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 7: SEASON OF MISTS AND MELLOW FRUITFULNESS

  • On 6th October 1979, John Paul II became the first Pope to visit The White House when he was welcomed there by the American President, Jimmy Carter. However, this historic encounter between the 264th Roman Catholic pontiff and the 39th President of the United States was surely overshadowed by the momentous premier meeting between those two giants of the Non League game, Kettering Town and Altrincham, on the very same date.

    Although this rearranged Alliance Premier League (APL) fixture would represent the first contest on the field of play between the Poppies and the Robins, the two clubs had technically qualified as rivals off the pitch during the Summer of 1979. In the annual end of season travesty which comprised the process of applying for admission to the Football League via competing against the bottom four clubs in the English Fourth Division, all of whom were seeking (or rather, begging for) re-election, Kettering Town had been nominated as the Southern League Premier Division’s (SLPD) representative and the Robins were the equivalent candidate from the Northern Premier League (NPL).

    The results from the re-election farce summed up exactly what a closed shop the Football League had effectively become in those days, as repeat offenders in the art of failure were retained in lieu of ambitious and progressive Non League clubs. In 1979, the votes cast in the ballot were as follows (the respective final league positions of the Fourth Division teams are in parentheses): Doncaster Rovers (22nd): 50; Crewe Alexandra (24th - and courting re-election for the fourth occasion during the 1970s): 49; Darlington (21st): 43; Halifax Town (23rd): 37; Altrincham: 13 and Kettering Town: 12.

    Notwithstanding the formation of the APL in 1979, automatic promotion to the Football League for the semi-professional league’s champions would still not be introduced until the 1986/87 GM Vauxhall Conference season, when Scarborough replaced the demoted Lincoln City.

    The inaugural visit to Rockingham Road for the fixture between the previous season’s runners-up in the SLPD and NPL respectively promised to be a daunting assignment for the Robins. Kettering Town had also reached the 1979 FA Trophy Final at Wembley (losing 2-0 versus Stafford Rangers) and the Poppies were strongly tipped to be one of the frontrunners in the APL title race.

    In the wake of the departure of Kettering’s manager Mick Jones to Mansfield Town during the Summer of 1979, the Poppies had appointed the former Oxford United; Los Angeles Aztecs and Plymouth Argyle central defender Colin Clarke as their new player-manager. In his programme notes previewing the encounter with the Robins, Clarke described how Tony Sanders had impressed him immensely as a Non League speaker at a recent PFA managerial course in St Helens. He also commented that: “Today’s visitors, Altrincham, have a great tradition and the game has the makings of greatness.”

    Prior to this match, Kettering were lying in 2nd position in the APL (behind Northwich Victoria on goal difference), having collected 11 points from their opening nine fixtures. Their solitary defeat had occurred a fortnight ago, when Bath City had triumphed 2-1 at Rockingham Road. Meanwhile, Alty resided in fifth position, just one point adrift of the Poppies but bearing an away record of three losses in six matches that was in urgent need of improvement.

    The home side included the talented England Non League International midfielder Brendan Phillips (their recent acquisition from Nuneaton Borough), together with Roger Ashby, the man who would subsequently go on to hold the record for the most appearances (662) for the Poppies. Indeed, Ashby was to cross swords with the Robins again almost 26 years later, in his capacity as the manager of the Nuneaton Borough team that Alty memorably overcame via a penalty shoot-out in the Nationwide Conference North Play-Off Semi-Final on Tuesday, 3rd May 2005.

    For the Robins, the unexpectedly swift return to full fitness of John King (allied to the recent recruitment of record signing Barry Whitbread) presented Tony Sanders with an intriguing selection quandary for the Kettering clash. The imposing Alty skipper was ready to resume combat in central midfield just three days after undergoing an operation on an injured knee. To the Robins’ relief, the damage that had initially suggested a prospective long term absence for their captain had been eradicated by a minor operation, which had only detained King in hospital for a total of three hours. The Alty boss eventually opted to award Barry Whitbread his APL debut alongside John Rogers; relocate Jeff Johnson (left) from centre forward to the left side of midfield; reinstate John King and demote Phil Wilson to substitute.

