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 23: I’M DREAMING OF A NOEL WHITE CHRISTMAS
Whilst Pink Floyd were claiming the 1979 Christmas Number One hit single with Another Brick In The Wall (Part 2), the Altrincham manager, Tony Sanders, was endeavouring to ensure that his players had not become comfortably numb from all the backslapping they had received in recognition of their recent FA Cup tour de force against Rotherham United.
As an imminent return to Alliance Premier League (APL) action beckoned, Sanders was swift to reiterate the club’s priority: “The APL championship is our prime target, because it is that which, in the end, will help us to realise our big ambition: that of Football League status.”
Meanwhile, the Robins’ enterprising Chairman, Noel White, was to be found gracing the glossy pages of the January 1980 issue of Cheshire Life, where he duly expounded his raison d’etre: “I want to put Altrincham on the football map. I was born and bred here; I built up a successful business here in the field of records and sheet music, then radio and television, and I want to get something done for the town. It gives any town a fillip to be in the Football League, to be in the national line-up every weekend, and we shan’t rest until we get there.“
Saturday, 22nd December 1979 saw Alty without a scheduled fixture but of the four APL matches being played on that day, two were of particular interest to the Robins, who were still in prime position, having gleaned 28 points from their 19 games to date.
Bangor City’s 2-1 home success over Bath City promoted them into second position in the APL table, just three points adrift of Alty (but having played one game more). Elsewhere, Weymouth’s purple patch continued in the shape of their fourth consecutive league victory, which arrived courtesy of a 1-0 home win over Gravesend & Northfleet. Consequently, the Terras moved ominously into third place on 24 points (whilst still possessing a game in hand on the Robins).
Boxing Day 1979 brought familiar opposition to Moss Lane in the guise of Scarborough, who were then residing in seventh spot in the APL table with 19 points gained from their 18 league fixtures.
The first ever meeting between the two clubs had transpired back on Saturday, 13th November 1965 in the form of an FA Cup First Round tie at Moss Lane. This contest was to evolve into a truly unforgettable experience for all those Alty supporters present and would mark a pivotal accomplishment for the club.
Freddie Pye’s Altrincham team had compiled a 21 match unbeaten run and were amongst the frontrunners in the Cheshire County League. Scarborough were members of the Midland League and their player-manager was the former Newcastle United and Glasgow Rangers wing half Albert Franks. The Yorkshire club had even chartered a train to transport hundreds of their supporters to Altrincham and they helped to swell the attendance that afternoon to an impressive figure of 7,182.
The match kicked-off at 2.15pm (there were no floodlights at Moss Lane until April 1966) and the Robins went ahead after merely 11 minutes. Alty’s right full back Jimmy Brown set off on a forward run and then slipped the ball to Jackie Swindells, who in turn set up Pat Connolly to score with a low shot from 15 yards.
The hosts dominated proceedings but they failed to capitalise on their territorial advantage until the 53rd minute, when Jackie Swindells netted the second goal from left winger Clive Colbridge’s cross. However, the best was yet to come, as the prolific Swindells scored four goals in the breathtaking final seven minutes of the tie, thereby bringing his personal tally in the match to five and guiding Alty to a sensational 6-0 triumph.
The Robins had now reached the Second Round of the FA Cup for the first time in their history and some of the delirious home supporters invaded the pitch after the final whistle in celebration of this spectacular victory. Many fans refused to leave until the Alty players had acknowledged the clamour of acclaim and the team duly emerged from their dressing room to embark upon a lap of honour with the talismanic Swindells being chaired on the shoulders of his colleagues.
Prior to the formation of the APL, Alty’s record against Scarborough in all competitions read as follows: played: 28; won: 12; drawn: 6; lost: 10; goals scored: 33 and goals conceded: 21.
Scarborough had concluded the 1978/79 Northern Premier League (NPL) season in 4th position, two places behind the Robins, who had achieved the league double over the Seadogs during that particular campaign.
On Wednesday, 30th August 1978, goals from John King and John Rogers had secured a 2-1 success for the Robins at the Athletic Ground, notwithstanding having Barry Howard sent off. In the return NPL fixture at Moss Lane on Monday, 9th April 1979, an Alty side that included both Graham Heathcote and his elder brother, Alan, recorded a 2-0 victory courtesy of first half goals from John King and left full back Dave Mobley.
