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 15: THEY MIGHT BE GIANT-KILLERS
“The ’Goliaths’ of Non League Altrincham slaughtered the ’Davids’ of Fourth Division Crewe without the remotest of difficulties” was the verdict of the journalist from The Daily Telegraph on the Robins’ 3-0 vanquishing of Crewe Alexandra in the FA Cup First Round tie played at Moss Lane on Saturday, 24th November 1979. Commenting on that very same match, The News Of The World’s reporter concluded that: “Altrincham’s convincing victory could not be classed as a giant-killing act - Crewe were no giants.”
Alty’s annihilation of their Football League opponents just over three decades ago was almost universally greeted with a reaction betraying a complete lack of surprise by the football community. Indeed, most people simply expected such an outcome to unfold and that even included the bookmakers, who regarded the Robins as firm favourites to win the tie (possibly an unprecedented betting scenario for a match between a Non League side and a Football League club?).
When the pairing of these two Cheshire teams in the FA Cup First Round draw had been announced, the respective responses from both clubs had contrasted markedly and, indeed, tellingly.
The reaction from the Alty camp was one of professed delight and relish at the prospect of engaging in a contest on home territory against the old English Fourth Division’s then bottom club. Tony Sanders duly remarked: “They are a League club, which is what we wanted, but they aren’t the best League club in the country and, the way that we’re playing at the moment, we must stand a very good chance.”
Club Chairman Noel White was equally ebullient and fully aware of the tie’s potential long term significance. He observed: “It’s going to be a good test to see how we would fare in the Fourth Division but we have still got to win the Alliance Premier League. Our aim in any season is to win the league and get into the Third Round of the FA Cup and, at the moment, we are playing the best football at the club for 12 years.”
Meanwhile, the reception given to the fixture by Tony Waddington, the former Stoke City manager who was now in charge at Crewe Alexandra, was somewhat less ecstatic and belied his ominous sense of trepidation about facing the Robins. He reflected: “We will be looking for anything we can get at Altrincham. I don’t think that anyone from the First Division to the Fourth Division would relish playing at Moss Lane. I saw them play at Mossley recently and, from what I saw there, I think that they are a very well-organised and sharp team that would do well in the Fourth Division. It will obviously be hard.”
The majority of the pre-match coverage in the media focused, rather inevitably, on the presence at Moss Lane of Alex Stepney, who was in line to make his first appearance in the competition since gaining a winner’s medal whilst playing for Manchester United against Liverpool at Wembley in the 1977 FA Cup Final.
However, the local press were also keen to portray the impending FA Cup First Round tie as an opportunity for the Robins to exact revenge on Crewe for an unfortunate and controversial previous defeat at the hands of the Railwaymen when the two clubs had last crossed swords at this same stage of the competition.
On Saturday, 16th November 1968, Crewe had escaped from Moss Lane with a slender and unmerited 1-0 victory, principally as the result of a truly inspired and breathtaking performance by their diminutive goalkeeper, Willie Mailey, whose outstanding agility and reflexes on the day had continually thwarted the Robins. One match reporter colourfully depicted Mailey as being “left time and again cavorting across his goal like a beleaguered gorilla trying to keep (Jackie) Swindells out.“
The crowd of 6,500 witnessed the Robins dominate the game and just when it seemed as if Mailey and his defence (including that familiar Hale resident and eventual window cleaner, Peter Leigh, at left full back) had finally been breached by Alty winger Ron Smith‘s inswinging corner, which appeared to have been headed out by Crewe defender Keith Stott after the ball had crossed the line, a stroke of good fortune came to the visitors’ rescue as the referee controversially waved play on.
The then Third Division outfit effectively stole the game with a goal in the 72nd minute. Alty goalkeeper Steve Fleet executed a simple catch from only Crewe’s second corner of the tie and threw the ball out towards Ron Smith. However, the visitors’ right back, Tommy Lowry, anticipated the move and intercepted the ball from Smith’s toe. From his resulting cross, Crewe’s Canadian World Cup squad member Wayne Emmerson (who had joined them from Manchester United during the Summer) stooped to direct a diving header goalwards from six yards out, which squirmed through the despairing Fleet’s fingers and into the net.
