by Andy Mitten.
The crowd in the main stand at Altrincham F.C.'s Moss Lane features several familiar faces: Sir Alex Ferguson, Sam Allardyce, Roy Keane, Walter Smith and David Gill. Only they aren't there to watch the non-league Robins, but Manchester United's reserve team who play their home games in the heart of this wealthy south-west Manchester suburb, with its patchwork of period Victorian housing and nouveau-riche Cheshire ostentation.
Altrincham haven't been short of big name support in their own right. Juan Sebastian Verón would watch his friend, the United and England masseur Rod Thornley. Thornley, younger brother of the former United winger Ben, is an Altrincham striker. For a time he played alongside David Gardner, famous for being one of David Beckham's best mates and a partner in Jason Ferguson's controversial Elite Agency. Last year, Gardner called upon David Beckham and Phil Neville to act as joint best men for his wedding to the actress Davina Murphy. There were even bigger names in the past. One Altrincham director - Peter Swales - became chairman of Manchester City; another - Noel White - chairman of Liverpool. The great Bill Shankly would often watch Altrincham and Tommy Docherty had a stint as manager. If it all sounds untypical for a lowly non-league club, then that's about right at Altrincham.
Throughout the 1970s and 80s, 'Alty' were rightly proud of their tag as the Manchester United of non-league football. Their players became accustomed to visits from patronising tabloid journalists as they made news far more than their minnow status would usually dictate. Over a four-year period between 1978-82 the Robins boasted a better FA Cup record than any side in the old divisions three and four. They reached the FA Cup 3rd round four years on the trot and, between 1974 and 1986, played the likes of Everton, Blackburn, Tottenham and Liverpool. In 1986 they became only the second non-league team to beat a top-flight team on their own ground, knocking Birmingham City out of the FA Cup. The Robins' success wasn't confined to that competition either. As well as two FA Trophies, Altrincham won the Alliance Premier (now the Conference) in each of its first two years, only failing to realise their ultimate ambition of league football because of the inequality that was the re-election system.
Subsequent years have not been kind to Altrincham. Their Moss Lane home is impressive enough to stage league football, but the 6,000 capacity ground seems wasted on the five hundred die-hards who now watch the team labouring in the Conference North, the league below the Nationwide Conference. The term 'fallen giant' isn't only applicable in league football and one man who knows all about Alty's glory days is 70s' terrace idol and current Altrincham manager-cum-secretary, Graham Heathcote.
"There were bigger names in non-league than us before the 70s," remembers the former winger who joined the club at 16. "Altrincham played in the Cheshire League and Northern Premier League and were going under until Peter Swales and Noel White got involved. They were local men who made their money selling music sheets, radios and televisions. They were joined by local businessmen, each of whom put money in."
Altrincham had reached the FA Cup 3rd round in 1965-66, losing to Wolves, but it wasn't until the 1970s that their cup feats gained wider recognition. In 1973-74 they drew Blackburn Rovers away in the 2nd round. To calm his nerves before the game, goalkeeper Peter Eales consumed three pints of bitter. He was outstanding as Altrincham drew 0-0. Blackburn won the replay, denying the Robins a game against Everton. That would have to wait a year, for the following season Altrincham reached the 3rd round and an away tie against the Toffees. The run to the third round wasn't without incident.
"We played Scunthorpe in the first round and went en masse to watch them two weeks before the game," recalls Heathcote. Roy Rees, a university lecturer who doubled up as Altrincham manager, was a disciplinarian noted for his tactical acumen. "Rees told us to watch the players we would be playing against, but three or four of lads just went in the bar." Their manager wasn't pleased and had strong words with one of the drinkers, the centre half and full time scaffolder, Gerry Casey. Casey's defence was simple: "if the forward's brilliant I don't want to shit myself for two weeks. And if he isn't, I don't want to know either, because there's only going to be one winner in that game."
Casey came out on top as Altrincham drew at the Old Show Ground before beating Scunthorpe in the replay at Moss Lane. Everton, top of the first division, awaited in the third round. "They had players like Mick Lyons, Dai Davies and Bob Latchford," recalls Heathcote. "Liverpool were playing at home on the same day and the kick-offs were staggered. Liverpool fans gave us the thumbs up on the coach into the city."
Once at Goodison, the Altrincham players listened to the public address announcer take the rise out of the non-leaguers. "That made us more determined," remembers Heathcote. The Altrincham players had other incentives. "A director came in the dressing room and offered every player £1,000 to beat Everton. I was on £5.25 a week working in the Port of Manchester," says Heathcote. Backed by a 7,000 following in a 34,519 crowd. Altrincham did the unthinkable and took the lead.
