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 43: RUNNING UP THAT UNDERHILL / 2 + 2 = 5
Thursday, 13th March 1980 found Alty first XI regulars Stan Allan and Jeff Johnson attending an FA Disciplinary Commission hearing in Birmingham. Both players had accumulated 20 penalty points respectively and they each duly received a one match suspension, which was to come into effect for the Robins’ scheduled home Alliance Premier League (APL) fixture against Barrow on the following Monday evening rather than (as had initially been anticipated) the club’s imminent Saturday afternoon APL assignment at Maidstone United.
However, this projected Alty versus Barrow clash was to be called off after a freak early morning snowstorm had rendered the Moss Lane playing surface flooded. Against a backdrop of incessant rainfall throughout the remainder of that morning, the appointed referee, Kevin McNally, opted to postpone the game after undertaking a lunchtime pitch inspection, thereby sparing the Cumbrian club from the prospect of a potentially treacherous journey down to Cheshire on icy roads.
Consequently, Allan and Johnson’s bans were carried over, denoting that they would be forced to sit out Alty’s ensuing APL contest on the notorious sloping pitch at Barnet’s Underhill stadium on Saturday, 22nd March 1980, which represented the Robins’ fourth meeting of that season with Barry Fry’s team.
Lying in 13th position in the division, 14 points behind the table-topping Robins, the Hertfordshire club’s Achilles heel had generally been their inability to score enough goals during this inaugural APL season. However, of the 24 league points that they had accrued, 16 had been gained at Underhill, where they had only been defeated on three occasions in their 13 home fixtures to date. Moreover, since suffering that recent 7-0 annihilation by the Robins at Moss Lane in the APL Cup Semi-Final Second Leg, the Bees had rallied to achieve a trio of consecutive APL victories.
Alty’s only previous visit to Underhill had comprised a 1-0 success in the First Leg of that APL Cup Semi-Final on Tuesday, 19th February 1980 and some comments printed in a subsequent issue of Barnet’s match programme intimated that the hosts had not been particularly enamoured of Tony Sanders’ men‘s modus operandi during the primary stage of that tie: “This was the worst game seen here this season. Altrincham had come for a draw and spent one quarter of the game passing back to Stepney. We were completely lacking in ideas up front and chances were few and far between.”
The Alty manager elected to replace the suspended duo of Allan and Johnson with Ivan Crossley and Graham Heathcote respectively, whilst Phil Wilson was nominated as the (unused) substitute. Better news concerned John Rogers, who resumed his customary role in the Robins’ attack by virtue of his recovery from a bout of flu, which had compelled him to miss Alty’s preceding two fixtures. Meanwhile, Gary Steel deputised for Barnet’s absent first choice goalkeeper, Kevin Blackwell, whose identical twin brother, Noel, was making his APL debut.
What unfolded for those Alty supporters who were amongst the 603 spectators present at Underhill on that Spring afternoon proved to be a rather sombre experience. An extremely disappointing Alty outfit were a shadow of their usual selves, as Barnet partially avenged their three previous defeats against the Robins by registering a 2-0 win over the then league leaders. Indeed, the margin of their victory could have been more comprehensive if their finishing skills had emulated their impressive approach work.
Left: Barry Whitbread.
The home side opened the scoring in the 18th minute when they profited from a defensive blunder by Ivan Crossley. Whilst under no real pressure on the touchline some 40 yards from the Alty goal, the Robins’ full back attempted an ill-advised, ambitious and ultimately lame backpass, which never had a hope of successfully reaching John Connaughton. The Bees’ striker, Elwyn Roberts, promptly intercepted this slapdash delivery and then proceeded to slip the ball neatly wide of the forsaken Alty goalkeeper and net his first APL goal.
The second half did at least witness the visitors exerting a modicum of pressure on the home defence and Gary Steel executed a fine save to thwart Barry Whitbread’s close range effort. However, Barnet duly sealed their triumph with an opportunist second goal after 68 minutes. Colin Hardman’s free kick was met by Steve Robinson, who dived in between two defenders and saw his header parried by Connaughton, prior to following up on the rebound and crashing the loose ball home past the powerless Alty number one.
The following Saturday’s edition of the Barnet match programme contained the Bees’ effusive and yet simultaneously somewhat pointed reaction to their subjugation of the torpid Robins: “Last Saturday, we gave one of our best performances of the season and were rewarded with a fine 2-0 victory over title chasers Altrincham. So well did we command the match, that Altrincham were restricted to just one clear cut opening.
