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.

  • Parts 1 & 2
  • Parts 3&4
  • Parts 5 & 6
  • Parts 7 & 8
  • Parts 9 & 10
  • Parts 11 & 12
  • Parts 13 & 14
  • Parts 15 & 16
  • Parts 17 & 18
  • Parts 19 & 20
  • Parts 21 & 22
  • Parts 23 & 24
  • Parts 25

  • PART 17: VIVA EIGHT

    In the wake of all the media hoopla relating to the previous Saturday’s FA Cup contest versus Crewe Alexandra, the Robins turned their attention to more mundane matters by resuming their Alliance Premier League (APL) campaign with a home fixture against Barnet on Monday, 26th November 1979.

    Whilst acknowledging that the publicity engendered by games such as the vanquishing of Crewe was always welcome, Tony Sanders was swift to reiterate that the club’s priority remained the APL title and the potentially concomitant promotion to Football League status.

    In an interview published in the Daily Express, the Alty manager remarked: “I’ve got to bring the team down to earth again for the league game against Barnet. I don’t even want to know the FA Cup draw and I honestly wish the players didn’t have a clue either. There’s enough pressure in leading the APL.”

    In fact, that Monday’s FA Cup Second Round draw saw the Robins assigned an away fixture against the winners of the unresolved Morecambe v Rotherham United tie. The Northern Premier League side had achieved a creditable 1-1 draw against their Football League Third Division opponents at Christie Park on the preceding Saturday and the two clubs were scheduled to renew hostilities in the resulting replay at Millmoor on Tuesday, 27th November 1979.

    Making their debut at Moss Lane, Barnet were under the auspices of that colourful character, Barry Fry, the former Manchester United apprentice who would go on to manage the likes of Birmingham City and Peterborough United. Appointed to the role of team manager in December 1978, Fry had steered the Bees to 13th position in the final table of the 1978/79 Southern League Premier Division season, upon which time they were invited to become a member of the inaugural APL.

    Whilst the Robins occupied prime position in the APL, having accumulated 24 points from their 16 matches to date, Barnet had mustered only 11 points and merely 10 goals from their 14 league fixtures and were languishing in 17th spot. In eight away matches, they had suffered five defeats (including a 5-0 drubbing at Yeovil Town only five days earlier); drawn 1-1 at Weymouth and Boston United respectively and recorded a solitary victory in the guise of a 2-1 success at Bath City on 6th October 1979.

    The Barnet line-up that evening included a 20-year old goalkeeper by the name of Kevin Blackwell, who is currently employed as the manager of Sheffield United, together with Graham Pearce, a 20-year old printer playing at left full back who would go on to appear for Brighton & Hove Albion against Manchester United in the 1983 FA Cup Final.

    Tony Sanders made two changes to the Alty team that had started against Crewe. Stan Allan was restored to his right full back berth after serving his one match suspension and Graham Barrow switched across to left full back as cover for John Davison, who was unavailable for selection due to having incurred torn ligaments in a leg during the FA Cup tie against Crewe. Notwithstanding his stupendous goal against the Railwaymen, Phil Wilson again found himself named as the sole substitute. Meanwhile, Barry Howard passed a late fitness test, having undergone some intensive physiotherapy treatment to an ankle injury.

    The appointed 7.30pm kick-off time of this first meeting between the two clubs was actually delayed by 15 minutes, as the Barnet team coach had been held up by motorway traffic on their journey to Cheshire. Still unbeaten at Moss Lane, the Robins had won their previous seven APL fixtures and had compiled a sequence of nine successive victories in all competitions.

    After the fever pitch of the clash against Crewe, this encounter with Barnet transpired to be somewhat of an anticlimax, as Alty laboured to impose any superiority on their unexpectedly dogged opponents. For just over an hour, it looked like the being the classic case of a team experiencing an FA Cup ’hangover’, as the Robins’ passing was uncharacteristically inaccurate against the tenacious Hertfordshire side. Moreover, Alex Stepney was busier than he had been against Crewe and Bob Booker and Steve Robinson had both gone close to giving the visitors a surprise lead.

