WHEN WE WERE KINGS: ALTY IN THE APL 1979/80
by Barry Pikesley
PART 1: THE TIMES THEY ARE A-CHANGIN’
The following articles appeared in the Robins' Review, during season 2009-10 and are reproduced here by kind permission of the author.
As we are approaching the 30th anniversary of the establishment of the Alliance Premier League (APL), it seems like an opportune time to indulge in some reminiscences about the inaugural season of that pioneering forerunner of the Blue Square Premier League, particularly as it proved to be such a momentous and successful one for the Robins and their supporters.
The APL was formed as a new national competition for 20 semi-professional clubs with the objective of the eventual champions being submitted for election to the Football League (these were the dark days before automatic promotion was introduced). Invitations to apply to join the APL were dependent upon your league position at the end of the 1978/79 season and subject to compliance with specific ground grading criteria.
The original 20 members comprised seven clubs from the Northern Premier League (NPL) and 13 clubs from the Southern League Premier Division (SLPD). The North East based Northern League rejected repeated invitations to become a feeder league to the APL, thereby rather isolating teams such as Spennymoor United and Blyth Spartans for many years to come. The South East dominated Berger Isthmian League initially also declined to act as a feeder league but then relented for the start of the 1981/82 season, when both Dagenham and Enfield were admitted to the APL.
The 13 clubs derived from the SLPD were as follows (their 1978/79 season league position is indicated in parentheses): Worcester City (1st); Kettering Town (2nd); Telford United (3rd); Maidstone United (4th); Bath City (5th); Weymouth (6th); AP Leamington (7th); Redditch United (8th); Yeovil Town (9th); Nuneaton Borough (11th); Gravesend & Northfleet (12th); Barnet (13th) and Wealdstone (15th).
Left: Altrincham FC 1979-80.
This presented Alty with the prospect of matches against 11 teams that we had never played against before in a competitive fixture. The exceptions from the Southern ranks were Telford United, who the Robins had last encountered back in December 1972 in two FA Trophy First Round ties (winning the replay 2-0 at Moss Lane), and Weymouth, who we had faced in the FA Trophy Quarter Final as recently as 1977 (eventually triumphing 2-1 in a replay at Moss Lane).
Seven clubs transferred to this new division from the old NPL (1978/79 league position confirmed in parentheses): Altrincham (2nd); Scarborough (4th); Boston United (6th); Stafford Rangers (8th); Northwich Victoria (10th); Bangor City (12th) and Barrow (a lowly 16th).
Notable Northern absentees from the APL included Mossley (the 1978/79 NPL champions); Matlock Town (3rd) and Runcorn (7th), all of whose grounds were deemed as being below the required standard for the new league. Runcorn eventually entered the APL for the 1981/82 season but the other two teams never did make the grade. The creation of the APL also resulted in the temporary cessation of the Robins’ longstanding league rivalry with their old adversary Macclesfield Town, who had contrived to finish in a woeful 23rd position in the 1978/79 NPL and would not arrive at the highest level of Non League football until the 1987/88 GM Vauxhall Conference campaign.
Also missing from the party were Southport (5th), who actually declined the offer to join the APL on financial grounds, citing the increased travelling costs incurred by playing in what they regarded as “a benevolent league for the Southern clubs.“ Those Alty supporters who travelled to Haig Avenue for the Robins’ final NPL fixture on 5th May 1979 will probably recollect those rather bitter rantings against the APL (and, indeed, the Robins), in the Southport match programme that day! This short-sighted decision was to prove a costly blunder, which effectively condemned them to an exile from the premier stratum of semi-professional football until the 1993/94 GM Vauxhall Conference season.
The summer of 1979 saw various ground improvements undertaken at Moss Lane, including £30,000 spent on the construction of new terracing at the Chequers End, together with £11,000 earmarked for a new playing area perimeter fence and £8,000 designated to update the floodlights. In addition, Alty’s legendary groundsman Jack Thorpe was entrusted with the task of lengthening the Moss Lane pitch by two yards at each end in order to bring the dimensions up to European standard.