“Altrincham’s physical performance won them few friends and it was to our credit that we refused to be intimidated. After the (first) goal, Altrincham applied some pressure without really extending our defence. Altrincham became more desperate after the interval and King was fortunate to escape after punching Gary Steel in the face after he had caught a right wing cross. It was almost five minutes before the goalkeeper could resume. This was a deserved victory.”
That connoisseur of all things Altrincham FC, Bill Waterson, recounts his memories of an unremittingly wretched afternoon at Underhill: “We were woeful at Barnet - truly woeful. Worse even than at Nuneaton - and I had such high hopes given that Stan Allan was missing. But I guess that if you replace the combative Jeff Johnson with the silky, sulky skills of Graham Heathcote on a mud bath with a slope and he just doesn't fancy it, then you end up getting turned over. It was a spineless performance and, once we went 1-0 down, defeat was inevitable. The last 20 minutes were interminable and I was glad to hear the final whistle and then head back to the North on the supporters’ coach.“
Notwithstanding their unexpectedly supine display against his own charges, the Barnet manager, Barry Fry, still reckoned that Alty would go on to win the APL title, affirming that: “They are easily the best side in the league.”
In the aftermath of Alty’s sixth (and final) league defeat of the 1979/80 season, a crestfallen and solemn Tony Sanders commented: “As the majority of spectators who travelled down there to watch the game will testify, the team performance could, and must, be improved upon if we are to continue our quest for honours.”
Meanwhile, second-placed Weymouth’s 3-1 home conquest of Kettering Town had enabled them to usurp the leadership of the APL from the Robins. The Dorset club’s advantage over Alty comprised two points but Tony Sanders’ men did still possess two games in hand on the Terras.
Of the Robins' remaining 10 APL fixtures, eight were scheduled to be staged at Moss Lane, starting with the visit of Bangor City on Monday, 24th March 1980. This fourth meeting of the season between these two familiar rivals over the years had originally been slated for Saturday, 9th February 1980 until a prospective Cheshire Senior Cup tie versus Runcorn had intervened.
Since the genesis of the Northern Premier League (NPL) in August 1968, Bangor City had failed to muster even a lone victory in their eleven league encounters at Moss Lane, where the Robins’ impressive record against the Citizens read as follows: played: 11; won: eight; drawn: three; lost: zero; goals scored: 23; goals conceded: 10 and points amassed: 19 out of a possible total of 22.
The first ever NPL match to be enacted at Moss Lane had consisted of a 2-1 Alty triumph at the expense of the North Wales club on the sultry evening of Monday, 12th August 1968. In front of an attendance of 3,123, the prolific Jackie Swindells had inevitably opened the Robins’ account in this nascent competition, by means of a speculative 30-yard lob from the right wing after 18 minutes, which had promptly sailed over the head of Bangor’s young goalkeeper, Alan Tittensor. A defensive lapse then allowed Barry Hutchinson to equalise a minute prior to half-time. However, Freddie Pye’s team duly secured both points when the visitors’ forward, Jim Conde, diverted a header from Alty winger Dave Carrick into his own net in the 78th minute.
On the field and under the management of the erstwhile Runcorn boss, Stan Storton, fourth-placed Bangor City had been enjoying a promising season in the inaugural APL. They arrived at Moss Lane on 24th March 1980 whilst lying just one spot and a single point respectively behind the Robins (although they had completed four more league fixtures than their hosts).
The Citizens’ starting XI included such recognised characters from the NPL days as the ex-Runcorn trinity of Alan King; Dave Rylands and Tony Murphy (the latter of whom would subsequently fulfil the role of Mark Ward‘s Assistant Manager at Moss Lane during the majority of the 2000/01 Unibond League Premier Division season), together with those two notable former Alty strikers: Tony Broadhead (the club’s top goalscorer in the 1971/72 season) and the illustrious and fondly-remembered John Hughes (the leading goalscorer for Roy Rees’ formidable Altrincham team in the 1974/75 campaign). Off the field, however, things were not so propitious and the Farrar Road club had been beset by recent upheavals. In February 1980, their Wrexham-based Chairman, Charles Roberts (who had been the Altrincham FC Director in charge of the programme and publicity for a spell during the 1960s), had announced that he intended to resign at the end of the season because of his mounting sense of despair at the public apathy which had kept the Citizens’ home attendances well below the league’s average, notwithstanding a relatively successful campaign to date.
