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

    PART 9: FLEET FOXED AND MAN CITY TANGLED UP IN BLUE

  • When the team you support has won its previous five matches; is currently occupying premier position in the league table and then announces the acquisition of a player who has been described as “the hardest player I have played against” by a such an expert judge as Alty’s supreme competitor, John King, then you do get the inkling that this could indeed be a season to treasure.

    On Thursday, 25th October 1979, Tony Sanders was delighted to announce the signing of the 25-year old 6ft. 2in. defender/midfielder Graham Barrow from Southport for a fee of £1,800. The Robins’ manager disclosed that he had initiated three previous approaches to secure the highly-rated Barrow’s services: “I have been after this player for some time and, at this price, he is a bargain.” This transaction looked to be even more of a masterstroke by the Alty boss when it emerged that Southport‘s original asking price had reportedly been £7,500.

    Right: John King and Graham Barrow

    Born in Chorley on 13th June 1954, Barrow had joined Blackburn Rovers on leaving school, eventually progressing to their reserve side before being released and then signing for his hometown club. In October 1978, he moved to Southport, for whom he recorded a total of 51 appearances and scored eight goals. During his tenure at Haig Avenue, he had been selected to play for the Northern Premier League (NPL) representative XI and had also impressed many Alty fans with his performances as Southport achieved the league double over the Robins during the 1978/79 NPL season.

    Having swooped to capture the unsettled Barrow upon learning that he had been holding talks with Mossley, Sanders confessed that he was initially uncertain as to exactly where his latest recruit, depicted as “big, busy and intelligent” by the Manchester Evening News Non League correspondent, the late Doug Peacock, would fit into his team’s pattern of play. In fact, the imposing figure of Barrow would be called into action much sooner than had been anticipated.

    Saturday, 27th October 1979 brought a debut visit to Moss Lane for Gravesend & Northfleet (the pre-MyFootballClub.co.uk and Eurostar-affiliated incarnation of Ebbsfleet United) for Alty’s fourteenth Alliance Premier League (APL) fixture. Managed by the former Brighton & Hove Albion defender Tony Sitford (who was entering his sixth season at the helm), the Kent side had qualified for the APL by finishing in 12th position in the 1978/79 Southern League Premier Division. The visitors had won their preceding three APL matches and were lying in 9th position in the league table, seven points behind the Robins but with five games in hand.

    Graham Barrow had turned up at Moss Lane that afternoon expecting merely to be a spectator, whilst being resigned to facing a possible long wait before he would get the opportunity to break into the Robins’ first team. However, both Mal Bailey and Graham Tobin were forced to withdraw at the eleventh hour with injuries and, therefore, Tony Sanders called him up for his Alty debut at right full back with Stan Allan moving across to fulfil a central defensive role.

    A crowd of 1,826 witnessed the Robins seize the early initiative and Graham Heathcote went close to scoring with a header (yes, this ultra rare phenomenon did indeed happen occasionally!) only minutes before his curling shot struck the crossbar. After 32 minutes, the irrepressible Barry Howard snaffled the ball off the visitors’ striker, Brian Gregory, and then proceeded to drive a low shot into the net from the edge of the penalty box.

    Almost thirty years on, Alty aficionado Brian Flynn still recollects this particular goal vividly. I’ll let him recount the anecdote: “We had a character behind the goal who was a sort of 1970s equivalent of Pete Hughes and who would take great pleasure in getting on the backs of visiting defenders and goalkeepers. Between the sticks that day was a guy called Lee Smelt (who subsequently progressed to Nottingham Forest for a fee of £15,000 during the Summer of 1980). For Barry Howard’s goal at the Chequers End, the Kent side’s goalkeeper was a little slow getting down and, as he ruefully picked the ball out of the back of his net, the inevitable comment of: "That one smelt a bit" was delivered by none other than Mister George Heslop himself!”

    However, only four minutes had elapsed before the Fleet’s Bob Dudman equalised against the run of play, blasting a free kick through the Robins’ wall and past an unsighted Alex Stepney. Alty duly responded by launching several waves of attacks and regained the lead on the stroke of half-time. Graham Heathcote claimed his fifth goal of the season by converting a penalty, which had been awarded for a blatant foul on Barry Whitbread by Kenny Burrett.

    The Robins increased their advantage courtesy of a 75th minute comical own goal. Heathcote’s long through ball was needlessly backheaded by Gravesend’s No. 4 John Keirs on the periphery of his own penalty area and the ball promptly drifted over the helpless Smelt and into the net at the Golf Road End.

    However, the home supporters’ joy was rather tarnished in the 80th minute, when the Robins’ combative skipper John King was given his marching orders by referee David Richardson (who had handed out red cards to Liverpool’s Terry McDermott and Everton’s Gary Stanley at Anfield in front of 52,201 spectators only seven days earlier). The Alty captain was dismissed for a tackle on Steve Brown, having only incurred his first booking a few minutes earlier, and now faced the prospect of a four match ban due to having reportedly accrued a tally of 28 disciplinary points.

