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 39: WHAT’S THE FREQUENCY, WEYMOUTH?
When the inaugural season of the Alliance Premier League (APL) kicked off on Saturday, 18th August 1979, Alty’s opening day fixture comprised an odyssey into Dorset in order to face Weymouth, who had concluded the preceding season in 6th position in the Southern League Premier Division.
The ensuing goalless impasse in front of 1,527 observers was, in all honesty, rather uneventful, as both sides seemed to be preoccupied with avoiding defeat on the occasion of their debut in this new competition rather than pulling out all the stops in a daring quest for a victory. Arguably, the Robins had marginally shaded the contest but nobody in the Moss Lane camp appeared to be too dismayed at this upshot and securing an away draw was generally regarded as a satisfactory starting point to the new campaign.
Little were we to know at that juncture just how significant and precious that single point gained at The Recreation Ground by Alty would prove to be as the APL season evolved. At the dawn of the scheduled return fixture at Moss Lane on Saturday, 1st March 1980 (which was Alty’s first home league game of the nascent decade), Weymouth and the Robins had firmly established themselves as the principal contenders in the league title race and their imminent clash had justly been billed as Non League’s “Match Of The Day.”
The Terras arrived at Moss Lane whilst located at the pinnacle of the APL, a position to which they had ascended on Saturday, 19th January 1980 by virtue of a 2-0 home success over Nuneaton Borough, a result which itself denoted that they had equalled the record previously set by the Robins of eight consecutive victories in the APL. The Dorset club had amassed a total of 35 points from their 25 league fixtures to date and boasted the best away record in the division, which comprised: played: 13; won: seven; drawn: four; lost: two; goals scored: 20; goals conceded: 12 and points accumulated: 18 out of a possible tally of 26. The setbacks on their APL travels had transpired at Kettering Town (1-3 on 10th September 1979) and Bath City (2-4 on 26th January 1980) respectively.
Bangor City occupied second spot in the APL table, level on points with Weymouth but having played four games more than the Terras. Meanwhile, the third-placed Robins, who were still unbeaten at Moss Lane in the APL, lay merely two points adrift but possessed two games in hand on the league leaders, as well as a superior goal difference. Consequently, an Alty triumph would duly enable the Robins to leapfrog Weymouth and thereby return to the top of the APL table on goal difference, dependent upon the outcome of Bangor City’s home game versus ninth-placed Gravesend & Northfleet on the same afternoon.
In contrast, the launch of Weymouth’s APL campaign had proved to be far from propitious, as the Dorset side had failed to register their first victory in the incipient competition until their seventh fixture and only managed to glean four points from their opening six matches. However, their sequence of an octet of successive wins between 1st December 1979 and 19th January 1980 (inclusive) promptly propelled them up the APL table during a period when the Robins were predominantly engaged in fulfilling fixtures in various cup competitions.
The Terras’ manager was the 30-year-old former Colchester United and AFC Bournemouth central defender, Stuart Morgan, who had assumed this role in November 1978 after being compelled to retire prematurely from playing football owing to an arthritic knee. Nowadays employed as a member of the scouting personnel at Tottenham Hotspur, Morgan had succeeded his counterpart, Tony Sanders, by being awarded the APL’s December 1979 Manager Of The Month accolade in recognition of Weymouth‘s impressive 100% record in the five league fixtures that they completed during that particular month.
In the 18th January 1980 issue of the Sale & Altrincham Messenger, the purposeful Morgan remarked: “We are confident that we can catch Altrincham. I saw them play against Orient at Brisbane Road and they were impressive - although I saw nothing that will frighten us. I believe that if we had not dropped silly home points against Barnet; Worcester City and Bath City, we would have been well clear of the pack.“
Meanwhile, the Robins’ boss, Tony Sanders, was busy emphasising the magnitude of the impending meeting with Weymouth: “This is one of our most important games of the season, against the team of the moment. Our aim from the beginning has been to win the league and a victory on Saturday is a definite step in that direction. Like Mossley’s attitude against us in that FA Trophy tie last week, we’ve got to go out showing absolute conviction that we’re going to win.”
