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 35: ZERO AS A LINNET
At the end of the sixth week of a new decade in which his team had only managed to fulfil a solitary Alliance Premier League (APL) fixture, the Alty manager, Tony Sanders, was prompted to express his concern pertaining to the Robins’ burgeoning fixture backlog, in particular citing the disruption to the league programme engendered by being obliged to accommodate County Cup competitions.
On Saturday, 9th February 1980, the Robins had originally been scheduled to host Bangor City in an APL fixture. However, this match had been rendered the casualty of a superfluous deferral, as, in their infinite wisdom, the Cheshire County FA had insisted that Moss Lane should be the venue for the Cheshire Senior Cup (CSC) Second Round tie between Alty and Northern Premier League (NPL) outfit Runcorn on that particular date instead, as per their ostensibly irrevocable rule that County Cup competitions should always take precedence over league fixtures.
Understandably, the nonplussed Alty boss queried why a measure of basic nous couldn’t be applied which would permit such a local fixture to take place in midweek rather than on a Saturday. Moreover, if the Robins were to overcome Runcorn, the ensuing Semi-Final of the competition was due to be played on Saturday, 8th March 1980, thereby enforcing the postponement of Alty’s scheduled long-distance journey down to Kent for their appointed APL fixture versus Maidstone United.
In his programme notes for this CSC Cup Quarter-Final clash against the Linnets, Tony Sanders duly articulated his disquiet regarding this unnecessary exacerbation of the club’s fixture congestion, together with both the inconvenience and expense incurred by being compelled to rearrange fixtures which often involved travelling greater distances from their original weekend slot to a midweek alternative: “The APL was formed on the understanding that long journeys would be made on Saturdays, therefore allowing part-time players to take the minimum time off from their normal work.
“Whilst considering the Cheshire Senior Cup a worthy trophy to be won, I would ask that the policy of playing this competition’s games on a Saturday be reviewed at some future date. I think it is now a matter of common sense to have a reappraisal to take into account the new circumstances in which APL clubs find themselves.”
The Alty manager also issued the following plea for the application of some logic and a degree of co-operation from the Cheshire County FA hierarchy: “We would like a little bit of leeway in reorganising the fixtures and in the strength of the sides we send out to play.” The latter part of that remark was a specific reference to the Robins being fined a total sum of £100 by the Cheshire County FA for not fielding their “strongest available” team in either of the two games against Macclesfield Town in the preceding round of the competition, notwithstanding the fact that Alty’s ’weakened’ team had nonetheless proceeded to win the tie.
Ironically, a waterlogged pitch on the Saturday in question entailed the postponement of this CSC tie, which eventually went ahead four days later on Wednesday, 13th February 1980.
Since the genesis of the NPL back in August 1968, Alty’s record against Runcorn in the 11 league matches that had been staged at Moss Lane read as follows: won: eight; drawn: one; lost: two; goals scored: 20; goals conceded: eight and points accumulated: 17 out of a possible tally of 22.
The previous Moss Lane encounter between the two clubs, in the guise of an NPL game played on Saturday, 20th January 1979, had produced a 2-1 triumph for the Robins in front of an attendance of 1,273. Graham Heathcote had given Alty the lead in the 13th minute, only for Keith Barnes (the brother of the former Manchester City; West Bromwich Albion and Manchester United winger, Peter Barnes) to equalise from the penalty spot five minutes later. After the start of the second half had been delayed due to some Alty fans bombarding the Runcorn goalkeeper, Graham Lloyd, with a welcoming volley of snowballs, that man Heathcote had duly popped up again to convert a 57th minute penalty kick and secure the two points for the home side.
Alas, in contrast, the statistics relating to the Robins’ prior three CSC meetings with their long-standing rivals from Canal Street constituted truly miserable reading, as they had comprised a trio of defeats.