    Alty devotee Brian Flynn recollects being a trifle awestruck on arriving at Rockingham Road: “I remember Kettering's floodlights hovering into view as the supporters’ coach approached the ground. At the time, we didn't play many teams with four large corner pylons (particularly with the light bulbs in each of them arranged to form the letter 'K').”

    Fellow Robins supporter Mark Murray was also impressed by the stadium: “I just remember my dad driving us up to the ground and seeing the big Football League style floodlights and the huge cantilever main stand and then walking on to the large (now home) terrace behind the goal, whilst feeling overawed at just how big these Southern clubs were as opposed to the likes of Mossley and Lancaster City that we were used to visiting in the NPL.” However, as Mark’s brother Paul observes, the facilities on offer at Rockingham Road haven’t exactly advanced a great deal since that Saturday afternoon back in 1979 and “the cantilever stand looked rather more impressive then than it does now!”

    Alty regular, Dave Thorpe, also raises the valid point as to why this cantilever stand had not been constructed along the full length of the pitch or even located symmetrically in relation to the halfway line.

    Alas, the quality of football throughout the ensuing 90 minutes didn’t proceed to attain the level of “greatness” that had been predicted by the Poppies’ manager and the match proved to be rather a drab affair. The notable gate of 2,867 set a new attendance record for the inchoate APL and it also signified that four clubs (Bangor City; Stafford Rangers; Yeovil Town and now Kettering Town) had all attracted their highest home attendance to date when facing the Robins.

    In an opening half that delivered precious few clear-cut chances, John Davison’s ambitious drive was comfortably caught by the Poppies’ goalkeeper Frank Lane, whilst Alex Stepney was forced to push a shot from winger Peter Phipps around the post at the opposite end. However, Kettering took the lead in the 36th minute courtesy of a curious own goal by John King, when the ball skimmed off the head of the Robins’ skipper as he attempted to clear a corner and promptly crept into the far corner of the net.

    Incidentally, whilst researching this particular article, I happened upon a thread on a Kettering Town fans’ forum website which was devoted to a discussion on the subject of their ‘Most Hated Opposition Players XI’. Lo and behold, who should be one of the nominees for this imaginary team but our own beloved shrinking violet, John King himself? He was succinctly depicted by one contributor to the debate as: “That big beardy bugger from back in the Eighties“! A member of the current Moss Lane personnel also received the following mention in this topic: “Loved to hate Ken McKenna - but he would always come in the bar after the game and mix with the opposition fans. Can't imagine too many players doing that these days!”

    Phil Wilson had replaced Mal Bailey after the half-time interval and his industrious display in midfield enabled Alty to gain a firmer foothold on proceedings. Parity was restored in the 65th minute, when referee Morris Baker adjudged that Sean Suddards had handled the ball and awarded the Robins a penalty. The Kettering players fiercely disputed this decision but Graham Heathcote remained unmoved and duly tucked away the spot kick with his customary aplomb, thereby recording his fourth goal of the campaign.

    Three minutes from time, the Robins were to receive a massive bonus that would secure a rather flattering victory. John Rogers foxed two defenders before hitting what Brian Flynn describes as “a hopeful effort that was more of a cross than a shot”, which ultimately ended up in the Kettering net via a huge deflection off the home defender Richard Dixey. After the game, Rogers claimed the goal as his own and his tally of eight goals made him the joint top goalscorer in the APL.

    These two points gained at Rockingham Road promoted the Robins to the top of the APL, a commendable feat in light of the statistic that seven of the club’s opening 10 APL fixtures had transpired away from Moss Lane.

    On Saturday, 13th October 1979, Alty staged their first league match at Moss Lane for five weeks when they hosted 12th placed Bath City, who had been the 1977/78 SLPD champions. The APL table was extremely tight, as only four points separated the Robins in prime position from 15th placed Maidstone United.

