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
  • Parts 13 & 14
  • Parts 15 & 16
  • Parts 17 & 18
  • Parts 19 & 20
  • Parts 21 & 22
  • Parts 23 & 24
  • Parts 25 & 26
  • Parts 27 & 28
  • Parts 29 & 30
  • Parts 31 & 32
  • Parts 33 & 34

  • PART 33: HOPPIPOLLA

    After overcoming the inevitable Post-traumatic Stress Disorder induced by the ineffable torment of having to spend an afternoon in Northwich, the Robins duly retired to Moss Lane and prepared for the visit of Northern Premier League (NPL) side Morecambe for an FA Trophy Second Round tie on Saturday, 2nd February 1980.

    Alty‘s progress in this competition entailed some additional fixture disruption and their originally scheduled Alliance Premier League (APL) appointment at Barnet on this date was, consequently, rearranged for Saturday, 22nd March 1980.

    The first ever meeting between the Robins and Morecambe had transpired back on Monday, 22nd November 1965 in the guise of a Semi-Final of the Macclesfield Floodlight Competition staged at the Moss Rose, an invitation tournament that was the precursor of the North West Floodlit League.

    Watched by 1,612 spectators, this game unfolded amidst extremely treacherous and difficult conditions on a pitch that resembled a skating rink. Having disposed of Wigan Athletic 3-2 (after extra time) on the same ground in the preceding round, the Robins eventually capitalised on their supremacy after 66 minutes, when Derek Halliwell’s overhead kick finally broke the defiant resistance of the in-form Morecambe goalkeeper Bert Gebbie.

    Stuart Holding’s 81st minute equaliser duly forced a period of 30 minutes of extra time, during which Jackie Swindells restored the Robins’ lead in the 94th minute and then Ronnie Taylor’s corner kick deceived Gebbie to put Alty 3-1 in front with just six minutes left on the clock. Arnold Timmins reduced the deficit a minute later but the Robins prevailed to advance to the Final, where they would encounter Alty manager Freddie Pye’s previous employers, Stalybridge Celtic.

    The Macclesfield Floodlight Competition Final was held at the Moss Rose on Tuesday, 1st February 1966 and it attracted a crowd of 2,606 (generating gate receipts of £225). At the conclusion of the 90 minutes, the teams were deadlocked at 2-2 with Pat Connolly and Jackie Swindells having been on target for Alty and Geoff Fry bagging a brace for Stalybridge. The Robins eventually triumphed in extra time courtesy of Ronnie Taylor’s cross-cum-shot, which sailed over the head of the Stalybridge goalkeeper Wyn Dicken and thereby secured Alty their first trophy of that memorable season.

    Morecambe’s debut at Moss Lane comprised a North West Floodlit Competition tie played on Monday, 31st October 1966 in front of an attendance of 2,460. Boasting an unbeaten run of 19 games, the eventual Lancashire Combination Champions outwitted the Robins with a fine display of counter-attacking football, all of which ultimately prompted Freddie Pye to re-evaluate his tactics and alter his team formation over the ensuing weeks. The visitors’ marksmen in a 4-2 victory were Trevor Webb and Bobby Hough (3) whilst Alty’s goalscorers were Johnny Worth and the inevitable Jackie Swindells.

    Since the inception of the NPL in August 1968, Morecambe’s visits to Moss Lane had proved to be largely fruitless. Indeed, the statistics relating to the Shrimps’ 11 league fixtures at Alty’s headquarters were as follows: won: one; drawn: one; lost nine; goals scored: 12; goals conceded: 26 and points accrued: three out of a possible tally of 22. The Lancashire club’s solitary NPL success at Moss Lane had been by a margin of three goals to nil back on Monday, 2nd March 1970.

    During the 1978/79 NPL season, the Robins had hosted the Shrimps on Saturday, 3rd February 1979, when a Morecambe team containing the former Blackburn Rovers; Everton; Burnley and England International full back Keith Newton had achieved an unexpected 1-1 stalemate in front of a gate of 1,256. John Rogers had opened the scoring in the 65th minute but Laurie Walsh promptly replied for the visitors within sixty seconds. The Shrimps would go on to finish the season in 18th position in the NPL table and, hence, fail to qualify for potential admission to the inaugural APL.

    The Morecambe FC entourage that ventured to Moss Lane in February 1980 featured two individuals with Alty connections. The Shrimps’ manager was Don Cubbage, who had been appointed to the role towards the end of November 1979. A one-time Blackpool FC junior who had survived being afflicted with polio at the age of seven, right full back Cubbage had joined Morecambe in 1960 and he remained at Christie Park as a regular first team player until November 1967, when Freddie Pye brought him to Moss Lane.