The Scarborough team that arrived at Moss Lane on Wednesday, 26th December 1979 was managed by Colin Appleton, who had captained the Leicester City side which had lost 3-1 to Manchester United in the 1963 FA Cup Final. Their 10 away league matches to date had elicited just a couple of victories against Wealdstone and the hapless Redditch United respectively.
The visitors’ ranks included such seasoned stalwarts as the long-standing skipper Harry Dunn (who would go on to register a total of 890 (+11 as a substitute) appearances for the club); Gerry Donoghue; Sean Marshall (later a successful manager of Frickley Athletic) and Harry ‘A’ Dunn (the man who was assigned a fictitious middle initial in order to differentiate between him and his namesake in the team), all of whom had played against Alty in the epic 1977 FA Trophy Semi-Final that had extended to four matches.
The midfield featured Neil Sellers, who had been signed from Goole Town for a then club record transfer fee of £5,000 in the Summer of 1979. Sellers would go on to be awarded a total of nine England Non League International caps. In October 1979, an additional sum of £5,000 had been outlaid in order to recruit central defender Richard Dixey from Kettering Town. There was also a familiar figure up front in the shape of Bob Gauden, a ginger-haired, bandy and bustling ‘old style’ centre forward who had been acquired for a fee of £1,000 from Buxton in October 1978.
Tony Sanders opted to make two changes to the starting XI that had featured in the Robins’ APL Cup Quarter Final win over Wealdstone nine days earlier. Leading goalscorer John Rogers had completed his two match suspension and was restored to the Alty attack, thereby enabling Jeff Johnson to revert to his role on the left side of midfield. Graham Barrow dropped down to substitute in preference to Phil Wilson.
Meanwhile, Alty’s promising young centre half, Graham Tobin, was still unavailable for selection due to injury. Tobin had broken his hand in the 3-1 win at Barrow back on 10th November 1979 and had only recently had the pins in it removed. However, instead of replacing the cast with a light bandage, the doctor decided to put on a new, hard plaster and had then decreed that this must remain on for a month.
A frustrated Sanders commented: “As far as the club is concerned, it is very disappointing, but from the point of view of Graham’s welfare it is clearly the best thing. We would rather have him properly well than play him and risk a knock that could do him permanent damage.”
Attacking the Golf Road End in the first half, Alty clicked into ultra-efficient mode and two early goals gave them a stranglehold on the match that they seldom relinquished. Indeed, the Robins demonstrated their superiority after merely three minutes had elapsed, when Jeff Johnson scored his second APL goal of the season. The dynamic midfielder netted from close range after Barry Whitbread had headed a John Rogers cross into his path.
Scarborough responded and conjured up a rare moment of menace for the home defence in the 11th minute. Bob Gauden‘s left wing cross eluded the Alty rearguard but the resulting shot from Gerry Donoghue sailed innocuously over the Robins’ crossbar.
Having regained their composure and momentum, Alty promptly added their second goal after 16 minutes. John Rogers curled in a shot which the Scarborough goalkeeper Gordon Livsey could only parry and Barry Whitbread was typically on hand to pounce on the loose ball and steer it into the vacant net, thereby recording his tenth goal of the season.
With Alex Stepney being well-protected by his back four, the Robins’ 100% home record in the APL never looked under any serious threat. Scarborough plugged away gallantly but it was the Robins’ attacking trio of Whitbread, Rogers and Howard who fashioned the better goalscoring chances.
On a wet and windy afternoon, the wretched weather conditions steadily took their toll and the second half gradually died as a spectacle for the crowd of 2,521, which represented Alty’s largest home attendance of the season to date. As the match petered out, queues began to form at the various outlets within Moss Lane where tickets for the forthcoming FA Cup Third Round tie versus Orient were scheduled to go on sale directly after the final whistle of this Boxing Day fixture.
The weather forecast predicting additional precipitation for the start of the New Year didn’t unduly perturb Tony Sanders, who declared: “My lads tend to play better in wet, heavy conditions. Big men like Johnny King can plough through the mud, whereas lighter, smaller players slow down and get stuck. As far as I am concerned, pitches can stay heavy and muddy from now until Easter!”
Elsewhere in the APL that afternoon, second-placed Bangor City were held to a 1-1 home draw by Telford United but Worcester City had rattled in four goals without reply at Bath City. Weymouth’s impressive form continued and they clinched their fifth successive APL victory by means of a 1-0 success at Yeovil Town. Worthy of note was the fact that basement club Redditch United had finally achieved their long-awaited first APL win of the season at the fifteenth attempt via a 2-0 away triumph at AP Leamington.