In the post match analysis, the Robins’ flabbergasted manager Freddie Pye bemoaned: “I have never, never seen a team so completely outplayed and yet win. It was worse than the Great Train Robbery - only this time they got off!” Whilst lamenting Alty’s ill fortune in his notes in the following Saturday’s issue of the Robins Review, a still incredulous Noel White commented: “At half-time, the Crewe directors didn’t just admit that they thought they had had it - they said they were in for a trouncing. But Alex pulled off the second robbery at Moss Lane in 48 hours. For two days before, the Red Robin Club had been broken into.”
Ironically, the ringleader of Alty’s tormentors that afternoon, Willie Mailey, would go on to sign for the Robins in October 1969. A former Scotland schoolboys international who had joined Everton just prior to his 17th birthday in June 1960, he arrived at Crewe in March 1963 and proceeded to register a total of 241 first team appearances for the Gresty Road side.
Mailey was unusually short by goalkeeping criteria, standing at only 5ft. 8½ inches tall, but he compensated for this ostensible occupational drawback by means of his astute positional play and shot-stopping skills. After just under three seasons at Moss Lane, during which he clocked up 161 league and cup appearances and was an ever-present for two successive Northern Premier League seasons (1970/71 and 1971/72), he moved to Macclesfield Town for the start of the 1972/73 campaign. The last time that I can recall watching him play against the Robins was at Middlewich Athletic in a Cheshire Senior Cup First Round tie on 7th January 1978, which Alty won 2-0. Sadly, Willie Mailey died in 1992.
The November 1979 incarnation of Crewe Alexandra arrived at Moss Lane entrenched at the foot of the old English Fourth Division and still seeking their first away win of the season. In 20 league fixtures, they had managed merely a trio of victories, whilst drawing three games and losing on 14 occasions. Having concluded the preceding season as the Football League’s basement club, they had been obliged to seek re-election for the fourth time in the last eight years.
Present in the Crewe line-up that afternoon just over thirty years ago was a 20-year old striker by the name of Colin Chesters, who the Robins would later sign from Northwich Victoria in August 1984. The blond-haired and permanently suntanned Chesters spent almost two seasons at Moss Lane, during which time he scored 16 goals and was a member of the Alty team that famously triumphed 2-1 at Birmingham City in an FA Cup Third Round tie on 14th January 1986. Nowadays, he is employed as the Director of Coaching at San Diego Surf Soccer Club in America.
Crewe’s centre half, Bob Scott, would also go on to feature in another particularly enjoyable moment from Alty’s memorable 1985/86 season, which is certainly worth recalling. On Tuesday, 22nd April 1986, the Robins entertained Northwich Victoria in a Gola League fixture at Moss Lane and promptly found themselves a goal behind after just thirty seconds courtesy of that ex-Alty forward, Don Page.
Midfielder Doug Newton’s fine shot levelled matters in the 44th minute and then, with merely six minutes of the match remaining, Scott contrived to conjure up a truly classic own goal at the Golf Road End. Gary Anderson’s long, speculative punt from inside his own half looked decidedly innocuous until Scott intervened with a gorgeous blunder. The lumbering central defender lobbed his backpass over the head of the advancing Vics goalkeeper, Dave Ryan, and could then only watch in horror and ignominy as the ball rolled into the vacant net. Marvellous!
Wearing the No. 11 shirt for the Railwaymen was the one-time Manchester United winger Peter Coyne, of whom great things had once been predicted on the basis of his hat-trick for England Schoolboys versus West Germany Schoolboys at Wembley in a match broadcast live by ITV. In fact, Coyne only accomplished a single full appearance for the Old Trafford club in a 2-1 defeat at Leicester City on 24th April 1976 (where he scored United’s goal) prior to being somewhat surprisingly released. He subsequently turned out for Ashton United until August 1977, when the then Crewe manager Harry Gregg had brought him to Gresty Road.