Left: Alex Stepney, seen here at his last game for Alty, the Trophy defeat by Mossley.
The visitors’ squad was captained by centre half, Neil Merrick (the son of the erstwhile Birmingham City and England goalkeeper, Gil Merrick), who had joined the club from Maidstone United in July 1979 for a transfer fee of £5,000. According to an article published in The Daily Telegraph on 22nd February 1980, Oxford United (then plying their trade in the old English Third Division) had recently submitted a five figure bid to recruit Merrick, which had promptly been rejected by the Weymouth Board.
The prime threat to the Robins’ unbeaten APL home record comprised Weymouth’s prolific striking duo of Tom Paterson and Anniello Iannone, who had collectively amassed a total of 38 goals in all the major competitions. Paterson, a one-time striker with Middlesbrough; AFC Bournemouth and Darlington respectively, was the current leading scorer in the APL with a tally of 17 goals. The Naples-born Iannone had joined the Terras from Dunstable Town in October 1976 and he would proceed to clock up both the record number of APL appearances (309 +10 as substitute) and APL goals (79) for the club.
Also present in the Weymouth midfield on that afternoon at Moss Lane back in March 1980 was a certain 20-year-old shipyard fitter’s mate by the name of Graham Roberts, who had recently been acquired from Dorchester Town for a then club record fee of £6,000. Roberts would subsequently be signed by Tottenham Hotspur in May 1980 for the sum of £35,000 (which represented the record transfer fee outlaid to recruit a Non League player at that time) and later progress to being awarded six Full International caps for England.
This would, in fact, constitute Weymouth’s second visit to Moss Lane, as the two clubs had previously locked horns in an FA Trophy Fourth Round (Quarter-Final) Replay there back on the evening of Monday, 21st March 1977, in the wake of a goalless stalemate at The Recreation Ground two days earlier. In front of a gate of 2,450, Mick Moore put the Robins ahead in the 51st minute but Gary Huxley equalised for the visitors 21 minutes later. However, with eight minutes of the tie remaining, that volatile and quasi-legendary Alty forward, Joe Flaherty, pounced on an errant backpass and duly scored to seal the Robins’ advance towards what would unfold into an, alas, ultimately heart-rending Semi-Final epic versus Scarborough.
Three days prior to their appointment at Moss Lane, Weymouth had somewhat surprisingly bowed out of the FA Trophy by virtue of a 1-0 home defeat at the hands of Boston United in a Third Round Replay watched by a crowd of 2,005.
After their own recent excruciating FA Trophy exit courtesy of Mossley, Alty had at least partially expiated for this meltdown and concurrently repaired some of their damaged confidence by vanquishing Barnet 7-0 in the APL Cup Semi-Final Second Leg at Moss Lane on the Monday evening that preceded their assignment against the APL leaders. Consequently, it came as no great surprise when Tony Sanders selected an unchanged line-up to face Weymouth, which signified that John Connaughton would be making his APL debut in his second appearance as the Robins‘ goalkeeper.
There were 2,285 spectators gathered inside Moss Lane for this top-of-the-table encounter between the two highest scoring teams in the APL. Wearing red and white striped shirts; black shorts and red socks, Alty were attacking the Golf Road End in the first half. However, it was the visitors who caught the Robins cold by seizing the lead after only three minutes of the match had elapsed.
Weymouth’s long-serving right full back, a carpenter by the name of Brian Lawrence, embarked upon a fine run out of defence and his ensuing inch-perfect cross was met by the unmarked Anniello Iannone, who headed the ball beyond the helpless figure of John Connaughton and, in doing so, registered his 10th APL goal of the season.
Even now, I can still recall the collective sense of shock that pervaded Moss Lane at this truly calamitous opening to the game, as captured here by Robins’ devotee Paul Murray: “I remember that huge wave of pessimism which swept Moss Lane when they scored first, like only Alty can generate. They were all over us at the start.” That distinguished member of the Alty cognoscenti, Bill Waterson, elaborates: “Weymouth flew out of the traps; played some lovely football and carved us open. The large crowd was silenced by that early goal from Iannone - a class player.”
