Thursday 9 July 2020

1980: Altrincham suffer voting pain

With leagues across England and Scotland being curtailed due to the COVID-19 pandemic, there are many clubs who will feel aggrieved at the outcome of the points per game system. The likes of Peterborough, Tranmere and Hearts have justifiable reasons to count themselves unfortunate, yet in these unprecedented times there were always going to be losers in which ever way the season had to be concluded.

The footballing authorities can be excused slightly for the position they have been put in due to the new normal that we are all becoming accustomed to. But in the dim and distant past there were no such get out clauses for surely one of the most barmy methods of footballing administration ever: the re-election system.

Prior to the 1986/87 season, the promotion hopes of non-league clubs were held in the hands of Football League chairman, as a voting took place at an Annual General Meeting to decide if the best-placed team in the non-league ladder would be elected into the League in place of one of the bottom four clubs. As you can probably work out, the system was far from fair.

Surely it was no coincidence that both Barrow and Workington lost their League status in the 1970s, due to the distances required to travel to these locations? Rumours of chairmen closing ranks to maintain the status quo were rife, and often non-league teams would be left on the outside looking in as the votes were counted.

One such example was that of Altrincham at the end of the 1979/80 season. But this was no ordinary tale of disappointment for the champions of the newly-formed Alliance Premier League; the reasons for Altrincham missing out on League status highlight just how flawed the archaic re-election system was. A traffic jam and a chairman being in the wrong place at the right time would prove costly.

Under the management of Tony Sanders since 1976, the club was a force to be reckoned with in the non-league structure. Alliance Premier League champions in 1979/80, the club had taken Tottenham to a replay in the FA Cup third round in the previous campaign, and made a habit of shocking Football League opponents in the competition.

As champions of the 1979/80 Alliance Premier League, hopes were high of Sanders' team being elected into the Football League, with most predicting that the financially-strapped Rochdale would go the other way. Eight points adrift at the foot of Division Four, it appeared as if Rochdale's 59-year stay in the League was about to come to an end.

Managed by Bob Stokoe, Rochdale's poor season on the field was mirrored off it. Selling their Spotland stadium before re-leasing it, the club had put out a public appeal to try and raise £50,000 to ease the financial mess. Finishing bottom was an inevitability; Stokoe could not bring any new players in, and did not speak highly of his current squad.

"But I think people understand that I've had to live with players who have no technique, are short in skill and can't pass the ball," Stokoe complained. With Hereford, Darlington and Crewe expected to survive the vote, Altrincham's third attempt in four years at gaining promotion looked promising.

"Altrincham, the Alliance Premier League champions, expect to become members of the Football League at today's Annual General Meeting in London," Robert Oxby wrote in the Telegraph. With average gates higher than those of Rochdale and Darlington, the case for Altrincham seemed compelling.

Yet the events of Friday June 6 would cause a flood of emotions for anyone associated with Altrincham. Losing out on League football by one vote was bad enough; yet the circumstances surrounding the body blow made things even harder to stomach.

Darlington (49 votes), Crewe (48) and Hereford (48) survived as expected. But surprisingly, Rochdale pulled off the great escape, their 26 votes pipping Altrincham by just one. However, it had been discovered that two clubs did not vote, with many speculating that the missing representatives would have guaranteed Altrincham a place in the Football League.

Luton Town chairman Denis Mortimer explained his absence. "We were delayed by traffic. I can't say who we would have voted for - that wouldn't be fair." At first, the identity of the other club involved was not revealed. But eventually, Grimsby Town were named as the guilty party.

Legend has it that the Grimsby chairman stood in the wrong part of the Cafe Royale, and therefore did not cast his vote. Yet an Andy Mitten article in Four Four Two magazine (November 2004) contained an allegation from Altrincham midfielder Graham Heathcote that the man involved had enjoyed one too many beverages and fallen alseep.

Either way, the verdict was a choker for Altrincham, Sanders describing it as "a blow for non-league football as a whole" and expanding on his anguish. "Five years work was blown up this afternoon. Despite our achievements in cup competitions, they decided we were not good enough. It is bad enough not getting in, but then to hear you might have made it if everyone had voted is really sickening."

When Stokoe resigned as Rochdale manager 20 days after the vote, Jim Thompson, the chairman of the Alliance League, was furious, voicing the opinion that Rochdale would not have been re-elected if other clubs knew the former Sunderland manager was on his way out. Stokoe's claim that "I stayed on for the AGM because I did not want to rock the boat," may have given substance to Thompson's argument.

Regardless of the theories and views related to the re-election vote, Altrincham had missed out on joining the Football League, and to add insult to injury, Sanders and his players brushed themselves down and won the 1980/81 Alliance Premier League, only to be denied once again at the Football League AGM.

And that was as good (or bad) as it got for the club. Never again would they experience re-election hurt, as they had between 1977-1981. You would question whether the joy of being non-league kings was outweighed by the pain of being rejected constantly, especially in the case of 1980. To go from the high of winning the title, to see hopes of promotion grow and grow, but then suffer that crushing low must have been a bitter pill to swallow.


  1. How many votes did each club get if there were 196 votes?

    1. I think these were the voting rights:

      First Division clubs - 4 votes in total
      Second Division clubs - 4 votes in total
      48 Third/Fourth Division clubs - 4 votes per club (192 in total)
      President of Football League - 4 votes

      So 204 in total, but 196 votes were counted that day as two clubs didn't vote.