The club had been compelled of late to sell players of the calibre of goalkeeper Kevin Charlton; defender Alan Walker and forward Dave Mather to Telford United as part of a ‘package deal’ designed to reduce their overdraft. Moreover, this particular Moss Lane fixture proved to be Stan Storton’s Bangor City swan song, as he would be appointed as the new manager at Northwich Victoria later that very same week.
Having endured a sequence comprising five games without a win, the Robins welcomed back Stan Allan and Jeff Johnson, both of whom had served their one match ban by missing that inert 2-0 reverse at Barnet just two days earlier. Meanwhile, Graham Heathcote duly dropped down to the substitute’s bench.
On yet another Monday evening of incessant rain at Moss Lane, Alty commenced the opening half by attacking the Golf Road End and they had established a lead after merely six minutes of the contest had elapsed. Barry Howard’s left wing corner was met by the visitors’ centre half, Dave Rylands, who rose majestically to power an unstoppable bullet header past Bangor’s helpless goalkeeper, the 18-year-old tyro Michael Keen, and into his own net. This was the third own goal from which the Robins benefited during that 1979/80 season.
Thirty minutes later, Graham Barrow doubled the home side’s advantage and, in doing so, claimed his first APL goal by leaping higher than any of the North Wales team’s rearguard and heading home Jeff Johnson’s chipped centre.
The Robins perpetuated their dominance during the second half and duly went 3-0 up via a fine solo effort from John Rogers. Capitalising on an error by the Bangor captain, Alan King, who lost possession of the ball in the centre circle, the Alty marksman promptly raced clear and ran half the length of the claggy pitch prior to rounding Keen and then slotting the ball into the gaping net to record his 20th goal of the season.
Two late goals emphasised the Robins’ superiority over their ailing opponents. In the 84th minute, Graham Barrow strode imperiously through the Moss Lane mud and rammed a low shot beyond Keen from the edge of the penalty area, thereby bringing his personal tally of goals for the campaign to seven.
Two minutes later, Barry Whitbread’s 22nd goal of the season ensued. JR conjured up another incredible and dazzling long run, during which he pierced the Bangor defence and then set up Alty’s leading goalscorer with an easy opportunity to steer the ball past Keen at the Chequers End.
In the post match analysis, a somewhat relieved Tony Sanders remarked: “We needed that win, because it was our first in five APL games. The five goals gave us a boost in goal difference and, when one looks at our home record, it is fantastic to realise that, to date, we have only conceded four goals in the league all season.”
This 5-0 vanquishing of financially-beleaguered Bangor City in front of 1,471 observers constituted the Robins’ biggest league victory of the season so far and it restored Alty to the vanguard of the APL table, as a consequence of their superior goal difference to Weymouth (whilst also still possessing a game in hand on the Dorset club). BARRY PIKESLEY
PART 44: RAVE ON, JOHN DAVISON
With the transfer deadline day of Monday, 31st March 1980 looming ominously on the horizon, the Alty manager, Tony Sanders, elected to sell one seasoned member of his first team squad and then recruit a young and inexperienced player with an eye to the future at Moss Lane.
On Friday, 28th March 1980, Phil Wilson was transferred to the reigning Northern Premier League (NPL) Champions, Mossley, for a fee of £2,300. In the Summer of 1979, the Robins had paid Runcorn £2,000 in order to acquire the services of the ultra-fit, perma-tanned midfielder, who was employed as a schoolteacher on Merseyside. However, particularly since the arrival at the club of the impressive Graham Barrow from Southport, Wilson had been unable to command a regular place in the Robins’ first-choice XI and, consequently, he had been unsettled at Moss Lane in recent months.
Wilson would proceed to make his debut for the Lilywhites in their 1-1 NPL draw at Morecambe on the following day and subsequently appeared at Wembley as a used substitute in Mossley’s 2-1 FA Trophy Final defeat at the hands of Dagenham on Saturday, 17th May 1980. During his tenure at Moss Lane, Wilson recorded a total of 17 (+6 as a substitute) appearances for the Robins in all competitions, scoring four goals in the process.
Meanwhile, incoming at Moss Lane was an 18-year-old ex-Southport midfielder by the name of Brian Jackson, who had just been released by the then Third Division Blackpool. Whilst discussing the arrival of this teenager, Tony Sanders boldly declared: “Brian Jackson is one of the first signings in what we hope will be a new era at the club of younger players to be schooled and ready to take their place in the rebuilding of the side, hopefully in Football League soccer.” In fact, Jackson would fail to register even a single first team appearance for the Robins and was discharged from Moss Lane in the ensuing close season.
