The following articles appeared in the Robins' Review, during season 2009-10 and are reproduced here by kind permission of the author.
If you had opted to spend the pre-match build-up perusing a copy of the match programme issued for the Alliance Premier League (APL) fixture between Altrincham and Kettering Town on Monday, 3rd March 1980, then you would have encountered some news pertaining to an intriguing (and possibly unprecedented) prospect within the Who’s Next? section on page 12 of that particular publication.
The list of the Robins’ forthcoming first team fixtures contained two entries for 3.00pm on Saturday, 8th March 1980: an APL away match at Maidstone United and a Cheshire Senior Cup (CSC) Semi-Final versus Witton Albion on the neutral territory of Runcorn’s Canal Street ground.
This advertisement represented apparent confirmation of recent speculation in the local press that Alty intended to play two major competitive matches simultaneously. This controversial plan comprised the first team squad travelling down to Kent in order to fulfil the scheduled APL fixture whilst the Robins’ Lancashire League reserve side would be concurrently despatched down the M56, having been assigned the task of contesting a County Cup tie against that other team from Northwich.
Apprehensive about the substantial fixture congestion which was already confronting them, Alty had initially approached both the Cheshire County FA and Witton Albion FC with a request for the CSC Semi-Final to be rearranged for a midweek date. This would enable the designated Maidstone United fixture to proceed as planned and thereby avoid the possibility of the club suffering the inconvenience of having to undertake a midweek trek all the way down to the Garden of England on an alternative later date.
However, this appeal was summarily rejected by Witton Albion, whose secretary, David Leather, duly explained their rationale: “We’ve already got a bit of a backlog and, even if we did approve, I don’t think the Cheshire County FA would. As far as we are concerned, we want it played on Saturday, 8th March 1980, as arranged.” The Central Ground club were also anxious that the Robins’ tacit intention to nominate their reserve team to contest the CSC Semi-Final would have a deleterious impact on the attendance figure for that tie.
Thus, the Robins were faced with a dilemma. Should they prioritise their quest to capture the APL title by sending their first team down to the South East whilst at the same time fielding their second string against Witton Albion? By adhering to this contentious strategy, they would risk being penalised with yet another fine from the Cheshire County FA for failing to put out their “strongest available team“. The Robins had already incurred the wrath of that particular body by virtue of selecting some reserves to play in a preceding round of the same competition (notwithstanding the fact that Alty’s ’inferior’ side had nonetheless won the tie in question by defeating Macclesfield Town‘s first-choice XI).
As it turned out, the decision was taken out of Alty’s hands. The Cheshire County FA duly enforced the ruling that the Cheshire Senior Cup should take precedence over league matches and, consequently, the Robins were ordered to abandon their proposal to visit Maidstone United and then instructed to field their “strongest available team” in the CSC Semi-Final at Canal Street.
During the half-time interval of the aforementioned meeting with Kettering Town, announcements were broadcast over the Moss Lane PA system informing supporters about the compulsory postponement of the ensuing Saturday’s APL fixture versus Maidstone United.
The Alty manager, Tony Sanders, remained distinctly exasperated by the continued intransigence of the Cheshire County FA: “The Cheshire Senior Cup should be played in midweek, so that it does not interfere with normal league fixtures. Playing in midweek does not take anything away from the competition. Even the European Cup is played in midweek so that it does not interfere with league commitments.”
Under the guidance of their manager, Brian Booth, Witton Albion were enjoying an extremely successful debut season in the Northern Premier League (NPL) and they had become embroiled in a battle for the league title with the reigning Champions, Mossley. They would eventually conclude the campaign as the NPL runners-up, as the Lilywhites retained the league title by just a single point.
Amongst Albion’s playing staff was the former Nantwich Town striker, John Walker, who was the NPL’s leading marksman with a tally of 24 goals to his name. Walker had been a member of the Dabbers’ Cheshire League team which had eclipsed Runcorn 5-4 in the 1976 CSC Final at Gresty Road, Crewe in front of a gate of 2,237. In the CSC Quarter-Final clash with Les Rigby’s ailing Alty side at London Road, Nantwich on Saturday, 7th February 1976, Walker had scored both goals in the home side’s 2-1 success. The Robins’ sole reply had consisted of a rare goal from that somewhat infamous and lumbering centre forward, Dave Furnivall.