    Including his debut for the Robins in a 2-2 home draw in the Cheshire County League versus Stockport County Reserves on Saturday, 11th November 1967, Frank Sinatra fan Cubbage registered 31 league and cup appearances for the Robins, scoring a single goal in the process, prior to returning to Morecambe for the advent of the 1968/69 NPL season. He subsequently departed for Penrith in 1971, having amassed a total of 376 appearances for the Shrimps.

    At the heart of the Shrimps’ defence was the ex-Southport; Barrow and Boston United centre half, Jeff Street, an insurance agent and the only player remaining at the club who had been a member of Morecambe’s 1974 FA Trophy winning team (which itself had been managed by that erstwhile Alty midfielder Dave Roberts). This former junior at Manchester City had arrived at Moss Lane via Plymouth Argyle in November 1968 and he proceeded to record 11 league appearances for Alty during that embryonic stage in the evolution of the NPL.

    On the eve of his club’s FA Trophy assignment in Cheshire, the Morecambe secretary, Ken Ormrod, exhibited a relatively sanguine disposition when assessing his side’s prospects of becoming the first team to win at Moss Lane that season: “At present, we are third from bottom of the NPL but we do have six games in hand. We are not unduly worried about travelling to Altrincham. In the last round, nobody gave us a chance against Horden Colliery Welfare.”

    Alty boss Tony Sanders had observed Morecambe in FA Cup action against Rotherham United back on Tuesday, 27th November 1979, when he experienced a close encounter of the First Round Replay kind at Millmoor, as the Robins had been drawn to face the winners of that particular tie in the Second Round. Whilst assessing the imminent FA Trophy clash with the Shrimps, he commented: “We will have a job to do but, with a home tie, I believe that if we do our stuff and play to our capabilities, we should go through.”

    The Robins received a fillip in the shape of the restoration to good health of their leading goalscorer John Rogers, who had recovered from the severe bout of influenza which had caused him to miss the previous Saturday’s 1-0 APL reverse at Northwich Victoria. Thus, Jeff Johnson reverted to his berth on the left flank of the Alty midfield, where he replaced Phil Wilson. Graham Heathcote had also resumed training after being plagued by an irksome hamstring injury and he was duly deputed to fulfil the role of being the Robins’ substitute.

    Once again sporting that all-red strip, Alty emerged from the tunnel to be greeted both by a crowd of 1,355 and a Moss Lane pitch that resembled a paddy field owing to a pre-match spell of persistent heavy rain. However, the Robins adjusted swiftly to the exacting conditions and seized the lead after merely four minutes.

    Attacking the Chequers End, Jeff Johnson was allowed a trio of opportunities to cross the ball from the left wing and when his third delivery ultimately reached the unmarked figure of John Rogers, the Alty No.10 rose unchallenged to flight his header past the Shrimps’ goalkeeper Graham Byram. JR’s 15th goal of the season marked the welcome end of a recent lean spell by his own high standards, which had seen him muster just a solitary strike in his previous nine appearances.

    The Robins continued to besiege their opponents on the quagmire and Graham Barrow glided past two challenges in front of goal, only to be thwarted by right full back Gerry Farrell’s timely interception at the expense of conceding a corner. In the 20th minute, Byram produced a good save from Rogers‘ low shot and just seven minutes later Barry Whitbread missed a sitter, as he somehow contrived to miskick the ball after being presented with an open goal. Then, on the stroke of half-time, JR’s dipping shot skimmed the Morecambe crossbar.

    The second half witnessed the visitors begin to grow in confidence as they dodged the puddles on the muddy and enervating surface. From the second of two successive Jim Clayton corners, Laurie Walsh forced the loose ball into the net but his effort was instantly (and correctly) disallowed by the referee Michael Peck, a schoolteacher from Doncaster, who had espied an infringement on Alex Stepney.

    Meanwhile, at the Golf Road End, Byram was persevering with his, frankly, rather irritating resistance to the Robins’ strikeforce’s attempts to extend their one goal advantage and he duly executed another fine save from a Barry Howard free kick that had pierced the Shrimps’ defensive wall.

    However, Alty finally sealed their place in the last 16 of the competition in the 87th minute by virtue of a goal of stunning simplicity. From Barry Howard’s left wing corner, John Rogers planted a free header beyond the unguarded Byram to increase his season’s tally to 16.

