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 21: BARRY’S GOAL PAINTS THE WHOLE TOWN RED

    “This is no pushover” ran the headline to the article by Rotherham United’s caretaker manager Barry Claxton in The Miller, the match programme issued for the FA Cup Second Round tie against Altrincham on Saturday, 15th December 1979. Priced at 20p, this publication was a trifle curious in that its A4 format (pictured right) was more akin to the style of a newsletter.

    Claxton, who had recently succeeded Jimmy McGuigan (who had departed to become the manager of Stockport County), warned against any complacency in his ranks: “From reports I have received, Altrincham could well be the best Non League side in the business. I have been told they would be among the frontrunners if they were in the Fourth Division. So, we will not underestimate them.“

    Tony Sanders had certainly done his homework diligently, having watched Rotherham United three times since Alty had vanquished Crewe Alexandra in the FA Cup First Round. Indeed, his research was meticulous and appeared to know no bounds, as the preceding Sunday had even seen him climbing up onto the roof of his home in Liverpool in order to alter his television aerial, so that he would then be able to pick up the signal for Yorkshire Television’s programme The Big Match, which just happened to be transmitting highlights of the previous day’s Division Three fixture between the Millers and Gillingham.

    “I must have been the only person in Liverpool watching that game but it was well worth it” divulged the Robins’ boss. Thankfully, Mister Sanders was evidently more accomplished at such a parlous manoeuvre than the entertainer Rod Hull (minus his Emu on this particular occasion) would be almost two decades later, when the latter fell from the roof of his home in East Sussex whilst adjusting his TV aerial in an attempt to improve the picture on his set of the broadcast of Inter Milan versus Manchester United in the UEFA Champions League.

    Payment at the Millmoor turnstiles on the day of the match was available but tickets for reserved seats in the stands could be purchased at Ł2.00 each (or Ł1.50 for juniors and OAPs).

    The attendance of 6,083 was swelled by the presence of a contingent of Barnsley supporters, who had opted to venture to Millmoor following that morning’s postponement of their scheduled FA Cup Second Round tie at Chester City due to a waterlogged pitch.

    As Robins’ devotee Robert Sharpe recollects: “There were a gang of Barnsley fans in our end, who had gone to the game with the view that ‘whoever opposes my enemy is my friend’. They were clearly there to annoy the Rotherham fans, however, by the end of the game their attention had turned to the match itself and they were amazed and very complimentary about how good they thought Alty really were.”

    Wearing their change strip of yellow shirts, blue shorts and yellow socks, the Robins seized the initiative straight from the kick-off, forcing three corners in the opening five minutes. From one of these, John Davison’s centre was misjudged by the home goalkeeper, Ray Mountford, and the resulting shot by Mal Bailey flashed just wide of the post.

    Then, via a Graham Heathcote free kick, John King had the ball in the back of the Rotherham net. However, in the process of ’scoring’, the Robins’ indomitable captain had also contrived to bundle the similarly-bearded Mountford into the net in the style of Nat Lofthouse (echoing his robust and unsettling early ‘greeting’ to Crewe’s Kevin Rafferty at Moss Lane in the previous round) and, inevitably, referee Peter Willis promptly disallowed the effort. Incidentally, after retiring from football, Mountford joined the South Yorkshire Police force and has since ascended to the rank of lnspector.

    Alex Stepney’s first task arose in the 10th minute, when he was called upon to intercept a dangerous-looking cross from Billy McEwan, but Alty’s midfield triumvirate of Heathcote, King and Graham Barrow were dominating proceedings. In the 14th minute, Barry Whitbread squandered a good chance to put the Robins ahead, shooting tamely after being put through by an incisive pass from Barrow.

    Whitbread was to come even closer to scoring the opening goal after 35 minutes. His glancing header from Barry Howard‘s cross appeared destined for the left corner of the net until Mountford conjured up an acrobatic one-handed fingertip save to thwart the visitors.

    At this juncture, I feel strangely compelled to share this surreal reminiscence from Alty disciple Brian Flynn: “At half-time in the Gents, I exchanged pleasantries with a Millers fan, whose opening gambit was "There's nowt like a urinal!!"......a line I have used on countless times since! He thought it was a good game at that stage“.

    Early in the second half, the hosts threatened when Richard Finney’s far post header from Rod Fern’s cross was saved by Stepney. However, it was to be the Robins who would take the lead in the 51st minute. Heathcote’s corner was headed down by King, whereupon Mal Bailey proceeded to lash a right foot shot through a melee of players and into the Rotherham net, thereby recording his second goal of the season.