On the playing front, Northwich Victoria lodged a bid of £3,500 to take John King to The Drill Field as their new player/coach but this approach was rejected and the Robins’ motivational captain duly signed a new two year contract to remain at Moss Lane. Meanwhile, Tony Sanders offered Runcorn £6,000 for their prolific goalscorer Barry Whitbread but this came to nothing. Much more of him to come later, though! However, midfielder Phil Wilson did join the Robins from the Canal Street club for a fee of £2,000. The Board had also opted to resurrect an Altrincham reserve team, who would participate in the Lancashire League under the management of Sale based John Harris.
The Robins undertook four pre-season friendlies, all of them away from Moss Lane owing to the development work on the stadium. A leisurely 4-0 win at Winsford United (Bobby Fraser appeared for the home side and somebody called Bob Skilling played in Alty’s defence - does anyone remember anything about him?) was followed by a 3-0 victories against Witton Albion and Burscough respectively and then a 4-1 win at Chorley.
These friendlies were chiefly notable for two incidents which rather contradicted their description. I recollect watching in disbelief as John King was sent off against Witton Albion after a bizarre altercation with his former Alty team mate Ian Morris late in that game at the old Central Ground. The significant consequence of that action was that King would be suspended for Alty’s debut fixture in the APL. Then at Chorley, the home goalkeeper, a certain erratic character called John Wood who had spent a largely disastrous spell with the Robins during the calamitous Les Rigby era in 1975/76, promptly punched John Rogers and duly received his marching orders.
So, with my main stand season ticket in hand (£10.00 for Senior Citizens/ Juniors; the adult equivalent cost £16.00), I avidly awaited the dawn of a brave new world of football at Moss Lane.
PART 2: UNKNOWN PLEASURES
In the opening line of his novel The Go-Between, L. P. Hartley wrote: “The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there." This observation would certainly ring true for those more recent converts to the ranks of Altrincham FC supporters if they were to find themselves transported miraculously back through time to the start of the Alliance Premier League (APL) three decades ago on this very date.
August 1979 was a time in Non League football when the reward for winning a league fixture was still only two points and managers were only permitted to name one substitute. The concept of shirts bearing a number greater than 12; an individual player’s name or even a sponsor’s logo was simply unheard of. Away from football, the heinous Margaret Thatcher was just commencing her fourth month as Prime Minister and the entire ITV network was off air due to industrial action (which continued for an astonishing total of ten weeks). Meanwhile, on the mean streets of Timperley, our own beloved George Heslop was still sporting a pair of colossal sideburns to rival those of Engelbert Humperdinck at his peak.
In this pre-Internet era prior to both the ubiquity of mobile phones and the dominating presence of Sky TV, the first news of the result and any goalscorers from an Altrincham away fixture frequently arrived via a long since obsolete ritual. In short, you loitered in your newsagent at around 6.00pm on a Saturday awaiting the delivery of the Manchester Evening News Football Pink and then scoured the Non League match reports within that issue. There was no equivalent of the Noel White Suite at Moss Lane back then, so Alty supporters (and, indeed, some players) tended to gather up the road in The Moss pub, where the landlords were the (in)famous “Hissing” Sid and Irene Whalley. Some regulars there were even courageous enough to sup the daunting concoction that went by the name of Dark Mild.
After years spent venturing to such fleshpots as Great Harwood, South Liverpool and Goole, the dawn of the APL instilled Alty diehards with the sense that this was indeed the beginning of a great adventure. Genuine excitement mounted at the prospect of visiting such new and ostensibly exotic locations as Barnet, Kettering, Wealdstone and Yeovil etc. together with the chance to compare and contrast the perceived differences between the Northern and Southern teams’ respective playing styles and tactics. As the referees for the APL were to be derived from the Football League list, a higher standard of match officials was also anticipated.
So, on Saturday, 18th August 1979, the Robins embarked upon their APL campaign at Weymouth’s Recreation Ground, thereby immediately undertaking their longest journey of the season. In fact, the APL fixture list dictated that Alty would be confronted with seven away games in their opening 10 matches, a fact that didn’t particularly please the Robins’ manager Tony Sanders.
