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 29: JOE MAYO AND THE AMAZING TECHNICOLOR HEATHCOTE
When Alty ventured down to Brisbane Road to undertake an FA Cup Third Round Replay against Orient on Wednesday, 9th January 1980, the crowd of 8,841 in attendance on that evening may well have included the notable figure of the East London club’s most famous celebrity supporter, a certain (Sir) Andrew Lloyd Webber.
However, any subsequent theories that this composer’s musical collaboration with Ben Elton in 2000 about a football team in Belfast, The Beautiful Game, was actually inspired by his memories of being awestruck at the spectacle of an archetypal crunching tackle by the Robins’ redoubtable captain John King, remain, sadly, apocryphal.
The Os had opted to stage this replay on a Wednesday, rather than their customary Tuesday for midweek fixtures, in order to avoid a clash with any potential replay at either Highbury or Upton Park. This strategy proved to be a prescient one, as Tuesday, 8th January 1980 saw Arsenal overcome Cardiff City 2-1 and Orient’s neighbours West Ham United inflict a 2-1 defeat on West Bromwich Albion in their respective Third Round Replays. The latter result was particularly significant, as the eventual victors of the Orient v Alty tie would, consequently, earn the right to entertain the Hammers in the Fourth Round.
Notwithstanding having to swallow the bitter pill of conceding a soft equaliser in the original contest at Moss Lane with merely 12 minutes of the match left on the clock, the mood in the Robins’ camp was still buoyant, resolute and sanguine. “We can play better than we did. We realised on Saturday that we are not facing 11 Kevin Keegans“ affirmed an upbeat John King.
The intrepid Scouse scaffolder and Alty skipper also reflected on the club’s decision to organise accommodation in the capital on both Tuesday and Wednesday night for all the players and management: “When I’m confident, my work doesn’t seem hard. The tubes and boards feel much lighter and I could be up there until ten at night. But it’s nice we’re doing things so professionally by having a two day stay in London.”
However, he proceeded to sound a note of caution about the arduous task confronting the Robins: “It will be just as hard as our trip to Spurs (in January 1979). It doesn’t matter if Orient are a Second Division side, they are still full-time pros out to do a job - and they don’t want to get their backsides smacked by Non Leaguers.”
Meanwhile, Jeff Johnson, the Robins’ dynamic midfielder who had been so harshly sent off towards the finale of the initial meeting, was bullish and relishing the prospect of facing the East London outfit once again, having served his automatic one match suspension by sitting out Alty’s hastily arranged Cheshire Senior Cup tie at Macclesfield Town just two nights prior to the scheduled encore at Brisbane Road: “Orient can’t get rid of me as easily as that and I aim to knock a couple of goals past them down there.”
He also outlined the disruptive effect that the Robins’ success on the field was having on his employment at an engineering firm: “My only problem has been the boss at work, who has been asking me which is my part-time job - football or boilermaking?”
Five coaches bearing Alty officials and supporters duly departed from Moss Lane for East London on the day of the fixture but their journey to Brisbane Road was not without incident. At one stage, it even appeared as if they were in danger of arriving late for the scheduled 8.00pm kick-off, when the leading coach carrying the Directors and their guests contrived to take a wrong turning into a cul-de-sac and finished up in the narrow factory yard outside an iron foundry.
Then, before the driver could turn this particular vehicle around, the other four coaches swiftly followed suit. Cue a resulting scene of baffled factory security guards looking on whilst it took almost 20 minutes of hectic manoeuvring for the coaches to turn round and escape the bottleneck. Having eventually unravelled this gridlock, the coaches finally arrived at their intended destination at 7.30pm.
Alty diehard Pete (the gazelle) Carroll recollects the expedition down South: “I recall that it seemed a very long journey and we did get lost. There weren’t that many of us and the atmosphere was dead on the open terrace. There were some West Ham United fans present who were a tad aggressive at first but, when they realised that we were no threat, they indulged in some banter.”
Fellow Robins fan Dave Fairhurst enjoyed a far less onerous route to Brisbane Road: “I lived and worked in London back then and remember how cool it was for me and my mate Paul just to jump on the Tube to an Alty game. I don't remember too much of the game, except that we were on an open terrace at one end and the crushing disappointment when Orient scored in front of us.”
Alas, I was prevented from attending this game due to the hugely exasperating inconvenience of having to sit my mock O-Levels during the week of this replay. Therefore, my Wednesday evening consisted of listening to the match updates being aired by Piccadilly Radio, interspersed with distracted attempts at revision.
