The following articles appeared in the Robins' Review, during season 2009-10 and are reproduced here by kind permission of the author.
“Soccer Is A Kick Up The Slope” proclaimed the slogan on the front cover of Yeovil Town’s official programme for the 1979/80 Alliance Premier League (APL) season, a reference to their famous sloping pitch at the old Huish ground. Alty’s first competitive fixture in Somerset took place on Saturday, 22nd September 1979 and it proceeded to induce a horrible sense of déjà vu amongst those travelling Robins supporters who were present in the crowd of 1,805.
Yeovil Town were lying in 7th position in the APL table, five places and two points behind Alty but they did possess two games in hand. After an opening day 2-0 reverse at Barrow, they had won three and drawn two of their ensuing five matches and boasted the meanest defence in the APL, having conceded only three goals in total.
The Robins fielded the same starting XI that had won at Stafford Rangers on the previous Saturday. Mal Bailey (left)had been a doubtful participant owing to concerns regarding his knee injury but he duly commenced the game. However, Tony Sanders named the young central defender Graham Tobin as his substitute as a precaution. Tobin had been spotted playing local football whilst he was a PE student at Manchester Polytechnic and made his Alty debut in a 2-0 victory at Great Harwood on 3rd April 1978.
The home side were missing four key players, the most prominent of whom was their former Crewe and Arsenal goalkeeper Brian Parker, who had been the understudy to Jim Arnold in the England Non League squad during the summer of 1979. The Chorley born and curly-haired Parker later returned to the North and played for John Williams’s successful Runcorn team from 1981 to 1984.
One very familiar figure to the Alty supporters in the Yeovil Town line-up was a certain Trevor Finnigan, an extremely skilful striker who had been a thorn in the Robins’ side on several previous occasions. Finnigan had moved from New Brighton to Runcorn at the advent of the 1975/76 season and he promptly scored a hat-trick on his home debut as Les Rigby’s Altrincham team collapsed to a 6-2 drubbing at Canal Street on 22nd August 1975. Runcorn progressed to winning the Northern Premier League (NPL) Championship in the 1975/76 season and their impressive forward line of Finnigan, Barry Howard (right) and Barry Whitbread scored a total of 93 goals between them, of which Finnigan netted 43. Following just over a couple of seasons at Blackpool, he had joined Yeovil Town from Bournemouth for a fee of £2,000 in January 1979.
That renowned Alty zealot Brian Flynn recalls the supporters’ coach driving through the very tight streets in Yeovil town centre on the way there and then spotting John King standing in the doorway of the team coach, presumably asking a passer-by for directions to Huish. Fellow Robins supporter Mark Murray was aged 12 when he ventured to Somerset and he recollects “what seemed to be a frighteningly big crowd in what felt like a frighteningly big Non League stadium. It felt a bit like we were playing in Europe against famous foreign opposition.“ The extent of the notorious Huish slope is also summed up by Mark, when he reveals that when you stood by the corner flag, the top of it was actually level with the crossbar!
The Robins got off to an auspicious start and went ahead in the 13th minute courtesy of an error by the home side’s reserve goalkeeper Bob Baird, who was making his APL debut. Graham Heathcote hammered a 20 yard free kick through the defensive wall and although Baird initially appeared to have the shot covered, he contrived to allow the ball to slide under his body and into the net. Alas, Alty’s advantage was erased only four minutes later, when Yeovil‘s right winger Steve Morrall left two Robins defenders trailing in his wake before supplying the perfect cross, which Clive Green comfortably headed past Alex Stepney.
In the 65th minute, Yeovil were deprived of the services of their captain, the England Non League team’s right full back Brian Thompson, who was the victim of a late challenge from John Rogers, which earned the Alty striker a booking. Robins supporter Bill Waterson even recollects that “we were very dirty that day and the crowd was hostile!” An Alty team containing the likes of such fierce competitors as John King, Jeff Johnson and Stan Allan categorised as being overly aggressive in their approach? Surely not!
The match remained evenly poised until the 77th minute, when Clive Green struck once again, breaking clear and beating Stepney with a powerful shot. Just three minutes later, the former Portsmouth youngster completed his hat-trick via a speculative long range punt from out on the left flank, reducing the stranded Stepney to a spectator who could only watch helplessly as the ball sailed agonisingly over his head before nestling in the corner of the net.