In contrast to their previous excursion to Weymouth for an FA Trophy tie two years earlier, Alty dominated proceedings in Dorset on this occasion but failed to convert their goalscoring opportunities and were forced to settle for a point gained in a 0-0 draw. Both teams started rather cautiously and there was a sense that the fear of losing their debut match in this new national league was rather constraining both sets of players. However, in the 57th minute, Alty almost broke the deadlock when Barry Howard set up Jeff Johnson inside the penalty area and although his shot eluded the home goalkeeper Steve Chalk, it was cleared off the line by Steve Dyer.
The Robins generally controlled the midfield possession courtesy of debutant Phil Wilson and John Davison (deputising for the suspended John King) and they created a trio of golden opportunities in the closing three minutes of the encounter. Barry Howard conjured up a dangerous drive across the six yard box, which tantalisingly eluded his colleagues as well as the opposing defenders, and then a John Rogers header produced a fine save from Chalk. Finally, another header from Rogers hit the inside of the post but rebounded out to safety. Meanwhile, at the other end, the Robins’ keeper Colin Darcy was enjoying a largely serene afternoon.
For the record, the Alty team for that inaugural APL fixture was: (1) Colin Darcy (2) Stan Allan (3) Ivan Crossley (4) Mal Bailey (5) John Owens (6) John Davison (7) Phil Wilson (8) Graham Heathcote (9) Jeff Johnson (10) John Rogers (right) (11) Barry Howard (Sub) Mickey Brooke. The attendance was 1,527.
Alty supporter Bill Waterson attended that Weymouth match and even remembers that he woke up late on the morning of the game and so his mother resorted to parking right in front of the coach on Moss Lane to prevent it from driving off without him on board! As he reflects, we didn’t realise at the time just how vital this particular point would eventually prove to be against the club who would subsequently emerge as the Robins’ principal rival for the league title.
Meanwhile, back at Moss Lane, the resurrected Altrincham reserves lost 3-1 in their initial Lancashire League fixture versus Manchester City’s ‘A‘ team. The Robins’ goalscorer was none other than that legend of local football, Brian Le Boutillier himself.
Incidentally, the Weymouth programme on that day advertised that a forthcoming attraction at the Weymouth FC Supporters Club comprised The Wurzels in cabaret, for which tickets were priced at only (a surely irresistible?) £3.50 each.
The first APL fixture at Moss Lane was against Telford United on Monday, 20th August 1979 (the evening matches kicked off at 7.30pm back in those days). Tony Sanders opted to restore John King to the central midfield role after the club captain had served his one match ban, so John Davison reverted to his more familiar left full back position and Ivan Crossley dropped down to substitute.
Just to divert off on a slight tangent, the number one record in the UK charts when the APL commenced was I Don’t Like Mondays by The Boomtown Rats. Monday traditionally remained as Alty’s favoured midweek night for home matches until a Gola League game against Scarborough on 24th September 1985, when we switched to Tuesday evenings at the instigation of John King and George Rooney, who were the managerial team at Moss Lane at that time.
The opening half against Telford United evolved into a rather tense and nervy affair with few attempts on goal aside from a couple of speculative 25 yard shots by John Rogers. In front of 1,497 spectators, the Robins’ patient approach eventually paid dividends in the 57th minute when Mal Bailey headed home a right wing cross by Phil Wilson from close range. Midway through the second half, Alty went 2-0 up when Jeff Johnson rose to meet another Wilson cross and sneaked his header past Telford’s keeper Caswell and just inside the far post.
As the Robins eased off, the visitors clawed themselves back into the game and Colin Darcy was called upon to make a couple of fine reflex saves from Eddie Hogan and Roger Jones respectively. After the final whistle, Tony Sanders commented on the Robins’ satisfactory start in the chiefly uncharted territory of the APL: “We have not settled down to the style of football we want yet but we have picked up three points against new opposition.”
In the following Thursday’s issue of the Altrincham Guardian, Tony Sanders revealed that he had set his team a target of amassing 57 points in the nascent APL, which he estimated would “leave us with a fair chance of winning the league.” In fact, the APL championship would be attained with a final tally of 56 points. His column in the Robins Review for the Telford United match bore the headline: “Great days lie ahead.” How accurate his prediction proved to be!