    Notwithstanding the fact that they had been reduced to ten men, it was the Robins who scored again in the 89th minute. Lee Smelt failed to hold a Heathcote shot and that arch-poacher Whitbread was inevitably on hand to poke home the rebound for his fifth goal on only his sixth Alty appearance to date.

    With second-placed Worcester City having won 1-0 at Telford United, the Robins’ largely straightforward victory over the Fleet maintained their four point margin at the zenith of the APL table and also ensured that their 100% home record in the APL had remained intact.

    Right: The Alty v Manchester City programme

    Tuesday, 30th October 1979 marked the visit to Moss Lane of Malcolm Allison’s remodelled Manchester City team to participate in a special testimonial match to honour four Altrincham FC players, who between them had accumulated almost 30 years’ service for the club. The ‘Famous Four’, as they were billed by Alty’s Chairman Noel White in the accompanying issue of the Robins Review (which was priced at 15p in those distant times), comprised Stan Allan; Mickey Brooke; Ivan Crossley and John Owens.

    Brought to Moss Lane from Skelmersdale United by Roy Rees in the Summer of 1972, right full back Stan Allan had already amassed 302 appearances in the NPL for the Robins and would proceed to play a further 127 (+2 as substitute) APL games for Alty before departing from Moss Lane during the 1983/84 season. As a member of Alty’s triumphant 1978 FA Trophy side, Allan became the first player to possess a winner’s medal in both the FA Trophy and the FA Amateur Cup competitions. His subsequent spell as the Robins’ manager during the abject 1991/92 season, however, is really best overlooked.

    Mickey Brooke joined the Robins from Ellesmere Port Town in February 1973 and was the epitome of the versatile ‘clubman’, turning out for the Robins principally as a left full back, whilst also acting as a midfielder or forward when required. He clocked up 223 (+3 as sub) NPL matches for the Robins but only added 2 (+1 as sub) appearances in the APL during the 1979/80 season (his final one at Moss Lane). My favourite memory of this popular Alty character will always be the marvellous goal he scored in the 2-0 FA Cup Second Round victory at Droylsden on 16th December 1978, which ultimately secured Alty‘s first trip to play Spurs at White Hart Lane. Alas, Mickey died in June 2002.

    A member of the Coventry City team that had lost 4-3 to Spurs in the 1970 FA Youth Cup Final, Ivan Crossley arrived at Moss Lane from Bangor City at the advent of the 1974/75 season and duly recorded 147 (+4 as sub) NPL appearances for the Robins. Chiefly employed as a full back, he went on to play 25 (+7 as sub) games in the APL. His last appearance in an Alty shirt occurred at Wembley in the 1982 FA Trophy Final defeat against Enfield. Many years later, I had the pleasure of chatting to Ivan on a few occasions, as he could be found on Market Street in Manchester in his role as a representative for the RAC. Sadly, Ivan died in June 2001 at the age of 48.

    John Owens was another significant newcomer from Skelmersdale United during the Summer of 1972. This highly-educated, classy and immensely consistent central defender then assembled a total of 254 (+3 as sub) NPL appearances, supplemented by 90 (+4 as sub) league matches for the Robins during the first three seasons of the APL. He was later appointed to the post of manager of the England Semi-Professional XI and eventually relinquished his vocation as a schoolteacher in order to accept the role of Academy Manager at Liverpool FC.

    In recent times, Manchester City had brought their first team squad to Moss Lane for a special challenge match on two previous occasions. Back on Monday, 12th December 1966, Joe Mercer’s side had overcome Freddie Pye’s reigning Cheshire County League champions by four goals to nil, the scorers being Johnny Crossan; Colin Bell and Glyn Pardoe (2). Then, on Monday, 1st May 1972, Malcolm Allison fielded the following starting XI against the Robins: (1) Joe Corrigan (2) Tony Book (3) Willie Donachie (4) Mike Doyle (5) Tommy Booth (6) Alan Oakes (7) Mike Summerbee (8) Francis Lee (9) Wyn Davies (10) Rodney Marsh and (11) Tony Towers. Rodney Marsh scored the only goal of the game against a Robins team which featured a promising youngster by the name of Graham Heathcote as their substitute. I wonder whatever happened to him….?

    The venerable George Heslop recollects the Manchester City squad alighting from their coach in their muddy tracksuits at the Moss Lane players’ entrance on that evening back in 1979, as Malcolm Allison had overseen a pre-match training session. Only three days earlier, the Blues had suffered a 4-0 mauling at Maine Road against Liverpool, so any thoughts of treating the fixture against Alty as merely a casual practice match had been rapidly dispelled. However, in the wake of both the mortifying result and performance of his charges versus the Robins that particular evening, there were rumours that a suitably disgruntled Allison had led his City players away to their awaiting coach in those same tracksuits only ten minutes after the final whistle had sounded at Moss Lane!

