The Ongoing Travails of Altrincham FC
There can be little doubt that Altrincham Football Club is one of the great names of non-league football. Twice winners of the FA Trophy, Twice winners of what we now know as the National League, holders of the record for the most FA Cup wins over Football League opposition for any club that has never played in the Football League, Altrincham is a name that will cause people of a certain age’s eyes to briefly mist over. Yet Altrincham have fallen on fallow times, and the club’s rapid rate of descent over the last couple of years or so have led to real concerns that the club’s future could yet end up in jeopardy.
To understand Altrincham Football Club, it is important to understand the position that the club held at the top of the non-league game for a generation between the early 1960s and the late 1980s. Originally founded in 1893 as Broadheath Football Club, a name change to Altrincham followed a decade later, with the club playing in the Manchester League until joining the Lancashire Combination in 1912 and then becoming founder members of the Cheshire County League in 1919. This was not an especially successful period for the club, which would go on to play in this league for almost have a century.
It would take the arrival of new owners, both of whom would leave their mark upon English football in more ways than one, to suddenly and quite unexpectedly turn the club’s fortunes on its head at the beginning of the 1960s. Noel White and Peter Swales had gone into business together in 1955, setting up the White & Swales chain, which ran to fifteen shops across Cheshire and Manchester. The shops originally sold sheet music and musical instruments, but White & Swales made their fortune thanks to a brand new business that was just starting to rapidly expand: television rental.
The average UK wage in 1955 was around £8 per week, and considering that television sets at the time cost around 60-65 guineas (around £63-£65), it was hardly surprising that many households could, in an era before the widespread availability of hire purchase, only afford to acquire the must-have technological innovation of the time if they rented it. Renting also came with other advantages, not least of it was – in an era when technology of any sort was considerably less reliable than we could ever imagine – service came as part of the package.
By the start of the following decade, Noel White and Peter Swales were looking to indulge their interest in the game, and opted to take over Altrincham. It is said that the pair were moved to involve themselves with the club after reading an impassioned – and, by all accounts, extremely lengthy – letter sent into the local newspaper written by a young supporter by the name of Brian Lomax, who would go on to have a considerable influence on the future direction of English football himself as the first managing director of Supporters Direct, pleading for someone to save the club, which was then near the bottom of the league (they finished one place off the bottom of the Cheshire League at the end of the 1960/61 season, conceding one hundred and twenty-five goals for their troubles) and close to bankruptcy.
The transformation wasn’t immediate, but it came about soon enough. The club won its first Cheshire League title in 1966, repeated the trick a year later – even though Swales left that season to take up a directorship at Manchester City, the club with which he would become synonymous until his departure from Maine Road under a cloud in 1993 – and, in 1968, having finished the season as runners-up to Macclesfield Town, the club was invited to join the newly-created Northern Premier League. With Noel White now in sole charge of the club, the 1970s were, on the whole, a relatively quiet decade for the club, which was unable to improve on two consecutive third placed finishes in 1974 and 1975 (they took Everton to a replay in the Third Round of the FA Cup in 1975 as well), but signs of what was to follow came in the FA Trophy. The club made its first appearance there against Scarborough in 1977 – they eventually lost this tie after two replays – and the following year returned there, this time beating Leatherhead to lift the trophy.
It was in 1979, however, that Altrincham’s star really began to rise. The club was invited to join the newly-formed Alliance Premier League and won its inaugural season, but it was in the FA Cup that the club made national headlines. The 1975 run had earned the club considerable attention, and in 1979 Altrincham repeated the trick, this time holding Tottenham Hotspur to a replay at White Hart Lane in the Third Round of the competition before losing. The club lifted its second Alliance Premier League title in 1980 and would return to Wembley in 1982, losing the FA Trophy final against Enfield in extra-time. In 1986, at the third time of asking, the club would finally beat a top flight club away from home in the FA Cup, when Birmingham City were beaten at St Andrews. They lost to York City in the next round.
Non-league football, however, changing rapidly, and the introduction of automatic promotion and relegation from the Football League in 1987 changed the face of it more than anything else. Altrincham, perhaps, weren’t as seriously affected by these changes as other stalwarts of the non-league game, but the sense that something was different within the club was most notable in the departure of Noel White to take up a directorship at Liverpool in 1986. He would go on to become, for better or for worse, one of the architects of the Premier League. The club was finally relegated from what was by now called the Football Conference in 1997, and would spend much of the next decade unsure as to which division it was best suited to. Promoted again in 1999 and relegated back a year later, the club was promoted back again via the play-offs in 2005.