With merely two minutes of normal time left on the clock, an Alty corner resulted in the unmarked John Rogers netting his sixth goal of the season via a volley from just inside the penalty area. However, the home team held out to gather the two points and thereby leapfrog the Robins in the APL standings. Indeed, Yeovil Town proved to be the only APL member that Altrincham failed to defeat at least once in any league or cup fixture during that 1979/80 season. I’ve never liked teams who play in a green kit!
So, the Robins had slumped to their third dispiriting 3-2 away loss at the hands of a former Southern League Premier Division club and, on this particular occasion, Colin Darcy was totally innocent! A disappointed Tony Sanders commented: “We are still finding it difficult to adapt against Southern teams away from home, although in the games that we have lost, I feel we have been unlucky.”
On the following Monday evening, the Robins were due to become reacquainted with a more familiar slanting pitch, as they had been invited to contest with Mossley for the prize of the Northern Premier League Challenge Shield. Managed by Bob Murphy, the Tameside outfit had achieved an impressive NPL league and cup double in the 1978/79 season but their rather primitive Seel Park ground had failed to attain the criteria for membership of the APL.
Any readers who are too young to have experienced those twilight days of the old NPL in the late 1970s will probably be surprised to see the name of Mossley featuring amongst the elite of the Non League game, particularly in light of their current status of 17th position in the Unibond League First Division North. However, their 1978/79 NPL title-winning team scored a formidable tally of 117 goals in 44 league games, eventually finishing eight points ahead of the Robins.
The fulcrum of Mossley’s potent strike force was the tall figure of Leo Skeete at centre forward, who specifically stands out for me both for his aerial prowess and the fact that he was one of the first black players that I remember seeing back in the distant days of the 1970s in the NPL. As I recall, Skeete was often linked with a possible transfer to Moss Lane and, indeed, he did eventually move to Alty at the start of the 1983/84 season but, in truth, his best years were behind him by that stage of his career. Around Skeete buzzed the pacy winger Ian Smith; the prolific goalscorer Dave Moore and the outstanding attacking midfielder Eamonn O’Keefe, who was sold to Everton for £25,000 in the summer of 1979 and later won five international caps for the Republic of Ireland.
On Alty’s previous visit to Seel Park on 19th April 1979, I recollect witnessing a rampant Mossley side inflict a painful 5-1 thrashing of the Robins in the John Smith NPL Challenge Cup Semi-Final Second Leg and, therefore, progress to face Northwich Victoria in the final at Maine Road by an aggregate score of 9-6. Consequently, a return to the scene of that ‘crime’ was rather a daunting prospect, especially with the Robins‘ defence looking somewhat porous away from Moss Lane at that juncture.
The NPL Challenge Shield match marked Graham Tobin’s first start of the season, as Mal Bailey was rested because of his strained knee. The Mossley line-up included Dave Mobley, the full back who they had only recently signed from Alty on a free transfer (although the match programme still had him listed in the pen pictures of the Altrincham team!).
The Robins took the lead after merely seven minutes, when Phil Wilson registered his second goal of the season by rising above the home defence and heading in a Barry Howard corner. With Mossley strangely subdued and unable to pierce Alty’s well-drilled offside trap, the Robins went 2-0 up in the 54th minute. Graham Heathcote reached the goal line, dummied his man and then chipped the ball onto the head of Jeff Johnson for a straightforward finish.
The home side were gifted a lifeline in the 68th minute courtesy of a defensive mix-up between John Owens and Graham Tobin, which allowed Kevin Gorman to race clear and steer the ball past Stepney. A further body blow ensued in the sixth minute of injury time, as Leo Skeete delighted the home contingent in the crowd of 1,482 by equalising with a diving header, thereby enforcing 30 minutes of extra time.
By this stage, the Robins were handicapped by the loss of their leading scorer John Rogers, who was carried off after 80 minutes and rushed to hospital for X-rays on his ankle. In addition, John King was virtually playing on one leg after having twisted his knee in the second half. However, just 60 seconds into the first period of extra time, the Robins’ limping and bearded warrior managed to conjure up a defence-splitting through-ball to Jeff Johnson, who proceeded to squeeze the ball into the net from the acutest of angles.
The Robins superiority was finally confirmed midway through the second period of extra time. Jeff Johnson broke clear and completed his hat-trick by going round the Mossley goalkeeper John Fitton and slotting the ball into the vacant net for his fourth goal of the campaign.