    City’s 13-man squad included a sprinkling of players who had graduated to the first team via the club’s ranks of juniors and apprentices, such as Ray Ranson; Paul Power; Dave Bennett; Nicky Reid (brother of that one-time Alty colossus, Andy) and Roger Palmer. Also on duty were three survivors of the Blues’ prior visit to Moss Lane in 1972: Joe Corrigan; Willie Donachie (whose son Danny‘s ephemeral period as an Alty player consisted of a solitary appearance as a substitute at Southport almost 14 years later!) and Tommy Booth.

    The remaining five names on the City teamsheet were all imports of varying degrees of expenditure. Kazimierz Deyna, the holder of 105 International caps for Poland, had been signed from Legia Warsaw for a fee of £110,000 (plus some office equipment, allegedly!) in 1978; the Yugoslav International central defender, Dragoslav Stepanovic, had cost £140,000 from West German Second Division outfit Vfr Wormatia Worms and today’s visitors, Luton Town, had been paid the sum of £350,000 for the services of central defender Paul Futcher.

    In attack, the Blues selected Mike Robinson, their recent £750,000 acquisition from Preston North End. Finally, City’s £1,437,500 British transfer fee record signing from Wolverhampton Wanderers, midfielder Steve Daley, began his comeback after a three match absence caused by breaking a bone in his toe.

    On an extremely rainswept night at Moss Lane, 4,059 spectators (who had paid £1.00 for a main stand ticket or 85p to stand on the terraces) watched the Robins outclass their supposedly superior opponents with unexpected ease. After just five minutes, Corrigan could only parry a Barry Howard shot and Graham Barrow (deputising for the ineligible John King in central midfield) calmly slotted home the rebound to register his first goal for the Robins.

    Thirty minutes later, it was 2-0, courtesy of a piece of magic from an inspired Barry Howard, who was giving the Blues’ defenders a truly torrid evening. Collecting a throw-in from Graham Heathcote, the Robins’ winger had the temerity to nutmeg the Scottish International full back Donachie, prior to slotting the ball between Corrigan and the near post at the Chequers End from an outrageously acute angle. Alty diehard Phil Jordan remembers his fellow Robins supporter Nic Seller‘s evocative description of Howard’s feat to a work colleague the next day as “like posting an apple through a letterbox from 30 yards!“

    With City’s expensive forwards generally misfiring and Alex Stepney dealing comfortably with any rare efforts from his old foes that were actually on target, the Robins produced a positive performance, both on and off the pitch, that could only serve to enhance their quest for Football League status. As Doug Peacock later wrote in the Manchester Evening News, City’s much-vaunted line-up, valued at circa £3m, had been humbled by a Robins side with an estimated combined cost in the transfer market of £22,000.

    The following day was one of those rare occasions when it was actually a genuine delight to attend Altrincham Grammar School. In the run-up to the benefit match at Moss Lane, the hubristic City supporters in my class had been predicting (especially to those of us who followed Alty) that their team would inflict an almighty hammering on the Robins. What an utter pleasure it was then to walk into a classroom to be greeted by both the sight of ‘Alty 2 City 0’ chalked up in giant letters on the blackboard and the satisfyingly eerie sound of silence from the previously vociferous City contingent. Halcyon days, indeed.


    PART 10: BRINGING IT ALL BACK HOME

    On 2nd November 1979, Keith Emerson, the flamboyant keyboard player with 1970s English prog rock behemoths Emerson, Lake & Palmer, celebrated his 35th birthday. Over thirty years later, ELP’s 1977 version of Aaron Copland‘s Fanfare For The Common Man continues to be broadcast over the PA system at Moss Lane as the Robins take to the field.

    Whilst Mr Emerson was probably tucking into a slice of the nice birthday cake prepared for him just over three decades ago, the Robins had recently attained their fifth successive league victory and were able to reflect on the events of the opening three months of the inaugural Alliance Premier League (APL) season with a guarded sense of satisfaction at their accomplishments to date.

    After 14 APL matches, only five of which had been staged at Moss Lane, Alty occupied the optimum position in the league table with a total of 20 points, four points ahead of second-placed Worcester City (although the latter did have two games in hand), and were the competition‘s top scorers with a tally of 30. In addition, John Rogers was the league’s leading goalscorer, having already found the back of the net on nine occasions (plus one strike in the APL Cup).

    On their travels, Alty had already completed almost half of their scheduled 19 away fixtures and the statistics read as follows: won: 4; drawn: 2; lost: 3; goals for: 16; goals against: 13; points: 10. Curiously, their trio of defeats had all been by the identical scoreline of 3-2.