"The higher level actually suited us," attests Heathcote. "You get so much more time on the ball. We had good players who were composed. Our biggest fear was how we would react to the big crowd but I was so focussed I hardly noticed them. Everton got a dubious penalty ten minutes before the end. It wasn't a foul and it wasn't even in the penalty area." Altrincham were cast as cup heroes and a press call was held at Moss Lane the following morning ahead of the replay.
Heathcote invited a mate along, a local character called Michael Webster. He was infamous for his Rod Stewart impressions, drinking pints of Pernod and once leaving the house in his slippers to get a newspaper whilst his wife made breakfast - and returning home two days later after spending two days drinking in Blackpool. Webster, naturally, pretended to be an Altrincham player. How were the media to know differently?
Such was the demand for tickets to the replay that the game was switched to Old Trafford. The decision was justified - 35,530 showed. "Driving up the Chester Road to Old Trafford was like Wembley Way for us," recalls Heathcote. "Thousands of United and City fans cheered us on. City played the next night and had a smaller crowd." Out on the Old Trafford pitch, Heathcote made an early error, a back pass to Bob Latchford, who scored. Mick Lyons added a second in the second half. "I learnt then that you only ever get one chance against the top teams," he rues. "I was distraught as I walked back to the changing rooms - until I was distracted by a loud splashing noise." It was Michael Webster in the players' bath. He had cut the picture of himself out of the paper and blagged his way all the way into the changing rooms.
Manager Rees left after that season and was replaced by Wigan's Les Rigby. Rigby had done well previously in the FA Cup, but he dismantled a winning team and Heathcote wasn't the only player to leave. Rigby didn't last long and was replaced by Rees's former assistant, Tony Sanders. A quiet, thoughtful coach, the appointment was a success and not only because he brought the players back. One Sanders buy would stand out above all others, that of a bearded, toothless scaffolder from the Liverpool overspill estate of Kirkby. John King, a midfielder who looked like Brutus from Popeye, signed in 1977. He was made captain and his influence was immediately tangible. An Evertonian, 'Kingy' had been a Liverpool youngster. "Wearing that red shirt made me sick," recalls King. "I lasted four games before moving to Harry Catterick's Everton, but me and Harry didn't see eye to eye. He thought I was a little too robust. Everton sent me for my medical when I was 15 years old and I weighed over 13st. The surgeon sized me up and said, "You're a big lad, there's not much chance of you losing out in a tackle is there?" That was like loopy juice to me, I came out feeling invincible. It was win at all costs for me. That's why I've never entered a marathon, because I knew I'd have no chance of winning."
King's insatiable desire to succeed may have curtailed his Everton career, but he provided the edge Altrincham needed. "Kingy had problems on and off the field," attests Heathcote, "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 fucking game on'." A rival Kettering Town manager later admitted that his players went white whenever they heard that thump. "We feared nobody," states King. "There was an incredible belief and if we lost, there were murders in the dressing room. I saw team mates punch each other."
"I played under the incredible Mr Tony Sanders on the field and chairman Mr Noel White off it," adds King in respectful awe. "When you get very good at your job, people want to take you. That's why Liverpool took Mr White to be their chairman. He went to be a head at the FA too, so that shows how high he set the standards at Altrincham. If directors weren't putting money directly into the club then they were raising it. Altrincham had a lot of money compared with their rivals." Chairman White led by example. He owned the local Bowden Hotel which was used this to hold club dinners, attracting business types from south Manchester who would now spend their money at Old Trafford or the City of Manchester Stadium. "We were one of first clubs to do sportsmen's dinners on a monthly basis," claims Noel White. "We had golf days, a Chinese evening for women and an annual dinner at Piccadilly Hotel in Manchester with 500 people there. It was a big success. United and City personalities would attend, it was a who's who of sports."
"There were great nights," recalls David Meek, the journalist who covered Manchester United for the Manchester Evening News for 35 years. "Senior police officers and scrap metal dealers would bid against each other in auctions for memorabilia and Altrincham would raise thousands. People like Henry Cooper and Jack Charlton would speak. They were very different from the norm, there was a real buzz about them." The profits meant that Altrincham became renowned as good payers. "Most of the players were offered deals by league clubs," states King, "But they were financially better off staying because they had full time jobs too. I was offered £100 a week to join one league club. I was getting £70 at Altrincham and earned a lot more than that as a scaffolder."