The two clubs had engaged in a pre-season friendly on Witton’s home turf on Tuesday, 7th August 1979, when John Rogers; Graham Heathcote and Alan Heathcote had all scored in a 3-0 Alty victory. However, that encounter had rather belied its billing, as the Robins’ captain John King had contrived to get himself needlessly sent off, a dismissal that would result in him being suspended for Alty’s opening APL fixture at Weymouth.
The last occasion on which the two clubs had met in a competitive fixture comprised a 3-1 victory for Witton in a North West Floodlit League match staged at The Central Ground on Wednesday, 25th January 1978. John Davison had scored Alty’s solitary goal that evening via the penalty spot.
As regards the CSC, this forthcoming Semi-Final represented the first time that Albion and the Robins had crossed swords in the competition since a Quarter-Final tie at Moss Lane back on Saturday, 14th February 1970. Watched by 1,712 spectators on that afternoon, Laurie Brown’s Alty team had triumphed 3-0 courtesy of goals from Charlie Rackstraw (2) and Andy Haddock.
The Robins had not managed to win the CSC since their suppression of Witton over two legs in the 1967 Final, the first of three seasons when the competition’s finale was played on a home and away basis.
On Saturday, 22nd April 1967, a crowd of 4,012 (including a reported 30 coachloads of Altrincham fans) descended upon The Central Ground in order to witness the First Leg. The Witton side contained their player-manager, the erstwhile Manchester City wing half, Ken Barnes, as well as two promising young players: Prestbury-born goalkeeper Peter Mellor and Wilmslow-born central defender Chris Nicholl. The former would go on to enjoy a successful career in the Football League with the likes of Burnley; Fulham and Portsmouth, whereas the latter would proceed to gain a total of 51 Full International caps for Northern Ireland whilst playing for such clubs as Aston Villa and Southampton.
Having lost 2-0 in a Cheshire County League fixture on the same ground only four weeks earlier, the Robins’ boss, Freddie Pye, chose to adopt an atypically cautious approach and this game plan appeared to be paying dividends until Bill Tynan scored the only goal of the game for the hosts in the 80th minute.
The Second Leg ensued at Moss Lane on Monday, 24th April 1967, where an impressive attendance of 7,290 included a certain Bobby Charlton seated in the Main Stand. Alty’s prolific striker, Jackie Swindells, opened the scoring after 41 minutes but Bill Tynan duly equalised just two minutes later. Three minutes into the second half, a Johnny Worth strike put the home side 2-1 up on the night and then, somewhat inevitably, that man Swindells found the back of the net yet again in the 68th minute, all of which ultimately enabled the Robins to emerge as the eventual victors and capture the old trophy by virtue of a 3-2 aggregate.
So, Saturday, 8th March 1980 saw the Robins’ A-list personnel gathered on the designated neutral terrain of Canal Street, Runcorn, the very same ground on which Alty had bowed out of the CSC at the identical stage of the competition (against Witton’s loathed green neighbours) just under twelve months previously.
The Robins were reputedly aspiring to reach the CSC Final for the first time since 1975, however, notwithstanding Tony Sanders’ pre-match vow that: “Now that we are in the Semi-Final, we aim to win this cup”, it remained difficult to escape the overriding sense that they regarded this competition with indifference in light of the bigger fish that the club had to fry. In truth, Alty’s subsequent perfunctory performance against Witton Albion on that particular afternoon in glamorous downtown Runcorn did nothing whatsoever to dispel this perception.
In the absence of first team regulars Mal Bailey; Jeff Johnson and Barry Whitbread, reportedly owing to injuries, Graham Tobin; Graham Heathcote and Mickey Brooke were drafted into the Robins’ starting XI and Phil Wilson was deputed to execute the role of substitute. It would prove to be the valedictory appearance in Alty’s colours for the versatile and loyal Brooke, who had joined the Robins from Ellesmere Port Town towards the denouement of the 1972/73 NPL season.
After a generally nondescript opening to the tie, Witton broke the deadlock in the 20th minute following an error by Graham Heathcote. The Robins’ midfielder failed to clear a corner to relative safety, thereby presenting that tall former Nantwich Town target man, Brian Griffin, with the opportunity to drive the loose ball into the Alty net from the edge of the penalty area.
Fifteen minutes later, the Robins restored parity by means of John Rogers’ 19th goal of the season in all competitions. Mickey Brooke’s pass set Heathcote clear down the right wing and his eventual cross was promptly volleyed home by Alty’s ex-Port Vale and Wigan Athletic striker.