    Tony Sanders sprang a surprise by relegating Barry Howard to the bench in favour of Phil Wilson, subsequently explaining that this measure was to allow the Robins’ recently off-key winger “to have the opportunity to observe the team at play.” Mal Bailey had pulled a calf muscle during the previous Thursday evening’s training session and, therefore, Graham Tobin made his APL debut alongside the supremely efficient John Owens in central defence.

    Incidentally, the referee in charge of this fixture was a certain Keith Hackett, who is nowadays regarded as ‘the referees’ chief’ in his role as the General Manager of Professional Game Match Officials Limited, an organisation formed to provide match officials for all professional football matches played in England.

    In front of 1,744 spectators, the Robins produced easily their best display of the season to date and laid siege to the Bath City goal from the outset. Jeff Johnson’s strike hit the side netting and an 11th minute trademark Graham Heathcote free kick struck the post and rebounded to safety. The breakthrough eventually arrived after 43 minutes as John King registered his first goal of the season, rising majestically above the visitors’ defence to power his header into the roof of the net at the Chequers End from a John Davison corner.

    The second half would see the rampant Robins virtually pen City into their own half of the pitch, where their overworked goalkeeper Martin Bennett faced wave after wave of Altrincham attacks. Shortly after the visitors had survived another alarm, in the guise of a John Rogers header that crashed against the crossbar, John Davison conjured up the goal of the game in the 56th minute. Collecting the ball 30 yards out on the left, he unleashed a superb curling shot which bent around the diving figure of Bennett and doubled the Robins’ advantage.

    Six minutes later, John Rogers notched his ninth goal of the season, heading home a Stan Allan cross from the right flank which Bennett had only been able to parry into the path of the grateful striker. Allan duly capped a fine individual performance with merely eight minutes of the match remaining, when he drove home a 20-yard shot for the Robins’ fourth goal. This was the experienced right full back’s maiden goal of the season and marked the first time that he had scored since applying the final touch to an inswinging corner from Ian Morris for the Robins’ second goal in a 2-2 draw against Lancaster City in the NPL at Moss Lane on Monday, 17th April 1978.

    Barry Howard had replaced Phil Wilson after 66 minutes and he was instrumental in Alty almost adding a fifth goal in the 85th minute, supplying a cross that set up Graham Heathcote, only for the latter to be thwarted by yet another accomplished save by Bennett.

    Just to make the day even sweeter still, second placed Worcester City were held to a 1-1 draw at Boston United and Northwich Victoria surrendered their unbeaten record in the APL via Maidstone United’s 2-0 win at The Drill Field!

    The annotation in my copy of the Robins Review for this Bath City game simply states: “Superb team performance. Could have scored 10!” Fellow Alty supporter Bill Waterson perfectly captures the excitement generated by the Robins’ masterful exhibition: “It was like the NPL days all over again - a Worksop or a Workington on the receiving end of a drubbing. I walked away from Moss Lane that day knowing we had something special!”

    Plaudits duly flowed from other (and rather less partisan) sources, too. The former Manchester City manager (and, at that time, Coventry City’s General Manager) Joe Mercer, observed the Robins’ onslaught from a seat adjacent to Noel White in the Moss Lane Directors’ Box. In the following Monday‘s issue of the Manchester Evening News, he acclaimed it as one of the finest Non League performances he had seen for years.

    Meanwhile, the shell-shocked Bath City manager, Bob Boyd, extolled the Robins as the best Non League team he had ever seen and joked that: “Every time I counted the Altrincham team, there were 16 players. I thought at first we were giving the ball away too much…but, on second thoughts, I can’t remember us ever having it!”


    PART 8: AUTOMOTIVE PRODUCTS FOR THE PEOPLE

    By mid-October 1979, Altrincham FC were sitting pretty both on and off the field. Whilst the first team’s recent 4-0 annihilation of Bath City at Moss Lane had consolidated the Robins’ position at the summit of the Alliance Premier League (APL), two announcements were imminent which would confirm both the club’s commercial acumen and its healthy financial status.

