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 27: ONE KICK INTO THE STAND AWAY FROM THE FOURTH ROUND
The maiden FA Cup Third Round tie at Moss Lane on Saturday, 5th January 1980 attracted a crowd of 7,844 to witness the Robins cross swords with Football League (old) Second Division opposition in the shape of Orient. I recollect watching the game from the vantage point of a few steps up directly behind the goal on the jam-packed Chequers End terrace and it remains the largest attendance I have experienced at Moss Lane.
The Orient away contingent had been allocated a section of The Popular Side terrace located towards the Golf Road End. As Alty diehard Bill Waterson recollects: “My job that day was selling copies of the Robins Review to the Orient fans who entered Moss Lane by the British Gas offices (Welman House) corner of the ground. There were lots of them and, as they came through the turnstiles, they had their flags and banners confiscated by the waiting local police (those sticks could be used as weapons, you know). So, they were mostly very grumpy when buying their programmes and I was more than a little intimidated by their ’banter‘!"
Fellow Alty regular Paul McGee also recalls being employed as one of the chief programme sellers that afternoon: “I remember that I was still selling programmes inside the ground up until half-time. I was paid at the rate of half a pence per programme sold and made a small fortune that day (retired on the proceedings and bought a property in Marbella!).”
Thankfully, the snow and ice which had disrupted much of the New Year’s Day programme of fixtures had thawed. Volunteers had worked on rolling and sanding the Moss Lane turf on the eve of the Orient clash and by noon on Saturday, that true legend amongst Alty groundsmen, Jack Thorpe, declared that the pitch was playable but likely to cut up.
Fortunately, the injury worries that had haunted the Robins all week, in the aftermath of the preceding Saturday’s controversial conflict with Northwich Victoria, had finally evaporated. Alex Stepney had declared himself fit to play after several days of intensive treatment to his facial and dental injuries and the Robins’ charismatic skipper, John King, had shaken off a troublesome ankle knock. Tony Sanders opted to field Graham Barrow on the right side of the Robins’ midfield in preference to Graham Heathcote. The latter had been hampered of late by a hamstring injury but was named as the Alty substitute.
Orient reportedly arrived at Moss Lane equipped with two kits: their customary home strip of white with two thin red vertical stripes/red trimmings and their away apparel, which was an exact reverse of the home design. Both of these outfits were a colour clash with Alty’s traditional red and white stripes and, consequently, the match officials ordered the Robins to wear their yellow and blue away strip whilst the visitors ended up sporting their away gear.
Alty fan Robert Sharpe remembers listening to a post match interview on Piccadilly Radio with an indignant Tony Sanders, in which the Robins’ boss remarked pointedly that if Football League clubs believed that conspiring to make Alty play in a different strip to their usual home kit would engender an adverse effect on his team’s performance, then they were very much mistaken.
Alty commenced the match attacking the Chequers End and mistakes on the soggy surface were plentiful from both sides during the early exchanges. John Davison conjured up the Robins’ first noteworthy shot but it failed to trouble Mervyn Day in the Orient goal. The visitors’ first corner eventually presented the former England International Ralph Coates with a shooting opportunity but his effort was equally off-target.
In the 17th minute, the Os squandered an excellent chance to open the scoring. Joe Mayo’s through ball sent winger Kevin Godfrey clear but he screwed his shot wide with only Stepney to beat. Indeed, the Robins’ goalkeeper was not called upon to produce his first notable save until the 25th minute, when he dealt comfortably with a drive from Mayo.
What had become rapidly apparent was that Orient were more than prepared to engage in a physical contest and adopt a combative and no-nonsense approach. Henry Hughton became the first player to be booked after he had brought down Jeff Johnson in full flight. He was swiftly followed into referee Morris Baker’s notebook by Joe Mayo, due to the latter’s display of dissent. Mayo was subsequently fortunate to avoid incurring further punishment after committing a foul on Barry Whitbread. Then Ralph Coates royally clattered John King but escaped without receiving a caution.
Alty devotee Paul Thompson recalls his surprise on the day at the ex-Spurs midfielder’s willingness (as the football parlance would have it) to put himself about and get stuck in: “For some reason (probably his bald head or his name), I had the impression that Coates was a kind of avuncular midfield stroller. In the event, he turned out to be a wily old scuttler, clogging Alty players left, right and centre. Appearances can be deceptive!”
Moss Lane duly erupted in the 28th minute, when Barry Whitbread’s brilliant solo effort gave the Robins the lead and left the Second Division side dazed and confused.