Speaking to Doug Peacock of the Manchester Evening News, Tony Sanders disclosed that his quest to locate an experienced replacement for Alex Stepney was already in motion. The former Manchester United and England goalkeeper was scheduled to return to the North American Soccer League club Dallas Tornado by the end of February 1980 and the Alty boss was determined to find someone in the same mould in order to maintain the club’s APL title aspirations.
Sanders explained: “I don’t want to buy a player who has still to prove himself. Alex has played a major part in our success this year and I want to sign someone with the same sort of experience who can carry on where he leaves off. I’ve got my eye on three or four players and they are all in the Football League.”
In fact, events during the very next match at Moss Lane just three days later would encumber the Robins’ manager with an unexpectedly pressing goalkeeping predicament.
PART 24: RED HOUSE PAINTER
Anyone who was privileged enough to have been an Altrincham FC supporter during the club’s golden era from 1978 to 1982 will inevitably have fond memories of being entertained by the performances of a certain winger for the Robins during those halcyon days. In fact, he was so talented that we were even willing to overlook his ‘style crime’ of sporting one of those ludicrous 1970s/1980s footballers’ perm hairstyles during his tenure at Moss Lane!
Barry Peter Howard was born in Ashton-under-Lyne on 19th February 1950. After a spell as a junior at Oldham Athletic, he joined Hyde United when they were members of the Northern Premier League (NPL) and under the management of Eric Webster, who had made a single appearance for Manchester City during the 1952/53 season. After being released from Maine Road, Webster had played for Ashton United; Hyde United; Nantlle Vale; Pwllheli and Stalybridge Celtic. His manager at those last three clubs was none other than Freddie Pye, who of course revitalised the playing fortunes of the Robins during the 1960s.
As far as I have been able to ascertain, Barry Howard’s first appearance at Moss Lane transpired on Saturday, 7th February 1970, when the Robins defeated Hyde United 4-1 in an NPL fixture. In the profiles of the Hyde United players in the Robins Review printed for that match, he is described as follows: “Howard, who came up through Hyde’s reserve side, has taken the opportunity to stake a claim for a regular spot.”
If he didn’t make much of an impression on the Alty supporters on that particular afternoon, then they certainly had cause to recognise (and rue) his potential just over two months later.
Saturday, 18th April 1970 saw the Robins take on the Tigers in the Cheshire Senior Cup Final at Stockport County’s Edgeley Park ground. Hyde had fallen several weeks in arrears with regard to their players’ wages but by half-time they had established a 3-0 lead. The Tigers’ second goal arrived courtesy of the 20-year old Howard, whose spectacular long range effort left the Robins’ goalkeeper Willie Mailey transfixed. The Manchester Evening News‘ reporter, Terry Gorry, observed: “Left winger Barry Howard stole the show for a moment to score with a Francis Lee type shot after 35 minutes.”
Laurie Brown’s Alty side rallied in the second half and reduced the deficit via a Charlie Rackstraw penalty and Mike Phoenix’s own goal but Hyde withstood the Robins’ late pressure and duly landed the trophy.
In August 1972, Barry Howard followed his former Hyde United boss Eric Webster to Runcorn and he rapidly endeared himself to the Linnets’ fans by scoring a hat-trick at Fleetwood in the NPL. Late in the 1972/73 season, Webster was succeeded by Stan Storton, who had been the manager at fellow NPL club Ellesmere Port Town.
Storton spent six successful years at Canal Street, during which the club won the Cheshire Senior Cup twice (in 1973/74 and 1974/75); the NPL Challenge Cup (1974/75) and the 1975/76 NPL Championship, whilst also reaching the FA Trophy Semi-Final on three occasions. As well as Howard, this impressive Runcorn team included the likes of Mal Bailey; Phil Wilson and Barry Whitbread, all of whom would go on to play for the Robins during that first Alliance Premier League (APL) season in 1979/80.
One of my (unhappy) memories of Barry Howard pertains to Runcorn’s 3-2 triumph over the Robins in the Cheshire Senior Cup Final at Gresty Road, Crewe on Saturday, 19th April 1975 in front of a crowd of 2,112.