    On the evening of Thursday, 11th October 1979, Altrincham FC held its annual dinner dance at the Piccadilly Hotel in Manchester. This sold out event was attended by 500 people and the Robins’ ebullient Director, Gerry Berman, declared that: “We expect to raise more than £8,000, which will break all previous records.“ This function was indubitably a jewel in the social events calendar back in those times, principally for the irresistible opportunity it conferred to observe the legendary George Heslop (possibly sporting a bespoke sequinned bobble hat for the occasion?) performing a jaw-dropping jive to the Joe Loss Orchestra (providing, of course, that our Timperley hoofer was in the mood….).

    Even more uplifting news was to follow on Tuesday, 16th October 1979, as Alty’s Chairman, Noel White, announced to the media that the club had made a record profit of £53,971 for the 1978/79 season. The delighted Moss Lane supremo, who would officially confirm this figure at the club’s AGM on 8th November 1979, duly declared: “We are very pleased indeed. This is a huge increase on last year’s record profit of £8,206.”

    The total income for the 1978/79 season amounted to £120,333 with more than half of that sum allocated to the total expenses for running the club. The record gate receipts of £50,478 had been boosted substantially by the two FA Cup Third Round ties against Tottenham Hotspur in January 1979 and represented an increase of £26,000 on the previous season’s equivalent tally.

    Meanwhile, the club’s off-the-field commercial, fundraising, advertising and sponsorship initiatives, implemented by the enterprising Board of Directors and the long-serving and proficient Commercial Manager, Derek Kennerley, earned the Robins the impressive sum of £69,855, which accounted for almost 60% of the club’s total income.

    Noel White revealed that these profits were already being ploughed back into the Moss Lane infrastructure. £26,000 had been invested on the erection of the new terracing at the Chequers End; an outlay of £10,000 was destined for the improvement and completion of the perimeter fence around the pitch and a further £9,000 was earmarked to cover the expenditure on additional fittings in order to enhance the quality of the floodlights.

    Encapsulating the Altrincham FC Board of Directors’ philosophy, Mr. White summed things up neatly in his customary down-to-earth style: “We graft very hard to get that money coming into the club, to enable us to get the best players in Non League soccer. A lot of people will say ‘look at the money they have got’ but the only reason we have it is because we got up off our backsides and went out and earned it.”

    Bolstered by this backdrop of financial security, Tony Sanders was preparing his players for the prospect of two away fixtures in the space of four days at AP Leamington and Redditch United respectively, whilst also pruning his squad.

    Following the arrival from Dallas Tornado of both Alex Stepney and Billy Phillips, the Moss Lane playing staff had become top-heavy with five goalkeepers on the books. The young John McKenna continued to feature for the reserves but Stepney’s immediate predecessor, the erratic Colin Darcy, was placed on the transfer list. Sanders also opted to release Tommy Cavanagh, who had clocked up 72 league appearances in the Northern Premier League (NPL) since joining the Robins during the 1975/76 season. Cavanagh was swiftly snapped up by Mossley but he only proceeded to play six games for the reigning NPL champions until, in the aftermath of a calamitous performance for the Lilywhites in a 5-2 FA Cup First Round drubbing at York City, Bob Murphy transferred him to Horwich RMI.

    Another squad player to be released was Alan Heathcote, the more famous brother of Alty’s very own Graham. Indeed, Heathcote (A), as match programmes invariably listed him, had returned to Moss Lane from Witton Albion in December 1978, having originally made his debut for the Robins in a 4-2 NPL home win over Gateshead United on 14th September 1974. Incidentally, Alan Heathcote remains one of the few Alty players I can recall who has scored a hat-trick against Northwich Victoria at The Drill Field (in a 3-2 North West Floodlit League victory there on 10th December 1974). For that truly glorious feat alone, he should surely be awarded the prestigious status of an Altrincham FC legend.