On the eve of the fixture, Crewe’s preparations were thrown into turmoil as an unforeseen goalkeeping crisis arose. The Railwaymen had commenced the season with John Phillips as their first choice goalkeeper, a former Wales international who was on loan from Chelsea (where he had spent the majority of his career as Peter Bonetti’s understudy). However, after six matches, he was succeeded by Dave Felgate, who had been signed on loan from Bolton Wanderers. Many Alty supporters will no doubt recall the portly Felgate‘s exceptional performance for Leigh RMI against the Robins in a Unibond League Premier Division fixture at Hilton Park on Saturday, 13th March 1999, when he saved two penalties (from Danny Adams and Paul Ellender respectively) in a 3-2 win for the Lancashire side.
Crewe were duly taken aback when Bolton Wanderers refused permission for Felgate to play in the FA Cup tie, thereby leaving them with the prospect of having to field their inexperienced 19-year old reserve keeper Kevin Rafferty against the Robins. In an effort to avoid this apparently undesirable proposition at Moss Lane, the Railwaymen attempted to expedite the registration of a goalkeeper who was on the books of Vancouver Whitecaps in the North American Soccer League: a certain Bruce Grobbelaar, no less.
Their eleventh hour endeavours promptly reached Parliamentary level, as the assistance of Gwyneth Dunwoody, the Labour MP for the Crewe and Nantwich constituency, was enlisted in a bid to cut through the immigration red tape and obtain the necessary international clearance that would allow the South African-born (but later Zimbabwean International) Grobbelaar to make his debut against the Robins. However, notwithstanding even her official intervention, the requisite work permit was not procured before the FA’s deadline had elapsed. In fact, Grobbelaar did finally join Crewe on loan the following month and he proceeded to record 24 appearances (and even score a goal from the penalty spot) for the club during the remainder of the 1979/80 season.
By contrast, the Robins’ pre-match build-up was far less turbulent and Tony Sanders made only two changes to the side that had defeated Boston United at Moss Lane on the preceding Saturday. As a result of being sent off against the Pilgrims, Stan Allan had been issued with an automatic one match suspension, which rendered him ineligible to participate against Crewe. Therefore, Graham Barrow was assigned the task of deputising at right full back and Phil Wilson succeeded Barrow as the nominated Alty substitute.
In an interview with the Manchester Evening News, an upbeat Tony Sanders underlined the high standards that he had set both for himself and his players: “Our main ambition now is to progress further than we have done in the past. Having lost twice in the FA Cup Third Round to First Division sides, we would not be human unless we wanted to improve on that.”
PART 16: SAY GOODBYE TO ALEXANDRA LOST
“Say goodbye to Alexandra leaving. Then say goodbye to Alexandra lost.”
When the peerless Canadian poet and singer-songwriter Leonard Cohen wrote the aforementioned lyrics for his composition Alexandra Leaving (which appeared on his 2001 album Ten New Songs), I very much doubt that he had in mind the occasion when Altrincham outclassed Crewe Alexandra in the FA Cup First Round over three decades ago. However, those words do succinctly capture the emotions experienced at Moss Lane when the final whistle blew at 4.45pm back on Saturday, 24th November 1979.
5,001 spectators were present that afternoon to witness the clash between the two Cheshire sides, one of which was languishing at the foot of the old English Fourth Division table, whilst the other was at the vanguard of the nascent Alliance Premier League (APL). The Main Stand was designated as all-ticket, costing £1.50 each, whereas general admission to the terraces was priced at £1.00 for adults and 65p for OAPs and children.
There was no segregation in place for the rival supporters within the ground and Alty devotees Steve Wilson and Robert Sharpe both recall that on entering the stadium they noticed that the Golf Road End was already full of red and white clad fans, only they happened to hail from Crewe rather than Altrincham. Fellow Robins diehard Bill Waterson recollects that when the Alty team ran out onto the pitch and headed towards the Golf Road End, there were chants of "Alex, Alex, Alex" from the vociferous throng behind the goal. The Robins’ goalkeeper, Alex Stepney, mistook this to be a tribute to himself and duly raised his arms to acknowledge this ostensible acclaim before the visiting supporters promptly let him know what they really thought of him!
