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 & 26
  • Parts 27 & 28
  • Parts 29 & 30

  • PART 25: THE NEEDLE AND THE DAMAGE DONE

    One of the less agreeable aspects of Christmas is that you may find your home invaded by unwelcome visitors, often in the guise of those ghastly relatives or insufferable neighbours who you spend the majority of the year avoiding. So it was for Altrincham FC back in the Yuletide of 1979, when they found themselves obliged to entertain Northwich Victoria at Moss Lane.

    Since the genesis of the Northern Premier League (NPL) on 10th August 1968, the Robins’ record in fixtures against Northwich Victoria had been truly abject. In the eleven seasons of the NPL prior to the inception of the Alliance Premier League (APL) on 18th August 1979, Alty had accrued only 15 points out of a possible total of 44 in matches against the enemy from the opposite end of the A556. The statistics made lamentable reading for all those of an Alty persuasion: played: 22; won: two; drawn: 11 and lost: nine; goals scored: 26 and goals conceded 35.

    And yet it had all started so auspiciously and, indeed, memorably. In the first NPL meeting of the two clubs back on Saturday, 25th January 1969, the Robins had trounced the Vics at Moss Lane by the magnificent scoreline of 8-1, courtesy of hat-tricks from on-loan winger Ian Morris and debutant Don Weston respectively; a Mick Metcalf strike and a Jackie Swindells penalty.

    Alas, that joyous occasion would prove to be the sole home victory over the Vics during Alty’s membership of the NPL. In the subsequent 10 encounters at Moss Lane, there would be three successes for the visitors and seven drawn games, as the Vics evolved into the Robins‘ bogey team during the 1970s.

    Prior to the inaugural APL contest between the two old Cheshire adversaries at Moss Lane in December 1979, the last time that Alty had contrived to register a win over the Vics on home territory had been a 3-2 triumph in a North West Floodlit League fixture on Monday, 24th February 1975 watched by 1,150 spectators. A Lennie Dickinson free kick; a Derek England own goal and a Graham Heathcote shot had established a 3-0 lead for the hosts before goals in the closing ten minutes from Devine and Rolland had reduced the deficit. The Robins went on to win that particular competition by overcoming their other bitter rivals Macclesfield Town 2-0 in the final on Friday, 9th May 1975, when the goalscorers were Phil Smith and John Hughes.

    Northwich had concluded the 1978/79 NPL season in 10th position, having gained three points from their two encounters with the Robins. On Monday, 4th September 1978, a gate of 2,194 observed John Rogers put Alty into the lead after only four minutes, only for this to be nullified by Terry Bailey’s 75th minute equaliser. In the return fixture at The Drill Field on Saturday, 14th April 1979, a Terry O’Connor penalty secured a win for the Vics in front of a crowd of 1,678.

    The Vics arrived at Moss Lane on Saturday, 29th December 1979 whilst occupying 11th spot in the APL table. They had commenced the premier APL season in promising fashion, accumulating 11 points from a possible total of 14 during an unbeaten run comprising their first seven fixtures. However, they had merely gleaned six points from their subsequent eight matches and their solitary success from six away fixtures to date had been a 3-0 win at Bangor City.

    Managed by the former Stafford Rangers and Port Vale striker, Ray Williams, the Vics line-up included some familiar foes. Forever greeted by the Golf Road End choir’s inevitable chant of “Slob! Slob! Slob!” (does anyone recall the origin of that particular taunt?), their goalkeeper, Dave Ryan, invariably had a blinder against the Robins and remains a member of that elite group of goalkeepers who have saved a Graham Heathcote penalty. Moreover, he would even have the temerity to score against the Robins in a 1-1 draw at Moss Lane on Monday, 25th August 1986, when his gale-assisted clearance hoodwinked Jeff Wealands.

    The Vics’ captain was the evergreen and supremely consistent Ken Jones, who would go on to amass a record total of 970 appearances for the club, the first of which had transpired in a 3-1 home NPL victory over the Robins on Wednesday, 23rd April 1969. Alongside him in central defence was the 6ft. 4in. Jeff Forshaw, whose player profile in the Robins Review that day portrayed him as: “Another newcomer to the side, who has won many friends for some sterling displays in the defence.” This description would prove to be hugely ironic in light of the controversial events that were about to unfold at Moss Lane on that afternoon!