    Saturday, 20th October 1979 marked the Robins’ inaugural encounter with AP Leamington at The Windmill Ground in Warwickshire. Originally formed as Leamington Town in 1891, the club sold their ground to Coventry City (for use by The Sky Blues’ ‘A‘ team) in 1937, only to buy it back in 1946 in the guise of their new name of Lockheed Leamington (in recognition of the Lockheed factory producing automotive components, which was located adjacent to the stadium).

    Following the merger of Lockheed and Borg & Beck under the new name of Automotive Products in 1973, the club assumed another new identity in the form of AP Leamington and subsequently qualified for the APL by finishing in 7th position in the 1978/79 Southern League Premier Division (SLPD) season.

    Notwithstanding his decision to demote Barry Howard to the role of substitute for the previous Saturday’s clash with Bath City, Tony Sanders opted to restore the Robins’ mercurial winger to the starting XI against the Brakes at the expense of Phil Wilson. Mickey Brooke was unavailable for selection owing to a pulled hamstring and Manchester Polytechnic student Graham Tobin continued to deputise for the injured Mal Bailey in central defence. Indeed, Sanders extolled the 23-year old’s accomplished APL debut: “He had an outstanding game. It just proves that we don’t always have to pay big transfer fees for players - we can find them on our own as well.”

    After marvelling at the impressive home grounds of the likes of Yeovil Town and Kettering Town, the travelling Alty supporters generally found The Windmill Ground to be a rather less awe-inspiring proposition. Alty stalwart Bill Waterson recollects “a funny ground - rural; outside of town up a long hill and not a patch on the other grounds we had been to.” Fellow Robins diehard Dave Thorpe recalls the traditional floodlight pylons at each corner of the ground, which seemed quite grandiose in comparison to the rest of the facilities. In fact, these floodlights had originally stood at Manchester City’s Maine Road stadium before being sold to Leamington Town for the start of the 1963/64 season.

    AP Leamington began the day in 7th position in the APL, having gleaned 11 points from their initial nine league fixtures, during which they had suffered just a single defeat in the shape of a 3-2 reverse at Bangor City on the opening day of the season. However, brimming with composure and confidence, Alty proceeded to undertake a ruthless dissection of the Brakes’ unbeaten home record in front of 637 spectators and duly register their third away victory in the APL to date.

    In a one-sided first half, the Robins almost took the lead in the 9th minute, when Tobin’s far post header from a corner was just inches wide of the target. After both Jeff Johnson and John Rogers had come close to opening the Robins’ account, the home goalkeeper Alan Dulleston produced a fine finger-tip save to steer a fierce (and rare!) shot from John Owens over the bar in the 25th minute.

    However, the Robins finally converted their superiority into goals via a hat-trick from Barry Whitbread in the space of 12 minutes. When the Brakes’ centre half Gary Brown failed to clear John King’s 29th minute cross, Whitbread was on hand to volley the ball into the net for his first APL goal. Barely 30 seconds later, Rogers accelerated down the left flank and his resulting centre was clinically tucked away again by the alert Whitbread (or, Whitebread, as the AP Leamington programme referred to him - a misspelling that would become a common feature in match reports during the season, even in those published by the Sale & Altrincham Messenger!).

    Five minutes prior to the half-time interval, the opportunist Whitbread promptly struck again, bundling the ball over the line after Dulleston had only partially blocked an initial shot by Barry Howard, who had pleasingly recaptured his best form and, thereby, justified Tony Sanders’s faith in recalling him.

    The second half saw the Robins ease off whilst still maintaining control of proceedings. Stan Allan and AP Leamington’s winger Steve Briscoe became embroiled in an altercation, in which the Alty right full back appeared to lose a tooth, and then Whitbread found the back of the net once again, only for his effort to be disallowed due to a foul on Dulleston by Rogers.