    The ensuing intriguing insight into the evolution of this particular goal comes courtesy of Alty connoisseur Bill Waterson: “The only time in my life that I've watched Alty training comprised their three sessions prior to the Rotherham game (Thursday, Tuesday, Thursday - the last one was not at Moss Lane but for the life of me I don't remember where it was). We practised this ‘weird’ set piece routine over and over again. Why is Mal Bailey standing outside the penalty area for this corner? Oh, now I see why! Surely, we'd never try that in a game? He hit the target about 80% of the time and we got used to seeing the ball nestled in the top left hand corner of the goal at the Chequers End. We never tried it during an actual game before that Rotherham tie, and, as I recall, we never repeated it after that match either!”

    The Millers responded by launching an immediate counter attack and, following a Peter Nix corner, Finney struck a 20-yard left foot shot which pierced the congested penalty area, only for Stepney to react with a fine one-handed save that tipped the ball over his crossbar. Eight minutes later, Barrow had the ball in the Rotherham net but his ‘goal’ was ruled out owing to an offside infringement.

    In the 74th minute, the Robins’ irrepressible winger, Barry Howard, executed a sublime piece of skill and his classic strike still remains one of the most revered and cherished of all of the famous Altrincham FC goals.

    The following evocative account of Howard’s sixth goal of that campaign comes courtesy of Alty supporter Paul Thompson: “Graham Barrow brought the ball forward from a deep position with a trademark surging run and worked it out to Howard on the right flank. He then proceeded to set off on a jinking run, cut inside and take on four defenders in succession - beating them all (one of them, John Green, twice!). All the while, I'm screaming at him to send over a cross towards the unmarked Jeff Johnson at the far post, only for Howard to decide to curl an unstoppable left foot shot beyond Mountford and duly plonk the ball into the top corner himself. Sheer poetry!”

    The next day’s issue of The Sunday People carried a marvellous photograph of the jubilant painter and decorator sinking to his knees and raising his arms aloft in celebration of his stunning solo effort.

    Robins fan Simon Rose still recalls that joyous moment: “I was 14 years old at the time. We were sitting in the Main Stand and I remember that when we almost scored early in the game, an old Rotherham supporter said: "Sit down son, that’s as close as you'll get all day". After we'd finished celebrating Alty’s second goal, I looked over and his seat was already empty!”

    Three minutes later, Heathcote was forced to limp off and he was replaced by Phil Wilson. Then, in the 78th minute, Rotherham were gifted a potential lifeline when they were awarded a dubious penalty after Stan Allan had been adjudged to have fouled Fern. However, to the instant elation and subsequent vociferous adulation of the Alty supporters gathered in the end behind Stepney’s goal, the Robins’ goalkeeper dived to his left and comfortably saved Richard Finney’s spot kick.

    The Altrincham Guardian reporter actually describes the penalty taker as “the luckless Albert Finney” but I’m pretty certain that the renowned Salford-born actor didn’t appear as a special guest undertaking a cameo performance for the Millers that afternoon!

    Alty regular Jim Gibb recounts the rapture of avenging the nightmare of 1976: “I’m not ashamed to admit that I cried when Stepney saved the penalty. That 5-0 had been my first FA Cup away game and it felt really emotional not just to beat them this time but to completely outplay them.”

    In the post match analysis, it emerged that Stepney’s penalty save was a testament to the painstaking pre-match planning that had been conducted by Alty’s managerial team. In the FA Cup First Round Replay at Millmoor, which had been a match watched by Tony Sanders together with his Assistant Coach, Peter Warburton, the Millers’ Richard Finney had seen his 64th minute penalty saved by Morecambe’s goalkeeper, Graham Byram.

    Tony Sanders duly expounded: “We did our homework and it paid off. We knew that Finney would try to put the penalty to Stepney’s left. So, on Thursday night in training, we had the players taking penalties and kicking the ball to that side in order to give Alex some practice. Mind you, if the lad had put his spot kick to the other side, the players would have chinned me!”

    Alty diehard Geoff Tomkins even recollects Alex Stepney talking to Jimmy Hill on that night’s edition of Match Of The Day: “He said afterwards that it was all the more special, as Jimmy Hill had told him to retire years earlier because he couldn't get down to the ball fast enough anymore!”

    Notwithstanding the fact their leading goalscorer was ineligible to play, the Robins had outclassed their Third Division opponents and exorcised those demons of 1976. The plaudits justly ensued in the Sunday newspapers, as Alty were extolled for their sixth victory over Football League opposition.