    The visitors’ leading goalscorer was the former Winsford United striker Graham Smith, who had rattled in an impressive haul of five goals in the Vics’ 6-3 defeat of Barrow at The Drill Field on Boxing Day 1979. He was partnered by Colin Williams, a £5,000 signing from Telford United, for whom he had scored in Alty’s 3-2 reverse at The Buck’s Head Ground back on Monday, 3rd September 1979.

    In his programme notes, Alty’s manager Tony Sanders referred to the enduring needle that existed between the two clubs because of their proximity and emphasised the significance of this first APL skirmish with the foul antagonists in green and white: “To say the outcome is important would indeed be an understatement, because the outcome for both clubs is vital. For us, it would keep up our challenge at the top of the APL and, for Vics, it would spur them on to challenge for the top spot.”

    Sanders was compelled to introduce a couple of amendments to the Robins’ team that had brushed aside Scarborough at Moss Lane just three days earlier. Graham Heathcote had picked up a hamstring injury and was unavailable for selection. Therefore, Graham Barrow was appointed to deputise for him in midfield and Phil Wilson was restored to the role of Alty’s substitute.

    On a snow-covered Moss Lane pitch, it was the visitors who were quicker to adapt to the rather treacherous conditions underfoot. An early Colin Williams shot was deflected inches wide of an Alty upright and then the one-time Stafford Rangers and Port Vale midfielder Terry Bailey‘s powerful 15-yard drive thudded against the post with Alex Stepney powerless to intervene. Alty’s lone response consisted of a Barry Howard effort on goal that drifted wide of its intended target.

    The infamous and contentious incident, which would dominate proceedings and provoke such ill-feeling amongst the Alty supporters in the crowd of 2,135 on that particular afternoon, duly erupted in the 35th minute.

    A Jimmy Collier corner for the Vics at the Golf Road End engendered a collision between Alex Stepney and the Vics’ towering centre half, Jeff Forshaw. As the Robins’ ex-Manchester United goalkeeper caught the cross, the lumbering defender’s outstretched elbow made full contact with Stepney’s face, poleaxing the Alty No. 1, who then crashed to the ground whilst still clutching the ball. As the concussed figure of Stepney lay prostrate on the Moss Lane turf, the incensed Alty supporters vociferously excoriated Forshaw for what they considered to have been an intentional assault on their esteemed goalkeeper.

    After a five minute delay, Stepney was stretchered off the field and initially transported to Wythenshawe Hospital. The extent of the grievous facial injuries that he had incurred gradually emerged in the following days. The clash had resulted in him losing four teeth whilst suffering a badly bruised jaw and a severely gashed lip, which required stitches. He was subsequently transferred to Withington Hospital in order to undergo an hour-long skin graft operation on his upper lip before eventually being allowed to go home late on Saturday night.

    In the wake of all this drama in the Alty penalty area, the substitute referee, Neil Chadwick, eventually got around to booking Forshaw for his challenge, a punishment that failed egregiously to fit the alleged crime that he had committed in the eyes of the outraged and livid home supporters.

    In his match report for the Northwich Guardian, that green-eyed and noted Altyphobe Mike Talbot-Butler remarked that: “Forshaw was booed for the remainder of the game by the bloodthirsty home fans.“ In fact, he was to be jeered and lambasted by the Moss Lane faithful for several years after this notorious flash point and, even to this very day, he remains a bete noire of many long-standing Alty supporters.

    The match resumed with Alty’s right full back Stan Allan as Stepney’s makeshift replacement. Meanwhile, Graham Barrow assumed the vacant right full back role and Phil Wilson entered the fray as a substitute and slotted into midfield. Then John Rogers almost broke the deadlock on the stroke of half-time but his curling long range shot was well saved by Ryan.

