones that was actually going wide, he let the ball slip through his legs before directing it into the path of Telford's grateful striker Colin Williams (who had a brief spell at Moss Lane during the 1987/88 season), who was presented with the elementary task of tapping the ball into the vacant net.

    With nine minutes remaining, Barry Howard pulled a goal back for the Robins and shortly afterwards a John Rogers header struck the top of the crossbar but, to the relief of the Telford contingent in the crowd of 1,081, there were no further goals and Alty endured their second 3-2 loss in the space of three days.

    On 7th September 1979, the Robins were lying in seventh place in the APL table with six points from six games, two points adrift of leaders Worcester City, who also had a game in hand. A furious Tony Sanders blamed Colin Darcy's horrendous blunders for costing the Robins four points in both the Worcester and Telford setbacks, commenting: "I just don't think I can afford to ignore what happened. I can understand a keeper making an honest mistake or a wrong decision but the ones that Colin made were really bad. Darcy will be out on Saturday and there will be another keeper playing."

    So, the prospect loomed of the Robins facing Nuneaton Borough at Moss Lane with either Tommy Cavanagh or even the 18 year-old reserve team goalkeeper, John McKenna (who later went on to play for Boston United, Dagenham & Redbridge and Southport, as well as the England Semi-Professional XI), as the hapless Darcy's replacement.

    In fact, neither would proceed to don the No. 1 jersey, as on the eve of the Nuneaton fixture, Tony Sanders was to execute arguably the Non League transfer coup of the 1979/80 season and duly resuscitate the Robins' league title aspirations.


    PART 4: ALEX STEPNEY, DALLAS AND J.R.

    On Wednesday, 5th September 1979, Manchester City set a new British transfer fee record when they purchased Steve Daley from Wolverhampton Wanderers for the exorbitant figure of 1,437,500 pounds. Just two days later, Altrincham splashed out a sum of 50 pounds to sign the former Manchester United goalkeeper Alex Stepney. This wouldn't be the only occasion during the 1979/80 season on which Tony Sanders demonstrated more astute managerial acumen than Malcolm Allison...but I'll return to that particular theme when the events of October are documented in a later issue of the Robins Review.

    Alex Stepney's career encompassed spells with Tooting & Mitcham United; Millwall and Chelsea before Sir Matt Busby spent £55,000 to bring him to Manchester United in September 1966. During his tenure at Old Trafford, Stepney played in teams that won the First Division League Championship; the FA Cup and the European Cup, whilst also collecting a solitary England international cap in a 3-1 win over Sweden at Wembley in May 1968. Sir Alf Ramsey also selected him as his third choice goalkeeper in Englandís 1970 World Cup squad for the tournament in Mexico.

    The last of Stepney's 539 appearances for Manchester United occurred in a 2-1 loss at Wolverhampton Wanderers on 29th April 1978, which, incidentally, was the date on which the Robins won the FA Trophy by defeating Leatherhead 3-1 at Wembley. For the 1978/79 season, he was succeeded as United's first choice goalkeeper firstly by Paddy Roche and then by Gary Bailey and he eventually departed from Old Trafford on a free transfer in February 1979, having opted to try his luck with Dallas Tornado in the North American Soccer League (NASL).

    Stepney registered 28 NASL appearances for the Texan club during the 1979 season and won two player of the month awards. During the American close season, he returned to his home in Sale.

    Colin Darcy's comedy of errors in the Robins' 3-2 setback at Telford United on Monday, 3rd September 1979 had convinced Tony Sanders that he needed to recruit a top-class experienced goalkeeper in order to revive Altyís Alliance Premier League (APL) title aspirations. On the following day, he contacted Stepney with the proposition that he should resume his career in England at Moss Lane. As Sanders himself explained: "I approached Alex on Tuesday and he agreed to play for us on a week to week basis." Stepney commented: "Altrincham want me to try and help them out and I have always been on good terms with the club."

    Once this deal had been broached and then agreed in principle, Alty's secretary Dave Baldwin was faced with the exacting task of clearing Stepney's transfer with Dallas Tornado and the American football federations in just two days, in order to register him to play in the Robinsí next scheduled fixture at home to Nuneaton Borough on Saturday, 8th September 1979.

    This transaction was further complicated when it emerged that Dallas Tornado were in the process of travelling to New York and discussions with them could not commence until 2.00pm on Friday. As precious time elapsed with the registration deadline looming, the club sent a telex to the manager of the Texan team. He then had to telex the NASL, who in turn telexed the National Federation in America. They then had to liaise with the English FA in London before Alty could arrange for a courier to convey the relevant registration forms to the headquarters of the APL. The whole procedure was successfully concluded at 4.57pm, when Stepney's authorised registration documents were finally delivered to the FA just three minutes before their offices closed.

    So, just ten days short of his 37th birthday, Alex Stepney duly made his debut for the Robins at Moss Lane, having signed for the club on non-contract terms and with the proviso that he would return to Dallas Tornado in February 1980 in time for the start of the next NASL season. His arrival at Moss Lane certainly generated plenty of publicity for the club and a report on this transfer coup even featured as the headline story on the back page of The Sun.