Alty captain Lennie Dickinson converted a 29th minute penalty but Mal Bailey levelled matters four minutes later. Phil Smith’s 40th minute goal restored the Robins’ advantage but Barry Whitbread conjured up a second equaliser with only nine minutes of normal time remaining. Then, in the 114th minute, Barry Howard’s shot from a narrow angle eluded Alty’s goalkeeper Peter Eales and once again the inventive 5ft. 8in. winger had contributed to a 3-2 defeat of the Robins in the final of that particular competition.
In May 1977, Barry was selected to play for an England Non League Representative XI who drew 0-0 against an equivalent national team from Italy in Bolzano. He would go on to win a total of seven England Non League International caps as an Altrincham player in 1981 and 1982.
In February 1978, Runcorn sold him to Stockport County for a fee of £3,000 and he made his debut for County in a 1-0 win at Barnsley in the old English Fourth Division on 18th February 1978. At Edgeley Park, he was reunited with his mentor, Eric Webster, who was then in charge of Stockport’s youth team. In a player profile in the Robins Review issued on 3rd September 1983, he duly cited Webster as having been the biggest influence on his football career.
Whilst on the books at Stockport County, Barry recorded 12 (+1 as a substitute) first team appearances and played alongside the likes of the one-time Liverpool and England full back Chris Lawler and the former Manchester City and England winger Mike Summerbee. His solitary Football League goal occurred in the first half of a 2-1 defeat at Rochdale on 4th March 1978 watched by 1,800 spectators. Incidentally, one of the home side’s goalscorers that afternoon was Terry Owen, father of the future Liverpool and England striker Michael.
In June 1978, the Alty manager Tony Sanders paid Stockport County a then club record transfer fee of £3,000 in order to bring the adroit winger to Moss Lane. In fact, the Robins had strived to sign him for a similar outlay back in February of that year, however, Runcorn had remained adamant that they would not sell Howard to any other Non League club (especially the Robins!).
The Summer 1978 acquisition of Howard was regarded by Alty fans as a major coup, since he had been the ringleader of the tormentors for Runcorn against the Robins on numerous previous occasions. Consequently, expectations at Moss Lane were high that this would finally be the season that Alty lifted the NPL Championship.
Barry duly made his debut for the Robins in a 4-1 NPL victory versus Worksop Town at a sun-kissed Moss Lane on the afternoon of Saturday, 19th August 1978, in which he scored the third Alty goal after 37 minutes at the Chequers End. Two days later, he got on the scoresheet again as the Robins trounced Lancaster City 4-0 at the Giant Axe, a venue from where they had not emerged victorious since October 1973. His third appearance saw him sent off at Scarborough for ostensibly retaliating after yet another late tackle from Sean Marshall but the 10-man Robins still prevailed to secure a 2-1 success.
Barry scored 11 goals for the Robins during that 1978/79 NPL season but, alas, he generally failed to replicate the scintillating form of his Runcorn days on a consistent basis. As Alty diehard Brian Flynn recounts: “This was a little bit of a false dawn, as I remember him performing quite averagely in the first half of that season and, indeed, recall him stating that he was quite disappointed with his performance in the FA Cup Third Round 1-1 draw against Tottenham Hotspur at White Hart Lane in January 1979. A reliable source informed me that Barry reportedly earned £500 and a huge chicken (or possibly a turkey) out of those two FA Cup matches against Spurs - a decent wedge in those days!”
I feel it my unfortunate duty to point out that it was September 1978 when Barry adopted his infamous tight curly bubble perm coiffure, as modelled elsewhere by such fashion victims as Kevin Keegan, Peter Shilton and Bryan Robson. In a player profile published in the 23rd October 1978 issue of the Robins Review, the painter and decorator disclosed that he was a Datsun-driving fan of The Rolling Stones who had a wife called Irene and a spaniel puppy called Ben.
After his run of relatively moderate form throughout nine of the Robins’ opening ten matches of the 1979/80 season in the nascent APL, during which he had scored one goal and been sent off at Bangor City, Barry found himself demoted to the role of substitute for the visit to Moss Lane of Bath City on Saturday, 13th October 1979.
However, having been restored to the starting XI for the next match, he played in all 27 of Alty’s subsequent APL fixtures and was an integral member of the splendid team that won the inaugural APL title, scoring a total of 15 goals in all competitions for the club in that memorable season.
Tony Sanders duly acknowledged his winger‘s impressive return to form: “I think the improvement began with the testimonial game against Manchester City. I had dropped Barry, not because he was playing badly but because he was not playing as well as he could. We sat in the dugout and discussed the team’s approach and the job that we wanted Barry to do and ever since then he has produced the goods.”