Orient manager Jimmy Bloomfield named the same starting XI that had taken to the field at Moss Lane but decided on a change of substitute. Replacing John Margerrison was the blond-haired attacking midfielder Alan Whittle, the former Crystal Palace man who had scored 11 league goals as a key member of Everton’s 1969/70 First Division Championship winning squad.
Tony Sanders also opted to introduce a single amendment to his line-up. Following his recovery from a hamstring strain, as demonstrated by his successful 30 minute run out at Macclesfield Town on the previous Monday evening, Graham Heathcote was restored to the right flank of the Robins’ midfield in preference to Graham Barrow, who was duly deputed to be the Alty No. 12.
Orient proceeded to dominate the first 45 minutes, as their spry right winger Kevin Godfrey yet again proved to be a thorn in the side of the Alty defence. Alex Stepney was soon embroiled in plenty of action and the 16th minute found him scrambling to gather a Bobby Fisher cross at the second attempt. Just two minutes later, a cross by the Os’ left full back Bill Roffey was flicked on by Ian Moores and Billy Jennings’ eventual close range shot was smothered by the alert Alty goalkeeper. Then another Roffey centre managed to elude Stepney, only for a timely interception from the composed figure of John Owens to thwart Godfrey as the latter lined up his shot on the Robins’ goal.
Alty’s best chance during the opening half transpired after 27 minutes, when John Rogers swung over a right wing cross which Barry Whitbread volleyed just fractionally wide of the target.
The second half was merely a minute old when the hosts finally underlined their supremacy by grabbing the opening goal. The mercurial Ralph Coates burst through the Alty rearguard and his point blank drive elicited a reflex save from Stepney. The Robins’ experienced goalkeeper managed to parry the one-time Burnley, Spurs and England midfielder’s shot but Orient’s forward Joe Mayo was on hand to follow up and he duly hammered home the rebound beyond the reach of the prostrate former Manchester United and England No. 1.
The Os doubled their advantage in the 68th minute and, in the process, recorded their 200th goal in the FA Cup competition. Godfrey continued to be a bane to the Robins and when another of his penetrating crosses found Billy Jennings, the erstwhile West Ham United striker controlled the ball, turned superbly to elude the close attentions of Mal Bailey and promptly blasted the ball into the Alty net past the helpless Stepney.
However, this setback only served to galvanize the Robins and, by suddenly resolving to adopt a much more attacking approach, they began to press their Second Division opponents back into their own half and produced what was easily their best spell of the match.
Shortly after a Barry Howard cross had fizzed and skidded across the home side’s goalmouth, alas without Whitbread, Heathcote or Rogers being able to apply the crucial finishing touch, the Robins pulled a goal back in a rather bizarre fashion.
With just seven minutes of the tie remaining, Barry Howard’s shot evaded Mervyn Day in the Orient goal but was hacked off the line by centre half Nigel Gray. However, his hurried clearance duly rebounded off the onrushing figure of Jeff Johnson with echoes of a pinball machine effect and this resulting deflection propelled the ball into the vacant Orient net.
The midfielder’s seventh goal of the season certainly rattled the hosts and the Robins now strove in vain for a dramatic equaliser. As Alty devotee Bill Waterson recollects: “The game itself was massively disappointing and reminded me so much of that 1977 FA Trophy Semi-Final Second Replay 2-1 defeat versus Scarborough at Doncaster Rovers’ Belle Vue stadium, where we also only really started playing when Jeff Johnson scored with less than 10 minutes to go. And, indeed, so it came to pass on that Wednesday night at Brisbane Road, as we really took the game to them for the last few minutes but it was simply too little, too late. After the brilliant performance in the opening 60 minutes of the first game, we did not live up to the hype in the replay. Not outclassed by any means, just never really in the game until that late rally.”
Alty partisan Brian Flynn summons up a charming anecdote from his personal Brisbane Road experience: “Although the match was segregated, I was in a paddock in front of the Main Stand alongside some of the Orient fans. One of their supporters took umbrage at my vocal encouragement for the Robins and kindly advised me to: “F*** off back to your Northern slums". I reflected on those comments whilst making my way back to the Alty supporters’ coach through the garden city of Leyton! The next night, I remember seeing Alex Stepney in the Canadian Charcoal Pit on Washway Road, Sale.”
In the aftermath of the Robins’ 2-1 defeat, Tony Sanders conceded that Orient had deserved their victory whilst saluting the gallant performances of his players over the two hard-fought contests against their Football League adversaries: “We paid the price for not winning at home but we certainly gave them a tough match. Orient had to play at the top of their game to get their win. It was no whitewash, so, even though we lost, I’m proud of the team. I hope Orient go on to Wembley - they worked hard enough tonight to get there.”
