WHEN WE WERE KINGS: ALTY IN THE APL 1979/80
by Barry Pikesley
The following articles appeared in the Robins' Review, during season 2009-10 and are reproduced here by kind permission of the author.
PART 31: KEEP YOUR EYES ON THE PRIZE
Tuesday, 15th January 1980 found the Robins scheduled to renew their recent acquaintance with Northern Premier League (NPL) Grantham in an FA Trophy First Round Replay, which had been engendered by the 1-1 stalemate between the two clubs in Lincolnshire on the previous Saturday.
However, a frozen pitch at Moss Lane duly induced the postponement of this particular fixture, which was subsequently rearranged for Monday, 21st January 1980. The eventual winners of this replay had been allotted the reward of a home tie against NPL side Morecambe on Saturday, 2nd February 1980 in the draw for the Second Round.
Meanwhile, events off the pitch were dominated by the revelation that the Robins’ £2,000 Summer 1979 signing from Runcorn, Phil Wilson, had been placed on the transfer list at his own request. The unsettled midfielder had become increasingly frustrated at his inability to hold down a regular first team place at Moss Lane, especially since the tactical reshuffle initiated by the recruitment of the club’s record signing, Barry Whitbread, on 1st October 1979, which had seen Jeff Johnson adapt successfully to his new role on the left flank of the Alty midfield.
Wilson had scored four goals for the Robins, including that momentous strike in the memorable 3-0 triumph over Crewe Alexandra at Moss Lane in the FA Cup First Round, but his first team opportunities had been notably dwindling in recent weeks in light of the impressive emergence of Graham Barrow as a key member of Tony Sanders’ squad.
The Robins’ boss divulged that he had reluctantly consented to the player’s plea for the chance to seek a fresh start elsewhere: “Phil has asked for a transfer and we have put him on offer but we are asking for around £5,000. If he does go, I have got to get enough money to be able to go out and replace him. But, this is the problem of having a successful team. No-one can be sure of a regular place.”
The first club to declare an interest in the ultra-fit, squash-playing and permanently-bronzed midfielder were Northwich Victoria, whose Team Director, Paul Ogden, disclosed: “We are very interested in Wilson and our Chairman will be contacting Altrincham’s Chairman to discuss a deal. Naturally, the price would have to be right but we would very much like to sign him.“
The Vics proceeded to submit a bid of £2,000 for Wilson’s services but this offer was swiftly rejected by the Robins. Additional enquiries were apparently also received from both Bangor City and Stafford Rangers.
However, as far as Tony Sanders was concerned, Wilson remained an integral component of his first team squad and he indicated that the transfer-seeking midfielder was even under consideration for a recall in Alty’s next scheduled fixture: an Alliance Premier League (APL) contest versus Wealdstone at Moss Lane on Saturday, 19th January 1980.
As the Robins prepared to fulfil their first league fixture for three weeks, Wilson was placed on stand-by to replace Jeff Johnson, who had been afflicted with a leg injury. Also hors de combat was fellow midfielder Graham Heathcote, who had suffered a recurrence of his hamstring injury. In fact, the topic of Wilson’s return proved to be merely of academic interest, as Moss Lane again fell victim to a frozen playing surface, all of which prompted the club’s second postponed home match in the space of five days.
Whilst Alty were subjected to an afternoon of enforced inactivity on Saturday, 19th January 1980, in-form title challengers Weymouth were ominously registering their eighth consecutive APL victory in the guise of a 2-0 home success over Nuneaton Borough.
The significance of this particular result was that it elevated the Terras above the Robins to the apex of the APL table, as the Dorset side had now accumulated 32 points from 22 league games in comparison with the Robins’ tally of 31 points from their 21 APL fixtures to date. It also marked the first occasion that Alty had relinquished their supremacy as league leaders since their 2-1 win at Kettering Town on 6th October 1979 had enabled them to ascend to the premier position.
Nevertheless, Tony Sanders appeared relatively unperturbed by this latest development, being mindful of the fact that 10 of the Robins’ remaining 17 APL fixtures were scheduled to be staged on home territory, including a visit from Weymouth themselves: “Everyone has got to play each other and the fact that they have all got to come to Moss Lane is definitely in our favour.“
It also subsequently emerged that Weymouth were only in possession of a ‘B’ grading for their own ground and, with scant time available for them to improve their facilities accordingly, it would be virtually impossible for them to receive the APL’s nomination for election to the Football League, even if they did proceed to win the league title in May 1980.