As the Orient left full back Bill Roffey hesitated over a clearance on the edge of his penalty area, he was promptly dispossessed by Whitbread, who then ghosted past both central defenders Tommy Taylor and Nigel Gray, before driving a glorious low left foot shot into the corner of the net past the powerless Mervyn Day with admirable composure. The Alty forward’s 11th strike of the season is still deemed to have been one of the most accomplished and cherished goals seen at Moss Lane by those who were fortunate enough to be present on that memorable afternoon back in 1980.
The hosts were now enjoying the lion’s share of possession and, shortly afterwards, Day was forced to muster a scrambling save in the mud, as Davison’s free kick skidded through the congested penalty area.
During the half-time interval, I can recollect a buzz amongst the gathered spectators as news of First Division Manchester City’s 1-0 FA Cup Third Round defeat at the hands of Fourth Division Halifax Town in the early kick-off at The Shay began to filter around the stadium.
Merely six minutes into the second half, an indisputably pivotal moment in the contest occurred, as the Robins failed to exploit a golden opportunity to double their advantage. A John Rogers cross from the left flank eluded the grasp of Day and reached the unmarked Whitbread at the far post. Alas, the Robins’ record signing contrived to get into a tangle with his team-mate, Barry Howard, as they both went for the same ball, before hooking his eventual shot over the crossbar from point blank range. This ill-fated act of profligacy was accompanied by a collective groan of consternation from the ranks of the aghast Alty faithful who had congregated in the Golf Road End.
As the half progressed, Orient were slowly clawing their way back into the game and Stepney was obliged to punch a dipping shot over the bar from a free kick taken by the visitors’ skipper Taylor. However, the Robins were still posing a considerable threat at the other end and Day was forced to make a smart interception at the feet of the onrushing Howard, after the Alty winger had been released by King’s piercing through ball.
In an interview conducted during the countdown to this Third Round tie, Tony Sanders had issued a caveat pertaining to Orient‘s instinct for survival in the face of arduous circumstances: “We’ve watched them several times recently and we’ve been impressed by the way they fight back when it looks as though they’re beaten. Last Saturday, for instance, they were trailing 2-0 to Luton Town but they kept plugging away and snapped up a couple of defensive mistakes to get a 2-2 draw. That’s where we’ve got to be careful. We’ve got to make sure that our own game is very tight right to the final whistle because they’ll be trying to force us into errors.”
Alas, these words of warning proved to be uncannily prescient.
The aforementioned Bill Waterson recalls experiencing a sense of foreboding as the match entered its closing stages and the Robins appeared increasingly to be intent solely on preserving their lead rather than endeavouring to extend it: “Just before the Orient equaliser, Alex Stepney, who was striving to kill time, berated a ball boy for returning the ball to him too quickly and, at that point, I was certain that going all timid and indulging in time-wasting would cost us the tie.”
Disaster duly unfolded in the 78th minute. In what initially seemed to comprise an innocuous situation in the Alty penalty area, John Davison prepared to cut out and clear Godfrey’s right wing cross. However, he hesitated with fateful consequences upon hearing Alex Stepney’s shout that the ball was his. Amidst this calamitous and ultimately costly miscommunication, Orient’s leading goalscorer Billy Jennings duly pounced. He nipped in between the two static Alty players and slotted the loose ball into the vacant net to record his eighth goal of the season and thereby salvage the Second Division side’s honour.
Just sixty seconds later, the Robins’ anguish was compounded when they suffered another crushing body blow. After Jeff Johnson had tangled with Orient’s right full back Bobby Fisher in a challenge for the ball near the halfway line in front of the Main Stand, the home supporters were then astounded when the inconsistent Wolverhampton-based referee Baker brandished a straight red card in the direction of the Alty midfielder.
Confusion reigned as to exactly what offence the now disconsolate Johnson had supposedly committed to warrant being sent off. The Sunday Express reporter wrote that the dismissal was due to “appearing to aim a kick at Orient’s Fisher, as the defender sprawled in the mud”, whereas The Daily Telegraph’s correspondent noted that Johnson “appeared to stamp on Fisher’s foot.”
The Robins’ ten men negotiated the remainder of the match without any further alarms to achieve an honourable 1-1 draw, thereby both securing a replay at Brisbane Road on the following Wednesday evening and ensuring that the name of Altrincham FC would feature in the ensuing Monday’s Fourth Round draw.
