Historical memory

Altrincham have a history of cup upsets. But as Richard Pulford argues they never seem to get the credit they deserve

The 2009-10 FA Cup began on August 15, just ten weeks after Chelsea’s win last season. The press will again be looking for this season’s giantkillers and again we’ll all have a bout of collective amnesia about the greatest giantkillers of all. People always mention Yeovil Town when this comes up. The most famous giantkilling moments? A close run thing between Ronnie Radford’s goal for Hereford in 1972, Blyth Spartans’ run to the fifth round in 1978, or Sutton United beating Coventry in 1989 – yawn.

However, none of the above answer the following FA Cup questions. Who were the last non-League team to beat a top-flight team away from home? Who are the only non-League team to reach the third round of the Cup in four consecutive seasons? Which current non-League side has recorded the most victories (16) against League opposition? A player for which non-League club won BBC’s Goal of the Season in 1993?

The answer to each is Altrincham, who for most of the 1970s and 1980s were the highest profile and most successful giantkiller of all. In the 70s, Altrincham drew away at Blackburn Rovers, Everton and Tottenham Hotspur before losing in replays, with the replay against Everton in 1975 attracting 35,000 at Maine Road. The triumph almost unnoticed by history, though, was in 1986 when Altrincham travelled to St Andrew’s in the third round and beat Birmingham City 2-1.

Keeping goal for Birmingham that day was David Seaman – who said that Ronaldinho was his most embarrassing moment? This is still the last time a non-League team beat a top-flight team away from home, and it may very well be the last ever given the transformation of the game since Sky and the Premier League.

I’ve not really found a convincing explanation as to why Altrincham never get the profile their record deserves and this is not just a blinkered view from a fan. Do an internet search on giantkillers, for example, and see just how hard it is to find much coverage of Altrincham – even Sutton, who had just one decent match at home against Coventry, get five times as many mentions as Altrincham.

Perhaps it’s because most of Altrincham’s success came in the period when football was at its lowest ebb and before blanket television coverage (and they haven’t beaten a League side since 1995). The club was unfortunate in being at the top of the non-League pyramid at a time when entrance to the League was decided by a vote of the member clubs rather than by automatic promotion. In 1980 and 1981, after winning the first two seasons of the new national non-League championship, Altrincham failed to be voted into the League, losing by only one vote in 1981 (and what exactly have Rochdale ever done since to have deserved this reprieve?).

This still rankles with Altrincham fans, particularly when you consider that in 1977 and in 1978 two non-League clubs did achieve election – step forward Wimbledon and Wigan Athletic – both of whom went on to much bigger things. The 1980 vote has been shrouded in controversy with allegations of skullduggery. What is known is that one of Altrincham’s supporters failed to arrive on time. As one former player put it: “One bloke who promised to support us got pissed and fell asleep.” After losing out by eight votes in 1981, Alty’s manager lamented: “We know now that the only way we can get in the League is if a bank manager closes a club down.” It took 25 years for such a prescient comment to come true, but not in the way envisaged.

Altrincham’s recent fortunes reflect the way football has “progressed” in the money era. A bizarre sequence of events since 2005 saw the club relegated from the Conference in three successive seasons, only to be reprieved after each season had finished by the misfortunes of others. In 2006 it took the collapse of both Canvey Island and Scarborough to save Altrincham from relegation. Even more fortuitously in 2007, Boston were relegated straight from League Two to the Conference North, missing out the Conference National altogether. In 2008, Halifax Town were Altrincham’s benefactors.

Still a part-time club in an almost exclusively full-time league, Altrincham will no doubt continue to struggle and it is unlikely they will ever recover past League or Cup glories, despite the occasional matches against fallen bigger clubs, such as recent defeats to Millwall and Luton. The town is now most notable for being where a lot of Premier League footballers live and the ground, Moss Lane, as hosting Man Utd’s reserves. But next time press attention turns to FA Cup giantkilling, spare a thought for Altrincham, the best of the lot. And by the way, the Goal of the Season I mentioned? Clive Freeman scoring the winner against Chester in 1993 – I would say look it up on YouTube, but unlike Ronnie Radford, it’s not there.

From WSC 272 October 2009