So, Alty became only the fourth team to win the NPL Challenge Shield, following in the footsteps of Wigan Athletic, Boston United and Matlock Town. Meanwhile, just seven days later, Mossley suffered a narrow 4-3 aggregate loss against the reigning Southern League Premier Division Champions Worcester City in the last ever Non League Champion of Champions Cup. However, the Lilywhites did go on both to retain the NPL title and reach the 1980 FA Trophy Final at Wembley.
Alty devotee Brian Eyres recalls that he was working in Clayton, East Manchester back in September 1979, alongside quite a few colleagues who watched Non League football in the Tameside region. He attended the Mossley clash with a degree of trepidation (instilled by the events of Alty’s previous anguish on the Seel Park gradient) and in the presence of several of his co-workers, all of whom were confidently predicting a hiding for the Robins.
As Alty progressed towards the 4-2 triumph in extra time, he recalls his increasing pleasure as his fellow workers either sidled out of the ground in a sheepish fashion or were forced into uttering a grudging admission that the Robins had improved somewhat since the last time that they had seen them in action. Finally, to round off what had been a splendid evening, Brian had also possessed the prescience to have a standing bet of £1 with anyone at his workplace that Alty would win the NPL Challenge Shield. Consequently, on the following day, he took immense delight in sitting in the works canteen whilst a procession of crestfallen Tamesiders trudged across to his table and reluctantly handed over the winnings due to him!
Tony Sanders was naturally proud to add a new trophy to be displayed in the Moss Lane Boardroom but the ostensibly serious injuries to John Rogers and John King had rather tarnished the lustre of the victory at Mossley. The potential long-term absence of the former would prompt the Alty manager to venture back into the transfer market in dramatic style and signal the Board’s intention to back him to the hilt in the club’s quest for the inaugural APL title.
Saturday, 29th September 1979 saw the arrival at Moss Lane of an eye-catching vehicle, which would almost certainly have intrigued the Robins’ current Chairman, Geoff Goodwin, had he been involved at the club three decades ago.
As a measure designed to enhance the travelling experience for their players, managerial staff and club Directors, specifically in light of the extra hours due to be spent on the road as a member of the new national Alliance Premier League (APL), Bangor City had invested in a pioneering ‘Superdecker’. This double decker luxury coach was resplendent in its blue and white livery and boasted reclining seats; a television; tables; a stereo system and some medical bunks. All fancy state-of-the-art facilities back in those days, no doubt, but I suspect that all these ‘mod cons’ would not be enough to satisfy Ricky Ponting, Brett Lee et al as they are driven around the UK courtesy of Go Goodwin’s in 2009!
For the APL Cup Second Round tie against the Welsh club at Moss Lane (Alty had received a bye in the First Round), the Robins were without their captain John King, who had injured his knee in the Northern Premier League (NPL) Challenge Shield victory at Mossley on the previous Monday. John Rogers (left) had sustained a twisted and swollen ankle during the same fixture but was surprisingly declared fit to face the Citizens after undergoing some specialist treatment from Manchester City’s physiotherapist, Freddie Griffiths. Mal Bailey returned to the centre of defence, replacing Graham Tobin; John Davison moved into midfield, thereby allowing Ivan Crossley to slot into the left full back berth, and the evergreen and versatile Mickey Brooke was named as the substitute.
Stan Storton’s Bangor City included their recent import from Runcorn - that redoubtable midfielder Alan King, another very familiar face to Alty supporters and the skipper of the Canal Street club‘s 1975/76 NPL Championship winning team. Also present in the Welsh outfit’s ranks was a certain John Hughes, who had been the Robins’ leading scorer with 37 goals during the 1974/75 NPL season. Hughes will always be revered as a true Alty legend for being the man who famously scored the goal that put the Robins 1-0 up against Everton in an FA Cup Third Round tie at Goodison Park on 4th January 1975.
In truth, the ensuing cup tie proved to be a scrappy and disappointing encounter, throughout which goalscoring chances were at a premium. In a low-key first half, the only real talking point for the 1,322 spectators arose in the 25th minute when Bangor’s Dave Barnett poked the ball into the Alty net during a goalmouth melee, only for the ’goal’ to be disallowed as the referee adjudged that Alex Stepney had been unjustly impeded.
However, eight minutes into the second half, the Robins were fortunate enough to take the lead courtesy of an error by the visitors’ normally reliable goalkeeper Kevin Charlton. He allowed a Stan Allan cross to slip through his fingers and Jeff Johnson was on hand to accept the gift and prod the loose ball into the vacant net. Shortly afterwards, Johnson had a golden opportunity to sew the game up for the Robins but his attempted lob merely fell straight into Charlton’s arms.