Alas, within two minutes of the restart, Witton had regained the lead. Their fleet one-time Runcorn winger, Phil Spencer, was relishing his return to his old stamping ground and generally tormenting the Robins’ defence. When a long cross-field ball released him, he proceeded to outpace John Davison before slotting the ball past John Connaughton from an acute angle.
The second half found Alty once again beholden to their goalkeeper, Connaughton, whose sparkling form and several fine saves kept the Robins in the contest. However, the 1,024 onlookers were being subjected to a disappointing spectacle, which was frustratingly devoid of fluency and bedevilled by the excessive use of the ’offside trap’ by both sides.
Phil Wilson replaced Mickey Brooke after 55 minutes but to no great avail. The Robins were sorely missing the midfield thrusts and tenacity of Jeff Johnson but they did almost force the game to enter a period of extra-time when Graham Barrow’s 85th minute header drifted merely inches wide of the Witton upright.
Witton just about deserved their 2-1 victory, as they had proved to be marginally the better of two mediocre teams on the day. They would advance to meet Winsford United in the centenary CSC Final held at Gresty Road, Crewe on Saturday, 26th April 1980, where they surprisingly succumbed to a 4-1 defeat against a club then being managed by George Rooney, who would of course later fulfil the role of Assistant Manager to John King at Moss Lane from January 1984 until the Summer of 1986, during which time Alty vanquished Birmingham City on their own ground in the FA Cup Third Round and lifted the FA Trophy at Wembley.
For the second time in a fortnight, Alty had been unceremoniously eliminated from a cup competition by NPL opposition. In his post match synopsis, Tony Sanders conceded: “We are still struggling to find our true form.”
Fortunately, a couple of unanticipated APL results for the Robins‘ title contenders on the same afternoon would serve to provide a considerable degree of consolation for all those of an Altrincham FC persuasion.
Whilst second-placed Worcester City had been surprisingly capitulating to their first home league defeat of the season, in the guise of a 4-1 drubbing by Kettering Town, table-topping Weymouth had endured an unexpected 1-0 home reverse against Scarborough, who were scheduled to be the Robins’ next opponents".
The evening of Monday, 10th March 1980 saw the leadership of the Alliance Premier League (APL) change hands yet again by virtue of Worcester City’s 2-0 home victory over Yeovil Town. This upshot enabled Nobby Clark’s side to leapfrog both Weymouth and Alty and ascend to the summit of the APL table, having amassed a total of 38 points from their 30 league fixtures to date.
Consequently, the Robins now found themselves occupying third spot in the league table, two points behind the new pacesetters but with five games in hand on them, and about to be confronted with the daunting prospect of surmounting two potentially perilous away APL fixtures in the space of four days.
First stop on the itinerary constituted a visit to The Athletic Ground, Seamer Road, Scarborough on the evening of Wednesday, 12th March 1980. The two clubs had originally been scheduled to lock horns in the North Riding of Yorkshire on New Year’s Day but a snowbound pitch had engendered the enforced postponement of that particular fixture.
Scarborough had accumulated the sum of 24 points from their previous 26 league fixtures and were lying in 11th position in the APL table. Their home APL record comprised: played: 12; won: five; drawn: four; lost: three; goals scored: 20; goals conceded: 11 and points gained: 14 out of a possible tally of 24.
After their fourth place finish in the 1978/79 Northern Premier League (NPL) season, Scarborough had been expected to be amongst the protagonists vying for the inaugural APL title. However, they had endured a largely ineffectual campaign by their own customary high standards, during which their new signings had failed to coalesce into an effective and consistent unit.
Scarborough’s manager, Colin Appleton, cited the coastal town’s geographical location as a key factor for his team’s underachievement: “A lot of our problems at the moment are caused by the fact that we are not able to get together enough. My players come from Sunderland; Middlesbrough; Hull; Leeds and even Kettering, so we have no midweek training sessions.”
However, Scarborough had chalked up an impressive 1-0 victory at the then league leaders Weymouth just four days prior to their encounter with the Robins.
Alty boss, Tony Sanders, was able to reinstate a trio of players to his starting XI, all of whom had been absent from the Robins’ anaemic exit from the Cheshire Senior Cup at the hands of Witton Albion on the preceding Saturday. The industrious Jeff Johnson was restored to the Alty midfield; Mal Bailey replaced Graham Tobin in central defence and the club’s leading goalscorer, Barry Whitbread, resumed in attack in lieu of Mickey Brooke. Meanwhile, Graham Heathcote retained his place, as John Rogers was indisposed with a bout of flu, and Ivan Crossley succeeded Phil Wilson as the Robins’ substitute.