    However, the Robins finally roused from their torpor and duly gained the upper hand in the 65th minute, when John Rogers slammed home a low cross from Jeff Johnson to register his 11th APL goal of the season (and his 13th strike in all competitions).

    Merely two minutes later, Alty had the ball in their adversaries’ net once again, when Graham Heathcote curled one of his archetypal specialist free kicks around Barnet’s defensive wall and beyond Blackwell, only to see his effort be disallowed because a linesman had flagged for offside. Heathcote had another presentable opportunity to increase the Robins’ advantage shortly afterwards but he fired his shot over the visitors’ crossbar after having been set up via a pinpoint through ball from John King.

    As frustration began to proliferate amongst the Barnet players, Steve Oliver, Steve Turner and Colin Hardman were all booked for committing fouls. Then, two minutes from time, Hardman was promptly sent off after punching the Alty captain John King in an off-the-ball incident, thereby becoming the fourth man to be sent off at Moss Lane in consecutive games.

    This slender and hard-earned triumph reinstated the Robins’ lead at the apex of the league table to a margin of six points and represented Alty’s eighth successive win in the APL. This impressive statistic established a record that only Weymouth would manage to equal during that 1979/80 APL season.

    Faces in the crowd of 1,558 at Moss Lane that evening reportedly included Les Rigby (who had presided over a largely lamentable spell as Alty’s manager from April 1975 to March 1976) and the ex-Manchester United defender Bill Foulkes. Rigby had just been appointed as Chorley’s new manager and was also acting as a representative of the North American Soccer League (NASL), whereas Foulkes was the manager of Witney Town in the Southern League Midland Division. Also espied in the Main Stand was Manchester United’s Scottish International Lou Macari.

    On the night after supervising that invaluable victory over Barnet, Tony Sanders and his Assistant Coach, Peter Warburton, travelled into South Yorkshire in order to observe the FA Cup First Round Replay between Rotherham United and Morecambe, which would determine who Alty would ultimately face in the Second Round of the competition on 15th December 1979.

    A gate of 5,671 witnessed the Third Division outfit toil away to a 2-0 win courtesy of goals from John Green and Paul Stancliffe, thereby obligating the Robins to return to the Millmoor ground where they had endured a 5-0 trouncing in an FA Cup First Round tie back on 20th November 1976. As had been the case in the pairing with Crewe in the previous round, an opportunity to avenge an instance of tribulation and heartache in the club’s FA Cup annals had duly presented itself.

    Meanwhile, Tony Sanders disclosed that he was hopeful of deferring Alex Stepney’s scheduled return to Dallas Tornado in the NASL at the start of February 1980. In an interview in the Manchester Evening News, the Robins’ boss stated: “Although Alex is due to report back to Texas for pre-season training in February, I may well ask Dallas to let him stay with us for another month. After all, he hardly needs pre-season training when he’s getting regular match practice with us. And there’s no doubt that whenever he goes, we’ll miss him badly.”

    Stepney’s positive impact at Moss Lane since his arrival in early September 1979 underlined just why Sanders was so intent on retaining the services of his star player for as long as possible. In the 16 consecutive matches in which the one-time England International had worn the goalkeeper’s jersey, the Robins had clocked up 14 victories; drawn once and suffered just a single defeat, netting 41 goals and conceding merely 13 in the process.

    In an article in the Daily Express, Sanders proclaimed that: “I am 100% certain that Alex could walk into any of 20 First Division clubs and do a magnificent job as a coach.”

    “Not many people realise that we have five people at the club with full FA coaching certificates: myself, the coach and three of the players (N.B. I would hazard a guess that he was probably referring to John Davison; John Owens and Barry Whitbread here). Alex is not among that number, which only goes to prove that the ability to coach is not just to do with bits of paper.”

    “He has the knack of motivation and instruction. The way Alex has helped to organise our team - especially the defence - has had an incredible effect on our performances.”


    PART 18: NUNEATON RIFLES

    If, as in the famous but probably apocryphal quote attributed to The Duke of Wellington that: "The battle of Waterloo was won on the playing fields of Eton", then it can be said that an unbeaten run in the Alliance Premier League (APL) by Alty back in 1979 was lost on a playing field in Nuneaton.