There was also concurrent speculation in the local press that the Alty boss had made recent enquiries pertaining to the possibility of signing fellow Alliance Premier League (APL) club Stafford Rangers’ central defender, Ben Seddon, who was now in his sixth season at Marston Road. Tony Sanders duly confirmed his interest in this player but then divulged that: “Ben was available but we ducked out at the last minute” and the erstwhile Tranmere Rovers pivot was promptly purchased by NPL Runcorn for the sum of £2,000 on Saturday, 29th March 1980, a transaction which entailed his omission from the Stafford Rangers side which lined up against the Robins in an APL fixture at Moss Lane on that very same day.
Stafford Rangers had concluded the 1978/79 campaign as the FA Trophy winners for the second time but their inaugural APL season had evolved into something akin to a nightmare. Floundering in 19th position in the league table (and with only the woebegone Redditch United marooned beneath them), they had collected merely 19 points from their 31 league fixtures to date and the statistics for their miserable away record in the APL read as follows: played: 15; won: two; drawn: two; lost: 11; goals scored: 20; goals conceded: 29 and points gained: just six out of a possible total of 30.
Moreover, the preceding month had witnessed the dismissal of Stafford’s manager, Roy Chapman, who had steered the club to an NPL title and FA Trophy double back in the 1971/72 season. Chapman, whose son, Lee, would go on to become a centre forward for the likes of Stoke City; Sheffield Wednesday and Leeds United, had been the Stockport County manager when the peerless George Best had been cajoled into making three seemingly improbable appearances for the Edgeley Park club during their 1975/76 Fourth Division campaign.
Stafford’s right full back at Moss Lane almost 31 years ago was a certain individual by the name of Fraser Wood, who would, alas, return to haunt the Robins on that fateful warm Sunday afternoon at Marston Road on 28th April 1991. Myriad Alty supporters still bear the scars inflicted by that harrowing image of Wood’s second half free kick curling inexorably around the defensive wall and beyond Jeff Wealands, a goal which duly sealed a heartbreaking 2-1 defeat for the Robins as their bid to lift the GM Vauxhall Conference title all but evaporated.
Still unbeaten on their home turf in the APL and fielding an unchanged line-up from the one which had eviscerated Bangor City 5-0 at Moss Lane just five days earlier, the table-topping Robins generally laboured whilst bidding to quell their lowly adversaries, even after the visitors had been reduced to ten men in the 19th minute. Steve Jones, a midfielder on loan from Port Vale, kicked Jeff Johnson in an off-the-ball incident and then engaged in a bout of persistent and petulant arguing with the referee, Don Shaw from Sandbach, all of which inevitably culminated in him receiving his marching orders from the official.
The hosts swiftly capitalised when the Stafford defence failed to guide the resultant free kick away from the danger area. John Rogers’ cross was hooked home at the far post by Alty’s leading goalscorer, Barry Whitbread, who thereby increased his personal account for the season to 23.
After 30 minutes of the contest had elapsed, JR came close to doubling the Robins’ advantage via a shot which clipped the Stafford crossbar. However, the visitors almost levelled matters on the stroke of half-time, when an effort by Malcolm Briggs was cleared off the line by Alty’s accomplished left full back, John Davison (left), with the home goalkeeper John Connaughton beaten.
Attacking the Chequers End in the second half, the Robins sustained their territorial superiority but they were finding a second goal to be irritatingly elusive, as a strong, blustery wind continued to mar the quality of the fare on offer for the crowd of 2,324. However, John Rogers eventually obliged by powering home a trademark header from Barry Howard’s accurate 72nd minute left wing corner kick. JR’s 21st strike of the campaign denoted that Alty had now amassed a century of goals in all competitions (inclusive of that 4-2 NPL Challenge Shield triumph over Mossley) during that memorable 1979/80 season.
Then, out of the blue, Stafford pulled a goal back within sixty seconds of the Robins establishing a two goal cushion. Midfielder Gary Dulson, who had been recruited from Crewe Alexandra on a free transfer only hours prior to this fixture, found the back of the Alty net with a 20-yard shot. Dulson had, in fact, faced the Robins just two months earlier whilst on loan at Northwich Victoria, making his debut in Alty’s 1-0 reverse at The Drill Field on Saturday, 26th January 1980.
The Robins finally added a third goal in the 90th minute when John King unleashed a spectacular 30-yard drive from a direct free kick, which arrowed into the visitors’ net and duly increased the Alty captain‘s tally for the season to five.