Barry was a fast and tricky winger who could play on either flank and had the ability to cut infield and shoot with either foot. His qualities were never better exemplified than by his sublime solo goal in the Robins’ 2-0 triumph in an FA Cup Second Round tie at Rotherham United on 15th December 1979, which would almost certainly be most Altrincham supporters‘ favourite memory of him.
He later remarked: “The manager told me to be direct and run at them and it paid off. That goal will rank alongside one that I scored against Altrincham for my old club, Hyde United (i.e. in the 1970 Cheshire Senior Cup Final, as discussed earlier). It will obviously go down as one of my most memorable.”
The 1980/81 APL season was a truly vintage one for Barry and he played in 55 of Alty’s 56 competitive games during that campaign, scoring 12 goals in the process. Barry was voted as the club’s Player Of The Year by the Alty supporters for his invaluable contribution as the Robins retained the APL title; won the APL Cup and took on the reigning old English First Division Champions Liverpool in the FA Cup Third Round in front of a gate of 37,170, eventually losing 4-1.
It’s hardly surprising that Barry subsequently earmarked that fascinating encounter at Anfield as being the most memorable match of his playing career. He invariably rose to the big occasion, as Alty devotee Paul Thompson succinctly captures: “His performance at Anfield, especially in the second half, was outstanding. On the DVD of the match, there's a nice shot of him coming up the tunnel after that game and you can see by the look on his face how well he had done. There's one absolutely glorious moment in the second half where he leaves (the then England International right full back) Phil Neal for dead on the left touchline.”
His accomplishments during the 1981/82 campaign led to the Non League Club Directory naming him as one of their Personalities Of The Season, as he registered a further 59 appearances for the Robins and added another 20 goals to his tally. His tour de force was undoubtedly his virtuoso performance in the FA Cup First Round Replay against Sheffield United at Moss Lane on Monday, 23rd November 1981. Barry scored two marvellous goals and mercilessly tormented the former Manchester United and Scotland full back Stewart Houston, as 5,137 spectators witnessed the Robins record a superb 3-0 victory.
The Robins reached the FA Cup Third Round for the fourth consecutive season but bowed out 6-1 against a Trevor Steven-inspired Burnley at Turf Moor on Monday, 18th January 1982. Alas, just prior to half-time and with the Robins only 1-0 down, Barry contrived to miss a sitter when he shot wide from merely a few yards out. However, he did eventually find the net after 74 minutes, when he collected a Jeff Johnson through ball and rounded the goalkeeper before slotting the ball home. His direct opponent that night was a certain Brian Laws, who is of course currently employed as the Clarets’ manager.
Barry’s five goals in the FA Trophy that season were instrumental in propelling the Robins to the 1982 Final at Wembley, where they suffered a narrow 1-0 defeat. In a game of attrition in which goalscoring chances were at a premium, it was Barry who came the closest to scoring for the Robins, when his close range effort in extra time was dramatically headed off the line by the Enfield captain Tony Jennings.
The 1982/83 season was to be a transitional one for the Robins, as Tony Sanders endeavoured to rebuild his side in the wake of the departures of such key individuals as John Connaughton; John Owens; Ivan Crossley and Barry Whitbread and the massive loss of John King to a knee injury that would effectively curtail the influential Alty skipper’s playing career.
Meanwhile, Barry clocked up 52 additional appearances and notched 16 goals, the most treasured of which was the Robins’ second in a 2-1 FA Cup First Round success against Rochdale at Moss Lane on Saturday, 20th November 1982. As Barry performed a celebratory forward roll in front of the Golf Road End after scoring, I recollect thinking that this cherished victory was at least some consolatory retribution for that Football League re-election travesty of June 1980.
The last of Barry’s total of 74 goals for the Robins occurred in a 3-2 APL reverse at Trowbridge Town on Saturday, 23rd April 1983. He added a further 10 (+2 as sub) appearances for the club in the early stages of the 1983/84 season with his swan song being a 3-1 home defeat by Enfield on Saturday, 1st October 1983 (a match which also proved to be the finale of Mal Bailey’s Alty career).
After departing from Moss Lane, he returned to Hyde United and later went on to have spells with Witton Albion; Ashton United and Droylsden respectively.
So, Barry Howard: 288 (+3 as sub) appearances for Altrincham FC and incontrovertibly one of the club’s playing legends. He was a painter and decorator off the pitch but an artist on it