In the post match analysis, Tony Sanders lamented the late penalty area lapse which had deprived his team of registering another famous giant-killing act, whilst also exuding pride at the overall performance of his charges: “We made one mistake and it cost us a place in the next round. We were playing a Second Division side and everyone is disappointed that we did not win. Really, it was a great achievement.”
Whilst a contrite Stepney admitted culpability for the circumstances that had facilitated Orient’s devastating equaliser, openly declaring: “It was all my fault”, Tony Sanders remained steadfast in his support for his goalkeeper: “Alex thought positively by calling for the ball; John (Davison) thought positively by leaving it for him and then the ball just stuck in the mud between them. If the ball hadn’t held, there would have been no problem. Even Alex is not infallible but it was desperately disappointing to drop that goal when we had played so well and victory was in sight.”
Meanwhile, the verdict on the Robins from the Orient camp wasn’t especially complimentary. Notwithstanding the fact that his own side’s demeanour on the pitch could hardly have been accurately described by using the adjective: angelic, the Os’ manager, Jimmy Bloomfield, couldn’t resist having a dig at Alty’s tackling: “If I told you what I thought, it would be unprintable. We knew we were going to score if we did not do anything silly.“
Ralph Coates duly issued his own synopsis on what had been a compelling end-to-end cup tie, in which the better goalscoring chances had arguably been fashioned by the home side: “Perhaps they did set out to intimidate us but I have no complaints. The most important thing is that our lads kept their heads.“
The Alty boss expressed bemusement when questioned about Jeff Johnson’s controversial red card: “I’m disappointed with the sending-off. It was very muddy in a very crowded area and it’s all very mysterious. I was sat not more than five yards away and did not know what Jeff was sent off for.”
Jimmy Bloomfield‘s own Arsene Wengeresque assessment revealed that he had not been quite so observant: “I did not see the incident but, if Bobby Fisher reacted like that, it must have been something bad.”
The Sale & Altrincham Messenger report depicted a vivid post match image of an inconsolable Jeff Johnson in tears in the Robins’ dressing room, whilst devoutly pleading his innocence: “It was an accident. I was disgusted to be sent off. It is the first time in my career of around 12 years and I haven’t been booked once this season.“
The Robins had been just 12 minutes away from realising the club’s debut in the FA Cup Fourth Round (a landmark which would finally be attained in the form of the tie at York City on Saturday, 25th January 1986). All that remained was for Alty’s leading goalscorer and Scouse philosopher, John Rogers, to utter a final succinct appraisal of the afternoon‘s events: “We were one kick into the stand away from the Fourth Round. We blew it.”
PART 28: TONY AND THE JOHNSONS
Whilst Alty had been embroiled in that compelling FA Cup Third Round 1-1 draw against Orient at Moss Lane on Saturday, 5th January 1980, their lead at the summit of the Alliance Premier League (APL) had been reduced to just a single point by in-form Weymouth. The Terras’ game in hand on the Robins culminated in a 2-0 success at AP Leamington, as they chalked up their seventh successive APL victory.
However, cup fixtures continued to monopolise proceedings at Moss Lane and Monday, 7th January 1980 witnessed the draw for the Fourth Round of the FA Cup. If the Robins could overcome Orient in the scheduled Third Round Replay at Brisbane Road merely two days later, their reward would be a home tie against the winners of the West Ham United versus West Bromwich Albion replay. Those two sides had contested a 1-1 draw at The Hawthorns on the previous Saturday.
The subsequent reaction of the Robins’ boss, Tony Sanders, was one of measured enthusiasm: “It’s one of the better draws for us. They are both very attractive sides and if we have the opportunity of playing either of them I’ll be delighted. But before I start thinking seriously about it, we have got to win Wednesday’s replay at Orient.”
Prior to attempting that particular assignment though, there was the rather more low-profile but nonetheless pressing concern of addressing a hastily-rearranged Cheshire Senior Cup First Round tie at the home of the Robins’ arch rivals Macclesfield Town on the evening of Monday, 7th January 1980.
This fixture had originally been scheduled to be staged at the Moss Rose on the preceding Saturday but had been postponed as a result of the Robins’ participation in the FA Cup Third Round. However, following that draw against Second Division Orient, it was now very much in Alty’s interest to get this game played. Jeff Johnson had been sent off against the East London outfit (in somewhat perplexing and controversial circumstances) and, consequently, was faced with serving an automatic one-match suspension.