    The Robins were scheduled to undertake their first competitive fixture at Manor Park on Saturday, 1st December 1979 although they had made two previous visits to the home of Nuneaton Borough in the form of pre-season friendlies.

    On 26th July 1969, the Robins had recorded a 1-0 victory courtesy of a goal scored by Ian Morris, who found himself playing at right full back as part of a tactical experiment by Alty manager Matt Woods rather than in his more accustomed right wing role. Just over four years later on 28th July 1973, an Alty team managed by Roy Rees (and including a young Graham Heathcote) duly repeated that scoreline by means of a strike from Tony Broadhead.

    In the prelude to their 18th league fixture of the APL season, the Robins’ boss Tony Sanders had been on the road. Tuesday, 27th November 1979 had seen him venture into South Yorkshire in order to observe the FA Cup First Round Replay between Rotherham United and Morecambe, which would determine who Alty would face in the next round of the competition.

    Then, on the following day, he had driven to Birmingham in order to accompany his club captain John King at the latter’s FA disciplinary hearing. The resulting two match ban incurred by the Robins’ talismanic midfield general was actually less draconian than had been feared at Moss Lane, where a penalty of three games had generally been anticipated.

    As the relieved Sanders elucidated: “The committee took into account the fact that he had already missed a game (i.e. the APL fixture at Barrow on 10th November 1979) because 12 of his 20 disciplinary points were for being sent off at Witton Albion in a pre-season friendly, for which he served a one match ban (i.e. the opening league game of the season at Weymouth).” Consequently, King would be ineligible to participate in both the impending APL clash at Nuneaton Borough and the ensuing Monday evening’s APL Cup Quarter Final versus Wealdstone at Moss Lane.

    However, the Robins’ manager’s spirits were subsequently dampened somewhat when his car broke down on the journey back to his Liverpool home!

    Alty approached the encounter with Nuneaton Borough on the back of an unbeaten run comprising 12 matches, the last 10 of which had all been victories. Tony Sanders implemented three alterations to the side which had ground out a single goal success against Barnet at Moss Lane on the preceding Monday. Graham Barrow deputised for the suspended John King in central midfield; Ivan Crossley slotted in at left full back in the absence of the still-injured John Davison and Mickey Brooke was named as the sole substitute in preference to Phil Wilson.

    Nuneaton Borough were lying in 11th position in the APL table, eleven points adrift of the Robins but having played two games fewer. The previous Monday had witnessed their exit from the FA Cup via a 3-0 First Round Replay defeat against Northwich Victoria at The Drill Field but their record on home territory had been reasonably impressive to date. In seven APL fixtures at Manor Park, they had achieved four wins; drawn twice and suffered merely a solitary defeat, in the shape of a 1-0 loss at the hands of Wealdstone on 6th October 1979.

    The hosts’ starting XI included the former Arsenal and Leicester City midfielder Jon Sammels, who was making his home APL debut during that particular season in this contest against the Robins and had just commenced his second spell with the club. Sammels, who nowadays owns a driving instruction school based in Leicester, had recently returned from a rewarding stint in the North American Soccer League (NASL), where he had played alongside the likes of Bruce Grobbelaar; Alan Ball and the ex-Everton centre half Roger Kenyon (who would go on to make 38 appearances and score one goal for Alty during the 1982/83 season) in the Vancouver Whitecaps team which had attained the title of 1979 NASL Champions.

    Meanwhile, their forward line included a promising 19-year old striker by the name of Paul Sugrue. The Boro would subsequently receive a then club record transfer fee of £20,000 for Sugrue in February 1980, when Malcolm Allison signed him on behalf of Manchester City. After merely 5 (+ 1 as a substitute) appearances for the Maine Road club, he moved on to play for the likes of Cardiff City and Middlesbrough and later returned to Manor Park in order to take up the position as team manager.

    The Boro were aiming to avenge their 3-1 defeat at Moss Lane back on 8th September 1979 (on the occasion of Alex Stepney’s debut for the Robins) and in his notes in the match programme, their manager Roy Barry disclosed that: “We have once again had the use of the magnificent facilities at Bramcote Barracks this week for training, so the players are in fine condition for today’s contest.”

