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 19: WALK ON THE WEALD SIDE
After their underachieving performance in that 2-0 setback at Nuneaton Borough, Alty faced the prospect of two games against Wealdstone within the space of six days, commencing with an Alliance Premier League (APL) Cup Third Round tie at Moss Lane on Monday, 3rd December 1979.
However, the vagaries of the weather duly intervened, as depicted by Wealdstone’s secretary Bill Emerson in his programme notes for the following Saturday’s encounter: “Bathed in sunshine on the upward trip, we were hit by a storm of concentrated fury, which appeared to be confined to the Altrincham area, when we were virtually yards from the ground. So intense was the downpour that the pitch was waterlogged in minutes.”
The referee, Terry Morris of Leeds, delayed postponing the match until 7.40pm (ten minutes after the appointed kick-off time), at which juncture he undertook a pitch inspection. Notwithstanding the efforts of the Altrincham ground staff, this freak cloudburst had rendered the Moss Lane surface unplayable, leaving the match official with no other option than to call the game off.
This APL Cup Quarter Final was provisionally rearranged for Monday, 17th December 1979, subject to the Robins not being involved in an FA Cup Second Round Replay versus Rotherham United.
Meanwhile, two additional cup fixtures were confirmed. The draw for the Cheshire Senior Cup First Round paired the Robins with an old adversary in the shape of Macclesfield Town. This contest was scheduled to take place at the then Northern Premier League (NPL) club’s Moss Rose ground on Saturday, 5th January 1980, unless Alty had progressed into the FA Cup Third Round.
In the draw for the FA Trophy First Round (to be played on Saturday, 12th January 1980), the Robins were allocated an away trip to another NPL side in the guise of Grantham, who Alty had last met in an FA Cup Fourth Qualifying Round tie at Moss Lane on 6th November 1976.
Saturday, 8th December 1979 saw the Robins travelling to Middlesex in order to resume their quest for the APL title via their 12th away league game of the season at Wealdstone’s Lower Mead stadium in central Harrow, a football ground that no longer exists. At the end of the 1990/91 season, the club was forced to relocate when their ground; the surrounding buildings and private dwellings were sold to permit a Tesco supermarket to be built in the town centre.
Alty aficionado Bill Waterson was present at Lower Mead for the Robins’ debut there over three decades ago and recalls: “The coach parked in an alley behind a cinema and the ground was neat and tidy. In 1992, I moved to Harrow and every time that we drove past that Tesco store for the seven years we lived there, I would say "Do you know that used to be Wealdstone’s football ground and I first went there in 1979?", all of which got on my wife‘s nerves just a bit!“
Alty entered the match as the league leaders, having accumulated 26 points from their 18 previous APL fixtures, whereas Wealdstone were lying in 16th position, fifteen points adrift of the Robins. The Stones’ record to date read as follows: played 15; won three; drawn five and lost seven and on the preceding Saturday they had suffered a 4-2 home defeat against Scarborough.
The Robins were still without the considerable motivational services of their redoubtable captain, John King (fondly remembered as “that bearded maniac King at Altrincham“ by one seasoned contributor to the Stonesnet Fans‘ Forum!), who was completing the second game of his two match ban. Thus, Graham Barrow continued to deputise for Alty’s suspended skipper in central midfield.
Following a two match absence as the result of a torn knee ligaments injury sustained in the FA Cup clash against Crewe Alexandra, John Davison returned at left full back, replacing Ivan Crossley, and Phil Wilson was nominated as the Robins’ substitute in preference to Mickey Brooke. Meanwhile, there was news that Graham Tobin’s broken hand was still in plaster but the pins in it were due to be extracted that weekend.
Alex Stepney was the sole member of the Alty team to possess any experience of playing against Wealdstone, as he had been the Millwall goalkeeper when they had registered a 3-1 FA Cup First Round win over the Stones at The Den back on 13th November 1965.
The home side’s line-up included their club captain and England Non League International, John Watson, in midfield. Watson, who would later play for Scarborough and Maidstone United, was awarded a total of 18 England Non League International caps during his career.
Also present in the Wealdstone ranks on that particular afternoon was a certain 17-year old trainee electrician by the name of Stuart Pearce, who had signed on full contract terms at the start of the 1979/80 season after a successful spell in the reserve team.
Pearce would amass 241 appearances and score 15 goals for the Stones prior to being transferred to Coventry City for a fee of £25,000 in October 1983. In May 1985, he was signed by Brian Clough at Nottingham Forest and he gained the first of his 78 England International caps when Bobby Robson selected him to play against Brazil at Wembley on 19th May 1987. His playing career also encompassed spells with Newcastle United; West Ham United and Manchester City respectively and he is currently the manager of the England Under-21 team.