The two teams approached this FA Cup tie in contrasting form. As yet unbeaten at Moss Lane, the Robins had won all of their previous eight matches, whereas the Railwaymen had registered two wins; a couple of draws and four defeats in their preceding eight fixtures and were yet to record an away win at that juncture of the season. Owing to a colour clash, both sides wore unfamiliar kits, with Alty donning yellow shirts and socks with blue shorts.
Attacking the Chequers End in the first half, the Robins had the ball in the Crewe net after merely 90 seconds. Bill Waterson recalls that just as Crewe‘s 19-year old goalkeeper Kevin Rafferty caught a cross from a Graham Heathcote free kick, he was bundled into the back of the net courtesy of a trademark ’Welcome to Moss Lane’ challenge by John King. The Robins’ irrepressible captain then ’in all innocence’ turned round to celebrate the goal before realising ’to his utter astonishment’ that the referee, Raymond Chadwick (a newsagent from Darwen in Lancashire), had in fact disallowed the goal.
From thereon, the unsettled and inexperienced Kenyan-born Rafferty gave a shaky and nervous performance, looking extremely apprehensive and hesitant when coming for any crosses into his penalty area. Indeed, the Robins’ first corner of the game in the 13th minute saw the jittery Rafferty fail to collect the ball, whereupon both Graham Barrow and John King had chances to force the ball over the line in the resulting goalmouth scramble before the visitors eventually cleared their lines.
The opening 25 minutes were a rather tense affair with Alty’s principal threat comprising their mercurial winger Barry Howard, who was already beginning to torment Crewe down their right flank.
In the 28th minute, the Robins took the lead when their leading scorer John Rogers registered his 12th goal of the season. Deputising at right full back for the suspended Stan Allan, Graham Barrow released Howard down the right wing and he delivered a teasing low cross into the penalty area. Rafferty elected not to venture out in an attempt to intercept the ball, leaving himself marooned in no-man’s-land as Crewe‘s right full back Neil Wilkinson could only divert the ball into the path of the onrushing Rogers, who duly rammed the ball into the vacant net at the far post.
Nine minutes later, Tony Sanders was forced to withdraw John Davison, who had incurred a leg injury, and reshuffle his formation. Jeff Johnson was pressed into service as an emergency left full back whilst the substitute, Phil Wilson, replaced Johnson on the left side of the Alty midfield.
The Railwaymen had been largely ineffective as an attacking force during the opening half. Indeed, 35 minutes had elapsed before Alex Stepney had even been called upon to make a save of any note and the Football League club didn’t achieve their first corner until the 43rd minute.
Just three minutes into the second half, the Robins doubled their advantage when they capitalised on a further incident of indecision committed by the Crewe defence. Phil Wilson’s pass set John Rogers marauding down the left wing, evading Wilkinson in the process. JR’s deep cross then sailed over the head of the floundering Rafferty and was met at the far post by Barry Whitbread, who rose to head the ball down into the net at the Golf Road End, beyond the desperate last-ditch lunge of Crewe’s Colin Prophett, and thereby claim his seventh goal of the campaign.
Alty were now in the ascendancy and their third goal ensued in the 55th minute. A Rogers cross from the right flank was headed on by Whitbread, whereupon it arrived in the vicinity of Phil Wilson on the left edge of the penalty area. Only a few minutes earlier, Wilson had missed a good chance to score, profligately blasting a Howard cross over the bar. However, on this second occasion, his execution was immaculate, as, from an acute angle, he proceeded to produce a spectacular left foot volley that sent the ball on an unstoppable trajectory destined for the top right hand corner of the Crewe net. This was Wilson’s third goal for the club and it went on to be recognised as indubitably his finest moment in an Alty shirt.