For those of us who were still haunted by the demons of the previous Saturday’s capitulation against Mossley, this early body blow instantly set the alarm bells ringing. Would it be a case of see a Naples-born forward’s goal and Alty’s league title hopes die?
Thankfully, the Robins’ response was rapid, albeit a trifle fortuitous. In the seventh minute, Barry Whitbread’s mishit shot took a deflection off Weymouth’s goalkeeper, Steve Chalk, and went in off the post. This equaliser meant that Whitbread had now drawn level with John Rogers’ total of 18 goals for Alty in all competitions in that inaugural APL campaign.
Whitbread duly overtook JR and became the Robins’ exclusive leading goalscorer just 14 minutes later. Jeff Johnson directed a ball across the Terras’ penalty area and the marauding and elusive ex-Runcorn striker capitalised on some slipshod defending to slot the ball past Chalk from close range and thereby establish a 2-1 advantage for the hosts.
Within sixty seconds of the restart, Whitbread had found the back of the league leaders’ net once again to register an astonishing and priceless hat-trick (his second in Alty colours). In truth, Whitbread’s 20th goal of the season (and his 12th in the APL) contained a considerable element of good fortune, as his left foot shot from the edge of the penalty area deflected unwittingly off the visitors’ central defender, Paul Arnold, and then looped over the head of the stranded Chalk.
The aforementioned Alty diehard, Bill Waterson, delivers an accurate and candid synopsis of the contest: “My feeling remains that, generally speaking, we were outplayed in this game. Once we were 3-1 up (and never truly on top, by the way), Weymouth threw everything at us and we were strongly under the cosh during the second half, when they could easily have salvaged what would have been a fully deserved draw. I think that they were even better than Mossley and they were certainly a much better team than the one which had drawn 0-0 with us on the first day of the season.”
Alty did seem appreciably content to sit back on their two goal cushion throughout the second half and the league leaders inevitably pressed forward with intent. Fortunately for the Robins, John Connaughton was exhibiting impressive form to keep them at bay. Meanwhile, at the opposite end, Alty did conjure up a couple of notable opportunities to administer the coup de grace. Whitbread almost claimed his fourth goal of the encounter, when his delicate chip was just tipped over the crossbar by Chalk, and a quintessential jinking run from Barry Howard in the 72nd minute culminated in the artful Robins’ winger firing a shot across the goalmouth, which flashed inches wide of the far post.
Weymouth finally contrived to pierce the Alty defence in the 89th minute when Iannone exploited a rare lapse by John Owens. The customarily reliable central defender’s uncharacteristically slack backpass was intercepted by the burly window cleaner and he promptly rounded Connaughton before sliding the ball into the vacant net to record his second goal of the afternoon.
The nervous home supporters then had to endure one or two late scares before the final whistle eventually sounded to signal the Robins‘ acquisition of two momentous league points against their chief rivals for the APL crown.
When the news subsequently filtered through that the previously second-placed Bangor City had succumbed to a 2-1 home reverse against Gravesend & Northfleet, it verified that Alty had been restored to the summit of the APL table on goal difference, which was now four goals superior to that of Weymouth, whilst still possessing two games in hand on the Dorset club.
PART 40: DARKNESS ON THE EDGE OF KETTERING TOWN
Right: 1979-80 also saw important action off the pitch as these images show - the revamping of the Hale End of the Moss Lane ground.
When reminiscing about the glory days of Alty’s 1979/80 season, I‘m reminded that my life back then seemed to be governed by three dominant strands.
As the prospect of sitting O-Levels was looming menacingly on the horizon, Altrincham Grammar School maintained a perpetual bombardment of such treats as myriad German vocabulary tests; algebra and logarithms; repeated requests for essays on Shakespeare’s Henry V and the setting of Physics homework that, I confess, utterly bewildered me.