    In the 87th minute, Rogers scored the Robins’ fourth goal (and his tenth of the season), when he headed home a Howard cross. With just a minute remaining on the clock, Tommy Gorman chalked up a consolation goal for the Brakes via the home side‘s first meaningful attempt on target throughout the match.

    Since Worcester City had been held to a goalless draw at home to Bangor City on the same afternoon, the Robins’ 4-1 triumph had now opened up a two point cushion at the apex of the APL and the opportunity to extend that margin to four points presented itself merely three days later when Alty ventured into Worcestershire to face the league’s bottom team, Redditch United.

    Redditch United had completed the 1978/79 SLPD season in 8th position but the Summer of 1979 had seen them beset by financial problems, principally as a result of a £30,000 loan from the town’s development corporation being called-in. Consequently, the club had been compelled to sell some of their key players in order to raise funds urgently. Their 25 goal top scorer, Mick Tuohy (who would later sign for Worcester City and be involved in one or two rather ‘interesting’ battles with our own John King during the 1980/81 APL campaign), was transferred to Southend United for a fee of £15,000; goalkeeper Reg Edwards was sold to Stafford Rangers for the sum of £5,000 and Kettering Town paid out £4,000 for midfielder John Jones. In addition, the Reds’ manager, Sid Bradley, stepped down after 22 years with the club, to be replaced by Eddie Caulfield.

    This turmoil had contributed significantly to Redditch United’s wretched start to the APL season, which comprised no victories; a tally of just three points gained and only four goals accumulated from their opening eight fixtures.

    Tuesday, 23rd October 1979 saw an attendance of 413 drawn to the dimly-lit setting of The Valley Stadium for the visit of the league leaders. Bill Waterson recalls travelling on the Alty supporters’ coach with several of the Moss Lane glitterati of that era: Ron & Jackie Gallimore; Ian Boardman (still to be found in the Robins‘ Club Shop on match days); Malcolm Riley; Dave Lewis; Paul McGee (who is now an internationally known motivational speaker and best-selling author) and the inevitable Thomas George Boyd Heslop himself.

    Alas, a certain Brian Flynn was absent, allegedly because his then girlfriend (and the present Mrs. Flynn) Carol refused to drive him there from Salford University on a Tuesday evening! Indeed, it would take Mister Flynn over 25 years to rectify this oversight on his part and he finally witnessed Alty playing at The Valley Stadium on 13th November 2004, when the Robins achieved a 1-0 win there in a Nationwide Conference North fixture.

    Both Bill Waterson and Dave Thorpe’s overriding memories of that night are of a surprisingly woeful ground, shrouded in darkness, where the imperfect floodlights were perched atop telegraph poles.

    The game itself developed into an almighty struggle for the below par Robins and the outstanding performers on the night were the two respective goalkeepers: Dave Walker and Alex Stepney. Despite enjoying the lion’s share of possession during the first half, the Robins generally failed to break down the massed ranks of the Reds’ defence and, on the infrequent occasions when either Whitbread or Rogers did succeed in testing Walker’s abilities, he proved equal to each challenge.

    Redditch commenced the second half with a greater sense of adventure, pushing Gary Bastable and Chris Sharp further forward, and Stepney duly summoned up all his experience to foil Mick Williams, parrying the tall midfielder’s shot and then reacting swiftly to save again as Sharp followed up to strike the rebound.

    However, just eight minutes from time, the Robins pilfered the goal that would eventually clinch two precious points. John King intercepted a Redditch attack and his long through ball released Rogers. Having outpaced the chasing defender Dave Clements, the Robins’ striker zeroed in on the penalty box, only for the hapless young full back Nigel Casley to prod the ball past his own goalkeeper whilst striving desperately to steer it out for a corner.

    There was still time for Sharp to miss a sitter for the home side in the dying minutes, with Stepney stranded, but the Robins clung on to register one of those archetypal priceless victories achieved when you are underperforming that so often form the cornerstone of a league championship-winning season.


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