    Early in the second half, Smith drove a shot over the Alty crossbar after evading the Robins’ rearguard but Stan Allan was mostly being extremely well-protected by his defenders. Indeed, he was rarely tested and had little to contend with other than some backpasses. Somewhat surprisingly under the circumstances (they were 13 points behind the Robins but with five games in hand), the Vics seemed to have settled for a point when they really required a win to rekindle their fading league title aspirations.

    Late in the contest, it was actually the hosts who were pressing for a winner. Barry Howard’s 20-yard drive elicited a fine save from Ryan and then the Vics’ goalkeeper distinguished himself with a brilliant reflex save from a John Rogers back header in the closing minutes.

    This goalless draw in their ninth APL fixture at Moss Lane marked the end of the Robins’ 100% home record. However, the fact that they had remained unbeaten on home soil, notwithstanding having to employ an outfield player as a stand-in goalkeeper for 55 minutes, spoke volumes about the character and quality of the team that Tony Sanders had assembled.

    The post-match analysis found Tony Sanders still fuming about the repercussions of Forshaw’s challenge on Stepney: “He was out cold for 10 minutes and when I went on to the pitch and saw the blood coming out of his mouth, I thought he was dead. We were relieved to find his jaw wasn’t broken but these were extensive facial injuries and we’ll have to wait to see how he reacts to them.”

    His opposite number, Ray Williams, rejected any accusations that his centre half’s controversial challenge had been an intentional foul: “In my view, Jeff Forshaw’s collision with Stepney was a complete accident. I’m sorry that their manager Tony Sanders would not speak to me afterwards and the home people were very uptight. They may have lost Stepney but Allan was a very efficient deputy and their defence covered so well that we were not able to put him under any real pressure. Altrincham are the Non League team of the moment and I was quite pleased to take a point.“

    Alty supporter Matthew Wheeler recollects that the following Monday evening’s edition of the BBC’s Look North West local news programme broadcast a brief clip of Stepney being stretchered off the pitch. As the footage was running, Stuart Hall intoned something along the lines of: “And Alex Stepney found that the game can still be tough, even at the Non League level.”

    Sanders also disclosed that his captain had sustained an injury in the bruising derby with Vics: “John King hurt his ankle in the first half and it was so painful that he would have stayed off at the interval if we hadn’t already used our substitute. He should never have gone out in the second half but he did really well. If that had been me, I would have been off to hospital.”

    The Robins’ manager’s fury had still not diminished when the time came for him to write his column for publication in the next issue of the Robins Review and he certainly didn’t mince his words when discussing the Northwich clash: “The injuries we received in this match were severe enough in themselves to gain maximum publicity in the national press, and I make no further comment than that, but I would say this. All credit must go to my players, after various incidents, for not reacting in a situation where it would have been so easy to have turned the game into a violent affair. They held themselves together well and, in the end, were very unlucky not to come out on top despite almost being kicked off the pitch.”

    A bizarre footnote to this whole affair which is worth mentioning relates to the fact that during the 1980/81 APL season, Tony Sanders actively sought to bring Jeff Forshaw to Moss Lane, where he was still deemed as persona non grata by the Alty fanbase.

    In the Robins Review issued for the visit of Weymouth on Saturday, 11th April 1981, the Robins’ boss explained the collapse of the proposed Jeff Forshaw transfer: “I had agreed terms with the player but conditional on a stringent medical examination. When this took place, it was found that problems existed and the deal was called off.“ This news was greeted with immense sighs of relief by those Alty supporters who viewed the prospect of seeing their anathema Forshaw in a red and white striped shirt as being utterly intolerable.

    Alty devotee Mike Garnett recounts a conversation pertaining to this prickly matter that he had with Tony Sanders before an FA Trophy Third Round tie at Leytonstone & Ilford on Saturday, 21st February 1981: “At the time, there were certainly rumours that Alty were interested in signing Forshaw and it certainly didn't sit well with me, for one. I remember saying to Tony that I hoped to goodness he wasn't intending to sign him, to which he replied to the effect that "You do realise that it's the ones the fans have a go at that they'd really like to have playing for them." I could see then - and can see now - what he was getting at but I'm still glad that we didn't sign the green b*****d!”