Two minutes later, Tony Waddington withdrew Colin Chesters and brought on the former Manchester United junior, Kevin Lewis, who would go on to feature in many subsequent contests against the Robins during his tenure at Telford United as a player and then a coach during the 1980s and early 1990s.
As the Robins began to ease up a little, Crewe finally threatened to reduce the deficit. Peter Coyne’s point blank shot was blocked by Stepney and then John Owens elicited a rare moment of discomfort amongst the Robins’ rearguard, when his back header initially eluded Stepney, thereby compelling the goalkeeper from the FA Cup winning team of 1977 to scramble back in order to retrieve the ball before it crossed the goal line.
Then, just to compound Crewe’s ignominy, the closing minutes of the match saw the frustrated visitors lose their discipline. In the 87th minute, the former Preston North End midfielder John McMahon was sent off for striking John King and then Wilkinson was cautioned for a foul on Rogers and Geoff Hunter was booked for a heavy tackle on Barry Howard, who had been a constant menace to the Railwaymen during the tie.
The comprehensive nature of the Robins’ 3-0 triumph was duly recounted in the press reports of the match. The Daily Telegraph’s “Crewe capitulate at Altrincham”, in particular, remains one of my favourite Alty-related newspaper headlines. In the Manchester Evening News, Doug Peacock declared: “The Alliance Premier League leaders found it embarrassingly easy, as they cruised to a 3-0 victory. If there is a gulf between League and Non League soccer then bottom of the Fourth Division Crewe are on the wrong side of it.“
Meanwhile, the Crewe & Nantwich Chronicle journalist lambasted the paucity of both skill and commitment exhibited at Moss Lane by the Railwaymen: “It was a shameful, inept performance by Crewe, which can only have caused acute embarrassment to every Alex supporter who made the short journey. Crewe did not even manage to lose with dignity.“
This annihilation of Crewe represented the Robins’ fifth victory over Football League opposition and vehemently underlined the club’s bid to gain Football League status in 1980 (possibly at the expense of their victims from Gresty Road on that November afternoon).
After the game, a delighted Tony Sanders offered his synopsis of events: “We were the superior side all the way through and the 3-0 scoreline was a fair reflection of the play.“ An equally content club Chairman, Noel White (whilst possibly reflecting on how the Robins had finally settled a score in relation to that unfortunate FA Cup defeat against Crewe back in 1968?), observed: “We got the goals at the right times but our prime objective is still to win the Alliance.”
Club skipper John King’s post-match verdict appeared in The Sun: “Crewe are full-timers and have much more opportunity to work at their game. In fact, although we won comfortably, it wasn’t one of our best performances this season.“
The crestfallen Crewe manager, Tony Waddington, could only comment: “It was a disgrace. Performances like that will get us nowhere.” In fact, Crewe would go on to finish the 1979/80 season in 23rd position in the Fourth Division and, consequently, they were obliged to apply for re-election for the fifth time in nine years.
Elsewhere in the FA Cup First Round, fellow APL clubs Yeovil Town and Stafford Rangers also progressed into the Second Round draw courtesy of victories over Enfield and Moor Green respectively. Nuneaton Borough and Northwich Victoria fought out a 3-3 draw; Scarborough were beaten at Halifax Town; Gravesend & Northfleet lost at home to Torquay United; Kettering Town went down 4-2 at Reading; Southend United won 1-0 at Wealdstone and AP Leamington collapsed to a 9-0 trouncing at Tranmere Rovers.
The reigning Northern Premier League champions Mossley crashed out of the competition by dint of a 5-2 reverse at York City, which led their manager, Bob Murphy, to bemoan an error-strewn performance by goalkeeper Tommy Cavanagh, who had only left Moss Lane to join the Lilywhites in October. His punishment was to be transferred to Horwich RMI shortly afterwards.
Meanwhile, in the APL fixtures that took place whilst Alty were embroiled in FA Cup action, Worcester City’s 3-0 home success versus the winless basement club Redditch United propelled them back into second position in the league table on 20 points (and with a game in hand on the leaders), whilst reducing the margin of the Robins’ advantage at the top to four points.