In a First Round tie at Moss Lane on Saturday, 19th January 1974, a 41st minute Graham Heathcote goal had been eclipsed by second half strikes from Barry Whitbread and Barry Howard respectively to present the visitors with a 2-1 victory witnessed by 1,273 onlookers.
The next season saw the two old adversaries square up to one another in the tournament’s Final, which was held at Gresty Road, Crewe on Saturday, 19th April 1975. Watched by 2,112 spectators, the Linnets eventually claimed the trophy via a 3-2 success after extra time courtesy of goals by Mal Bailey; Barry Whitbread and Barry Howard, each of whom would proceed to join the Robins in due course. Alty had found the net twice in the first half via a penalty from their captain Lennie Dickinson and a goal from centre forward Phil Smith.
The most recent CSC contest between the two clubs had occurred before a gate of 1,331 at Moss Lane on Saturday, 22nd January 1977. The Linnets established a 2-0 lead after merely 23 minutes by virtue of goals from Trevor Finnigan and Barry Whitbread. Jeff Johnson pulled a goal back for the Robins after 28 minutes but that man Whitbread hit the target yet again 12 minutes later to restore the visitors’ two goal cushion. Ian Morris reduced the deficit with a goal on the cusp of half-time but once again Runcorn prevailed and duly advanced into the Second Round.
Runcorn had concluded the 1978/79 NPL season in 7th position in the league table. However, when the eligibility criteria for the inaugural APL had been applied to their Canal Street ground, it had only been awarded a ’C’ grading, thereby denying the club the necessary qualification for potential entry into the nascent competition. This major setback effectively precipitated the departure of their successful manager, Stan Storton, to APL members Bangor City during the Summer of 1979.
Storton’s successor at Canal Street was the ex-Sheffield Wednesday; Wolverhampton Wanderers and Manchester United midfielder, Jim McCalliog. On his arrival from Lincoln City, the erstwhile Scotland International had immediately implemented the comprehensive rebuilding of the Linnets’ squad. However, many Runcorn diehards had their faith severely tested by what they regarded as his misguided dismantling of their team and they remained profoundly sceptical of McCalliog’s customary parting entreaty in his column in the club’s match programme to: “Keep Believing.“
The Runcorn team which emerged at Moss Lane to face the Robins in February 1980 did still include a couple of familiar faces in the form of long-serving centre half Peter Duff and right full back Tim Rutter (the latter of whom would go on to record two APL appearances for Alty in April 1983).
The Linnets’ starting XI that evening also contained another regular visitor to Moss Lane in the shape of the one-time Mossley and Lancaster City midfielder, George Buchan, the younger brother of the then Manchester United captain and Scotland International defender, Martin Buchan. After arriving at Old Trafford from Aberdeen in May 1973, George had managed just four appearances as a substitute for Tommy Docherty’s Manchester United side in the September and October of 1973 prior to being transferred to Bury for a fee of £10,000 in August 1974.
Wearing the No.1 jersey for Runcorn was a blond 19-year-old former Everton junior by the name of Nick Banner, who would subsequently register a total of six appearances for the Robins during the early stages of the 1981/82 APL season as understudy to John Connaughton, whilst the latter was temporarily hors de combat owing to a thigh strain. Indeed, Banner was even a member of a trophy-winning Alty side, as he made his debut in the 4-2 APL Challenge Shield victory over Kettering Town at Moss Lane on Monday, 24th August 1981.
However, Banner is probably best remembered for his less celebrated but surely unique ‘achievement’ of being the Alty goalkeeper in two successive 5-4 away league defeats. In an APL fixture at Canal Street on Tuesday, 8th September 1981, the Robins somehow contrived to fritter away a 4-2 lead (Barry Whitbread having netted all four Alty goals) with merely 15 minutes left on the clock against a Runcorn team that would go on to lift the league title in their debut APL campaign. Just eleven days later, the Robins succumbed to the same sorry upshot versus Kettering Town at Rockingham Road, in what, unsurprisingly, proved to be Banner‘s farewell performance for the club.