In his autobiography Psycho, published in 2000, Pearce comments: “When I tell people I played against Alex Stepney, they are amazed, but he was in goal for Altrincham when they won the Alliance twice. He was about 41 then and I was 18, so there was a massive age difference. He has always been my trump card when footballers gather together and swap stories about who they have played against. When I drop Stepney’s name in, they reckon it makes me around 90.“
To be fair to Alex Stepney, I deem it necessary to point out that he was in fact ’only’ 37 years of age when Pearce faced the Robins back in December 1979!
In front of 842 spectators at Lower Mead, the Robins seized control of affairs by means of a two goal salvo inside the opening quarter of an hour. In the 9th minute, Wealdstone’s Fred Barwick misjudged the bounce of a spinning ball and his error let in Barry Whitbread, who capitalised via a typically cool finish, chipping the ball past the Stones’ goalkeeper Ian Cranstone to record his eighth goal of the campaign. Just six minutes later, Barry Howard punished another defensive blunder and doubled the Robins’ advantage. When a through ball was not intercepted, the Alty winger pounced and promptly steered the ball beyond Cranstone and in off a post.
To their credit, the hosts rallied and dominated the remainder of the first half. However, their attempts at launching a comeback were repeatedly thwarted by the figure of Alex Stepney, who was in supreme form. Fresh from his special guest appearance in order to open proceedings at the Altrincham Supporters’ Association’s Christmas Fayre at 7.30pm on the previous evening, Stepney produced a string of fine saves, including blocking a point blank shot from Wealdstone’s leading goalscorer, Neil Cordice.
The second half was merely eight minutes old when the Robins once again exhibited their clinical finishing. Barry Howard eluded the Wealdstone rearguard and calmly rolled the ball under Cranstone’s body and into the net for his fifth goal of the season.
On the hour mark, Alex Stepney was finally beaten courtesy of a superb strike from Neil Cordice, who would subsequently play alongside his brother Alan in the 1984/85 Wealdstone team that recorded the historic double of being both the Gola League (as the renamed APL became) Champions and the FA Trophy winners in the same season. The Stones’ centre forward unleashed an unstoppable drive out of the mud, which left Stepney transfixed on his line as the ball rocketed into the top left hand corner of the Alty net.
However, the Robins duly put the game to bed in the 76th minute, when Whitbread was first to react to a knock-down in the penalty area and slotted the ball past Cranstone from close range. The Robins’ record signing had now clocked up seven goals in just ten APL appearances since his arrival from Runcorn.
So, Alty had now reached the halfway point of their APL season and the statistics read as follows: played 19; won 13; drawn 2 and lost 4. A total of 28 points had been accrued; 41 goals had been scored and 19 goals had been conceded. Moreover, of their remaining 19 league matches, a dozen were scheduled to be staged at Moss Lane, where the team had a 100% record to date in league games.
The Alty supporters’ elation at this 4-1 triumph against Wealdstone was enhanced by the propitious news from elsewhere that both of the Robins’ nearest challengers had contrived to drop points. Second-placed Worcester City had slumped to a surprise 1-0 loss at 15th-placed AP Leamington and third-placed Bangor City had been held to a 1-1 draw at home by 17th-placed Barnet. Consequently, the Robins’ lead at the pinnacle of the APL had been restored to a margin of six points.
There were further glad tidings for the club when it was announced that Tony Sanders had been named as the winner of the APL’s inaugural Manager Of The Month award for November 1979. His reward would comprise a gallon of whisky and a commemorative certificate, both presented by the sponsors of this new accolade, P Mackenzie & Co. Distillers Ltd. of Perth.
Meanwhile, back at Moss Lane on that Saturday afternoon, spectators had witnessed a somewhat surreal development as Alty’s reserve side drew 1-1 with Bradford City Reserves in a Lancashire League encounter. Featuring in attack and wearing the No. 11 shirt for the Robins’ second XI was none other than Colin Darcy, who had of course commenced the season as Alty’s first choice goalkeeper, playing in the opening six APL fixtures prior to the recruitment of Alex Stepney. Darcy even managed to get the ball into the visitors’ net, only for his effort to be disallowed for an offside infringement.
PART 20: ROTHERHAM WON’T BOTHER ‘EM
On the fortieth anniversary of the world premiere of the movie of Gone With The Wind in Atlanta, Georgia, Alty found themselves at a blustery stadium in South Yorkshire where they had effectively been blown away just over three years earlier.
Saturday, 15th December 1979 signified the Robins’ 25th competitive fixture of that memorable 1979/80 season in the shape of an FA Cup Second Round tie away to Rotherham United.
The two clubs had almost crossed swords in the same competition nine years before. On Saturday, 7th November 1970, Alty and Great Harwood had contested a 1-1 draw at Moss Lane in an FA Cup Fourth Qualifying Round clash. Two days later, Great Harwood achieved a 2-1 victory in the replay and thereby proceeded to host Rotherham United in the FA Cup First Round, a tie that the Football League side eventually won 6-2.