The Robins finally managed to host their delayed FA Trophy First Round Replay against Grantham on Monday, 21st January 1980. There had been heavy rainfall just prior to the appointed kick-off time of 7.30pm and the club was indebted to the invaluable efforts of its legendary groundsman, Jack Thorpe, and a group of supporters in clearing the pitch of standing water, thereby allowing the tie to go ahead.
There were pre-match concerns relating to the welfare of Alty’s influential skipper John King, who was rated doubtful because of a leg injury. However, he duly passed a late fitness test and captained the side as per usual. In the absence of Graham Heathcote, who was still sidelined due to his niggling hamstring strain, Graham Barrow returned to the right side of the Robins’ midfield and Ivan Crossley was designated as the Alty substitute.
What eventually unfolded before the eyes of those hardy 1,012 spectators present on a cold, damp evening was, in truth, a rather bizarre and error-strewn cup tie on a muddy surface which yielded nine goals but could never really be described as a ’classic’.
Wearing an unfamiliar all-red strip, the Robins took the lead after only eight minutes when Mal Bailey recorded his third goal of the campaign. The visitors’ experienced No. 1 Chris Gardiner (a survivor of the 1976 FA Cup Fourth Qualifying Round tie between the two clubs) ventured off his line but then failed to punch the ball clear from a Barry Howard corner. Alty’s central defensive stalwart promptly responded by deftly lobbing the loose ball over the stranded goalkeeper’s head and into the Grantham net.
However, Grantham levelled matters within sixty seconds of the restart. Stan Allan carelessly pulled down Ossie Grant in the penalty box and the Gingerbreads’ leading scorer Robbie Cooke converted the resulting spot kick.
Further goals from Barry Whitbread, who flicked home a Barry Howard cross in the 37th minute to claim his 12th strike of the season, and John King, who rifled the ball through the NPL side’s defence following a corner on the stroke of half-time, endowed the Robins with a comfortable 3-1 lead at the interval.
Now attacking the Golf Road End, the hosts extended their advantage in the 65th minute, when Barry Howard applied the finishing touch at the far post to a John Rogers cross. Merely seconds later, it was 5-1, as Graham Barrow scored his first Alty goal in a competitive fixture by driving the ball past Gardiner at the finale of a splendid passing move constructed by John Davison, Barry Howard and Barry Whitbread.
As the Robins succumbed to an ensuing bout of complacency and eased off somewhat, they committed a couple of uncharacteristic defensive lapses which allowed their opponents to pull two goals back in as many minutes, courtesy of their substitute Dennis Jenas (the father of the Tottenham Hotspur and England midfielder, Jermaine Jenas) and that man Robbie Cooke again respectively.
Two minutes from time, Barry Howard added the final and most accomplished goal of the evening (and his eighth of the season), shooting home after one of his trademark jinking solo runs had bewitched the Gingerbreads’ rearguard.
Alty partisan Bill Waterson offers the ensuing recollections of the Robins’ progress into the FA Trophy Second Round: “All credit to Grantham, they came to Moss Lane and gave it a right go, although without the outcome ever truly being in doubt. I feel that even if we had given them a five goal start, then we would still have outscored them and won the game. However, the match neither sticks in my mind as an end-to-end goal feast, nor as a cup tie on a knife-edge, but instead more as a comfortable day at the office, notwithstanding the three goals we conceded.”
In his synopsis of the tie, that Grantham-born authority on Altrincham FC, Terry Surridge, reflects: “The replay was satisfying - a good win for Alty but at least my home town team achieved what no other club had done until then that season in scoring three goals past Alex Stepney at Moss Lane.”
Just two days later, the Robins reconvened at Moss Lane for a Cheshire Senior Cup First Round Replay against Macclesfield Town. As he had done for the 1-1 impasse in the initial encounter at the Moss Rose, Tony Sanders opted to field a makeshift line-up which largely consisted of a blend of first team squad players and members of the Robins’ Lancashire League reserve side.
Consequently, the stopgap Alty line-up which took to the field for the visit of the Silkmen on the evening of Wednesday, 23rd January 1980 comprised: (1) Billy Phillips (2) Ivan Crossley (3) Mickey Brooke (captain) (4) Graham Tobin (5) John Owens (6) Graham Barrow (7) Dave Kelly (8) Phil Wilson (9) Brian LeBoutillier (10) Barry Whitbread (11) Ossie Smith and (12) Craig Johnson (who replaced Kelly after 75 minutes).
On the back of a disappointing sequence of results that had seen his side still striving to achieve their first victory of 1980, the Macc boss, Phil Staley, experimented (ultimately unsuccessfully) by pushing central defender Joe Fletcher into the forward line whilst switching the Silkmen’s leading goalscorer, Tibor Szabo, back into an unaccustomed midfield role.