    In the post match analysis, a relatively satisfied Tony Sanders averred: “The first goal came early in the match before the pitch cut up and that obviously took some of the pressure off us. Morecambe came and fought hard, as we knew they would, and these muddy pitches are great levellers but the early goal gave us the advantage.”

    On the subject of the gratifying return to form of his chief striker John Rogers, the Alty manager remarked: “I just told him to go out there and do his best, because I knew the conditions would suit him.”

    On Monday, 4th February 1980, the draw for the FA Trophy Third Round awarded the Robins a home tie versus the eventual victors from the unresolved Second Round contest between the reigning Midland League Champions Boston FC and the reigning NPL Champions Mossley. Following a goalless impasse in Lincolnshire, the two sides reconvened at Mossley’s Seel Park ground on Wednesday, 6th February 1980, whereupon the home side triumphed 6-3 in front of 530 spectators to set up what would become one of the most notorious and harrowing invasions of Moss Lane ever to be endured by all those of an Alty persuasion.

    Alty diehard Bill Waterson recollects that after watching the Robins suppress Grantham in the First Round and then in the immediate wake of their subsequent fairly routine Second Round dismissal of Morecambe at Moss Lane, he had rather audaciously proclaimed: "If we keep drawing NPL clubs, we are going all the way to Wembley.“ All that remains to add to that particular ill-fated prediction is his own self-confessed epilogue: “Idiot!”


    PART 34: OH MY GOD, CHARLIE CONNAUGHTON

    At 5.00pm on Saturday, 2nd February 1980, the majority of Altrincham FC supporters would have admitted to being rather content with their lot. They had just witnessed their team progress into the last 16 of the FA Trophy; the Robins were occupying third spot in the Alliance Premier League (APL) table and looked set fair for a blitz on the league title; an APL Cup Semi-Final against Barnet beckoned and Tony Sanders’ men even still had the ever-glamorous Cheshire Senior Cup in their sights.

    However, those same Alty diehards would simultaneously have confessed to harbouring some misgivings pertaining to one particularly nagging issue that was potentially clouding their team‘s prospects for the remainder of the season, namely: would the club be able to accomplish the tall order of successfully replacing their esteemed goalkeeper Alex Stepney, when the latter returned to the United States at the end of the month to resume his career with Dallas Tornado in the North American Soccer League (NASL)?

    The former Manchester United No.1 was scheduled to depart from England on Thursday, 28th February 1980 in order to participate in the NASL club’s pre-season training regime back in Texas and for the Robins’ manager Tony Sanders, the dilemma encumbered upon him by the impending and, alas, irrevocable loss of his talismanic goalkeeper had become increasingly like the sword of Damocles suspended above his head.

    In an interview printed in the Manchester Evening News Football Pink on Saturday, 22nd December 1979, the Alty boss divulged that he was already engaged in the process of scouting for an accomplished and seasoned successor to Stepney: “I don’t want to buy a player who has still to prove himself. Alex has played a major part in our success this season and I want to sign someone with the same sort of experience who can carry on where he leaves off. I’ve got my eye on three or four players and they are all in the Football League.”

    In the issue of the Sale & Altrincham Messenger published on Friday, 25th January 1980, Tony Sanders disclosed that he was involved in negotiations with a club pertaining to the signature of Alex Stepney’s replacement, whilst also reiterating his desire to facilitate a seamless and successful transition in the wake of the erstwhile England International goalkeeper’s Moss Lane farewell: “When we sign the goalkeeper, it will not just be a situation of getting a man to fill a gap, he will have to be good enough to minimise the effect of Stepney’s move.“

    Whilst seeking to dispel any apprehension that the imminent loss of the influential Stepney would effectively derail his club’s APL title ambitions, the Robins boss emphatically vowed: “When Stepney does return to Dallas, it will not be the end of the Altrincham challenge.“

    On Tuesday, 29th January 1980, the identity of the heir to Stepney’s throne had emerged when it was reported that Sanders’ target was another ex-Manchester United goalkeeper in the shape of Port Vale’s John Connaughton, who, ironically, had previously acted as an understudy to none other than Alex Stepney during his tenure at Old Trafford. Unfortunately, Sanders was prevented from sealing the transfer deal at this juncture, as negotiations between the two clubs had reached a stalemate due to Connaughton being unable to iron out a contractual snag with the Valiants’ hierarchy.