Refuge from the drudgery outlined above comprised either regular excursions to those (long lost, alas) record shops located in the town centre such as Gordons on Kingsway or Peter J Swales and Discount Records respectively on George Street (customarily in order to purchase a Kraftwerk album or the latest John Foxx seven-inch single on the Virgin label) or an obsessive immersion in all things pertaining to Altrincham FC, my hometown team.
It’s just as well that it was a ‘simpler’ world back then, without such delightful distractions as John Laidlar’s marvellous Altrincham FC website or the addictive Alty Fans’ Forum to lure you away from revising your notes on The Corn Laws.
On Monday, 3rd March 1980, the Robins were scheduled to welcome Kettering Town for what constituted the Northamptonshire team’s debut at Moss Lane. In the only previous meeting between the two clubs, which had transpired at The Poppies’ Rockingham Road stadium back on Saturday, 6th October 1979, Alty’s eventual 2-1 victory had enabled them to supplant the execrable Northwich Victoria at the zenith of the Alliance Premier League (APL) table.
The Robins’ pivotal 3-2 triumph over fellow title contenders Weymouth at Moss Lane just two days earlier had resulted in them regaining the leadership of the APL at the expense of the Dorset club, having accumulated 35 points from their 24 league fixtures to date.
The 1978/79 season had witnessed Kettering Town finish as the runners-up in the Southern League Premier Division and the losing FA Trophy finalists and, consequently, they had been earmarked as one of the potential pacesetters in the inaugural season of the APL. An unbeaten run during their first eight league matches had appeared to endorse these high expectations but by the time that they emerged at Moss Lane, the promise of mounting a serious challenge for the league title, which had been suggested by those early results, had begun to fade away and the Poppies were occupying sixth position in the APL table, lying four points adrift of the leaders and having played four games more than the Robins. Their away record in the APL stood as follows: played: 13; won: three; drawn: seven; lost: three; goals scored: 17; goals conceded: 16 and points accumulated: 13 out of a possible tally of 26.
In his column in the Robins Review printed for the rendezvous with Kettering Town, Alty boss Tony Sanders duly acknowledged the visitors as a progressive club and issued a caveat in light of the better days that the rising Poppies had been experiencing in the APL of late: “Kettering have had, by their top class standards, a mediocre season but it has not escaped my notice that they have started to regain their composure and form to once again become considerable opposition. Having only been to Kettering on one occasion, I was very impressed with the facilities and the professional outlook at the club. There is no doubt that they also have ambitions to gain Football League status.”
Unsurprisingly, Tony Sanders named an unchanged line-up from the team that had eclipsed Weymouth, as the Robins strove to enhance their prospects of reaching the promised land of the APL title by establishing a two point advantage over the chasing pack. Meanwhile, the visitors, who were under the tutelage of player-manager Colin Clarke, were missing their preferred striking partnership of the prolific Roy Clayton and that ostensibly permanently-bleached blonde, Nicky Evans, who would subsequently be a member of Barry Fry’s Barnet squad which ultimately contrived to pip Alty to the post in that enthralling race to be crowned as the 1990/91 GM Vauxhall Conference Champions.
This seems an opportune moment to mention an article pertaining to Alty’s talismanic captain, John King, which appears on page 58 of the September 2010 edition of The Rough Guide To Cult Football (edited by Andy Mitten). In a chapter entitled The Legends, which also features such luminaries from the game as George Best; Gerd Muller; Garrincha; Ferenc Puskas and Luther Blissett, there is a short but evocative profile of the “bearded, toothless scaffolder from the Liverpool overspill estate of Kirkby.”
An unidentified Alty team mate is quoted as disclosing: “Kingy had problems on and off the field but he was a winner. He used to kick the away team dressing room door and shout: “Get ’em out! Come on, get ’em out! Let’s get this f***ing game on!” A rival Kettering Town manager later admitted that his players went white whenever they heard that thump.
The Robins once again donned that all-red strip as they prepared to undertake their fourth consecutive home match and one that was a possible dress rehearsal for the APL Cup Final, dependent upon whether the Poppies could overcome Northwich Victoria in the other Semi-Final in that competition.