In a low-key and dour struggle in front of a gate of 831 (I‘m not even sure that a programme was issued for this fixture - is anyone able to confirm this?), Alty survived an early scare when Alex Stepney’s American understudy, Billy Phillips, appeared to drop a cross from John Williamson over his goal line but referee D B Scrimshaw allowed play to continue.
Without ever having to exert themselves unduly, the Robins secured a scheduled Second Round meeting with Runcorn at Moss Lane on Saturday, 9th February 1980 by virtue of Barry Whitbread’s 13th goal of the season after 38 minutes.
Indeed, one of the few standout moments of this tie that I am able dredge up from my personal memory archives relates to the behaviour of Macc’s apparent ’star’ midfielder, Melvin McClure (who had purportedly been the subject of a recent inquiry by First Division Stoke City). His reaction on being substituted was to exhibit his displeasure by slamming the old wooden gate behind him as he marched off down the players’ tunnel in high dudgeon, to an accompanying chorus of jeers and catcalls from the amused home supporters in the Main Stand!
One potentially significant social aspect of that particular Cheshire Senior Cup match concerns the debut of a certain Ossie Smith in midfield for the Robins first XI that night. It’s entirely possible (although, alas, this statistic still remains unconfirmed) that this constituted the historic first appearance of a black player in a competitive first team fixture for Altrincham FC.
A graduate of Aston University, Birmingham, who went on to develop a career as a quantity surveyor, Ossie Smith made his first ever appearance at Moss Lane as a player for the Universities Athletic Union XI in a representative fixture against an FA XI on Tuesday, 14th March 1978. A former England Schoolboy International and Manchester United Junior, he also represented Great Britain in the 1979 World Student Games in Mexico.
Before he could attain another first team outing for the Robins, Ossie joined Runcorn at the end of the 1979/80 season, shortly after John Williams had assumed the role of the Linnets‘ manager. During a successful spell comprising over 400 appearances for the Canal Street club, he captained the Cheshire team to the 1980/81 Northern Premier League title and then the Alliance Premier League title the following season, whilst also winning one England Non League International cap versus Wales in 1984.
He eventually returned to Moss Lane for the start of the 1987/88 GM Vauxhall Conference campaign, where he was reunited with his erstwhile Runcorn boss, John Williams. Over the next two seasons, he would record a total of 55 (+2 as substitute) additional appearances for the Robins, scoring eight goals in the process.
PART 32: SAME AS IT EVER WAS, SAME AS IT EVER WAS
After a recess lasting four weeks, the Robins finally resumed their Alliance Premier League (APL) campaign on Saturday, 26th January 1980 when they ventured along the A556 in order to contest a derby match versus that all too familiar anathema, Northwich Victoria.
Indeed, Alty’s last dose of APL action had comprised a bruising goalless stalemate against the green slime on Saturday, 29th December 1979, when the Vics had become the first team that season to have gained a precious league point at Moss Lane.
In the wake of that controversial encounter between the two old adversaries, Northwich’s manager, Ray Williams, had expounded a provocative and intriguing theory as to why the Vics had emerged as the Robins’ bogey team in recent times: “I don’t think they’ve beaten us for about eight years, including five matches in the cup and league last season. And maybe it’s because we are not frightened of them. I get the impression that some of the Southern clubs in the league start to tremble at the very thought of playing Altrincham. Admittedly, they are the Non League team of the moment and the fact that they could force a draw at Spurs is enough to worry some teams. But we know all about them and we’ve shown that we can handle them.”
- Alas, since the inception of the Northern Premier League (NPL) in August 1968, the Robins’ record at The Drill Field had been, in a word, god-awful. The abject statistics relating to Alty’s 11 away fixtures in the NPL at the Vics’ headquarters unfolded as follows: won: one; drawn: four; lost: six; goals scored: 11; goals conceded: 20 and points collected: six out of a possible total of 22.
Indeed, the Robins’ solitary NPL success at the scourge that was The Drill Field had transpired on Monday, 22nd October 1973, when goals from Graham Heathcote and Joe Pritchard (penalty) earned the visitors a 2-1 victory over a Vics team which was then under the management of the towering figure of that erstwhile Alty centre half, Brian Taylor.
Northwich had commenced the 1979/80 APL season in promising fashion, stringing together a 15 match unbeaten run in league and cup competitions. Moreover, they had sat atop the APL table until being deposed by Alty on 6th October 1979. Their playing record from the nine APL fixtures staged at The Drill Field prior to them hosting the Robins constituted: won: five; drawn: two; lost: two (versus Maidstone United and Boston United respectively); goals for: 20; goals against: nine and points accrued: 12 out of a possible tally of 18.
