In the late 1970s / early 1980s Altrincham Football Club could easily claim to be the best non-league side in the English game, and looking back through history it isn’t a stretch to label them the greatest club never to have played league football. However, despite winning Alliance Premier League – the forerunner to the National League – on two successive occasions in 1980 and 1981, Alty were cruelly denied league status due to the old election system. In 2017, after two successive relegations left Alty in the seventh tier, the future looked bleak. The final game of 2017 saw Alty travel to Leicestershire to face Coalville Town, almost two years to the day that they faced Tranmere Rovers at Prenton Park. A stark reminder of their fall from grace.
Based in an affluent suburb on the southern edges of Greater Manchester, Altrincham FC were founded in 1891 and moved to their present-day Moss Lane home – currently branded as the J.Davidson Stadium for sponsorship reasons – in 1910. Their early history was spent in modest local leagues, until the appointment of Tony Sanders as manager in March 1976 proved a real turning point. During the Liverpudlian’s eight-year reign the club won the fifth-tier championship twice, as well as the 1978 FA Trophy after beating Leatherhead 3-1 at Wembley.
Sanders’ on-pitch talisman throughout Alty’s glory days was fellow Merseysider John King, a man fondly thought of at Moss Lane. King joined The Robins in 1977 and made over 200 appearances during a five-year spell. One of the final pieces in Sanders’ jigsaw puzzle, King led from the front and registered plenty of crucial goals including scoring at Wembley in the aforementioned victory over Leatherhead.
After winning the Alliance championship in 1980 and 1981 Alty missed out on promotion, due to the re-election system, and the momentum decelerated before grinding to a halt. Sanders resigned in 1984 and walked away from football altogether. His former protégé King took the managerial reigns and even led the club to further FA Trophy success, becoming one of the few men to win non-league’s premier cup competition as both a player and manager.
During the Sanders-King heyday it wasn’t just non-league opposition that were put to the sword. The Robins also regularly upset the odds in the FA Cup and can boast 17 league scalps to their name during their history. Between 1975 and 1982 Alty reached the promised land of the third round five times and even ventured as far as the fourth round in 1986 after a superb 2-1 away win at top flight Birmingham City. Six league clubs in total were vanquished under Sanders’ reign, with highlights including an unlikely 1-1 draw with Spurs at White Hart Lane in 1979.
With automatic promotion to the Football League introduced in 1987 it’s arguable that Alty’s heyday perhaps came a decade too early, a cruel twist of fate that has shaped the last 30 years of their history. To put it into perspective, Wimbledon were elected to the Football League in 1977 and won the FA Cup just 11 short years later, famously shocking the almighty Liverpool 1-0 thanks to a looping Lawrie Sanchez header. Although Wimbledon subsequently had their fair share of issues, culminating in the much-publicised move to Milton Keynes and rebrand, and the rise of fan-owned AFC Wimbledon, the 1988 FA Cup win, coming so soon after election to the Football League, shows just what could have been for Alty had they been rightfully allowed to ascend to league status.
Would Alty’s recent history have panned out differently had they won election, or indeed been automatically promoted to the Football League when they were vigorously knocking on the door? Russell Neil from London Alty – an informal group of Altrincham fans exiled in the capital who regularly travel to games in the Midlands and the South – certainly thinks so. “I look at other traditional non-league teams who’ve made it up with their new grounds, expanded fan bases, and a stream of television money and think we could have easily established ourselves as a solid League Two outfit.”
It’s impossible to ignore the mammoth pull of Manchester United and Manchester City, based just a few miles away from Moss Lane, stunting the growth of any and every club in their vortex. How many kids within a certain radius of Manchester city centre are, realistically, going to grow up as fans of one of the many non-league clubs in the area? However, back then Alty were hugely successful in their own right, regularly drawing in crowds of 2,000. Not to mention that this was the pre-Sir Alex Ferguson United and the pre-Arab money / Pep Guardiola City. As unlikely as it is, if there was ever going to be an attractive time to plump for the Robins as your side over City or United the time would’ve been in the late 70s / early 80s. Now, that is unthinkable.