Altrincham's wealth also helped them achieve a professionalism rarely found at their level. "The team were highly disciplined," recalls King. "If you went out on a Friday then you'd be dropped on a Saturday. "Everyone thinks that non-league players are piss heads," adds Heathcote. "With a night-club behind one end of the ground and we liked to let our hair down, but never on a Friday night. That's one reason that set us apart from other non-league sides. We also used to stay in hotels the night before the game too. Maybe people thought we were big times charlies, but in our minds were weren't."
Altrincham soon became the dominant force in non-league football. They won the FA Trophy in 1978, beating fellow headline makers Leatherhead 3-1, the opponents inspiring a giant: 'Alty have brains, not Leatherheads' flag. Although judging by the actions of goalkeeper Eales the day before the game, that boast was disputable. Eales had broken a finger and went to see the Arsenal physio Fred Street. Desperate to play, he offered his unaffected hand for an x-ray. It was no surprise when he was given the all clear. Twelve thousand Altrincham fans made the journey to Wembley and Manchester United placed an advert in the Manchester Evening News the day before the game wishing Altrincham the best of luck.
With John Rodgers and Jeff Johnson, the most prolific strike force in non-league up front, Altrincham were rolling. The FA Cup 3rd round was reached again in 1979 where they met a Tottenham side featuring new Argentinian signings Osvaldo Ardiles and Ricardo Villa. The Daily Telegraph writer Jim White, then a resident of Altrincham, recalls: "Before the game, John King was saying that all foreigners were dirty divers and stuff like that. It was quite embarrassing." King didn't take long to make his mark. Fourteen seconds, in fact. His actions were greeted by a roar from the home crowd as they watched Ardiles sent sprawling on the on the pitch. "They kicked off, the ball went to him (Ardiles) and I just went for it," remembers King. "I can't say too much because he might sue. I wanted him to know that, whilst he might have been a top class player, I was going to shake him up and let him know that he had another 89 minutes of the same thing." But, surprisingly, King had met his match.
"Fifteen minutes later Ardiles came flying into me and there was a little altercation. The referee said, 'Any more of that and you're both off'. Ardiles started talking foreign, pretending that he didn't understand, but as we walked away, Ardiles turned to me and in perfect English said: 'I saved us both a booking there'. We shook hands and swapped shirts after the game. The Tottenham manager went mad at him for that, saying that his players had disgraced themselves by not beating Altrincham. Ardiles took me to one side in the players' lounge for a photo with him and his partner. At the time I had long hair and the picture looked like three Argentinians." Describing Altrincham's performance as "the finest non-league performance I have ever seen", Peter Swales offered the use of Manchester City's Maine Road for the reply.
"It was a kind gesture but a mistake to play at Maine Road, the biggest pitch in the country," recollects Heathcote. "We couldn't get near Ardiles." Altrincham lost 3-0 in front of another cash pay-day crowd of 27,878. In 1979-80 they reached the 3rd round again, losing 2-1 to Orient after a replay. That season also saw Altrincham win the inaugural Alliance Premier League. "We were so successful that there was talk of the club not being able to afford our win bonuses," adds Heathcote. "The players were asked to let the directors know if we needed a washing machine or a TV - they could get them cheaper due to their background in selling electrical goods. We were always paid though."
Membership of the football league was applied for and Altrincham's case was a strong one. Crowds were better than the division four average and their success in the cups had raised their profile significantly. "We had people travelling up and down the country canvassing support," evokes Noel White, "we were neck and neck with Rochdale." The re-election vote was held at London's Café Royale. Altrincham missed out by two votes. "The football league was an old pals act," White chips in, "And it didn't help that one of our supporters arrived too late and another, well you better not write that!"
"One bloke who promised to support us got pissed and fell asleep," recalls Heathcote. "The players were very disappointed but it was the directors we felt for. They worked so hard and everyone at the club was under the impression that when the Alliance League was formed there would be one automatic promotion place each season. That was until the chairmen of the division three and four teams complained and the re-election law was retained." But Altrincham would not lie down. In the 1980-81 season they reached the FA Cup 3rd round yet again. This time, they were drawn against the European Champions elect, Liverpool. Their coach to Anfield had an interesting passenger, Bill Shankly.