Reflecting on his team’s attainment of a league double over Stafford Rangers, a sanguine Tony Sanders observed: “The conditions were bad but we are quite happy with a result in our favour at this stage of the season.“ Indeed, the Robins’ boss had further cause for contentment when news subsequently filtered through that second-placed Weymouth had been held to a 1-1 stalemate at Wealdstone, thereby enabling Alty to open up a single point margin between themselves and the Terras, whilst still possessing a game in hand on the Dorset club.
The evening of Monday, 31st March 1980 saw the Robins entertain Wealdstone in a rearranged APL encounter. This fixture had originally been scheduled for Saturday, 19th January 1980 but had been postponed owing to a frozen pitch. This represented the third meeting of the season between the two clubs with the Robins having triumphed in the previous league and APL Cup contests.
The Middlesex club had endured a faltering opening to their APL campaign, which had incorporated the departure of their manager, Alan Fogarty, to Tamworth in September 1979. His successor, the former reserve team boss, Ken Payne, had then proceeded to pilot the team from the relegation zone to a respectable mid-table position and his achievements had been recognised with the award of the APL Manager Of The Month accolade for January 1980.
When they alighted at Moss Lane, Wealdstone were occupying 13th spot in the APL table, having accumulated an aggregate of 28 points from their 30 league matches to date. After having completed 15 away APL fixtures, their record read as follows: won: four; drawn: four; lost: seven; goals scored: 13; goals conceded: 22 and points gained: 12 out of a potential sum of 30.
John Rogers was reported as being a doubtful participant due to a leg strain but he passed a fitness test to ensure that the Robins fielded an unchanged side for the third consecutive game. A pre-match downpour had given the Moss Lane pitch a thorough drenching but Alty adjusted well to the heavy conditions and proceeded to exhibit some of their best football of the season to overcome some stubborn resistance from Wealdstone in front of 1,676 spectators.
Notwithstanding some spells of intense Alty pressure, including a close range shot from Barry Whitbread being cleared off the line, the first half remained goalless. However, the hosts eventually achieved the vital breakthrough just eight minutes into the second half via Barry Howard’s 13th goal of the season. The Robins’ irrepressible winger set off on a mazy solo run, outwitting three Wealdstone defenders, before blasting an unstoppable right foot drive into the net at the Chequers End.
The visitors stunned the Moss Lane crowd by conjuring up an instant riposte. Having caught the Alty defence napping, Brian Greenhalgh reached the by-line and squeezed the ball across the face of the goal for Neil Cordice to tap home.
Jeff Johnson was giving a phenomenal performance in the Robins’ midfield, brimming with commitment; skill and non-stop running as he ploughed through the Moss Lane mud, and it was he who set up Alty’s winning goal in the 66th minute. After twice beating his marker during a left wing run, he delivered a cross towards John Rogers, who promptly outjumped the Wealdstone rearguard and headed the ball past Bob Taylor to record his 22nd goal of the season.
In the wake of having surveyed his team forge a three point gap over Weymouth at the summit of the APL table, a jubilant Tony Sanders averred: “The attitude of both teams on an awkward pitch was highly commendable and I think I can honestly say that I have not seen so much sheer effort and hard work put into a game at Moss Lane for a long, long time. It was probably one of the most entertaining games we have seen at Altrincham this season.”
Reacting to this consolidation of the club’s overriding quest to lift the APL title, the Alty Board of Directors rewarded Tony Sanders with the offer of a new two-and-a-half year contract, which would keep him at Moss Lane until 1982. This arrangement actually comprised two different versions: one on the premise that the Robins were to remain in the APL and an alternative that would come into effect if Alty were to attain their paramount objective of securing promotion to the Football League. This document would also constitute the first contract that Tony Sanders had consented to sign since his return to Moss Lane in 1976.
Wealdstone’s left full back in that 2-1 APL defeat at Moss Lane over three decades ago was a certain 17-year-old qualified advanced electrician by the name of Stuart Pearce, who would of course go on to enjoy a successful professional career playing for Coventry City; Nottingham Forest; Newcastle United; West Ham United and Manchester City respectively.
Pearce would proceed to be awarded a total of 78 Full International caps for England but he was never selected for the England Non League International team during his five seasons with Wealdstone. In his autobiography Psycho, which was published in 2000, Pearce offers the following enlightenment pertaining to the reasons for his exclusion: “I didn’t get picked…..mainly because Altrincham, top of the league at the time, had a left back named John Davison, who, quite frankly, was better than me. I was up and coming and might have pushed him the next season if I hadn’t turned professional but there was no doubt in my mind that he earned his place.”