The Robins’ starting XI was shorn of five regulars, namely John Davison; John Owens (one of only three matches that he missed throughout the entire 1979/80 season); John King and Jeff Johnson, all of whom had been carrying minor injuries during the last fortnight or so, together with Stan Allan, who was the deputed substitute. Ivan Crossley and Mickey Brooke occupied the respective full back roles; Graham Tobin partnered Mal Bailey in the centre of the home rearguard and Graham Heathcote was recalled to the Alty midfield. Tony Sanders had intended to award his recently-acquired goalkeeper, John Connaughton, his Alty debut against the Linnets but it then transpired that the former Manchester United and Port Vale man was ineligible to participate.
Alty’s line-up included a quartet from the Runcorn squad which had secured the 1975/76 NPL title: Mal Bailey; Barry Whitbread; Barry Howard and Phil Wilson. Indeed, the latter had just been taken off the transfer list at his own request after resolving to remain at Moss Lane and fight for a regular first team place.
Two of those Runcorn old boys would promptly proceed to haunt their former employers. After merely five minutes of the tie, Barry Howard conjured up another of his quintessentially mesmeric solo goals, which marked his 9th strike of the season. The elusive winger jinked his way around two bemused Runcorn defenders in the style of a slalom skier before rifling his shot into the roof of the net past an utterly transfixed Nick Banner. The fact that Howard should score was exceedingly apt, as the match ball for this specific fixture had been sponsored by both the Alty No.11’s father, Gilbert, and grandfather, Peter Derbyshire, of Ashton-under-Lyne.
However, the visitors did manage to devise an equaliser in the 35th minute. George Buchan evaded Alty’s offside trap and duly squared the ball to the ex-Southport striker Tony Brookfield, who was presented with the elementary task of slipping the ball into the net beyond the reach of the stranded figure of Alex Stepney.
The hosts restored their advantage after 64 minutes courtesy of Barry Whitbread’s 14th goal of the season. Having been put through on goal via an incisive Graham Heathcote pass, the Canal Street alumnus assuredly directed the ball past Banner to seal his previous club’s fate and thereby set up a Semi-Final clash versus some more representatives of the NPL, Witton Albion, on a neutral ground (which, ironically, turned out to be Canal Street).
In truth, neither side had looked unduly interested in winning this Second Round CSC tie and the 1,193 spectators were subjected to a largely unimpressive contest, which had been markedly devoid of the excitement and intensity associated with so many of the previous encounters between these two sworn foes over the years and across a variety of competitions.
For the Robins, progress in the CSC was increasingly deemed as embodying something of a poisoned chalice, as it was starting to represent a potential hindrance to their ultimate objective of attaining the title of APL Champions. The impending Semi-Final would necessitate the postponement of yet another APL match and further complicate their fixture backlog, whereby they were already confronted with the daunting prospect of undertaking no fewer than 10 games in 31 days during the month of March.
Indeed, whilst the Robins had been engaged in endeavouring to fulfil this County Cup assignment, their principal contenders for the APL crown, Weymouth, had extended their advantage over Alty at the apogee of the league table to two points (as the consequence of a 1-1 home draw against Maidstone United) although the Moss Lane club did possess two games in hand on the Terras.
As for Runcorn, they opted to dispense with the services of Jim McCalliog in March 1980 and immediately replaced him with the Winsford United boss, John Williams, who would of course go on to experience a relatively underachieving spell as the manager at Moss Lane between the Summer of 1986 and September 1987. BARRY PIKESLEY
PART 36: FIVE STRING SERENADE
After negotiating eight cup ties in their opening nine fixtures of the nascent decade, Saturday, 16th February 1980 saw the Robins resume their pursuit of the Alliance Premier League (APL) title via a prospectively arduous assignment at York Street, the well-appointed home of Boston United FC.