The Alty boss also expressed his hope that Orient had been impressed enough by his club’s organisation and ability (both on and off the pitch) to vote for them in June, should the Robins eventually secure the Alliance Premier League’s nomination in the Football League’s annual re-election ballot: “It must have been apparent to Orient and their supporters that we are up to Football League status and I hope they will vote for us if we win the Alliance. Our facilities and organisation are better than that of many clubs hanging on in the Fourth Division.
“Perhaps our FA Cup run and victories over Crewe and Rotherham will help us get in, although a good run last year didn’t. The trouble is that a Non League club only gets in because the members want a struggling club out and not because they want a new face in.”
In contrast to the less-than-complimentary post match opinions pertaining to the Robins that he had advanced at Moss Lane on the preceding Saturday, Orient’s manager, Jimmy Bloomfield, now displayed an altogether more conciliatory and magnanimous tone: “They gave us a tough match. We nearly lost it in the final minutes. They played a different game at Brisbane Road - they were less physical and they showed a lot more football. I’m sure, on tonight’s showing, that Altrincham would hold their own in the Football League and I would certainly give them a recommendation.”
The East London club’s Chairman, Brian Winston, also graciously paid tribute to the Robins‘ tenacity and spirit: “Two years ago, we reached the Semi-Final of the FA Cup but never have we had a battle like this one.”
In the FA Cup Fourth Round on Saturday, 26th January 1980, Orient proceeded to suffer a 3-2 home reverse against West Ham United, who themselves would go on win the competition by defeating Arsenal 1-0 at Wembley on Saturday, 10th May 1980, co
urtesy of Trevor Brooking scoring with a rare header after 13 minutes. I’ll leave the valedictory thoughts on the Orient replay to Alty supporter Steve Wilson: “Sadly, I wasn't there in person at Brisbane Road but I do recall the evening well. I was at a long time ago ex-girlfriend’s house and listened to the match reports broadcast on Piccadilly Radio. She was not impressed that I seemed uninterested in going out anywhere and it all led to the end of that particular relationship, especially after Jeff Johnson scored and I became rather animated. She queried if Alty were more important to me than her.........I've never really told lies.”
PART 30: LONDON ROAD CALLING
In the aftermath of their 2-1 defeat at Orient in the FA Cup Third Round Replay, the Robins prepared to embark upon an alternative route to Wembley Stadium via an FA Trophy First Round tie at Northern Premier League (NPL) club Grantham on Saturday, 12th January 1980.
The resolute Alty manager, Tony Sanders, was adamant that there would be no repeat of the previous season’s mortifying FA Trophy First Round exit in the wake of the Robins’ FA Cup Third Round Replay reverse against Tottenham Hotspur at Maine Road. That sorry episode had transpired on the evening of Monday, 22nd January 1979, when the listless Robins had notoriously contrived to lose 2-1 at Moss Lane to a Cheltenham Town team which had been compelled to field a centre forward (ah, Dave Lewis - that name still haunts me!) as a makeshift goalkeeper for the entire match in the absence of their regular No. 1.
The Alty boss duly emphasised the club’s commitment to atoning for that particular ignominy: “We are staying in London after the Orient match, so that the players will not face the tiring journey home during Wednesday night. We still have a problem getting their legs to work again after the tough programme they have had in the last week but we have prepared for the Grantham tie and there is no question of us making the same mistake as last season. I consider this one of our most important games and I am not worried about it being away from home.”
The Robins had crossed swords with Grantham on two previous occasions. Their debut at the Lincolnshire club’s London Road ground had comprised a 3-0 FA Cup First Round victory in front of 2,400 spectators on Saturday, 9th December 1967.
This tie was staged against the backdrop of a foot and mouth epidemic in the agricultural community and concerns about the fixture taking place were even expressed in the House of Commons by the local Conservative MP, Joseph Godber, who then held the position of Shadow Minister of Agriculture: “In the last 48 hours, I have been getting many inquiries about, in particular, football matches where teams are coming out of infected areas and visiting other areas. This arises in regard to my own constituency, where a team is supposed to be coming from Cheshire to play in a cup tie against my home town Grantham. Is this being discouraged or not? We want to know what advice the Government are giving in regard to issues of this kind.
“One has to draw the line somewhere, obviously, as to what shall be limited, but it seems to me that where teams are coming from infected areas there is a danger and that if they travel, advice should be given to them about their activities other than playing football, and not visiting people in the area outside the town, for instance.”