    Nuneaton Borough returned to Moss Lane for the first time since losing 1-0 in a pre-season friendly against the Robins on 7th August 1976. The goal that afternoon was scored by Steve Johnson, a bustling striker who proceeded to appear in only a handful of NPL games for Alty before moving on to play in the Football League for the likes of Bury, Rochdale and Wigan Athletic.

    The visitors were unbeaten after their opening five APL fixtures and occupied 8th position in the league table, immediately below the Robins. Several of their squad had been acquired from their neighbours Atherstone Town (who had folded in August 1979), and their defence included a certain Malcolm Shotton, who would go on to captain Oxford United when they won the 1986 Milk Cup (League Cup) final at Wembley against QPR.

    Stepney's first appearance for the Robins attracted a crowd of 1,875 to Moss Lane (Alty's largest home attendance of the season to date) and, indeed, he too was virtually a spectator for the majority of the opening half. John Rogers had Alty's earliest opportunity in the 10th minute, when his sidefooted attempt from a Barry Howard cross tested the visitors' goalkeeper, Ken Hall, but the Robinsí dominance was not reflected in the scoreline until the 37th minute. Nuneaton failed to clear a Graham Heathcote corner and Phil Wilson rifled home from the edge of the box to record his first goal for the club.

    Two minutes later, Stepney exhibited his quality and experience when reacting well to smother a dangerous volley from Mark Neale. However, rather against the run of play, the Warwickshire side equalised in the 54th minute, when Stepney was rendered powerless to stop a 25 yard strike from Alan Hoult.

    Within three minutes, Graham Heathcote restored the Robins' advantage when he ran on to a Howard pass and flicked the ball over the advancing Hall's head and into the beckoning net. The Robins' superiority was confirmed twelve minutes from time, when a John Davison free kick was headed home at the far post in his trademark style by John Rogers for his third goal of the campaign.

    Stepney had instantly brought an air of authority to the Altrincham defence and immediately impressed with his confident handling, positional sense and intelligent distribution to set up attacks. After the match, a delighted Alty Chairman Noel White remarked: "Some of his distribution was superb and, when he has had time to achieve a better understanding with the rest of the players, we should see some great things."

    On his return to England, Stepney was accompanied by two young prospects from Dallas Tornado, both of whom commenced training with Alty with a view to gaining some experience in the Robinsí reserve team. Billy Phillips was a 23 year-old American goalkeeper, who had been Stepney's understudy in Texas, and Njego Pesa was a Yugoslavian born and highly regarded 21 year-old striker, who would soon be joining up with the US national team on a tour of Europe. Phillips revealed that they found the training sessions with the Robins to be quite hard and longer than their counterparts in Texas but noted that a typical morning temperature in Altrincham didnít quite reach the level of 35 degrees Celsius that they were accustomed to back in Dallas.

    The following Saturday presented the Robins with a trip to more familiar opposition in the shape of Stafford Rangers, who had slumped to 13th place in the APL in the aftermath of successive 2-1 defeats at Wealdstone and Barrow respectively. Lying 5th in the league table and fielding the same side that had overcome Nuneaton, the Robins seized the initiative and took the lead after only six minutes. John Rogers eluded his marker Ben Seddon and headed Graham Heathcoteís floated free kick over the home goalkeeper Dave Field. Five minutes later it was almost 2-0, as Rogers raced clear of the defence and unleashed a shot, only to be denied by a fine save by Field.

    Merely four minutes of the second half had elapsed when Rogers pounced again, capitalising on a wayward pass on the halfway line by the experienced former Wolverhampton Wanderers and England defender Bobby Thomson. J.R. promptly outstripped the Stafford defence, ushered the ball to the edge of the penalty area and then drilled a splendid drive past the helpless Field, thereby recording his 5th goal of the season.

    Field then rescued Rangers once again, somehow blocking a powerful close range header from Jeff Johnson, but the home side then roused their supporters in the gate of 1,538 by reducing the deficit in the 54th minute. Colin Chadwick evaded the Robinsí offside trap and his cross was nodded home at the far post by the inrushing Mick Cullerton.

    Alty were soon compelled to make a substitution when Mal Bailey sustained a knee injury. Stan Allan moved across to central defence and Mickey Brooke slotted in at full back. However, Stafford's fleeting rally was duly weathered and Marston Road became the venue of the Robins' first away victory in the APL.

    Meanwhile, back at Moss Lane, the Robins' reserve team achieved their first victory in the Lancashire League via a 6-2 thrashing of Wigan Athletic reserves. This was attributable in no small measure to a couple of goals in an impressive debut up front by Dave Bamber, a tall 20 year-old member of the English Universities team that had recently returned from a tour of Mexico. Alas, Bamberís promise was swiftly noted by Blackpool's new manager, Stan Ternent, who promptly signed him on a three year contract. Bamber went on to enjoy two spells with the Bloomfield Road club and scored 89 goals in 199 Football League appearances for them. One that got away there.

    Tony Sanders was naturally buoyant in the wake of Alty's results since the recruitment of Alex Stepney and the renaissance of his star striker John Rogers. On the welcome return to form of J.R., Sanders enthused: "He is looking good at the moment. I rate him as one of the best centre forwards in the APL."

    The Robins were now occupying second position in the league table, a single point adrift of unbeaten Kettering Town, and anticipating their first acquaintance with the famous sloping pitch at Yeovil Town.


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