    “They gave Rotherham a football lesson and struck two goals of stunning quality” declared the journalist for The Sunday People. The reporter for The Sunday Mirror averred: “They took on, outfought and outplayed Third Division Rotherham with a mixture of skill and power at Millmoor that must do a world of good for their hopes of a place in the Football League.” Meanwhile, the man from The News Of The World acclaimed “highly-talented Altrincham”, before adding: “Rotherham can have no shred of excuse, for Altrincham were much the better side all through. Altrincham have already staked a claim for Football League status and this sparkling display can only strengthen their hopes.”

    Rotherham’s crestfallen caretaker manager, Barry Claxton, was refreshingly candid in his assessment of his team’s defeat: “I’m bitter, upset and disappointed but no way will I take any credit away from Altrincham. They were the better side and thoroughly deserved their victory. They came here to win and were positive and controlled everywhere. Altrincham played better than any Third Division side we have met all season.”

    A proud Tony Sanders was euphoric and in no mood for understatement: “I reckon that must have been quite simply the best performance in the history of the club. We were tremendous. It was the perfect occasion to show how justified we are for a place in the Football League. We fear no-one.“

    The ebullient Alty manager went on to proclaim: “I’m obviously highly delighted but not a bit surprised. This side is capable of anything.”


    PART 22: PSYCHO KILLER

    Picture the scene: it’s 5.30pm on Saturday, 15th December 1979 and the cold wind is whistling across the car park adjacent to Rotherham United’s Millmoor stadium. Huddled around the radio of a battered Ford Escort are two members of the Altrincham team that has just achieved a consummate 2-0 victory over their Football League opponents; three newspaper reporters and a couple of Alty supporters. The draw for the Third Round of the FA Cup is about to be broadcast live on the BBC’s Sports Report programme.

    The Robins’ doughty captain, John King, is dreaming of playing in a tie against his beloved Everton, the club where he commenced his football career as a junior. When the seventh tie to be drawn pairs the Toffees with Aldershot, King promptly emits a heartfelt groan of dismay.

    Meanwhile, Barry Howard, Alty‘s adroit winger and the scorer of a sublime individual goal earlier that very afternoon, covets the opportunity to play against Manchester United at Old Trafford.

    Alty’s allotted number in the draw is 41 and their designated ball becomes the 19th to be selected, swiftly followed by the one allocated to the Second Division club Orient. The resulting tie is scheduled to be played at Moss Lane on Saturday, 5th January 1980.

    The subsequent reaction of the Robins’ manager Tony Sanders to this pairing betrayed just a hint of disappointment, as he had been hoping to be granted the opportunity to take on the likes of Liverpool or Manchester United.

    Both the Manchester clubs had been assigned away ties in this Third Round draw but Sanders was swift to discount any possibility that the venue for the Orient tie would be switched to either Maine Road or Old Trafford in search of a higher attendance: “I have told the Chairman that we are playing the match at Moss Lane. Our aim is to get into the Football League and by showing that we can hold these matches, I feel that we will have a better chance.”

    Alty Chairman Noel White duly endorsed this view: “It seems as though the manager wants to play the tie at Moss Lane and, so, that’s where it will be staged.”

    Having been drawn against Grimsby Town at Anfield, Liverpool were rapidly installed as the 5-1 favourites to win the FA Cup by the bookmakers. Meanwhile, the quoted odds for Alty lifting the trophy at Wembley on Saturday, 10th May 1980 were 1,000-1.

    Monday, 17th December 1979 saw the Robins turn their attention to another cup competition, as they prepared to face Wealdstone in an Alliance Premier League (APL) Cup Third Round tie at Moss Lane. This tie had been rescheduled as the result of the postponement of the original fixture at the eleventh hour due to a waterlogged pitch only a fortnight earlier.

    Wealdstone had finished in 15th position in the 1978/79 Southern League Premier Division table and, as such, were the lowest placed of the Southern clubs to have become a member of the inaugural APL. Just nine days previously, they had succumbed to a 4-1 home defeat against Alty in the first ever meeting between the two teams. However, whilst the Robins were putting Rotherham United to the sword, the Stones had bounced back to register a 3-1 win at Telford United in the APL.

    This APL Cup Quarter Final marked the Moss Lane debut of a certain 17-year old left full back for Wealdstone by the name of Stuart Pearce, who would of course go on to make a name for himself at Nottingham Forest; be awarded 78 England full International caps and manage his country‘s Under-21 team.

    In his autobiography Psycho (which was published in 2000), Pearce reveals that visiting Moss Lane back in those days was a particularly daunting experience for a “young whippersnapper” who was still in the early stages of his playing career: “You had to learn to look after yourself at places like Altrincham where it was very rough.”

    Already resigned to being once again without the considerable services of his leading goalscorer, John Rogers, who was serving the second game of his two match suspension, Tony Sanders was confronted with a couple of injury concerns which threatened to engender some potential disruption to his team selection options.

