Thirty years ago this month Mossley AFC went to Wembley. Drew Whitworth remembers the club's greatest day and the story of a once-formidable Northern Premier League side on a very personal level
Between Oldham and Stockport, where the huge Greater Manchester conurbation breaks against the rocks and moors of the Pennines, there lies Tameside. This metropolitan borough has no historical centre, being a collection of old mill towns of which few people have ever heard. In football terms it is a backwater, without representation above the Conference North.
Among the towns of Tameside is Mossley, a curious place, split in half by a valley. It has little going for it economically or culturally, but like many of its neighbours it has a sense of permanence and quiet history to it. Near the town centre can be found Seel Park, home of Mossley AFC since 1912. The club has never had much of a media profile, largely because they have never been Cup giantkillers. Their only victory over a League side was against Crewe in 1980 and this, at the time, was not really a shock. This was because 30 years ago Mossley had arguably the strongest non-League team in England.
From 1972 to 1983 the chairman of Mossley was my uncle, Ian Morecroft. He presided over easily the most successful period in the club’s history, but my memories of him are as distant from the prevailing image of the successful club chairman as can be imagined. Uncle Ian, to me, was a very tall and heavy man who seemed to spend his entire life in an armchair in his house on the boundary between Stalybridge and Mossley. Literally all my memories of him are set in that house, with the exception of the events of 1979-80. It was in that season I realised the extent of his involvement in, and even the existence of, Mossley AFC.
He was my connection to the club, the only reason I had as a ten-year-old Sussex boy for having the slightest idea that there was such a thing as the Northern Premier League (NPL), let alone that I might have an interest in it. I don’t claim he was the sole architect of Mossley’s success, though of course like all chairmen he was heavily involved. This was a democratic, community club, steeped in the co-operative ethos which remains strong in the region. Much of its success had been built on a successful lottery which provided funds to compete at the semi-professional level. There was also good management, with Bob Murphy building over the years a formidable team.
The captain, and icon, was Leo Skeete, recruited from Rochdale in the mid-1970s. He led from the front and was worshipped as “the Dusky Destroyer” at a time when black players were still a relative rarity, even in more cosmopolitan places than Mossley. (The racial tolerance shown by the club remains, with Jason Beckford a recent successful manager, winning two promotions between 2003 and 2006.)
Wigan Athletic were the dominant NPL force in the mid-1970s, but following their election to the League the way was clear for Mossley to replace them as the north’s premier non-League club. Astonishing goalscoring feats were achieved as they won the NPL for the first time in 1978-79, scoring 117 goals in 44 games. In all competitions, the forward line scored an unbelievable 137 goals between them that season: Dave Moore leading with 41, Ian Smith 38, Eamon O’Keefe (later sold to Everton) 32 and Skeete 26.
The following season was more successful still, but it took place in the shadow of a change that ultimately led to the end of Mossley’s glory years. At the end of 1978-79 the non-League clubs, tired of splitting the vote for election to the League, created the present fifth tier of English football, the Alliance (now the Conference). Altrincham, Mossley’s main NPL rivals, joined the new league, but Mossley were not invited due to the limitations of their ground. That it was not due to playing standards was proved by Mossley tanking Altrincham 5-1 away in that seasons’s FA Trophy, a tournament in which they would reach the final in May 1980, retaining the NPL title along the way.
That final, against Dagenham, is my main memory of Mossley AFC. My father and I were there, along with 10,000 other Mossley fans, equal to the whole population of the town. I had never been to Wembley before. Dagenham took the lead but Mossley equalised shortly after half time, a goal my father missed through having queued to get me a drink. It was some time before he forgave me for that, though we did have some compensation afterwards as he blagged us into the reception area behind the royal box with the immortal line, “my brother-in-law is the chairman”. Hard to imagine that working now in today’s corporate, security-conscious age – I think he was surprised that it worked in 1980. But Dagenham won the game 2-1. It was Mossley’s first defeat in 31 games. The Mossley crowd sang around us even as Dagenham did their lap of honour, and the team had a parade on their return, but the sense of disappointment was palpable. That was the pinnacle of Mossley’s achievement. The focus of non-League power shifted to the Conference, which they have never reached. Three more seasons as NPL runners-up followed, but then the decline began.
Mossley AFC are still with us. The club recently celebrated their centenary as members of the Unibond Division One North. Their fans presumably accept they will never reach the heights of 1980 again and the club has become just a name I occasionally notice in the very small print of the football results. Sadly, my Uncle Ian is no longer there to support them. Some time ago he cut his ties with the club, unhappy with the egos that infected the board in the wake of their success. Never having learnt to drive, every weekend he exploited his encyclopedic knowledge of the north-west’s entire bus timetable and travelled to matches in local amateur football, knowing everyone on the non-League scene. In October 2004 he left the house where he had lived for 40 years and, at a bus stop, suffered a stroke from which he never regained consciousness.
In a time when I find myself happier watching games at places like Accrington or Morecambe than Anfield or Manchester, I am grateful that through him, at an impressionable age, I experienced football as a true community event. I wish I had known him better. To me, Mossley AFC will always be “Uncle Ian’s team”.
Thanks to Steve Morecroft for help with the details in this article.
From WSC 280 June 2010