In a subsequent interview with the Grantham Journal, Joseph Godber advised farmers from the surrounding (Grantham) areas not to attend the game against Altrincham in order to reduce the risk of the foot and mouth epidemic spreading. The newspaper also reported that special precautions would be introduced for the Robins’ visit. Supporters of the Cheshire club would apparently be “neutralised” as they departed from their home town and a disinfectant pad was to be installed across Barrowby Road, which was the anticipated main access route for the visiting fans. Additional disinfectant straw mats would be laid out for supporters to walk through prior to entering the London Road stadium.
In fact, the match did eventually proceed as scheduled amidst the somewhat treacherous conditions of a snow-covered pitch. Indeed, many Alty supporters arrived at the venue after the appointed 3.00pm kick-off, as the coaches carrying them had been delayed by a blizzard at Stockport.
Midland League Grantham were then under the charge of player-manager Terry Bly, who had been a prolific goalscorer for the likes of Norwich City; Peterborough United and Coventry City. Before this FA Cup tie versus the Robins, Bly had confidently proclaimed that his Grantham side could beat any Non League team in the country on their own London Road ground.
However, Freddie Pye’s reigning Cheshire County League Champions had other ideas. With their central defensive pairing of Neil Dewar and Norman Sykes effectively nullifying the aerial threat posed by the home side’s strike force of Bly and Mike Alexander, the Robins duly triumphed courtesy of goals from midfielder Frankie Peters (40 minutes) (pictured left); Tony Farmer (a 68th minute own goal) and Bert Lister (74 minutes)(pictured right), the latter being a recent £250 emergency signing from Stockport County who had replaced the injured Johnny Worth.
Alty’s man of the match, the ex-Sankeys (Wellington) wing half Frankie Peters, had emerged as an unlikely hero, since he had been involved in a car crash during the journey to Grantham from his home in Shrewsbury and had, thankfully, escaped injury in the collision with a lorry.
The Robins’ second meeting with the Gingerbreads comprised an FA Cup Fourth Qualifying Round tie at Moss Lane on Saturday, 6th November 1976. At this juncture, Grantham were lying in the middle of the Southern League and Terry Bly had entered his 12th season at the helm of the club. Rather bizarrely, the visitors’ manager chose to adopt a pointedly negative approach to the contest and relegated his main striker, Steve Carr, to the substitute’s bench.
Consequently, Tony Sanders’ Alty team (which contained the likes of Stan Allan; Ivan Crossley; Mickey Brooke; John Owens; John Davison and Graham Heathcote) dominated proceedings but, alas, centre forward Mick Moore proved to be profligate when presented with several goalscoring opportunities. As the crowd of 1,228 were contemplating the increasing prospect of a replay, left full back Mickey Brooke popped up to score the winning goal in the 70th minute, when his hard and low cross-shot was deflected into the Grantham net by the hapless Gingerbreads’ midfielder Jim Jackson.
By the time that the Robins returned to Grantham in January 1980, the town had suffered the misfortune of becoming better known as the birthplace of the serving Prime Minister, the execrable Margaret Thatcher herself. The Gingerbreads occupied 9th position in the NPL table, having accumulated 22 points from their 23 league fixtures to date, and had drawn 1-1 at Macclesfield Town on the preceding Saturday.
The Lincolnshire side were now managed by Ron Harrison, an erstwhile centre half who had clocked up over 500 appearances for the London Road side and also played against the Robins in both of the previous encounters between the two clubs. Their principal striker was the then 22-year-old Robbie Cooke (the second highest goalscorer in the NPL at that point with 18 goals), who would go on to confront Alty again almost a decade later whilst wearing the colours of Kettering Town. I believe that Cooke is currently employed as a prominent member of Everton’s scouting personnel.
The clash with Grantham found the Robins unchanged from the team that had lined up against Orient just three days earlier and, contrary to Tony Sanders’ pre-match assurances, ostensibly plagued by an FA Cup hangover. After merely five minutes of the tie, Alty’s leading goalscorer John Rogers (right) squandered a gilt-edged chance to put the Robins ahead when he failed to connect with a Stan Allan cross.
However, worse was to ensue just five minutes later, as the hosts took a surprise lead after capitalising on an error by Stan Allan. The Alty right full back neglected to intercept winger Dave Hailwood’s deep cross and the former England Youth player Ossie Grant nipped in to rifle a low shot past Alex Stepney from close range.
Jeff Johnson and John Rogers came close to restoring parity before the latter eventually produced the equaliser in the 33rd minute by means of an archetypal far post header from a John Davison cross, thereby registering his 14th goal of the season in all competitions.
