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Well, I’ve been absent from twohundredpercent for a while due to work commitments, but having finally got some time off, and with half the family off enjoying themselves in New Zealand, my dad and I decided to do what any self-respcting twohundredpercenter would – we decided to head south and take in some non-league football.Not just any non-league football, mind you. Over the next ten days or so we’re taking the opportunity to revist some old haunts – starting with this trip to Moss Lane. It was a fine afternoon and in its own right a thoroughly entertaining game between two teams who couldn’t be faulted for commitment – we had a few goals, a penalty, a red card, plenty of huff and puff, occasionally a bit of aggro, and all topped off with a last minute winner for the home side.
But let’s be honest – decent game though it was, I wasn’t really here to watch Kevin Holsgrove and Shaun Densmore. I was here to rekindle memories of the late 70s, and especially that afternoon in December 1977 when Moss Lane was the venue for my first ever live match – a 5-1 win over Workington. That was an Altrincham team just coming into its heyday, the team of Johnson and Rogers, King and Heathcote, the team that would rule the non-league world and regularly put league teams to the sword in its FA Cup runs.
In 1978 we followed them to Wembley to see them win the FA Trophy (with a 3-1 win over Leatherhead) and the next year we saw them take on Spurs – Ossie Ardiles et al – in an FA Cup replay at Maine Road, earned after a draw at White Hart Lane. Shortly after that we moved up to Scotland, but for a time Alty’s success continued in our absence. They won the newly-formed Conference (then the Alliance Premier League) in its first two seasons – before the days of automatic promotion to the league; reached the third round of the cup for four straight seasons; and would eventually beat first division Birmingham City on their own ground in another cup tie in 1986.
For my dad, this was his first return to Moss Lane since those heady days in the late 70s. For my part I had another spell of intermittent attendance when I returned to Manchester as a student. That coincided with the 1990-91 season, which was to be a sort of last hurrah for the Alty of old. By this time (John) King and (Graham) Heathcote made up the management team, and a side containing Nicky Daws, Paul Showler and Ken McKenna came mighty close to winning the Conference once more – this time with the promise of promotion – only to blow up when a fixture backlog caught up with them in the closing fortnight.
Since then, the years have been less kind. With lower gates than most other clubs around them, Altrincham found themselves a part-time team in an increasingly professional league. They’ve suffered some relegations, got themselves back up, but have generally struggled at Conference level, and after several years of being reprieved by the financial misdemeanours of others, they were finally relegated back to the Conference North again this summer.
Heathcote – the man who scored a hat-trick against Workington back on that December day when I was six – maintained a long connection with the club and was still manager as recently as the start of last season. He was replaced by McKenna, who was unable to keep them up, and it now falls to Lee Sinnott – sometime Watford and Bradford City defender – to try and bring back the glory days. It would be fair to say he’s got his work cut out, though he does at least have something to work with judging from this game.
Apologies to any fans of Vauxhall Motors, who I haven’t even mentioned yet. Their history isn’t quite so illustrious – during Alty’s days in the sun back in the 80s, Vauxhall Motors were playing in the West Cheshire Amateur League, which these days is listed as being at level 11 on the pyramid. They seem to have risen steadily since then, and the Conference North is the highest level at which they’ve yet played, so perhaps they’re still a team on the rise. Though – with the best will in the world – they’ve got their work cut out too.
The game, then: Altrincham took the lead in the fourth minute, when a long ball over the top somehow evaded the defence and left Damien Reeves to bundle home his fourteenth goal of the season. The lead only lasted until the tenth minute, when Stuart Coburn could only parry a fierce free-kick and Lee Dames was first to the rebound to tuck home the equaliser.
The home side retook the lead when a good spell of pressure eventually saw Nicky Clee clear on the left – his shot hit the inside of the near post and fell nicely for James Lawrie to tap in, but they were again pegged back when a Williams’ clearance cannoned off his own player, and the ever dangerous Leighton McGivern was brought down by Coburn’s trialing foot as he looked set to score from the resultant loose ball. By the letter of the law Coburn may have been a bit fortunate only to see yellow, but McGivern scored the penalty to send the teams in level at half-time.
The second half saw both defences tighten up and the game closed down, becoming occasionally niggly. For a while chances were at a premium, but the game swung back towards Altrincham midway through the half. Reeves had gone quiet after taking a first half knock, and was replaced by debutant Jack Redshaw, who showed an immediate burst of pace to pull a decent save out of Scott Tynan in the Motors’ goal. A few moments later, Motors’ right-back Dean Overson was shown a second yellow for an ugly-looking tackle which put Clee out the game.
Thereafter, Motors tried to close the game out and hold on to the point, while the home side pressed hard for a winner – Redshaw again looking lively with a couple of dangerous low crosses into the goalmouth. Their chance looked to have gone when, in injury time, Michael Twiss saw his shot cleared off the line after rounding Tynan. But with 94 minutes on the clock, Lawrie cut in from the left, Tynan could only parry the shot, and substitue Simon Richman fired home a deserved winner from close range.
More importantly than all that – it still felt like the same ground, the same club. Not “home”, exactly (I was a Man City fan really), but somewhere to which I could still feel an affinity. Whatever the club’s fortunes in the years to come, it’s somwhere I hope to keep coming back to from time to time
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Ian began writing Twohundredpercent in May 2006. He lives in Brighton. He has also written for, amongst others, Pitch Invasion, FC Business Magazine, The Score, When Saturday Comes, Stand Against Modern Football and The Football Supporter. Ian was the first winner of the Socrates Award For Not Being Dead Yet at the 2010 NOPA awards for football bloggers.
As someone who follows the Motormen, I honestly think flitting between the Blue Sq North and the Northern Prem is the highest the club can go. There aren’t many fans, and every year we struggle to find enough money to assemble a squad that can compete. Twice recently we’ve only stayed up because clubs have gone bust. Last year was an excellent one, where we spent much of it in the top half, before slipping off at the end of the season. But realistically the target is always just to stay up. I sadly don’t think we’re a team on the rise. But it’s always entertaining.
Glad you enjoyed the day, Gavin – though next Saturday at Stalybridge would tell you more about chances of progress. The big difference for this Alty follower this season as against past years is that I go to games expecting success (although prepared for unpleasant surprises)rather than hoping to sneak a point, or sometimes three against the odds. It’s also nice not to have to devote the whole day to an away match! That said, I’m hoping for the play-offs at least and the chance of promotion.