    PART 26: ALTRINCHAM - WHERE ORIENT GOES WEST

    After that bruising goalless draw of attrition against Northwich Victoria at Moss Lane on Saturday, 29th December 1979, the Robins remained perched at the summit of the Alliance Premier League (APL), having accumulated 31 points from their 21 fixtures to date and established a four point advantage over second-placed Worcester City (who had a game in hand on the league leaders).

    This ninth APL match at Moss Lane had witnessed the loss of both the Robins’ 100% home league record and, more disturbingly, four of Alex Stepney’s front teeth courtesy of the esteemed Alty goalkeeper’s close encounter with Jeff Forshaw’s elbow. In addition, the Robins’ talismanic captain, John King, had incurred a badly swollen ankle during the first half of the derby encounter with the Vics, all of which left Alty boss Tony Sanders almost certainly without the considerable services of these two key individuals for the Robins’ next scheduled APL fixture at Scarborough on Tuesday, 1st January 1980.

    Therefore, nobody at Moss Lane could be described as being unduly heartbroken when the New Year’s Day match at The Athletic Ground had to be postponed due to a snowbound and frozen pitch. In fact, merely three APL fixtures survived the gelid conditions on the opening day of that new decade, of which the most significant to Alty was Weymouth’s 3-0 home success over Yeovil Town. This represented the Terras’ sixth consecutive APL victory and it duly promoted them into second position in the league table, only three points adrift of the Robins whilst still possessing a game in hand.

    Thoughts could now be turned to the enticing prospect of the first ever (and, still to this date, only) FA Cup Third Round tie to be staged at Moss Lane, in the guise of the visit of Orient of the old Second Division on Saturday, 5th January 1980.

    When the Robins had been paired with Orient in the Third Round draw in the immediate aftermath of Alty’s 2-0 triumph at Rotherham United on Saturday, 15th December 1979, there had initially been both a palpable air of disappointment and a sense of anticlimax at the club at having missed out on the chance to engage in a high-profile and lucrative contest against the likes of Manchester United or Liverpool. However, there soon ensued a burgeoning mood of optimism that the Robins had actually been bequeathed a feasible opportunity to reach the FA Cup Fourth Round for the first time in the club’s history.

    Having previously avowed his abiding ambition to knock a First Division side out of the FA Cup, Tony Sanders displayed an inventive mindset in his reaction to the task of entertaining Orient: “We are working our way in the right direction, beating a Fourth Division side (i.e. Crewe Alexandra) and then a Third Division team (i.e. Rotherham United). Now it’s a Second Division team. It looks like being the Semi-final before we meet a First Division club!”

    The resolute Alty boss averred: “No side plays under greater pressure. We have to win our league if we are to be nominated for the Fourth Division and also beat full-time outfits to keep our name in the public eye.” He also emphasised how important it was for the club’s ultimate ambitions that they should host the Orient clash at Moss Lane rather than opt to switch the match to a larger venue: “When we apply to the Football League, we want to be able to prove that not only can we play soccer but we can handle the big occasion.”

    In the build-up to the tie, the media spotlight focused somewhat inevitably on Alex Stepney’s ongoing struggle to overcome the facial injuries sustained on the preceding Saturday and thereby receive the all-clear from a specialist to play against the East London outfit. The press even sought the insight of his wife, whose early prognosis didn’t exactly augur well: “He’s hoping to make it but, frankly, looking at him, I would not put it any higher than that.”

    Speaking at home, four days after he had been concussed and carried off the field on a stretcher against the Vics, Stepney managed to summon up a half smile and remarked: “You should have seen me last Saturday - not a pretty sight! At the moment, my chances of playing are about 50-50 and I will wait until the last possible second before making a decision. As a native Londoner, I’ve really been looking forward to the game with Orient and I would hate to miss it.“

    The potential absence of Stepney meant that Colin Darcy was on stand-by to make his first appearance in goal for the Robins’ first XI since his erratic performance in the 3-2 APL defeat at Telford United back on Monday, 3rd September 1979. However, the sales representative lacked match practice in the No. 1 shirt, since his recent outings for Alty’s reserve team in the Lancashire League had seen him employed as a centre forward!