In the aftermath of that 0-0 deadlock at Moss Lane on the final Saturday of 1979, the Vics had been eliminated from two major cup competitions. In the FA Cup (and following several postponements of the original tie at a frequently waterlogged Drill Field), they had eventually succumbed 1-0 to Wigan Athletic in a Second Round Replay at Springfield Park in front of a gate of 11,298.
Whilst Alty had been labouring to a 1-1 stalemate at Grantham in the FA Trophy First Round on Saturday, 12th January 1980, the Vics had capitulated to a shock 2-1 defeat at NPL Oswestry Town in the same competition, an outcome which would engender a major upheaval at The Drill Field.
Just three days after that ignominious FA Trophy exit, the Northwich Victoria Directors held a Board Meeting, during which the decision was taken to terminate the contract of Ray Williams as the club’s manager. The ex-Port Vale and Stafford Rangers striker had been the Vics’ 25th manager since the end of the Second World War. Whilst a new manager was being sought, the club’s Team Director, Paul Ogden, was placed in temporary control of all team affairs.
The principal talking point arising from the combative first APL clash between the two long-standing rivals related to that contentious incident when Alex Stepney had been poleaxed by the Vics’ giant centre half Jeff Forshaw, a ‘challenge’ which had resulted in the Robins’ goalkeeper being carried off the field on a stretcher with concussion. It was subsequently disclosed that the one-time Manchester United stalwart had lost four teeth and suffered some severe facial injuries as a result of his acquaintance with Forshaw’s errant elbow.
In his programme notes in the issue of the Robins Review produced for Alty’s FA Cup Third Round tie against Orient seven days after that particular derby game, a still indignant Tony Sanders had pulled no punches in his condemnation of the Vics’ excessively physical approach at Moss Lane. The fulminating Alty boss declared that his team had “held themselves together well and, in the end, were very unlucky not to come out on top despite almost being kicked off the pitch.”
Somewhat inevitably, the powers that be at The Drill Field took umbrage at the Robins’ manager’s printed censure and their riposte duly appeared under the headline “Tony Sanders Says - Two Much?“ in the From The Boardroom column in the match programme published for Alty’s January 1980 visit to Mid Cheshire.
Outlining their objections “in the strongest possible terms” to the criticism levelled against their team by Tony Sanders, the Vics’ response stated: “Hysterical talk is, in itself, we fear, likely to inflame more of the aggression and violence which bedevils the game. But, more than that, the comments represent a wholly unjustified slur on the fairness and professionalism of the Vics’ players. We are sure that, on reflection, the Altrincham manager would regret his rather hasty allegations. Perhaps they are explained by his disappointment at the result?
“In any event, Northwich Vics feel so strongly about maintaining their reputation that they have, in the recent past, allowed several otherwise useful players to leave rather than tarnish the club’s good name. Tony Sanders, of all people, must be well aware of this.”
I can only presume that contained within the final paragraph was a veiled reference to John King’s transfer from the Vics to Moss Lane back in November 1977?!
During their preparations for the derby, both the respective managers were anxious to dispel any fears of a belligerent and rancorous sequel to the two clubs’ recent skirmish at Moss Lane. Tony Sanders was swift to dismiss speculation in the local press of an impending ’needle’ match: “The League is far too important for us to get involved in looking for revenge or anything like that. We will be going out to play our normal game and will just get on with our business of playing for two points. The likes of Boston United away will prove more difficult in our title run-in.”
The reflections of the Alty boss were duly echoed by the Vics’ acting manager, Paul Ogden: As far as we are concerned, it will be just an ordinary game. There will be no ’needle’ from us.”
In the preamble to the Northwich fixture, Tony Sanders was confronted with a few prospective team selection headaches. Graham Heathcote had been ordered to rest as a result of his recurrent hamstring problem and John Rogers had been ruled out due to being afflicted by bout of flu. In the absence of the Robins’ leading goalscorer, Jeff Johnson was restored to his former role as a striker (partnering Barry Whitbread), despite having been advised to undertake a fortnight’s lay-off to allow a knee injury the chance to clear up. The transfer-listed Phil Wilson resumed his role on the left flank of the Alty midfield and the versatile Ivan Crossley was nominated as the Robins‘ substitute. Notwithstanding being hampered by a leg infection, the Robins’ mercurial captain John King proceeded to lead out the Alty side to face his quondam employers at The Drill Field.