    Against the backdrop of ongoing discussions between Tony Sanders and his Port Vale counterpart, John McGrath, relating to this proposed transaction, the officials at Moss Lane were remaining reticent about the fee involved. As one anonymous source remarked: “It’s like trying to guess the verdict of a murder trial halfway through the case.”

    All these consultations finally proved to be fruitful on the afternoon of Friday, 1st February 1980, when it was announced that Connaughton had signed for the Robins for an undisclosed transfer fee. Tony Sanders’ immediate plan was for Connaughton to utilise the time that remained until Stepney’s valediction to acclimatise at Moss Lane whilst playing for the Robins’ second string in the Lancashire League, thereby replacing the 23-year-old American Billy Phillips, who was destined to accompany Stepney on the same flight back to Dallas.

    The Alty boss duly outlined his rationale: “Obviously, John is an experienced keeper but he will have to wait until Alex returns to America before he gets his chance. He will spend the next few weeks settling in and getting to know the lads and then he will be ready to slot into the side. John is happy to be joining Altrincham. At present, Port Vale are trying to make use of their youth policy and he is now searching for first team soccer and he feels there is no better place than Moss Lane.”

    The arrival of Connaughton expedited the exit from Moss Lane of Colin Darcy, who had commenced the 1979/80 APL campaign as the Robins’ first choice goalkeeper. The one-time Bury man had registered six league appearances prior to being ousted by Tony Sanders’ inspired transfer coup in the guise of the recruitment of Stepney back in early September 1979. Darcy was released and then swiftly snapped up by Cheshire League outfit Hyde United. Meanwhile, Alty’s other reserve goalkeeper, 17-year-old John McKenna, was recalled from his loan spell with Tranmere Rovers.

    Born in Wigan on 23rd September 1949, John Patrick Connaughton kept goal for Holy Family FC in the Wigan Amateur League as a schoolboy before joining the Manchester United groundstaff in January 1965. After having signed as an apprentice at Old Trafford in May 1965, he turned professional at the club in October 1966. In April 1968, he earned three England Youth International caps at a tournament staged in Nimes in Southern France, when he wore the No.1 jersey in fixtures versus Bulgaria (0-0); Holland (0-1) and the USSR (1-1) respectively.

    In October 1969, John was loaned out to Halifax Town, who were at that time residing in the old English Division Three, and his Football League debut finally arrived via a 1-0 victory for the West Yorkshire club at Torquay United on Saturday, 18th October 1969. Two additional appearances for the Shaymen duly ensued, encompassing a 2-1 home defeat against Mansfield Town seven days later and then a 2-0 loss at Barnsley on Saturday, 1st November 1969.

    Between October 1971 and April 1972, he was loaned out to Torquay United of the old English Third Division, where he proceeded to record 22 league and three FA Cup appearances for the Plainmoor club. His debut occurred in a 2-0 defeat at Tranmere Rovers on Friday, 22nd October 1971 and his finale for the Gulls constituted a 2-1 home victory over Plymouth Argyle in front of a crowd of over 11,000 on Saturday, 1st April 1972.

    Connaughton was then summoned to return to Old Trafford by the then Manchester United manager Frank O’Farrell and he finally made his debut for the club in a 1-1 draw versus Sheffield United at Bramall Lane on Tuesday, 4th April 1972 in the old English First Division. Four days later, he wore the No.1 shirt again in a 2-0 reverse against Leicester City at Filbert Street.

    His home league debut (and, indeed, final appearance) in Manchester United’s First XI ensued on Wednesday, 12th April 1972 for the derby match against a Manchester City side then managed by the late Malcolm Allison. He played alongside the likes of Bobby Charlton; Brian Kidd; Martin Buchan; Ian Storey-Moore and George Best in a 3-1 defeat at Old Trafford watched by 56,362 spectators. Three days later, his replacement for the visit of Southampton was a certain Alex Stepney.

    October 1972 saw John transferred from Manchester United to their fellow old English Division One club Sheffield United for a fee of £15,000. Just prior to this transaction, Third Division Plymouth Argyle had reportedly endeavoured to secure his signature for a fee of £10,000. However, as he was on the verge of getting married and had just purchased a house in the North, this particular deal had duly foundered.

    John made his bow for the Blades in a 1-0 defeat against the reigning League Champions Liverpool at Anfield on Saturday, 27th October 1973, where he was beaten by a 26th minute Kevin Keegan goal in front of a gate of 40,641. During his tenure at Bramall Lane, he recorded a total of 12 league appearances before then heading off to join Port Vale of the old English Division Three in May 1974.