    Billy Phillips, the young American who had accompanied Stepney to Moss Lane from Dallas Tornado, had been the regular goalkeeper for the Robins’ second string in recent weeks but he was ineligible for the FA Cup tie. The only other goalkeeper on the books at Moss Lane was the inexperienced 17-year-old John McKenna, who was currently on loan at Tranmere Rovers. McKenna, who played for the Robins in the Lancashire League but never actually registered a first team appearance for the club, subsequently went on to enjoy a successful career with the likes of Morecambe; Boston United; Dagenham & Redbridge and Southport, winning seven England Non League International caps in the process.

    Tony Sanders offered a neat precis of his prospective selection headache: “We have good cover in our squad but we don’t have a Peter Shilton to take over from Alex Stepney. I can’t do anything but wait and hope that Alex’s condition doesn’t deteriorate any further.”

    Fortunately, following a week of dental treatment during which he endured an oral infection and the extraction of yet another tooth, the man who had played in goal for Manchester United’s 1977 FA Cup-winning team finally declared himself fit to face Orient. Amidst the background noise of a huge and collective audible sigh of relief from all Alty supporters, the club’s secretary, Dave Baldwin, observed: “Alex is very brave to even consider playing after what happened to him - but that’s the kind of man he is.”

    Orient arrived at Moss Lane lying in 12th place in the old Second Division (which back then included such present-day Blue Square Bet Premier League clubs as Luton Town; Cambridge United and Wrexham), having gleaned 23 points from their 23 fixtures to date. They were unbeaten in their six previous away league games and hadn‘t tasted defeat on their travels since a 1-0 reverse at Oldham Athletic on 6th October 1979. In their three league matches prior to their appointment at Moss Lane, the Os had won 1-0 at Swansea City (a game that Tony Sanders had attended); drawn 2-2 at home to Luton Town and then suffered a 4-0 New Year’s Day drubbing by their neighbours West Ham United in front of 23,885 spectators at their own Brisbane Road stadium.

    The Orient manager was the former Arsenal and Birmingham City inside forward Jimmy Bloomfield, who had returned to Brisbane Road in 1977 for his second spell in this particular role, following a period of six years in charge at Leicester City. Just under two years earlier, he had guided the Os throughout a laudable FA Cup run, which culminated in a 3-0 Semi-final defeat against Arsenal at Stamford Bridge on 8th April 1978.

    The seasoned Bloomfield demonstrated a phlegmatic reaction to the prospect of his club’s tricky FA Cup assignment in Cheshire: “I am not a pressure man and I do not feel that we will be under any more pressure than normal to win this match. I have been in the game too long to be affected by pressure. I do appreciate what this tie means to the people of Altrincham but I have been through these sort of matches before. There will be no complacency from any of my players. We will treat Altrincham with great respect, as you have to do with any side in the FA Cup, but I‘ll be disappointed if we don’t get past this hurdle.“

    The Orient team which lined up against the Robins at 3.00pm on Saturday, 5th January 1980 comprised a classic blend of experienced characters and younger homegrown talent. Their starting XI contained three individuals who had played in the West Ham United side which had defeated Fulham in the 1975 FA Cup Final: goalkeeper Mervyn Day (who had been the recipient of the 1975 PFA Young Player Of The Year award); central defender and team captain Tommy Taylor and their leading goalscorer Billy Jennings.

    Partnering Taylor in central defence was Nigel Gray, who had graduated to the first team after joining the club as an apprentice in July 1973. The right full back was Bobby Fisher, another player to have signed as an apprentice back in 1973. He proceeded to clock up over 300 league appearances for the Os and his post-football career included appearances as an actor in such programmes as The Bill and EastEnders.