In the 70th minute, Bangor brought on their substitute, the former Altrincham striker Tony Broadhead (who had been the Robins’ leading scorer with 20 goals back in the 1971/72 NPL campaign). This strategy was rewarded only eight minutes later, when Broadhead guided a John Hughes cross past the stranded Stepney. Indeed, things almost deteriorated even further for Alty in the closing minutes, as Broadhead’s shot from the fringe of the penalty area just cleared the crossbar. However, the scoreline remained at 1-1 and the Robins were obliged to prepare to visit Farrar Road for the second time in a matter of weeks.
In the days prior to the fixture against Bangor City, Tony Sanders had attempted to bolster his attacking options by once again resurrecting his bid to sign Runcorn’s prolific striker Barry Whitbread. This decision had probably been prompted by initial fears that the injury suffered by John Rogers at Mossley would result in the long-term absence of the Robins’ leading marksman. However, in truth, the Alty manager had been striving to recruit the Linnets’ proven goalscorer since the close season and thereby reunite him with his former Canal Street colleagues: Mal Bailey; Phil Wilson and Barry Howard.
During the Summer of 1979, Whitbread had won two England Non League International caps by playing in the games against Scotland and Holland at Stafford Rangers‘ Marston Road ground (featuring in a team which also included Alty‘s John Davison). In July 1979, Tony Sanders submitted a bid of £6,000 to Runcorn for Whitbread’s services. However, the Linnets’ newly-installed player-manager Jim McCalliog (the former Sheffield Wednesday; Manchester United and Southampton midfielder) rejected the offer and Whitbread was then believed to have renewed his contract at Canal Street.
On 19th September 1979, a small article appeared in the Manchester Evening News linking the Robins with yet another initiative to prise the now transfer-listed Whitbread away from Runcorn. However, just two days later, the same publication reported that negotiations between the two clubs had reached an impasse over the failure to agree on the transfer fee. Altrincham’s renewed offer of £6,000 still fell below Runcorn’s asking price for the forward, which was reputed to be as high as £7,500.
In the Manchester Evening News Pink Final on 29th September 1979, Tony Sanders expressed his increasing frustration at the existing stalemate in relation to his attempted purchase of Whitbread: “I can’t keep the offer open indefinitely. If Runcorn don’t make a move, I will have to withdraw it.”
However, Runcorn were steadfastly refusing to lower their own valuation of their prized asset and Jim McCalliog was adamant that: “If Barry goes, he goes on my terms. If Altrincham want him, they must pay the full price.“
An exasperated Sanders retorted: “We seem to be playing a game of bluff. We haven‘t chased after Whitbread - it was Runcorn who rang us and asked us if we were interested. I think I have been reasonably fair in this matter, because the player has indicated that he isn’t interested in a transfer to any other club but Altrincham.“
Then, out of the blue and just when it seemed as if the whole Whitbread transfer saga was destined to remain unresolved, a compromise was finally reached when Alty agreed to increase their bid and Runcorn deigned to reduce their asking price. Therefore, on the evening of Monday, 1st October 1979, Barry Whitbread finally joined Altrincham FC for a new club record transfer fee of £6,400 (an amount that, I suspect, Graham Heathcote would still be delighted to have at his disposal to spend on a player almost thirty years later!).
Any readers who weren’t fortunate enough to be Alty regulars three decades ago may well be wondering exactly what was so special about Barry Whitbread to convince Tony Sanders to commit such time and resources in order to add him to the Moss Lane personnel. So, for their benefit, here’s a synopsis of his career.
A student at Lancaster University, Whitbread signed for Lancaster City and first emerged on the Non League scene by hitting a hat-trick on his NPL debut at the start of the 1971/72 season. He proceeded to score 22 goals during that campaign, whilst playing alongside the not-quite-as-legendary Dave Furnival (the lumbering centre forward who endured a woeful spell in Les Rigby’s Alty team back in the 1975/76 NPL season).
During the 1973/74 season, Whitbread was transferred to Runcorn for the sum of £250 and Tony Sanders later revealed that he had been interested in signing the striker for the Robins at this juncture, in his capacity as the assistant manager to Roy Rees at Moss Lane. Whilst with Runcorn, Whitbread established a reputation as a prolific goalscorer, amassing a total of 181 goals during his five seasons with the club and winning the initial pair of his eventual tally of six England Non League International caps.