    Embarking upon his Port Vale career via a 2-2 stalemate against Wrexham at the Racecourse Ground on Saturday, 17th August 1974, he became a regular fixture between the sticks and the club’s supporters voted him as their Player Of The Year in 1976. John amassed a total of 218 appearances in all competitions for the Valiants, whilst serving under five different managers at Vale Park, before eventually losing his first team place to a young goalkeeper by the name of Trevor Dance in January 1979.

    Dance himself would subsequently follow in Connaughton’s footsteps once again when Tony Sanders brought him to Moss Lane from Stafford Rangers for a reported fee of £1,000 in October 1983. During his spell of three seasons with the Robins, Dance clocked up a total of 94 appearances before being succeeded by Jeff Wealands at the outset of the 1985/86 Gola League campaign.

    John kicked off his stint as Alty’s first choice goalkeeper in the 7-0 APL Cup Semi-Final Second Leg annihilation of Barnet at Moss Lane on Monday, 25th February 1980 and he would garner a further 18 league and cup appearances that particular season as the Robins captured the inaugural APL title.

    The 1980/81 APL season saw him accumulate 55 supplementary appearances for the Robins during a phenomenally successful campaign in which the coveted APL title was retained; the APL Cup was added to the Moss Lane trophy cabinet and the club experienced an unforgettable FA Cup Third Round tie against the mighty Liverpool at Anfield. Indeed, John only missed one of Alty’s 56 competitive matches during that 1980/81 season and that comprised a Cheshire Senior Cup First Round Replay at Cammell Laird on the afternoon of Tuesday, 13th January 1981 when the entire first team were rested.

    The following season found him present in 55 of the club’s 66 competitive fixtures, as Alty advanced to the FA Cup Third Round for the fourth consecutive season and also secured the Cheshire Senior Cup courtesy of Phil Gardner’s early goal in a 1-0 triumph over Runcorn at Gresty Road, Crewe on Saturday, 24th April 1982.

    John’s swan song for the Robins transpired at Wembley on 15th May 1982, when Enfield eclipsed Alty in the FA Trophy Final by virtue of Paul Taylor’s 115th minute long range deflected shot. This match also marked the conclusion of their respective Alty careers for such other genuine club legends as John Owens; John King and Barry Whitbread.

    Notwithstanding both having been subsequently awarded the accolade as Alty’s Man Of The Match at Wembley by the Manchester Evening News’ Non League reporter, Doug Peacock, and only being at the relatively young age for a goalkeeper of 32, John opted to retire from football and concentrate on his business commitments as the Director of a successful wastepaper recycling company (as well as improving his touch on the golf course). His career total of appearances for the Robins stood at 129, during which he had kept a tally of 46 clean sheets.

    Whilst researching this profile of John Connaughton, I have been striving to ascertain exactly why he was nicknamed “Charlie” during his engagement at Moss Lane. The most plausible enlightenment pertaining to this sobriquet has been supplied by Alty partisan Bill Waterson, who explains: “I think that he was probably called Charlie after the term "tail-end Charlies", which was RAF slang for rear-gunners, those members of an aircraft’s crew who were located in an isolated compartment at the tail of a bomber i.e. the last line of defence in a formation.”

    I’ll conclude with an anecdote about Charlie Connaughton which encapsulates his immense contribution towards the Robins’ run of success during those halcyon days of the early 1980s. This reminiscence comes courtesy of Alty devotee Paul Thompson and relates to the epic 1-0 FA Cup Second Round Replay victory against Scunthorpe United at Moss Lane on Monday, 15th December 1980, which ensured the Robins’ progress to a lucrative Third Round tie in which they would face a Liverpool team that would itself go on to overcome Real Madrid in the 1981 European Cup Final at the Parc des Princes, Paris.

    “My favourite memory of John Connaughton was his moment of brilliance very close to full-time in the Scunthorpe United replay. Following that rather remarkable 30th minute penalty which gave us the lead (God bless Joe Neenan!), Scunthorpe seemed to get stronger the longer the game went on. It felt to me as if they’d equalise and then who knows what would have transpired in extra time?

    “With a trip to play Liverpool at stake, the team looked a bit nervy to me and Scunthorpe were by no means bad. Anyway, standing on the Chequers End, I vividly recall watching in agony as the visitors conjured up a seemingly certain goal-bound point blank header when JC leapt out of absolutely nowhere and arched backwards to pull off a fabulous - and incredibly important - save. Spine-tingling! Next stop: Anfield!”


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