The second half saw Alty kicking down the slope and, whilst they enjoyed the lion’s share of possession, the visitors were unable to reproduce their best form. The nearest they came to converting one of their chances arose when John Rogers fired a shot narrowly over the crossbar.
Indeed, the Robins were almost punished for their rather lethargic and nonchalant display, surviving an eleventh hour scare when Grantham came within a whisker of winning the tie with the very last kick of the match. With circa 10 minutes of injury time having been added on by the referee, Roger Wager, the Gingerbreads’ striker Dennis Jenas managed to pierce the Alty defence and only a brilliant last-ditch tackle by John Owens prevented him from scoring and, thereby, perpetuated the Robins’ dream of a return to Wembley.
Amongst the attendance of 1,128 at London Road was Alty diehard Bill Waterson, who imparts his recollections of this particular day trip to Lincolnshire over three decades ago: “The team were very slow out of the gates; were poncing about a bit and it was no surprise that Stan Allan allowed Grantham to go ahead. Even when behind, we were way too casual and acting as though we had the game in the bag. The rate of strolling increased towards the end of the first half after the equaliser. And we played out the second half at a similar pedestrian rate - creating chances but without hunger.
“I was certain that, despite our ‘dominance‘, our languor would do for us. The last 10 to 15 minutes were increasingly tense and I was convinced that we were going out. In the end, we were very lucky to get a draw when a little bit more effort from Alty may well have led to one of those 4-1 away wins, because I do not believe Grantham were all that good.”
Alty historian Terry Surridge also recalls the Robins’ narrow escape from sustaining another FA Trophy calamity: “My main memory of the initial game is one of relief at the final whistle to have come away from London Road with a draw thanks to John Owens’ timely tackle deep into injury time. Meeting my home town team Grantham for the third time, I spent all Saturday morning extolling the excellence of Altrincham FC and the Alliance Premier League to my Dad and the Grantham regulars, forecasting a comfortable Alty win - a view that appeared misplaced when the home side went ahead after dominating the early play.”
Alty devotee Paul Murray has a somewhat quirkier anecdote pertaining to his London Road experience: “I remember Alan Gorrill and his late mother (who was often affectionately referred to as “The Duchess“) taking the Grantham ‘mob' to task for their language. As happened at a few grounds in those days, they lined up behind us rather than changing ends and Mrs Gorrill took great exception to a chorus of "What the f***ing hell was that?" (I always thought our own strategically placed "Northwich Vics" in that particular chant was funnier and more effective!). Nothing quite so funny as a refined elderly lady from Wilmslow berating a line of 20 wannabe hooligans, none of whom had any idea at all how to respond!”
In his post match synopsis, an evidently relieved Tony Sanders commented: “They were a better team than we expected and had certainly improved since I saw them last at South Liverpool (on Tuesday, 11th December 1979, when the Gingerbreads had suffered a 2-0 defeat). They had some fine players who caused us some problems.”
Meanwhile, back at Moss Lane on that very same afternoon, the Robins’ reserve team had achieved a 1-0 Lancashire League victory over Stockport County Reserves by virtue of an 80th minute goal on his debut by winger Mark Gilchrist, whose father, Roy, was a former West Indian Test cricketer and a controversial fast bowler who had a penchant for propelling deliberate beamers at batsmen! This success meant that Alty’s second string had now gleaned 12 points out of a possible total of 16 from their last eight fixtures.
A number of Football League scouts had reportedly been monitoring the progress of the Robins’ promising young centre half, Graham Tobin, and a rather bizarre rumour pertaining to him was duly printed in the Manchester Evening News and then promptly picked up by the Sale & Altrincham Messenger.
This report claimed that the manager of Bury, the one-time Manchester City and Macclesfield Town midfielder Dave Connor, had contacted Tony Sanders to inquire about the possibility of signing Tobin for the Shakers, only to be “staggered“ to discover that the Alty boss had placed a valuation of £25,000 on the head of the former Manchester Polytechnic student.
However, Tony Sanders reacted swiftly to scotch this speculation in the 24th January 1980 issue of the Altrincham Guardian, where he assured the Robins’ supporters that Tobin‘s future lay at Moss Lane: “There has been no firm offer for Tobin and last week’s reports in some local newspapers were unfounded.”
The resulting FA Trophy First Round Replay versus Grantham was scheduled to be played at Moss Lane on Tuesday, 15th January 1980, all of which necessitated the postponement of the Cheshire Senior Cup First Round Replay against Macclesfield Town, which had been pencilled in to take place on Monday, 14th January 1980.