The Giant Killers

Every F A cup giant killing since 1888

All time greatest F A cup giant killings

Number 25

 

Birmingham City 1-2 Altrincham

Third Round: Tuesday January 14th 1986

St Andrews, Birmingham

Attendance: 6,636

Scorers: Robert Hopkins {63}, Ronnie Ellis {65}, Robert Hopkins {own goal 75}

The Space Shuttle, Challenger exploded shortly after take off, killing all seven crew on board. Defence Secretary, Michael Heseltine resigned after clashing with the Government over the Westland Helicopter affair. Whoopi Goldberg, Margaret Avery and Oprah Winfrey each gave Academy Award winning performances in period drama, The Colour Purple. Ian McShane took the title role for the first episode of Lovejoy on the BBC and  The Pet Shop Boys topped the charts with West End Girls.

Altrincham had been a modest Cheshire League side until the mid 1960s, having reached the first round of the F A cup just once, back in the 1930s but Non league Football was starting to change and Altrincham were coming good as a leading Cheshire club at just the right time. They started making it through the qualifying rounds to the First round proper and earned themselves a place in one of the leading newly created Leagues that would deliver candidates for cup upsets and League Football on a regular basis.

By the mid 1970s most Non League Chairmen were of the firm opinion that the only sure fire way to replace a League club from its closed shop was to take on and beat one of their elite clubs in the cup. Alty's chance came in 1975 but title chasing Everton proved too tough a nut to crack, though the Cheshire men earned major plaudits for taking the Merseysiders to a replay. Four years later came a second bite of the cherry against Tottenham. Alty had become possibly the best Non League side in the land at this stage and yet again ran the mighty Spurs very close before once again being done down in a replay.

When they followed this by winning the Alliance Premier League, the newly created National top division of Non League Football, everyone felt that surely this would be enough to see them gain Football League membership. Alty had already tried on more than one occasion to gain entry and had the door slammed shut in their face. It happened yet again in 1980 when they knew the club were not only good enough to join the Fourth Division but quite probably good enough to win it. They retained their crown as the best team in Non League Football the following year but yet again felt the cold wind of the icy Football League as they closed ranks once more to keep the clubs they had. That elusive cup victory would be the only thing that would sway them.

In 1985 Blackpool became Alty's latest League victims in the F A cup to set up a trip to struggling Birmingham City in the third round and while Alty were not perhaps the team they were in the seventies and early eighties, their opponents were no Everton or Tottenham either. This was a top flight club that presented a real chance of victory. Even in this, Football's darkest era where media coverage was at the weakest it would ever be in the Television era, John King's side faced a host of interviews and camera crews in the build up to the tie.

Not least in the interview requests was goalkeeper, Jeff Wealands, a man who six years earlier had been named player of the year by the Birmingham faithful but had then found himself at odds when new manager Ron Saunders took over at the club. Wealands left to become understudy at Manchester United before making his way to Moss Lane and with Saunders still in charge at his old club he was naturally asked repeatedly about how sweet it would be to get his own back on the former gaffer. 

Wealands was however the only man King could call upon with knowledge of Football at the highest level and although the rest of his side were among the best semi professionals in the country, most were finding first team Football at Altrincham as the biggest club they had played for. Twenty-six year old Peter Dinsmore had been a junior at Liverpool. Thirty-five year old Jeff Johnson was a non League veteran and England semi pro International, as was Twenty-Six year old Paul Cuddy who had once cleaned boots at Manchester City for the likes of Lee, Bell and Summerbee. John Davison was a mainstay of Altrincham Football, in his fifteenth season at the club. The thirty-three years old was a veteran of the Everton and Tottenham games a decade earlier. Twenty-three year old Mancunian, Mick Farrelly had league experience in the lower divisions with Preston while Phil Gardner had shown promise at Everton as a youngster but with a place in the first team unlikely, took his chances with Alty as a nineteen year old. The strong Merseyside link continued with Gary Anderson, another son of that Football mad city who had joined the club the previous season.  