In common with Alty (plus Worcester City and Gravesend & Northfleet), the Pilgrims boasted an unbeaten record on their own turf in the APL, having attained six wins and five draws from their 11 home league fixtures to date. The four-times Northern Premier League (NPL) Champions occupied eighth position in the APL table, five spots and five points respectively behind the third-placed Robins, whilst still possessing a game in hand on the Moss Lane club.
The Alty manager, Tony Sanders, still deemed Boston United to be ambitious outsiders for the APL crown and he had more than a feeling that the Pilgrims represented the potential dark horse in the title race, an opinion that he had repeatedly expressed in various press interviews. In the 18th January 1980 edition of The Daily Telegraph, the regular column covering the APL had included the statement that: “Mr Sanders still expects Boston United to pose a major threat.” This caveat was duly corroborated in the issue of the Altrincham Guardian published two days prior to the York Street encounter, in which the Robins’ boss cautioned that the Pilgrims were “still in contention for the title.”
Since the dawn of the NPL back in August 1968, the Robins’ visits to York Street had proved to be generally unprofitable. In the 11 league clashes between the two clubs staged in Lincolnshire, Alty’s record read as follows: won: two; drawn: two; lost: seven; goals scored: 12; goals conceded: 21 and points accumulated: merely six out of a possible tally of 22.
Alty’s debut at York Street had comprised the third match of the inaugural NPL season back on Saturday, 17th August 1968. Geoff Barrowcliffe had given the Pilgrims the lead on the half hour, eventually scoring after his initial penalty kick had been saved by Steve Fleet, the erstwhile Manchester City and Stockport County goalkeeper. Jackie Swindells stemmed the Pilgrims’ progress by equalising for the Robins five minutes later but a last minute header from Peter Thompson clinched the two points for the hosts in front of an attendance of 2,480.
The evening of Monday, 30th September 1974 witnessed the Robins finally achieve their first NPL victory at York Street at the seventh time of asking. Watched by 1,042 spectators, Alty overcame a Boston United side that included the subsequent England Caretaker Manager and current Sheffield Wednesday Chairman, Howard Wilkinson, courtesy of strikes from Ian Morris and the prolific John Hughes (his 10th goal in the opening 13 games of that season). This triumph marked the completion of a league double over the reigning NPL Champions, who had been annihilated 5-1 at Moss Lane just seven days earlier.
The 1978/79 NPL campaign saw the Robins accomplish their second league double over a Boston United team who were once again the presiding league Champions. The Pilgrims would eventually conclude this season in 6th spot in the league table, four places adrift of the Robins, and duly ascend into the APL.
Saturday, 11th November 1978 marked the date of a memorable 4-1 success for the Robins at the Pilgrims’ headquarters. Jeff Johnson put the visitors ahead after only 93 seconds but Jim Kabia levelled matters five minutes prior to half-time. However, a 62nd minute John Rogers strike and a Graham Heathcote brace (64 minutes and a 73rd minute penalty) duly secured an impressive win for Tony Sanders’ charges. However, exactly how much of this action had been visible to the crowd of 1,640 remains questionable, as Alty diehard Bill Waterson recollects that York Street was largely enshrouded by dense fog on that particular afternoon and he spent the majority of the second half praying that the match would not be abandoned.
For the Robins’ first APL fixture at York Street, Tony Sanders introduced several changes to the team which had defeated Runcorn 2-1 in that delayed Cheshire Senior Cup Quarter-Final at Moss Lane just three days previously. Stan Allan; John Davison and John Owens were all restored to Alty’s starting XI, as were Jeff Johnson and club captain John King, both of whom had shaken off respective injuries comprising an ankle knock and a burst blood vessel in the calf. Graham Heathcote was demoted to the role of substitute and Ivan Crossley; Mickey Brooke; Graham Tobin and Phil Wilson were all omitted.