By December 1979, the Robins had made two previous visits to the home of Rotherham United and it was a ground which held only bitter and traumatic memories for the club and its supporters.
Alty’s debut at Millmoor comprised an FA Cup First Round tie there on Saturday, 20th November 1976. In what amounted to only Tony Sanders’ second FA Cup tie as their manager, the Robins wore a change strip of all light blue and promptly imploded to a mortifying 5-0 drubbing, all of which rather contradicted the bespoke car stickers bearing the slogan “Rotherham Won’t Bother ‘Em” that had been produced during the countdown to the fixture.
Rotherham United were lying in fourth position in the old English League Division Three back then when they faced the following Alty line-up: (1) Tommy Cavanagh (2) Ivan Crossley (3) Mickey Brooke (4) John Owens (5) Stan Allan (6) Joe Flaherty (7) Ian Morris (8) Lennie Dickinson (9) Micky Moore (10) John Davison (11) Steve Hardwick (Sub) John Vernon.
Somewhat unexpectedly, Tony Sanders opted to field Stan Allan at centre half whilst promoting Steve Hardwick into attack to support Alty’s principal goalscorer Micky Moore, notwithstanding the fact that the bearded Lancaster University student had spent the majority of the season to date playing alongside John Owens at the heart of the Robins’ defence.
Alas, it was a tactic that misfired drastically and the Robins conceded four goals in a calamitous 20 minute spell during the first half. David Gwyther’s shot opened the floodgates in the 17th minute and then the same player set up Richard Finney’s headed goal seven minutes later. Full back John Breckin’s 25-yard screamer made it 3-0 after 29 minutes and then Finney claimed his second goal of the tie in the 37th minute, latching onto a woefully under-hit backpass from the normally reliable Ivan Crossley. The 5,969 spectators witnessed the Robins improve after the interval but it was to be the home side who found the net once more via Alan Crawford’s 80th minute penalty, awarded following a foul committed by Mickey Brooke.
Precisely five months on from that debacle, Millmoor was the neutral ground selected to stage the FA Trophy Semi-Final First Replay between Alty and Scarborough on Wednesday, 20th April 1977 and once again it proved to be the scene of considerable torment and heartache for all those Robins’ fans present amongst the gate of 2,597.
The illustrious reward for the victors was a place in the FA Trophy Final against Dagenham at Wembley Stadium and a golden opportunity to clinch this prize was proffered to the Robins in the 74th minute, when the referee, Trelford Mills of Barnsley, awarded them a penalty for a push on their left winger John Vernon.
The responsibility for converting the penalty fell on the shoulders of Micky Moore, who had in fact scored via a twice-taken penalty during Alty’s 2-0 triumph in the preceding Saturday’s Semi-Final Second Leg at Moss Lane. Moore’s spot kick successfully sent the Scarborough goalkeeper, Dave Chapman, the wrong way, however, the ball agonisingly clipped the foot of a post and was deflected wide and out of play. The Robins’ despair was compounded still further in the dying seconds of the thirty minutes of extra-time, when Mickey Brooke’s fierce 30-yard drive struck the crossbar.
Merely five days later and after 420 minutes of a truly epic struggle, Alty’s dreams of reaching Wembley were ultimately extinguished in the Second Replay at Doncaster Rovers’ Belle Vue stadium in front of a crowd of 3,761. First half goals from Billy Ayre and John Woodall put Scarborough in control and Jeff Johnson’s 83rd minute headed goal proved to be nothing more than a token consolation for the Robins.
Whilst acknowledging that his former FA Cup experience at Millmoor had indeed constituted an ordeal, Tony Sanders was confident that there would be no repeat of the harrowing events of that afternoon in 1976: “If we approach the game in the proper manner, we can do a lot better than last time. The team was still in its early stages then but we have a much more settled side now.“ Alty’s Chairman Noel White echoed those sentiments: “It will be a tough test for us but we have changed quite a bit since our last visit.”
However, Sanders had a rather pressing matter to contend with pertaining to an anticipated hindrance to his team selection for the imminent revenge mission in South Yorkshire. Alty’s leading goalscorer, John Rogers, had received a booking during the 2-0 defeat at Nuneaton Borough on 1st December 1979, which meant that he had now accumulated 20 disciplinary points and, consequently, was faced with the prospect of being suspended for the impending FA Cup tie.
On Wednesday, 12th December 1979, the Robins’ boss travelled to Birmingham in order to accompany his star striker at an FA Disciplinary Committee, the first time that Rogers had been summoned to appear at such a hearing. An apprehensive Sanders hoped for leniency but feared the worst outcome, commenting: “John has always done so well on big occasions and his absence will be a cruel blow to our chances.”