    Alas, the Robins proceeded to have a collective off-day and duly slumped to their first defeat since that 3-2 reverse at Yeovil Town on 22nd September 1979. Alty devotee Bill Waterson was present at Manor Park on that dispiriting afternoon and recollects: “We were dire, woeful, inept! Alex Stepney was significantly below his normal form and, in particular, I remember his normally world-class distribution falling short. He didn’t dive for the second goal.”

    Fellow Alty diehard John Henderson was a student in Coventry at that time and, therefore, Manor Park was effectively a local game for him. He recalls that: “We were a shadow of the team which had beaten Crewe. Paul Sugrue ran us ragged and Alex Stepney was on the receiving end of some particularly ‘friendly’ advice from the gloriously-named Cock and Bear End.”

    The home side were in front after only ten minutes. Alex Stepney fumbled a low cross from Alan Hoult and conceded a corner. From the resulting cross by Sugrue, Hoult had a shot cleared off the line but Steve Gray followed up to score from the rebound and thereby record his fourth goal of the season.

    In the 40th minute, Ivan Crossley was booked for a tackle on the mercurial Sugrue and then a shot from Stewart Gallagher almost doubled the Boro’s lead. Meanwhile, at the opposite end, a rare purposeful and penetrating foray by the Robins concluded with a fierce drive from John Rogers, which forced the home goalkeeper Ken Hall into producing a fingertip save.

    Early in the second half, Hall came to his side’s rescue once again when he pushed a curling free kick from Graham Heathcote around the post. However, seven minutes from time, the Robins were condemned to their fourth away defeat in 11 outings via Gallagher, who evaded a couple of perfunctory tackles and prodded the ball past a static Stepney, much to the delight of the majority of the 1,524 spectators in attendance.

    Additional bookings for Graham Heathcote; Mal Bailey; Barry Whitbread and John Rogers merely served to compound what had already been an utterly miserable afternoon for the Robins.

    Bill Waterson encapsulates the bleak experience of that 2-0 setback in Warwickshire: “My overwhelming memory is of one of those days when the Tony Sanders XI simply did not turn up - these more usually happened at Netherfield or South Liverpool - and I believe that it was the first time that we’d gone AWOL in the APL (we had competed in the three previous defeats versus Worcester City; Telford United and Yeovil Town respectively).”

    Although the Robins had undoubtedly misfired, Nuneaton Borough would eventually emerge with the equal third best home record in the APL that season (12 wins; five draws and just two defeats) and only Alty would score more goals (45) in their 19 league fixtures on home territory than the Boro (41).

    Elsewhere in the APL on that date, second-placed Worcester City reduced Alty’s lead at the zenith of the league table to four points (with two games in hand) by means of a 2-0 triumph at Yeovil Town and third-placed Bangor City moved to within five points of the leaders as a result of a 1-0 win at Kettering Town.

    Weymouth ascended three places into fourth spot by virtue of a 5-1 demolition of Stafford Rangers at Marston Road, thereby maintaining their impressive away record (which now boasted twelve points from a possible tally of eighteen and just the single defeat) and rendering them eight points behind Alty but with three games in hand. This success was particularly significant, as it marked the first in a sequence of eight consecutive APL victories for the Dorset club, which would both equal the Robins’ recently established record and propel Weymouth into the spotlight as Alty’s principal antagonist in the league championship race.

    Meanwhile, Tony Sanders made a notable addition to his backroom staff with the appointment of the former Southport manager Harry McNally as an Altrincham FC scout. The two men had worked together before - when Sanders had been the manager of Skelmersdale United, McNally had been in charge of the reserves there.

    One of football’s renowned bon vivants, who once memorably declared before a night out that: “At worst, it will be brilliant“, McNally would subsequently manage Wigan Athletic and Chester City. During his tenure at the latter from 1985 to 1992, his feats saw him attain the status of a club legend in the eyes of the Chester supporters. He died in December 2004 at the age of 68 and, just over two years later, a stand at the Deva Stadium was renamed as The Harry McNally Terrace to honour his contribution to the club


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