    At left full back was Bill Roffey, who had been recruited from Crystal Palace in October 1973. His initial verbal reaction to news of the Third Round draw had reportedly been: “Where on earth is Altrincham?” However, once the geographically-challenged Londoner had dispensed with his flippancy and taken a little time to ponder over the challenge ahead, he duly reflected: “We would much rather be playing a League club at this stage. It certainly won‘t be an easy one for us.“

    In the enforced absence of the Os’ pacy Nigerian winger John Chiedozie due to injury, former apprentice Kevin Godfrey was entrusted with the task of supplying ammunition from the right flank for both Jennings and his strike partner, Joe Mayo. Along with a transfer fee of £110,000, Mayo had arrived at Brisbane Road from West Bromwich Albion in March 1977 as part of a deal that had seen Orient’s exciting winger (and future England International and Real Madrid player) Laurie Cunningham move to The Hawthorns.

    The visitors’ midfield included another product of the club’s fruitful youth policy in the shape of Henry Hughton, the older brother of the current Newcastle United manager, Chris Hughton. Alongside him was the former Stoke City and England Under-21 player Ian Moores, a bearded, blond and imposing figure who had joined Orient from Tottenham Hotspur for a fee of £55,000 in October 1978.

    The most famous member of the Orient side was undoubtedly the one-time Burnley midfielder Ralph Coates, who had arrived at Brisbane Road on a free transfer from Tottenham Hotspur in October 1978. Coates had won four England International caps during the 1970/71 campaign and Burnley‘s relegation at the conclusion of that season prompted Spurs to pay £190,000 to acquire his talents in May 1971. He is still fondly remembered for sporting a frankly ludicrous Bobby Charltonesque combover hairstyle, which in 1987 even inspired a Welsh punk band called The Abs to release a paean to those curious strands of hair streaming in the wind behind Ralph’s balding pate as he galloped down the wing, which they entitled Grease Your Ralph.

    The Second Division club’s substitute was John Margerrison, a midfielder who had previously played alongside George Best and Rodney Marsh at Fulham and who would subsequently appear for Wealdstone and Barnet respectively in the APL; Gola League and GM Vauxhall Conference between 1982 and 1989.

    An unexpected potential source of insight into Alty’s opponents was disclosed in the Robins Review issued for the encounter with Northwich Victoria on the previous Saturday. The revelation read: “We, too, have our spies out. Besides our own manager and officials going to have a look at Orient, England International Trevor Brooking has offered to give us a rundown on the Brisbane Road side.”

    The debut of Orient at Moss Lane had been designated as an all-ticket match with the ground capacity set at 10,500. The London club had requested their full entitlement of tickets (i.e. an allocation of 25%) and prices for the Third Round tie were fixed at £3.00 for the Main Stand (which sold out rapidly) and £1.50 for the terraces (£1.00 for OAPs and Juniors).

    Prior to the much-anticipated fixture, you could obtain your free bespoke car sticker bearing the slogan “Altrincham - Where Orient Goes West” from the Altrincham FC Pools Office and Piccadilly Radio (261) were even present at Moss Lane on the day of the tie in order to broadcast their Saturday sports curtain-raiser from 1.00pm to 3.00pm.

    On the eve of the Orient clash, the entire Altrincham FC team appeared as special guests on ITV Granada’s Kick Off, a half hour local football preview programme aired at 6.30pm. Each player was interviewed by either Gerald Sinstadt or Elton Welsby and asked to submit their prediction for one of the following day’s FA Cup Third Round ties. What a treat it would be if this item could be unearthed from the Granada Television archives!

    Alty supporter Robert Sharpe specifically recollects John Rogers’ forecast that Fourth Division Halifax Town would beat First Division Manchester City at The Shay, citing the Robins’ defeat of Malcolm Allison’s expensively-assembled outfit at Moss Lane earlier that season as his prime reason for this bold prophecy. Robert recalls that a lot of City fans in the Moss Hotel in Hale that night were none too enamoured with JR’s prediction but they were even less pleased the next day when the Alty striker’s ostensible second sight was proved to be accurate!

    As the kick-off for the Third Round tie approached and the pre-match excitement intensified, it fell to Tony Sanders to capture the mood at Moss Lane, albeit in a rather eccentric fashion: “I think that the League is like the wife - always there - but the FA Cup is our mistress and we enjoy meeting her!”


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