Unlike the illogical ruling of the present day, Cheshire Senior Cup (CSC) ties back then counted as full first team matches and, hence, fulfilling this fixture would allow the Robins’ midfielder to complete his one-match ban and, therefore, be eligible to play in the club’s impending replay at Orient.
The background to the eventual mounting of this game by the Silkmen constituted a tale of confusion at the Moss Rose. Following the conclusion of Macc’s 1-1 home draw against Grantham in the Northern Premier League (NPL) on Saturday, 5th January 1980 (and news of Alty‘s draw with Orient), the club’s PA system had informed their departing supporters that the ensuing Monday evening’s CSC tie versus the Robins had now been cancelled (as the Macc officials had assumed that Alty would want a postponement).
Two days later, the editorial in the resulting match programme for the tie endeavoured to explain the chaotic backdrop: “Games between the two clubs have always created interest but we must apologise for the confusion caused on Saturday regarding the date of this game. At 5.00pm on Saturday, Altrincham requested that the game be played, despite their replay at Orient on Wednesday, and we have tried to fall in with their wishes despite the very obvious difficulty in obtaining sufficient publicity to counteract the announcement that the game would be played next week. However, we hope for a good game and, as the result is more important to us than our visitors, we look forward to progress into the next round.”
Alty’s previous visit to the Moss Rose had occurred on 26th December 1978 and comprised a truly delightful 5-1 vanquishing of their traditional foes, courtesy of goals from John Rogers (2); Jeff Johnson; Graham Heathcote (penalty) and Barry Howard, in front of an attendance of 1,105. The Silkmen endured an unremittingly wretched 1978/79 NPL season, which concluded with them lodged firmly at the nadir of the league table, having gleaned only 26 points from their 44 fixtures. Thus, Macc were overlooked when the invitations to become founder members of the inaugural APL were issued and they would not appear in the GM Vauxhall Conference until the 1987/88 season.
When the Robins returned to the Moss Rose just over twelve months later, the Silkmen occupied 10th position in the NPL and were under the management of Phil Staley, a familiar figure in North West Non League circles. The most notable names in the Macc line-up were the ex-Bradford City striker Tibor Szabo and the former Altrincham goalkeeper Mike Sherlock.
A graduate from Newcastle University who had played for the Universities Athletic Union representative football team, Sherlock had joined the Robins in 1978, whereupon he had been loaned out to New Mills. In December 1978 (and having never recorded a first team appearance for Alty), the highly-rated goalkeeper was somewhat surprisingly allowed to move to Macc, for whom he made his debut against the Robins in the aforementioned Boxing Day 1978 derby clash (when his impressive performance was principally responsible for preventing the Robins from reaching double figures on that festive afternoon).
With one eye on the imminent appointment at Brisbane Road, Tony Sanders opted to field a team which largely consisted of a blend of fringe players from his first team squad, together with members of the Robins’ Lancashire League reserve team. Consequently, the Alty line-up contained 11 changes from the dozen names listed in the match programme.
This innovative selection policy didn’t exactly endear the Robins’ manager to the natives amongst the 755 spectators who were present at the Moss Rose on that night, as Alty diehard Mike Garnett recalls: “I have a very clear recollection of the announcer's tone as he went through the team changes. The Robins' side bore no resemblance to the one that was cited within the pages of the Silkmen Review and the inflection in his voice as he proclaimed: “At number seven - oh, and this isn't a change to your programme - Graham Heathcote” or words to that effect, still rings down the years. Put politely, you could call it ironic but sarcastic is probably the more accurate term.”
For the record, the Robins’ ‘experimental’ line-up was as follows: (1) Billy Phillips (2) Ivan Crossley (3) Mickey Brooke (4) Steve Birtles (5) Graham Tobin (6) Dave Kelly (7) Graham Heathcote (8) Phil Wilson (9) Brian LeBoutillier (10) Stan Pearson (11) Craig Johnson and (12) Steve Thompson.
Graham Heathcote had been recovering from a hamstring strain and, so, this encounter with Macc proved to be an ideal opportunity to give him a run out and test his match fitness ahead of the Orient replay. It also marked Graham Tobin’s welcome return to first team action since incurring a broken hand injury in the 3-1 APL victory at Barrow back on 10th November 1979.
Of the seven members of the Robins’ second string who would make their first team debuts at the Moss Rose on that evening, the most significant was undoubtedly Billy Phillips, the promising 23-year-old 6ft 1in goalkeeper with black curly hair and a moustache who had been Alex Stepney’s understudy at Dallas Tornado in the North American Soccer League (NASL).