When he arrived at Moss Lane, the 30 year-old Whitbread was employed as a PE teacher at a Liverpool school, thereby becoming the fourth schoolmaster in the Robins’ squad alongside John Owens (right), John Davison and Phil Wilson. After three successful seasons at Moss Lane, his final Alty appearance occurred when he came on as substitute for John King in the 1982 FA Trophy Final defeat against Enfield at Wembley. In the Summer of 1982, both Whitbread and John Owens moved on to Marine.
A fully qualified FA coach, Whitbread subsequently returned to Canal Street as Runcorn’s manager, prior to a spell spent coaching in the United States. In 1996, he was appointed as the head coach of the Singapore National team and during his tenure there, his side won the 1998 Tiger Cup, the country's first ever international trophy in football. Whitbread duly relocated to England, eventually ascending to the key role as the head of recruitment at Liverpool FC’s Youth Academy. His American-born son, Zak, played for Millwall versus the Robins in an FA Cup First Round tie at Moss Lane on 10th November 2007.
In July 2008, Paul Ince appointed Whitbread as his new chief scout at Blackburn Rovers (Whitbread had signed Ince’s teenage son, Thomas, whilst working at Liverpool’s Academy). However, I have since read a report that Whitbread is now a member of the scouting staff at Bolton Wanderers (although I have as yet been unable to corroborate this).
After finally capturing Whitbread, Tony Sanders succinctly appaised the talents of his new acquisition: “He is a fine player who links the midfield and the front men and also scores a lot of goals.” The recruitment of Whitbread proved to be a masterstroke by the Robins’ manager and a pivotal moment in the club’s quest for the inaugural APL title. Whilst I think that it’s fair to say that the Alty supporters never quite took Whitbread to their hearts to the same degree that they did with, say, Jeff Johnson or John Rogers, the majority of them would surely acknowledge that he scored many important goals and became a truly influential contributor to the Robins’ glory years of the late 1970s/early 1980s.
In the ensuing 29 APL matches after his arrival at Moss Lane during the 1979/80 season, Whitbread registered an impressive tally of 17 goals, augmented by a further eight goals from 16 appearances in cup fixtures. Indeed, in his Alty career of 134 (+6 as sub) appearances, he recorded a total of 52 goals. His aggregate of 34 goals in 91 (+3 as sub) APL matches for the Robins places him in joint tenth position with John Davison in the club’s list of its leading scorers in league fixtures at the highest level of the Non League game since 1979.
For the APL Cup Second Round Replay at Farrar Road on Tuesday, 2nd October 1979, the Robins followed in the illustrious footsteps of the likes of Sir Stanley Matthews and John Charles, both of whom had played in a charity match on the same turf just six days previously. Tony Sanders handed Whitbread his debut, whilst restoring John Davison to his customary left full back role and naming Ivan Crossley as substitute. John King was still absent due to his knee problem.
The Robins’ substantial investment in Whitbread paid almost immediate dividends when he earned a free kick during Alty‘s first foray into Bangor City territory, following a foul by his former Runcorn teammate, Alan King. The resulting Davison cross was promptly headed home by John Rogers for his seventh goal of the season. The Robins were 1-0 up after merely 45 seconds of play and before the home side had even touched the ball.
The lead was doubled in first half injury time, when a Barry Howard cross from the left was headed back across goal by Rogers and Whitbread was on hand to score his first goal for the club via a lunging header. I am indebted to that mine of esoteric Altrincham FC trivia, Bill Waterson, for his observation that Farrar Road had also been the venue where John Rogers scored his first ever goal for the Robins in a 2-2 draw there on 24th August 1977.
Bangor applied some pressure in the second half but they encountered Alex Stepney in prime form when he was called upon to deal with three powerful shots from Jim Smith. The 1,250 spectators were particularly impressed by one spectacular save, as Smith’s fierce volley from 20 yards seemed to be heading inexorably for the top corner until Stepney flung himself at full-stretch and palmed the ball away for a corner.
The home side did eventually pull a goal back when Phil Lunn’s deflected shot deceived Stepney in the sixth minute of injury time but the Robins duly advanced towards a Quarter Final tie at home to Wealdstone. Alty had now chalked up a sequence of 14 successive matches against Bangor City without defeat since suffering a 1-0 reverse at Farrar Road on 24th April 1974.
Tony Sanders was suitably ecstatic about Stepney’s performance in North Wales, declaring: “Alex is a great man to have in the team. He is not only a brilliant keeper but also a great organiser. I feel like a millionaire with Alex in the team!”
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Altrincham FC website compiled by John Laidlar