    Graham Heathcote had tweaked a calf muscle in the second half of the preceding Saturday’s 2-0 conquest of Rotherham United, which had forced his premature withdrawal from the action, and his chances of recovering in time for the Wealdstone encounter were in question.

    Meanwhile, the Robins’ captain and midfield linchpin, John King, had endured a kick on the calf at Millmoor and faced undertaking some treatment and a late fitness test to determine whether he could take part against the Stones. Tony Sanders commented: “John will have two sessions of physiotherapy today in the hope of getting fit but he must be rated extremely doubtful.“

    The Alty manager also disclosed that he was not perturbed by the possibility of his charges suffering any reaction or ‘cup hangover’ in the wake of the euphoria surrounding their latest giant-killing exploit: “In the past three or four years, we have done this many, many times and suffered as a consequence. But now we have an experienced, mature squad and they don’t need me to tell them that they must get all thoughts of the FA Cup out of their system before they face Wealdstone tonight.“

    In the event, both Heathcote and King were declared fit to play and Tony Sanders was able to name the same team that he had fielded at Millmoor. Just prior to kick-off, the Robins’ boss was presented with his award of a gallon of whisky as the APL’s Manager Of The Month for November 1979.

    Amidst difficult playing conditions on an inclement evening dominated by incessant rain and strong winds, the Robins struggled to overcome a stubborn Wealdstone side, notwithstanding being awarded a penalty after only 21 minutes when referee Terry Morris adjudged Robin Wainwright to have been guilty of handball.

    Graham Heathcote assumed his customary role as Alty’s penalty specialist and duly converted the spot kick to record his seventh goal of the season, despite the visitors’ goalkeeper, Ian Cranstone, getting his hand to the ball after guessing correctly as to which side the shot would be placed.

    The Robins were playing with the blustery wind at their backs during the opening 45 minutes, however, they failed to capitalise fully on this advantage and created merely a handful of chances before the interval.

    Barry Howard’s shot tested Cranstone’s agility, eliciting a flying save from the Stones’ No.1, and then Heathcote tried his luck with a 35-yard fee kick, which sailed narrowly past the post.

    Alty’s profligate and fitful performance was punished after only five minutes of the second half, when a free kick from Wealdstone’s skipper, John Watson, was met by Nigel Johnson, whose glancing header rendered Alex Stepney helpless as the ball drifted into the home side’s net.

    To the relief of the majority of the 969 hardy spectators braving the elements, this equaliser served to rouse the Robins from their ostensible torpor and they instantly stepped up a gear. In the 54th minute, an inch-perfect Heathcote free kick found John King unmarked in the penalty area. The Alty captain promptly notched his second goal of the campaign, when his powerful header flashed beyond Cranstone and thereby restored the Robins’ lead.

    Aided by a fierce wind, the visitors pressed forward in search of a second equaliser and a few anxious moments ensued for the Alty supporters. When Stuart Pearce was obstructed just outside the penalty area, the resulting free kick was delivered into the Robins’ penalty box and Nigel Johnson just failed to connect with the ball whilst attempting a diving header. Shortly afterwards, Alty committed another foul in a similar position and John Watson was not far off target with his free kick.

    In the final minute, Nigel Johnson had the opportunity to restore parity when he was put clean through on goal but he was thwarted when Stepney dived at his feet and snaffled the ball with aplomb. At the opposite end, there was still time for Jeff Johnson to squander a golden chance to net the Robins’ third goal but he mis-controlled the ball with only the goalkeeper to beat.

    So, Alty’s hard-fought 2-1 victory advanced them into a two-legged APL Cup Semi-Final, where they were drawn to play against either Nuneaton Borough or Barnet. The other Semi-Final was due to be contested between Northwich Victoria and Kettering Town.

    Whilst Alty had been engaged in FA Cup action in South Yorkshire, Worcester City had reduced the Robins’ lead at the top of the APL table to four points (with a game in hand) by means of a 3-1 home win over Maidstone United. Elsewhere, Weymouth’s 2-1 success at home to AP Leamington was their third consecutive APL victory and the Terras were now lying six points behind Alty, having played two games fewer than the Robins.

    Amongst the interested parties at Moss Lane for the Wealdstone encounter were a couple of spies in the form of Orient’s chief scout and the O’s secretary, Peter Barnes.

    Meanwhile, Tony Sanders was already devising his own espionage mission to analyse future opposition. Rather than indulge in any Christmas shopping on Friday, 21st December 1979, the Alty manager had instead drawn up plans to venture down into South Wales in order to watch the Second Division fixture between Swansea City and Orient.


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