Wearing their away kit of yellow shirts; blue shorts and yellow socks, the Robins were aiming to register their third consecutive league triumph on Scarborough’s home turf. Since the inception of the NPL in August 1968, the statistics for Alty’s league excursions to The Athletic Ground read as follows: played: 11; won: four; drawn: three; lost: four; goals scored: 10; goals conceded: 10 and points gathered: 11 out of a possible total of 22.
The hosts were seeking to avenge the 2-0 reverse that they had suffered at Moss Lane on Boxing Day, 1979 and a close-fought contest duly unfolded. In the sixth minute, Barry Howard (who had been sent off in the corresponding fixture during the previous season) eluded two defenders whilst cutting in from the right wing but his eventual shot cleared the crossbar. Then Jeff Johnson fired narrowly wide after engineering a promising opening.
In the 40th minute, Barry Whitbread chipped the ball over the home goalkeeper, Gordon Livsey, and into the vacant net but his effort was disallowed, as Barry Howard was adjudged to have been in an offside position. Meanwhile, at the opposite end, Derek Abbey squandered a good chance to put the home side ahead.
It was to be the Robins who would open the scoring after 61 minutes. Whitbread evaded two attempted challenges and then laid the ball off to Graham Barrow, whose subsequent pass was collected on the run by Barry Howard. Alty’s mercurial winger promptly slammed the ball home for his 12th goal of the season.
Tony Sanders’ men then proceeded to sit back on this advantage rather than aim for a second and potentially decisive goal and their increasing employment of an efficient but aesthetically-challenging ’offside trap’ incited howls of derision and slow-handclapping from the inimical home supporters in the crowd of 2,253.
This frustratingly ill-conceived and negative strategy backfired in the 75th minute, when a lapse in the Robins’ defence allowed a through ball to reach Scarborough’s leading goalscorer, Bob Gauden. The bustling, ginger-haired former Buxton striker duly equalised by firing a low shot into the net beyond John Connaughton and thereby recorded his 10th APL goal of the campaign.
Alty partisan, Bill Waterson, recollects that skirmish in North Yorkshire: “I felt that we were in control throughout this game and Barry Howard put us in front accordingly. However, we then went all defensive and cynical; adopting that ‘offside trap’ and indulging in time-wasting and niggling fouls. On occasion, I used to hate watching us play for all of the above reasons. The Scarborough equaliser was more or less inevitable - but we comfortably held out for a point.”
Saturday, 15th March 1980 saw the Robins heading down to the Garden of England in order to undertake a rearranged APL fixture versus Maidstone United. In the only prior meeting between the two clubs on Saturday, 25th August 1979 at Moss Lane, John Davison’s 15th minute strike had secured two precious points for the hosts in what was only their third match in the nascent competition.
Having garnered 33 points from their 28 league games to date, the Stones were residing in seventh spot in the APL table, five places and four points adrift of the Robins respectively. Unbeaten in the league at their London Road stadium (on which site, an MFI store now stands) since Bangor City’s 1-0 success there on Saturday, 22nd September 1979, the Kent side’s APL home record comprised: played: 14; won: eight; drawn: three; lost: three; goals scored: 24; goals conceded: nine and points accrued: 19 out of a possible aggregate of 28.
Maidstone’s manager, Barry Watling, had been Hartlepool’s goalkeeper when the then Division Four outfit had been conquered 2-0 by Alty in a memorable FA Cup First Round tie observed by 2,923 spectators at Moss Lane on Saturday, 24th November 1973. Lennie Dickinson’s 72nd minute curling shot had given the Robins a warranted lead but the best was yet to come. With only nine minutes of the clash remaining, substitute Andy Windsor unleashed a spectacular 30-yard piledriver and, to this very day, I can still envisage his unstoppable shot joyously zooming into the top corner of the net at the Chequers End. The one-time Skelmersdale United man’s awesome Clive Freemanesque strike promptly induced a brief celebratory pitch invasion by some euphoric Alty fans (whose number, I believe, included that current fellow contributor to the Robins Review, Paul Brady).
In the continuing absence of flu victim John Rogers, Tony Sanders fielded an unchanged line-up from the one which had gained a point at Scarborough just three days earlier. So, the Robins were all set to make their competitive debut in Kent against a team that had won its five previous home APL fixtures.