This heavyweight contest between the Pilgrims and the Robins attracted a gate of 2,284 to York Street, which constituted Boston United’s highest home attendance to date in the APL. Striving to gain their first league points of the decade, the Robins made a dream start by opening the scoring after merely 50 seconds of the first half had elapsed. The Pilgrims’ midfielder, Gary Mallender, was dispossessed by Barry Whitbread and the latter’s subsequent cross into the home side’s penalty area was directed into the net from an acute angle by Jeff Johnson, who thereby registered his eighth goal of the season.
In the sixth minute, the Robins survived an anxious moment when Boston United’s leading goalscorer, Bobby Brown, squandered a good chance to restore parity. However, Alty proceeded to double their advantage eleven minutes later, when the perceptive Barry Howard intercepted a careless backpass from Jim Kabia and duly slotted the ball into the net past the hosts’ goalkeeper, Kevin Fox.
Barry Whitbread was booked for a foul on Neil Callery after 28 minutes and 60 seconds later it was 3-0 to the rampant Robins, as the Pilgrims were again the victims of another errant backpass, the blunder on this occasion being committed by full back Denis Leigh. Alty’s leading goalscorer, John Rogers, was the latest beneficiary, as he pounced upon this gaffe and promptly bewitched Kevin Fox by virtue of an astute chip, which elicited his 12th strike in the APL and his 17th goal of the campaign in all competitions.
Two minutes prior to the interval, the Robins emphasised their supremacy even further, as Barry Howard conjured up the pick of the Alty goals. The mercurial winger beat two defenders and rounded the goalkeeper before claiming his second goal of the match, which increased his personal total for the season to 11, seven of which had been recorded in league fixtures.
The early stages of the second half failed to produce any much-needed respite for the beleaguered Boston United players and their shellshocked supporters. Indeed, the Robins added a fifth goal after 51 minutes, when Barry Whitbread headed home a John Rogers cross from point blank range for his 15th goal for the club since his £6,400 transfer from Runcorn at the advent of October 1979.
As the game progressed towards its finale, the Robins eased off somewhat and, consequently, allowed the hosts to grab a couple of consolation goals. In the 66th minute, the Pilgrims’ towering central defender, Dave Poplar, notched his seventh goal of the season and Bobby Brown’s 83rd minute effort took the former Sheffield Wednesday striker’s tally for the campaign up to 17.
Thus, Alty’s breathtaking 5-2 drubbing of the Pilgrims signified that they had executed consecutive league doubles over their adversaries from Lincolnshire and, in the process, demolished Boston United’s proud unbeaten home record in the APL.
Understandably, Tony Sanders’ synopsis of events brimmed with elation at his team’s accomplishment: “We put on one of our best displays of the season to inflict their first home defeat this term.” This verdict was shared by Alty devotee Paul Murray, who duly reflects on Alty‘s own Boston tea party: “I was there and I remember it being totally unreal. I was used to us letting in four at Boston, after all. The first half was one of the most complete Alty performances ever.”
The aforementioned Bill Waterson had undertaken his third visit to York Street and he was overjoyed to observe this gratifyingly comprehensive evisceration of Boston United. He recalls: “This match had a very different feel about it than the previous season‘s fixture. It is difficult to remember now just how dominant Boston United were in the early to mid-1970s. Indeed, I always used to feel that both themselves and Wigan Athletic were a much stronger bet for the NPL title than Alty, even when we were at our best. I do recollect that Boston invested heavily in making York Street reportedly the ‘best ground in Non League football’ and this diverted funds from the playing staff. So, from circa 1978/79 onwards, they had become a relatively weaker proposition on the field.
“Given that the home 3-0 victory over Boston United earlier in that 1979/80 season was our third successive win over the Pilgrims by that margin at Moss Lane and taking into account that we had been indomitable in the league since the onset of October 1979 (except, alas, against teams whose name began with the letter ‘N‘), I never doubted that we would win this game.