The news that eventually emerged from the personal hearing in the Midlands was grim. Rogers was penalised with a two match suspension and, therefore, was ineligible to play at Millmoor or, indeed, in any ensuing replay at Moss Lane. A disappointed Sanders duly likened the enforced omission of his 13 goal marksman from the Robins’ line-up against Rotherham United to the country’s International XI being without their captain: “John is an integral part of our set-up. It would be silly to say we won’t miss him, just like it would be for England to admit they wouldn’t miss Kevin Keegan.”
On the eve of their assignment at Millmoor, the Robins booked an overnight stay at a South Yorkshire hotel, an indication of the club’s professional attitude. As Tony Sanders outlined: “It may sound extravagant but to us it makes sense. Some of our players have to travel from Liverpool, which would mean them having to be up by 7.30am in time to get to Moss Lane to catch the coach. That is no preparation for an important FA Cup match.“
In fact, such overnight stays had become part of Alty’s pre-match routine to contend with the additional travelling implicit in the nascent Alliance Premier League (APL). “It gives us a little bit of an advantage over clubs who travel on the day of the match”, explained the Robins’ manager, who went on to underline his point with an anecdote relating to one APL club who cut their expenses so much that they arrived at Altrincham station and promptly ran the half mile to Moss Lane, sending their kit on ahead in a taxi. Unsurprisingly, they went on to lose!
Rotherham United approached their encounter with Alty whilst lying in seventh position in the old English Third Division, merely four points behind the league leaders, Sheffield United. Their 11 home league fixtures to date had elicited the following statistics: won eight; lost three; goals scored 24 and goals conceded 12 and they would go on to finish that season in 13th spot.
The Millers’ team which confronted the Robins in 1979 contained four survivors from that previous FA Cup meeting between the two clubs three years earlier, namely: defenders John Breckin and Paul Stancliffe; midfielder Mark Rhodes and winger Richard Finney.
In goal was an erstwhile England Under-18 International and Manchester United apprentice by the name of Ray Mountford and their forward line was led by the moustachioed and bald-headed figure of that one-time Leicester City; Luton Town and Chesterfield striker Rod Fern. Also present was the 28-year old Scottish midfielder Billy McEwan, who would proceed to lock horns with Graham Heathcote all over again several years later in his capacity as the manager of York City (February 2005 to November 2007) and Mansfield Town (July 2008 to December 2008) respectively.
For the Robins, Graham Heathcote and Barry Howard underwent treatment for leg injuries but were passed fit to play. The unavailability of the banned John Rogers necessitated a strategic reshuffle, whereby Jeff Johnson reverted to his former role in attack to partner Barry Whitbread and Graham Barrow slotted into the concomitant vacancy in midfield. Some glad tidings came in the form of the return to combat of Alty’s charismatic captain John King after serving a two match suspension. Yet again, Phil Wilson was the nominated substitute.
Four members of the Alty line-up were seeking to avenge their previous sorrowful and ignominious experiences at Millmoor as part of a team that had conceded five goals during a cup tie on that particular turf. Stan Allan; John Owens and John Davison had all endured that 5-0 trouncing in 1976. Meanwhile, Alex Stepney had his own personal score to settle. During his first season in the Football League, he had played in the Millwall side that had succumbed to a 5-2 reverse away to Rotherham United in a League Cup Fourth Round contest on 27th November 1963. The Robins‘ No.1 vowed that things would be very different this time around: “That was the first and last time I played at Millmoor and I am determined there will be no flood of goals.“
The club took the step of booking a special train in order to transport 500 fans to Rotherham and tickets for this were priced at £2.50. Departing from Altrincham station at 12.25pm, the train then called at Navigation Road, Timperley and Sale to pick up additional passengers and was scheduled to return to Altrincham station at 6.45pm. Alty supporter Paul Thompson was one of the 500 aboard and he recalls: “I went on the train with my sister and what a great way that was to generate atmosphere. I remember the chanting as we got out at Rotherham station - amazing!”
Present in the Main Stand at Millmoor on that afternoon was an Essex businessman and millionaire by the name of Anton Johnson. He had become the new Chairman of Rotherham United on the eve of fixture versus the Robins, when a deal to give him a controlling interest in the club had been completed.
Alas, the flamboyant (and soon-to-be notorious) Johnson duly presided over a period of financial meltdown at the club before becoming the owner of Southend United in 1983 - but without actually giving up his holdings at Millmoor. Just prior to Christmas in 1985, the Football League found him guilty of breaching League regulations, as he had illegally owned two clubs simultaneously and, moreover, had committed financial malpractice at both of them.
In the run-up to the FA Cup tie against Alty, the publicity-seeking Johnson had even released his own record called Shot Down In Flames, a title that would prove to be uncannily prophetic in light of the fate which would befall his newly-acquired club at the hands of the Robins.