Born in Long Island, New York on 9th August 1956, Phillips graduated with a degree in Physical Education from Adelphi University, Nassau County, NY in 1978 but then reputedly proceeded to quit his job as a teacher to play soccer with Dallas Tornado for 50 dollars a week. The NASL club had paid his expenses to travel to England with Alex Stepney in September 1979, in order that he could continue to improve his game under the tutelage of the former Manchester United goalkeeper.
In an interview published in the Manchester Evening News Pink back in November 1979, Tony Sanders had divulged the following appraisal of Phillips’ progress during his playing stint with the Robins’ reserve team: “He is doing very well and getting some valuable experience of British conditions. He has never played on wet, muddy pitches before and, if he masters the problems, he could become a very capable goalkeeper.”
In fact, Phillips would only register two first team appearances for the Robins prior to returning to Texas alongside Alex Stepney. However, he went on to enjoy a successful professional soccer career representing the likes of the Wichita Wings; San Jose Earthquakes; St Louis Steamers and Dallas Sidekicks. He reportedly now resides with his wife in Plano, Texas and is employed as a Senior Director of Corporate Sponsorships for the Dallas Mavericks basketball team.
A curiosity elicited by the Altrincham Guardian’s report on this particular fixture is the description of the Robins’ No. 11, Craig Johnson, as the brother of the suspended Jeff Johnson. Unfortunately, my attempts at verifying the authenticity of this claim have proved inconclusive. If this statement is indeed correct, he would have been the third member of the Johnson dynasty to wear the Alty colours, in the wake of both Jeff and Steve Johnson, the latter having enjoyed a fleeting spell with the Robins towards the denouement of the 1978/79 NPL season.
The makeshift Alty team more than held their own during a goalless first half. Graham Heathcote successfully completed his fitness exercise and was withdrawn from the action after 30 minutes. As the aforementioned Mike Garnett recalls: “I can picture him even now, trotting off to the old dressing rooms in the corner of the ground by the pub.”
The hosts took the lead in the 50th minute, when Phil Marsden’s shot was deflected into his own net by Alty’s hapless young central defender Steve Birtles. However, the Robins levelled matters within sixty seconds, as Phil Wilson’s fierce shot from outside the penalty area whistled past the stranded figure of Mike Sherlock. This fourth goal of the season from the permanently-suntanned midfielder would prove to be his final one in an Alty shirt.
The stopgap Alty side then almost conjured up a victory in the latter stages of the tie. Firstly, Brian LeBoutillier’s pass released Craig Johnson but the 18-year-old’s resulting close range shot cleared the crossbar. Then, in the final minute, LeBoutillier found himself in a one-on-one situation with Sherlock but he failed to convert the chance, as the goalkeeper reacted adroitly to save the one-time Heyes Albion striker’s eventual effort on target.
As he departed the Moss Rose, Mike Garnett reflected on the achievement of a creditable and largely unanticipated draw: “I remember coming away with the distinct impression that, even with a reserve team, we might well have won the match - and deservedly so. The Macc fans were certainly disgruntled. My suspicion at the time was that their team had expected an easy ride and couldn't up the tempo when it became clear that Alty weren't just going to roll over.”
In the post match analysis, the disconcerted Macc manager, Phil Staley, expressed his indignation on two counts. First, for the home supporters: “Many of them came in thinking they were going to see the likes of Alex Stepney and the rest of Altrincham‘s first team. They were clearly disappointed and I don’t blame them.”
Secondly, for the effect that this unfamiliar Alty line-up ostensibly had both on his own team’s performance and his inability to inspire them accordingly: “Don’t get me wrong, Altrincham fielded a very useful side - players like Ivan Crossley; Phil Wilson; Graham Heathcote and Graham Tobin could find a place in any Non League team. But my players knew what they were playing was basically a reserve side.
“As a result, it was impossible to motivate them. I have never been in that position before and the longer the game went on, the more frustrating it got. They just did not want to know. The problem now will be getting them back into the right frame of mind for the next game.“
So, whilst the purportedly listless Silkmen endeavoured to discard their apparent indifference in time for their scheduled clash with Matlock Town in the FA Trophy First Round, the contrastingly ebullient and ambitious Robins were turning their attention to the small matter of a fast-approaching FA Cup Third Round Replay in East London.