“And, in fact, we stroked the ball around majestically in the first half, as Boston chased shadows and we scored at will. It was much more like a visit to the Giant Axe; Northolme or the Moss Rose than a game against a formidable Non League side. "Great ground, rubbish team!" I commented (albeit somewhat sotto voce, admittedly) as we walked past a coven of inbred racist Lincolnshire thugs whilst departing from the stadium.”
Notwithstanding Alty’s vanquishing of Boston United, the Robins remained in third position in the APL table, having gleaned 33 points from their 23 fixtures to date. Leaders Weymouth had maintained their two point advantage over the Robins by dint of a 6-0 home trouncing of basement club Redditch United although Tony Sanders’ men did still possess two games in hand on the Dorset club. Meanwhile, second-placed Bangor City’s 1-0 win against Wealdstone at Farrar Road kept them just a single point ahead of Alty but having played five games more than the Robins.
Elsewhere, back at Moss Lane, Alty’s recently-acquired goalkeeper, John Connaughton, had been making his bow for the club in a 1-1 draw between the Robins’ second string and Everton ’A’ in a Lancashire League fixture.
Tuesday, 19th February 1980 found the Robins exploring unknown territory, as they made their debut on the infamously sloping pitch at Barnet’s Underhill stadium for the APL Cup Semi-Final First Leg against Barry Fry’s side.
The Hertfordshire club had progressed to this stage of the competition via a 2-0 home success versus Bath City and an ensuing 2-1 Quarter-Final Replay victory (after extra time) at Underhill against Nuneaton Borough. The Bees occupied 16th position in the APL table, having accrued just 18 points from their 23 league fixtures up to that point. Unusually for a team under the supervision of the ebullient Barry Fry, goals had been at a premium and they had only contrived to find the back of the net on 21 occasions in all of their league matches to date.
In the week prior to this second meeting between the Bees and the Robins, Barry Fry had endeavoured, in vain, to sign an experienced player to bolster his young squad. His target had been Peter Simpson, the ex-Arsenal defender who had amassed 458 (+19 as sub) appearances for the Gunners and been a member of their 1970/71 league and FA Cup double-winning team.
Barnet’s match programme stipulated their avowed objective for this First Leg clash: “We will be trying to build up a lead to take to Altrincham next Monday and, when one looks at our visitors’ home record, it will probably have to be by two or three goals. This is a tall order but anything can happen in football.“
Tony Sanders was obliged to invoke one amendment to the Alty side that had perpetrated that convincing away triumph at Boston United on the preceding Saturday, which saw Graham Tobin replace John Owens in central defence.
The opening 45 minutes found the Robins kicking up the notorious Underhill gradient on a heavy and clingy surface. Early opportunities fell to both Barry Whitbread and Barry Howard, the latter testing the agility of the Bees’ goalkeeper, Kevin Blackwell, after being set up by a Jeff Johnson pass.
However, the solitary goal of the contest didn’t arrive until the 53rd minute, as the Robins duly emulated the scoreline of that premier meeting between the two clubs in an APL fixture staged at Moss Lane back on Monday, 26th November 1979. John Rogers pilfered the ball off a defender and his resulting cross picked out his skipper (and fellow Altrincham FC ‘social club’ guru) John King, who delighted in slamming the ball into the hosts’ net from close range for his second goal in this particular competition (and his fourth goal of the season to date).
In front of 804 onlookers, the Robins created a pair of decent chances to extend their lead but a John Rogers drive was inaccurate and then a Jeff Johnson shot was cleared off the goal line. However, Alty did endure one late alarm, when Barnet’s striker, Elwyn Roberts, latched on to a slack backpass from Barry Howard. His ensuing shot was parried by Alex Stepney before Mal Bailey interceded to clear the loose ball to safety off the Robins’ goal line and thereby ensure that Alty would go into the following Monday‘s Semi-Final Second Leg having established a one goal cushion.