However, what ensued for the 1,591 spectators was rather a dour stalemate, because the night was to be dominated by two robust and effective rearguards who possessed a ‘no surrender‘ mentality. The visitors bore a reputation for resilience and they would proceed to prove it all night, as they became only the second team that season to depart from Moss Lane having both gained a league point and prevented the Robins from scoring.
It was Kettering Town who enjoyed the better goalscoring opportunities during the opening 45 minutes and Alty were indebted to their goalkeeper, John Connaughton, for another impressive display that contributed significantly towards the preservation of their unbeaten home record in the APL. Early on in the half, Connaughton reacted swiftly to purloin the ball from the feet of the Poppies’ flying winger (and chartered accountant), Peter Phipps, and the same attacker’s shot elicited a fine point blank save from the Robins’ No. 1 on the stroke of half-time.
In contrast, the Robins’ sole chance of note in the first half comprised Jeff Johnson’s speculative lob from the edge of the penalty area, which cleared the visitors’ crossbar by inches at the Golf Road End.
In the 67th minute, Alty’s leading goalscorer, Barry Whitbread, contrived to miss a sitter, sidefooting John Rogers’ pinpoint centre over the crossbar when it looked easier to score. Whitbread would record a laudable total of 52 goals during his 134 (+6 as substitute) appearances for the Robins and was generally a reliable “snapper-up of unconsidered trifles“ in the penalty box but he was prone to squandering the odd golden chance. Alas, such occasional profligacy had been conspicuously evinced at the Golf Road End in the second half of that FA Cup Third Round tie versus Orient at Moss Lane on Saturday, 5th January 1980.
Connaughton remained the busier of the two goalkeepers as the Robins’ strikeforce of Whitbread; Rogers and Barry Howard failed to fire on all cylinders at the opposite end and were uncharacteristically unable to conjure up their usual magic. However, the hosts did have a late appeal for a penalty rejected after John Davison appeared to have been pushed.
The referee, Kenneth Walmsley of Blackpool, booked a total of five players during the 90 minutes: Graham Felton; Roger Ashby and Brendan Phillips from Kettering Town and right full back Stan Allan (dissent) and Jeff Johnson (foul) from the home side. It was a pity that the Robins’ ‘born to run’ midfielder had received a yellow card in the final minute of the contest, as it marginally marred the fact that he had been the hosts’ best performer on the night.
This hard-earned draw signified that the Robins were now a solitary point clear of second-placed Weymouth whilst still possessing a single game in hand on the Dorset club. Worcester City were residing in third spot, also just one point behind the Robins but having played two games more, and on the following evening they did move one step up but unexpectedly frittered away a gilt-edged opportunity to ascend right to the apex of the APL table when they could only manage a 1-1 draw at the division’s basement club, Redditch United.
Just twenty four hours later, goals from Anniello Iannone and Kevin Dove helped Weymouth to chalk up a 2-1 home success against Stafford Rangers and thereby resume the role of league leaders, one point ahead of the Robins but having completed two fixtures more than Tony Sanders‘ men.
By this juncture, news had filtered out that Weymouth’s Recreation Ground had only been awarded a ‘B’ grading and, with scant time available for the Terras to improve their facilities sufficiently in order to comply with the stipulated criteria, it was almost impossible for the Dorset club to receive the nomination to attend the Football League’s Re-election meeting in June, even if they were eventually to emerge as the APL Champions.
Notwithstanding this revelation, the hierarchy at Moss Lane had every reason to believe that securing the APL title was imperative in order to corroborate the Robins’ own case for admission into the Football League.
Meanwhile, it had been announced that John Davison; Barry Howard; John King and Barry Whitbread had all been selected to attend training with the provisional England Non League squad in preparation for the impending International Semi-Professional tournament that was due to be staged in Holland in June 1980. Both Davison and Whitbread were already in possession of two England Non League International caps each, having both played in the respective victories against Scotland and Holland on Stafford Rangers’ Marston Road ground in the May/June 1979 Four Nations Tournament.