    Back at Moss Lane, the Robins exhibited a proud 100% record, having accumulated the maximum ten points from their five home matches whilst scoring 14 goals and conceding only two. This quintet of contests had produced an average attendance of 1,669, a figure still below the target of 2,000 spectators that Tony Sanders wanted inside the stadium on a regular basis.

    At this juncture, the club that would eventually emerge as the Robins’ principal rivals for the APL title, Weymouth, were located in eighth position. The Terras were eight points adrift of Alty (but held three games in hand) and one place below Northwich Victoria, who themselves possessed five games in hand on the Robins after becoming embroiled in a few replays in the qualifying rounds of the FA Cup. At the nadir of the table, the hapless Redditch United had gained a mere three points and were yet to register a single victory after their ten APL fixtures.

    As early as 1st September 1979, Tony Sanders had identified the preponderance of away matches in the Robins’ fixture list during the opening third of the APL campaign as a potential handicap to the club’s ambition to be one of the pacesetters amongst the teams contending for the league championship. Speaking to Doug Peacock in the Manchester Evening News Pink Final, the Alty manager’s tongue-in-cheek but nevertheless prophetic synopsis was: “If we are still at the top of the league by 10th November, the rest should be easy!“

    In a subsequent interview, the Robins’ boss discussed the financial implications of this relative dearth of home fixtures, as well as the monetary and physical burdens incurred as a result of the amount of travelling undertaken during the months of August, September and October. He also disclosed that this fixture imbalance had dictated his tactical philosophy accordingly: “Fixtures have forced us to approach away games with the same attitude as home games. Because we had so many away games, I decided to go out and attack in situations where we would perhaps have been happy to settle for a point. We couldn’t afford to play defensively if we wanted to make an impression on the new league.”

    During their initial 14 APL fixtures, the Robins had called upon the services of 17 different players, five of whom had been ever-presents: Stan Allan; John Davison; John Owens; Jeff Johnson and John Rogers. In fact, this squad, together with the sole addition of John Connaughton in February 1980, would be all that Tony Sanders would draw on for the remaining 24 APL matches, 14 of which were scheduled to be played at Moss Lane.

    The four individuals recruited by Tony Sanders, in order to bolster the nucleus comprising those players who had completed the 1978/79 Northern Premier League season, had succeeded in endowing the Robins with an imposing, experienced and highly-competitive squad. As long-standing Alty supporter John Henderson recalls, the Coventry Evening Telegraph’s report of that 4-1 victory at AP Leamington on 20th October 1979 had succinctly described the Robins as being “a Rolls-Royce Non League team - albeit a little hot-headed.”

    Phil Wilson had featured in the starting XI for all of the Robins’ opening nine APL fixtures, notching one goal in the process. However, since the arrival at Moss Lane of his former Runcorn team mate, Barry Whitbread, and the concomitant strategic relocation of Jeff Johnson from centre forward to a left-sided midfield role, he had become a rather more peripheral figure as the regular substitute.

    Graham Barrow had instantly created a propitious impression on his league debut in the previous Saturday’s 4-1 triumph over Gravesend & Northfleet, which he had then reinforced by scoring the first goal in the subsequent testimonial match against Manchester City. He would proceed to become an integral member of the Robins’ first choice XI by starting in 22 of the subsequent 24 APL fixtures.

    Meanwhile, Barry Whitbread was already underlining his pedigree as a proven goalscorer with a total of four goals in his first five APL matches for the Robins. A further 13 league goals during that 1979/80 campaign would emphasise that the club’s record transfer outlay of £6,400 for his predatory instinct in the penalty box had been an extremely astute investment.

    However, arguably the most influential factor in Alty’s ascent to the zenith of the APL table had been Tony Sanders’s tour de force in cajoling Alex Stepney to join the Robins. The presence of the white-gloved Stepney had imbued the Alty defence with enhanced levels of organisation and confidence and his invaluable ability to launch attacks via his perceptive distribution had added an extra dimension to the Robins’ play.

    An elated Tony Sanders duly extolled the qualities of the former Manchester United keeper: “He is doing as much for us as he did for United. The fact is we have a First Division goalkeeper and he’s passing on so much to the team. He’s so enthusiastic; a top 100% pro and he’s come into the set-up as one of the boys. He does what I ask of him; knows what his job is and goes out to win.”

    The refreshingly unpretentious Stepney revealed that he had rejected a recent short term offer from a First Division club “because I knew I’d be happier at Altrincham. It’s an ambitious club and the players are a smashing lot of blokes. I’ve organised the defence to my liking but I don’t get any star treatment. I don’t bore them with tales of United either! When we play, it’s at Barrow rather than Anfield or Highbury.“


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