Their grip on Conference football was often tenuous – they were more than once the beneficiaries of the misfortune of others, most notably in 2006 when, having been deducted an astonishing eighteen points for having fielded an ineligible player for fifteen matches, they were saved by the demotion of Scarborough and the resignation of Canvey Island. The following year they were saved by the demotion of Boston United. In 2008, the liquidation of Halifax Town saved them for a third successive season. Finally, in 2011, the club was relegated, although its stay in the Conference North would be a brief one. Three years later, the yo-yo wheeled itself back into action when the club was promoted again through the play-offs, this time beating Guiseley in the final.
A seventeenth placed finish in the Football Conference seemed a reasonable return on a first season back at this level, but the wheels started to fall off the wagon the season before, as Altrincham were relegated again, this time in twenty-second place in a twenty-four team division. This time, however, the decline continued. Altrincham finished last season in bottom place in the National League North, fifteen poiints from safety and with just twenty-one points to show for a horrible season and just four wins earned from forty-two league matches. It’s been a precipitous drop for a club whose supporters might have expected a little respite at a lower level following relegation at the end of last season.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, the ire of supporters who are unhappy at the direction that the club has been taking over the last couple of seasons has been largely aimed at chairman Grahame Rowley. Rowley has been the chairman of the club since 2010 – his other significant interest is in the pharmaceuticals trade – but the events of the last couple ofo seasons have meant that serious questions have been asked with regards to his suitability to be running it. The directors of the club have hardly helped themselves in this respect, with supporters having been dismissed as an “angry minority” at a recent strategy review by the club’s board and supporters who walked out of a league match against Stalybridge Celtic having similarly been dismissed out of hand. The Goodbye Rowley protests had demands which can be outlined as follows:
- A public apology from Grahame Rowley for comments made about supporters (in both the Non-League Paper and the official match day programme) after the departure of former manager Neil Young, and to the clubs social media volunteers for the way in which they were treated during the match against Stalybridge Celtic.
- Rowley to engage with supporters in an attempt to find a new new chairman for the club.
- A share issue equivalent to 51% of current ordinary voting shares, to be approved at next Board meeting. If not, then Grahame Rowley is to agree to an EGM for this to be put forward to a vote of current shareholders.
- An immediate end to the constant attempts to spread the blame for poor managerial appointments onto the fans.
Will Rowley ever accede to such demands? Well, on the second point he actually did. A share offer was announced in July which put 51% of the club up for sale and this was met with a positive response from Goodbye Rowley, who responded to the announcement by stating that, “We particularly welcome this week’s announcement, as the calling of an EGM to consider a share issue offering a controlling interest in the club were key pre-conditions in agreeing to March’s meeting. For creating such an opportunity, regardless of the circumstances and people’s own opinion of his tenure, Graham Rowley should be applauded”. But will there com a point at which Rowley will concede that this is all more hassle than it’s worth? Even the share issue and a relative upturn in form on the pitch doesn’t seem to have altered the mood of those who’d like him gone from Moss Lane, with the latest misadventure being an interview with Mancunian Matters in which he called for “no more in-fighting”, to predictable derision from supporters over the course of the second half of last week.
It’s been a very long time since Altrincham played at the level at which they are competing this season. The very nature of non-league football and the way in which it has changed over the last six decades means that it can be difficult to compare across different eras, but it is common speak now amongst supporters to describe Altrincham’s current predicament as being the lowest ebb in the club’s entire history, even though they have settled this season under manager Phil Parkinson – not to be confused with the Phil Parkinson currently managing Bolton Wandererss to the bottom of the Championship – having taken the team to fourth place in the Premier Division of the Northern Premier League with coming up to a third of the season played.
However, those who have been expressing alarm at the rate of the club’s decline will be plenty aware of the fact that names and count for little in the cut-throat world of non-league football, and that it can be surprisingly easy for a former big name of the non-league game to fall from grace to such an extent that it becomes an irrelevance. The key point to make in conclusion to this is that there are plenty of examples of other football clubs at which the atmosphere hanging over the entire club has become poisoned by an intransigent owner and furious supporters. Few amongst the supporters of Altrincham FC have ever questioned Rowley’s commitment to the club. He is no Stephen Vaughan or Jim Rushe. But the viewpoint of those protesting at Altrincham is that Rowley has taken the club as far as he can, and that a fresh face is required to breath life back into it. Performances on the pitch over the last couple of years make this assessment difficult to argue with.