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The 1980s was fun, football was dark and there was the eroding of the USSR, and the Thatcher government was still wreaking havoc in Great Britain. Defence Secretary Michael Heseltine resigned after the Westland helicopter affair. Ian McShane took the title role for Lovejoy on BBC, and Pet Shop Boys topped the charts with West End Girls. Stateside, the Space Shuttle Challenger exploded shortly after taking off, killing everyone.
Until the mid 1960s, Altrincham was an average Cheshire League club, having reached the first round of the FA Cup just once back in the 1930s. But now non league football was beginning to change and Altrincham was becoming the leading Cheshire club at the right time. They started advancing further in the qualifying rounds to the first round proper, and they were earning themselves a place in the newly created leagues.
During the mid-1970s most non league chairmen thought the only way to replace a league club from its closed pyramid was to beat one of their elite clubs in the FA Cup. This was during the time when the FA Cup still mattered. Altrincham’s chance came in 1975 when they drew Everton. While taking them to replay, it proved to be a step too far for the non league club. Four years later Altrincham had a second chance at the elite clubs when they ran Spurs close, and finally lost in a replay.
They followed this up by winning the Alliance Premier League, the new national top division of non league football, and supporters saw this as enough to see them through to Football League membership. Alty had tried before to gain entrance into the Football League and had the door slammed in their face.
It happened again in 1980, this was at a point when the Football League knew the club was good enough to join the Fourth Division and possibly win it. The following year, Alty won their league again, but got a hat-trick of rejections to the Fourth Division despite clearly being at that level.
In 1985, Blackpool became the latest league victim in the FA Cup to set up Alty going to Birmingham City in the third round. While Alty weren’t the same club they were in the seventies and early eighties, Blackpool wasn’t Everton or Tottenham. This was also at a point in football where television and media wasn’t all that prominent, and from nowhere, the Robins were hit with interview requests. One of the requests was goalkeeper Jeff Wealands, a player who six years earlier had been named Player of the Year by the Birmingham supporters.
Not too long after he found himself at odds with Ron Saunders, when the manager took over at St. Andrew’s. Wealands left to become the backup at Manchester United before finding his way to Moss Lane and Altrincham. By that time, Saunders was still in charge at Birmingham City.
Facing Altrincham was a struggling Birmingham City side that hadn’t won a game in four months. They had a run going that produced just two draws in fifteen league games. But this wasn’t without talent, they had a young goalkeeper in David Seaman, Ray Ranson, a cup finalist with Manchester City in 1981, and Des Bremmer who had done the double with Aston Villa in 1981 and 1982. Most of the others were experienced top flight players.
Now they just needed a match, the weekend of Saturday, January 4th was very cold and to that extent thirty two cup ties were postponed. Alty fans were preparing to make the trip to Birmingham, hearing that the 8:30am pitch inspection had failed to satisfy the referee, who said the St. Andrew’s wasn’t fit for football.
The same was said for the early afternoon on January 7th, the referee was still unhappy with the pitch. The following Tuesday, just 1,200 fans made it to Birmingham going along with the less than 6,000 Birmingham fans at St. Andrew’s. Keep in mind this match took place eight months after the Heysel and Valley Parade horrors. The television crew had to realize that the only use of their footage would be goals at the most.
With this lack of a home crowd, Birmingham started off the game looking demoralised, and possibly not wanting to be subjected to this whole experience. A young Julian Dicks wanted to show Saunders that he was here for the match, rattling an early challenge on Ronnie Ellis.
Photo: Manchester Evening News
It was Birmingham who attempted to play a fast, hard pressing game even if they lacked the quality to match Altrincham. For their part, the Robins were brimming with their own self belief. The visitors kept possession but were denied the time to create any scoring chances. Both goalkeepers stood on their head in the first half. John King, Alty’s manager encouraged his players to renew the effort because he saw that Birmingham were there for the taking. Saunders advised his players to keep calm and the chance to win would come.
Sure enough, the Birmingham calm created an opportunity as they were presented with a set piece just after the hour mark, and Ranson’s corner was finished off by Robert Hophkins. The Alty supporters were silenced thinking that this was another good performance going down the drain. But then Alty came back, Ronnie Ellis fired home the equalising goal two minutes later from eight yards out.
Then the scorer of the goal for Birmingham became the goat of the match. As Hopkins tried to deal with the ball at the back for Birmingham, he could only stare as it went past a forlorn looking David Seaman for an own goal. At the final whistle, 1,200 fans were able to celebrate the fact that they were the second non league side ever to knock out a top flight club out of the competition at their own ground.
Birmingham continued to flounder and were relegated at the end of the year. Saunders wasn’t there for that, as he was let go after the match, going to West Bromwich Albion, who also went down that year. Saunders became the man in charge of two clubs going down. Altrincham made a run toward the FA Trophy final and won that trophy. In doing so, they took their eyes off the league and finished fourth.
Over the next decade Alty fell apart, falling out of the Conference and almost out of business. John King eventually left for greener pastures, but in the 1990s, he’d come back a couple times, though he was only able to save them from extinction not propel them up for glory of the past.
Altrincham have been keen to rekindle the memory of the glory days celebrating the win on the twentieth and twenty-fifth anniversary, but not one day in their history will ever come close.