Meanwhile, Paul Ogden introduced two new faces for the Vics, who were occupying 13th position in the APL table, 13 points adrift of the second-placed Robins but with five games in hand. Recruited from Crewe Alexandra, the one-time Port Vale midfielder Gary Dulson had been a member of the same Nottingham Forest Youth Team as that Scottish left winger John Robertson, who went on to feature prominently in Brian Clough’s European Cup winning teams of 1979 and 1980. Making his Vics bow at right full back was the experienced John Marsh, who had previously clocked up 424 (+9 as substitute) appearances for Stoke City, including the Potteries club’s 2-1 triumph over Chelsea in the Football League Cup Final at Wembley on 4th March 1972 when he had played alongside the likes of Gordon Banks; George Eastham and Jimmy Greenhoff.
One truly significant omission from the Northwich starting XI was the Robins’ bete noire himself, the lumbering Jeff Forshaw. To the utter astonishment of the Alty faithful, this paragon of virtue was starting a three match suspension, which he had incurred by means of amassing a total of 30 disciplinary points.
Watched by a crowd of 2,394, which included the Vics’ recently departed manager Ray Williams (present in the Main Stand as the invited guest of none other than his former Drill Field team mate, John King!), it was the Robins who conjured up the first good chance merely 15 minutes into the contest, when Graham Barrow eventually volleyed wildly over the crossbar at the Crosville Bus Station End after being put clear by a penetrating pass from Barry Howard.
Shortly after John Davison’s curling 25-yard shot had elicited a fine save from the Vics’ goalkeeper, Dave “Slob” Ryan, who was inevitably producing his customary flawless performance against the Robins, the hosts’ leading goalscorer Graham Smith eluded John Owens at the opposite end but he could only muster a tame shot aimed directly at Alex Stepney.
Alty’s effervescent winger Barry Howard was tormenting the debutant Marsh and after an exquisite ‘nutmeg’ on the former Stoke City defender, his resulting centre was miraculously cleared off the goal line by Jimmy Collier, thereby preventing the Robins from scoring their first goal at The Drill Field since 5th May 1977.
Then that ever so familiar harrowing pattern of Alty’s recent visits to The Drill Field duly reared its ugly head once again in the 40th minute. Frozen food firm co-owner Terry Bailey’s cross was flicked on by the home side’s beanpole centre forward, Frank Sromek, and subsequently returned across the Alty goalmouth by the ex-Winsford United striker Graham Smith, whereupon Paul Mayman was on hand to hammer a low left foot drive into the net off Stepney’s body. It was the blond bank clerk and former Crewe Alexandra and Nantwich Town midfielder’s sixth goal of the season.
The second half saw Alty establish a territorial stranglehold on the game but, alas, their forwards were simply not on song and both Jeff Johnson and Barry Howard squandered opportunities to equalise. The Robins were unable to find a way past their proverbial nemesis, Dave Ryan, who duly registered his second clean sheet of the season against the APL’s top scorers.
As the derby clash drew to a conclusion, Alex Stepney was called upon to execute two fine saves from a Sromek header and a Smith piledriver respectively. Thankfully, the game had been devoid of any of the anticipated ‘needle‘ between the two sets of players and the only participant to find his way into referee Derek W Civil’s notebook had been John Marsh.
So, the Indian sign that Northwich ostensibly held over the Robins had prevailed yet again, as Alty slumped to their third consecutive soul-destroying 1-0 defeat at The Drill Field. Indeed, the Robins’ diehards had to wait until Monday, 1st March 1982 before finally witnessing a long overdue Alty triumph on that bitter enemy’s stretch of land via a 3-1 victory in an APL Cup Third Round Second Leg fixture.
There was at least a glimmer of post derby match consolation for the Robins when it emerged that league leaders Weymouth had crashed to a 4-2 reverse at Bath City, notwithstanding the fact that they had been two goals up at half-time. This represented the Terras’ first APL defeat since the same opponents had overcome them 2-1 back on 24th November 1979, following which defeat they had chalked up a sequence of eight successive league wins.
When interviewed after this setback at The Drill Field, a magnanimous and not overly disconsolate Tony Sanders remarked: “We weren’t able to put it together because Northwich closed us down well and made it hard for us to express ourselves as we would have liked. But I’m not too worried, as we didn‘t lose any ground in the league and that’s another away match out of the way.“
In contrast, the ebullient Northwich caretaker manager Paul Ogden enthused: “We’re not out of the title race yet by any means. We could still be there at the end of the season.” In fact, the Vics would conclude that inaugural APL season in eighth spot in the table, 14 points behind the Robins.
All that remained was for Tony Sanders to encapsulate the Alty supporters’ emotions with pinpoint accuracy at the upshot of yet another miserable experience at The Drill Field, as he lamented: “I never get anything at Northwich.“