Alty commenced the match auspiciously and applied some early pressure, however, it was the home side who went ahead after 11 minutes, somewhat against the run of play. Frank Ovard took the Stones’ first corner of the contest out on the left and Kenny Hill, the hosts’ centre half; captain and subsequent England Non League International, escaped his marker, ran into the penalty area on the blind side and gave John Connaughton no chance with his powerful close range header to claim his third goal of the campaign.
Prompted by the enterprising Barry Howard, the Robins gradually worked their way back into the game and forced a couple of good saves from the Stones’ goalkeeper, Dickie Guy, who had acquired a degree of national celebrity as the result of his exploits for Southern League Wimbledon in their FA Cup Fourth Round tie against the then reigning Football League Division One Champions Leeds United five years earlier.
As Alty devotee, Bill Waterson, recalls: “It's funny - Dickie Guy was held in some awe by the travelling Alty fans. It was like we'd stumbled upon a unicorn or some other exotic animal that we never thought we would see in real life. It’s unthinkable these days that the best Non League team in the country would have never played against (or even imagined facing) one of the best Non League players around. But it’s another example of the excitement and novelty that surrounded the APL that season.”
In the 35th minute, Graham Heathcote’s pass sent Jeff Johnson clear on the right and he sliced a mishit shot, which wrong-footed the Maidstone defence, thereby inadvertently allowing Alty’s leading goalscorer, Barry Whitbread, to pounce from point blank range in archetypal fashion and register his 21st strike of the season.
Alas, the Kent side restored their one goal advantage nine minutes later. Left full back Billy Edwards released the Stones’ bearded leading goalscorer, John Daubney, who made good ground down the left flank. His eventual cross was met by Alan Budden, who proceeded to rifle home a stunning 20-yard volley.
The second half witnessed the Robins pressing forward in search of another equaliser with Jeff Johnson now becoming increasingly prominent in a more advanced role in order to bolster the attack. Whitbread fluffed a decent chance from a Howard cross and then Heathcote’s tremendous 25-yard free kick elicited a superb save from Guy.
Alty finally got back on level terms after 56 minutes. A Heathcote free kick from 40 yards out was headed down to Jeff Johnson, who, with his back to the Maidstone goal, surprised virtually everyone present in the gate of 1,171 by executing a remarkable overhead kick, which duly sailed beyond the transfixed figure of Dickie Guy and into the hosts’ net. This represented the Robins’ dynamic midfielder’s ninth goal of the season and his fourth in the APL.
The aforementioned Bill Waterson recounts his synopsis of that afternoon in Kent: “The match between the two teams at Moss Lane had been a bit drab but this was a much better game. The ground didn't have any segregation but I seem to remember that it was difficult to walk round it. I was certainly at the ‘wrong end‘ for Jeff's equaliser. I was convinced that we were going to lose this one and, in doing so, suffer a fourth 3-2 away reverse against a former Southern League club.
“It was a much better game than the one at Scarborough earlier that week and we played far better, too. Plus we didn't sit back (certainly not in the second half, anyway), because I think we felt that they would score at will against a defensive set-up. I do recollect a couple of Maidstone corners being cleared to Barry Howard on the halfway line, who promptly hared his way off towards the home side’s by-line before shaping up to deliver a cross, only then to discover that he was the sole Alty player in the Maidstone half of the pitch. He was simply too quick for the rest of them! We did miss JR up front that day though.”
Since league leaders Worcester City were without a game (as their scheduled opponents, Barrow, were fulfilling an FA Trophy Quarter-Final appointment at Woking) and Weymouth had been held to a 3-3 draw at 16th-placed Telford United, this merited 2-2 stalemate against Maidstone United enabled the Robins to return to the apex of the APL table courtesy of their superior goal difference.
Meanwhile, Alty were now aware that their adversaries in the inaugural APL Cup Final would comprise none other than those bitterly detested foes from Mid Cheshire, Northwich Victoria, who had eliminated Kettering Town 3-1 on aggregate in the competition’s other Semi-Final.
This Final was originally scheduled to be played on a home and away basis over two legs. However, with both the Robins and the Vics facing significant fixture backlogs and in light of the fact that they were relatively near neighbours, both clubs had agreed that playing a one-off decider on a neutral ground would be preferable. Consequently, the APL hierarchy had been consulted for the official authority to endorse this proposal and Manchester City had been approached with a request for their Maine Road stadium to be made available to stage this showpiece Final.
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Altrincham FC website compiled by John Laidlar