"Shankly had been ostracised at Anfield," remembers Heathcote. "It was really sad. He was friends with Sanders and was often at Altrincham. Robinsons Barley Water had given him an ambassadorial role where he travelled to north-west games and nominated his man of the match. It was quite demeaning for a man of his stature. He sat at the front of the coach and came in our dressing room. He had a real presence but the situation was weird. He didn't give a motivational speech or anything and something wasn't right between Liverpool and Shankly. What Shankly did do was point to King and say: 'See that man there. I would have curbed him. I would have made him England captain'". Unlike other league teams, Liverpool didn't try to belittle Altrincham before the match. "Liverpool were very professional in their approach," recalls Heathcote. "And they won 4-1. I scored our goal, a penalty against Ray Clemence at the Kop. Just as I was about to take it, Alan Kennedy said, 'Bet you a fiver you don't score.' He paid up in the players' lounge. He sent me a card recently asking for his fiver back."
Buoyed by another gate receipt windfall, Altrincham pushed on, winning the Alliance League again in 1981. Again, they applied for football league membership. Again they were refused, this time by eight votes. Manager Sanders was heartbroken. "What more do people want?" he asked. "We proved we are a league side but the chairmen forget all about cup results when they vote their old cronies back into the football league year after year. We know now that the only way we can get in the league is if a bank manager closes a club down." And yet Altrincham still continued to succeed in the cup, reaching the 3rd round for the fourth year on the trot in 1981-82. In the first round, they beat Sheffield United, the 4th division leaders 3-0 after replay at Moss Lane in the first round. The initial game wasn't for the purists.
"A Sheff Utd midfielder butted me after 60 seconds," remembers King. "There was blood pouring down my face. I didn't want to be treated; I just wanted to sort him out. He went to get stitched so I followed him down the tunnel. I saw him and shouted, 'Get that cunt off the bench and get me stitched'. The physio stitched me and said: 'You'll have to hang on and see if you've got concussion.' I ignored him and went back on the field with twelve forehead stitches wrapped in a bandage. We got a draw and were up for the replay. Two of their stars cried off the game with groin injuries. They were shitting themselves."
"We didn't beat them, we annihilated them," offered manager Sanders after the replay victory, which many Alty fans remember as their best performance. Blades' manager Ian Porterfield agreed: "We go away humbly." York were beaten after a second round replay before an exhausted Altrincham succumbed 6-1 to Burnley and their brilliant young winger Trevor Steven in the 3rd round.
"We weren't just thugs," stresses King. "In fact four of the lads were at university - when university was hard to get into. They sat at the front of the coach to away games, taking the tables and talked about whatever clever people talked about. Then the half clever ones sat in the middle and us thickos at the back. The clever ones could shoot us down with brains, but we were more streetwise." What's more intriguing is that Altrincham's teams usually contained an unholy balance of Mancunians and Scousers. In 1986, Altrincham became only second non-league side to beat first division team at their own ground when they defeated Birmingham City 2-1 at St Andrews in the FA Cup 4th round. David Seaman kept goal for Birmingham, but the victory was doubly sweet for his Altrincham counterpart, the former Manchester United keeper Jeff Wealands, who claimed that he had been hounded out of Birmingham by the then manager Ron Saunders. And it was a measure of Alty's reputation that the victory over Birmingham didn't stun the football world. Still, it made the opening credits of the 9 o'clock news.
The day after Birmingham game, Noel White went over old ground. "Getting into the football league must be our priority," he said. "Not many clubs have achieved what we have so we feel we have more than a good case for election to the football." Altrincham didn't win the league in 1986 but they lifted the FA Trophy for the second time. Two months later White left to become a director at Liverpool. "After 25 years and two weeks, I felt I'd done my whack," offers White. "Liverpool weren't particularly geared up commercially and I was asked to look at this area." That summer, automatic promotion and relegation to the Football League was agreed. It was a cruel blow for White's Altrincham's dream. White became Liverpool chairman in 1990 until David Moores bought the controlling interest. He's still a director.
In 1991, Altrincham came close to winning the Conference and automatic promotion. With King as manager they were clear leaders and favourites to go up until they lost three and drew two of their final five games. Barnet beat them to the title. Altrincham have never been as close since and despite reaching the cup 3rd round again in 1995 (they lost at Tottenham) they've been unable to match the consistency of yore. "It's most unfortunate that they are strapped for cash," offers White. "They spent money on the ground with the carrot of getting to the football league and that can sometimes be your undoing."
"It saddens me to see the current situation," adds John King. "Altrincham were the Manchester United of non-league football. Everyone hated us, but they also respected the fact that we were a great side. Our achievements are there to be emulated," concludes Heathcote. "We have a fine history and I use that to motivate the current team. You can have all the money in the world, but it doesn't mean a carrot compared to your memories."