Since the turn of the Millennium attendances have plummeted to as low as 500 at times. Alty have suffered five relegations in the last two decades, culminating in the double demotion in 2016 and 2017 that led to their current position, the lowest in the club’s history. The finger of blame, as in most cases where a club is failing to reach its potential, can be pointed at the board. Altrincham is one of the wealthiest towns in the United Kingdom, sandwiched between Manchester and Cheshire’s Golden Triangle which boasts some of the most expensive real estate in the country. However, the board have slow and reluctant to the idea of outside investment, preferring to revel in the “part-time and proud” status. That’s not to say that outside investment is always the answer, and countless examples will show it can be problematic and not the panacea most fans expect it to be. Yet it sticks in the craw of many Alty fans that historically less successful clubs such as Morecambe, Accrington Stanley, and Fleetwood Town have breezed past Alty into the top four divisions.
“The current board have to be pushed towards change and are conservative and reactive. This has given rise to accusations of a clique in the boardroom who are more concerned with maintaining their positions at any cost rather than new ideas and fresh impetus,” remarks Russell Neil. “The good things going on off the pitch at the club have been done largely in spite of, rather than because of, the board. Our strong social media output and on point Twitter account being the best example.”
A recent off-pitch initiative by the club has been the Community Sports Hall (CSH), opened in January 2015 following six months of construction and £750,000. This facility has allowed the club to expand its work in the local community, with the multi-purpose venue hosting sportsman’s dinners, fitness classes, parties, and providing a comfortable, roomy bar on match days. Like most non-league clubs, Alty have to be smart in the ways that they earn their money, realising that on-pitch fortunes often have to be supplemented by off-pitch activity. However, rumours have been afoot that at one point the CSH was a financial drain and being subsidised by the playing budget.
“The main problem is that the success of the first XI should be front and centre of everything, and should define the club in the eyes of the wider public,” commented Russell Neil. “The community aspect of the club is undoubtedly a positive but there is more than a suspicion that the Board took their eye off the ball with regards to the first team and the community aspect has been allowed to overshadow that.”
The stagnation on the field of play could largely be attributed to some questionable managerial appointments, and the subsequent high turnover of players that generally follows. Given that the contact book is king – and that contracts are often short-term – in non-league and amateur football this turnover is perhaps starker than it would be at, say, Premier League level or at other professional clubs when the managerial team changes. This makes stability almost impossible and there is always going be a correlation between teams who have a revolving door in the dugout and teams who struggle for success.
The National League relegation in 2016 was a perfect example of a board not acting swiftly and decisively. The struggling Lee Sinnott was allowed to continue for too long, and eventually resigned, effectively jumping before he was pushed. His out-of-depth replacement, Neil Tolson, was appointed more due to his personal relationship with the chairman rather than his ability to firefight what was a dire situation in need of an experienced and strong set of hands.
The following season saw Alty fall out of the National League North, and will go down as the darkest season in the clubs’ long and illustrious history. Three management teams came and went and the club were effectively resigned to relegation by Christmas, finishing the season with a pathetic 21 points, 15 adrift of possible safety. The beleaguered home fans could be forgiven for staying away. Alty won one game at Moss Lane all season and with entry £15 it’s no surprise that attendances dropped.
In the summer of 2017 change was afoot and another manager was tasked with what had become somewhat of a poisoned chalice. However, the appointment of Phil Parkinson was seen as a positive step, one that would be able to stabilise Alty and build for the future. The former Nantwich Town manager brought several of his players with him and it seems to be working. The revamped side are riding high in the Evo-Stik Premier Division, ending 2017 seven points clear at the top of the table and looking nailed on for promotion at the first time of asking. The hungry and ambitious Parkinson has a proven track record of improving both results and players, both of which Alty were crying out for. Hopefully, one season at this level will just be a footnote, an anomaly in the history of this proud and traditional non-league giant.
Beyond immediate promotion and consolidation in the sixth tier, further progress will be difficult given the constraints the current structure of the club provides. As the game is awash with money professionalism seems to be seeping further and further down the pyramid, and there are now several full-time, moneyed clubs even at the regional National League level, or clubs that have much larger regular followings than Alty. Next season, assuming Alty win promotion, they could face the likes of Chester, Kidderminster Harriers, Stockport County, York City, FC United of Manchester, and Darlington.
Whilst the current good form is to be enjoyed, Russell Neil is guarded about the club’s long-term future. “All the ingredients are there for us to progress. However, we need a proper strategic plan with leadership that the support believes in. None of those things are currently there at board level and sadly many long-standing supporters, including myself, do not have faith that the club can fundamentally progress until the current regime is replaced.”
By Dan Williamson
First published in landmark 25th issue of the superb STAND. Out now!