Facing them would be a struggling Birmingham City side that hadn't won a game in four months in a run that produced just two draws in fifteen League games. Among Saunder's side was the promising England Under 21 International keeper, David Seaman, Ray Ranson, a cup finalist with Manchester City in 1981 and Des Bremner, who had won both League and European cup at Aston Villa in 1981 and '82. Most of the others were well experienced top flight players, though it was notable and unusual for a First Division side that they boasted the one International cap, won by Bremner for Scotland in 1976, among the entire team.

All the ingredients were in place but just one thing was missing, an actual match. The weekend of Saturday January 4th was cold and wintery to the extent that eight of the thirty-two cup ties were postponed. For the excited Alty fans preparing to make the trip to Birmingham came the news that an 8:30am pitch inspection had failed to satisfy the referee who stated that a further inspection at eleven am would not be necessary. The St Andrews pitch and stands, in his opinion, were not fit for Football.

When the referee next took to the field in the early afternoon of Tuesday January 7th he was still unhappy. The ground was still not in a fit condition to host a cup tie and it was yet again postponed, this time to be played the following Tuesday evening with both sides now knowing that a trip to Third Division York awaited them.

St Andrews was passed fit on the Saturday to host a League game against Ipswich, which ended in a now familiar single goal home defeat, which took their winless streak to sixteen games and kept them second from bottom of the table. Altrincham meanwhile warmed up by hammering Cheltenham 4-1 at Moss Lane to go second in the Conference. More startling build ups could not have been found.

On the night itself Altrincham mustered 1,200 fans to make the trip to Birmingham, which was just as well as less than 6,000 Birmingham fans made the effort to fill the stands of their old ground. Never before had St Andrews been so sparsely populated for a Birmingham City home F A cup tie and it only served to emphasise the depths, not only to which poor Birmingham had slumped in 1986 but indeed the game itself after the horrors of Heysel and Valley Parade eight months earlier.

Even the Television crew on hand to film the game were there knowing that there was little likelihood of their footage ever being used, save for any goals getting the briefest of screenings during the following nights edition of Sportsnight, even if Alty pulled off the shock that most pundits felt was still not possible.

In front of a home crowd lacking the ability to create any sort of atmosphere, Birmingham started the game already looking a demoralised lot who could probably have done without being subjected to the whole experience. Whether the fans had deserted them or just chosen not to bother running the risk of humiliation or even perhaps a little optimistically, had decided that this was still a foregone conclusion was irrelevant. Their disillusionment transferred itself from the stands to the field. A young Julian Dicks wanted to show his manager that he was fired up for the task, rattling into an early challenge on Ronnie Ellis, a tackle more expected from the Non League underdogs. Indeed it was Birmingham who tried to play a fast hard pressing game as if they lacked the quality to match their Altrincham opponents who were clearly brimming with their own self belief and confidence. The visitors kept possession well but were denied the time to create any chances of note and both keepers made for the dressing room at the interval feeling relatively comfortable. John King encouraged his players for a renewed effort in the second half, sensing that Birmingham were there for the taking. Saunders meanwhile advised his players to remain calm, keep plugging away and the chance to avoid this banana skin would fall their way.

When the chance did come, midway through the second half, it was cruel luck on an Alty side that had been growing in stature as the half progressed; Birmingham had been coming under gradual pressure until they forced a corner from a rare foray forward. Chances to get bodies in the box had been few for them but when presented with this set piece they made the most of it as Ranson's corner was finished off by Robert Hopkins. The 1,200 travelling Alty supporters were silenced, fearing that, yet again, a good performance against top flight opponents would come to nothing.

Timing however is everything and before Birmingham had the chance to enjoy their lead, Alty were level when Ronnie Ellis fired home from eight yards out after the Birmingham defence had been hesitant in clearing their lines. The game had now come alive and became increasingly stretched as both sides became more adventurous in their attempts to win the tie, which was settled with fifteen minutes remaining.  {image left. Ronnie Ellis fires Altrincham level}

Robert Hopkins looked favourite to deal with a ball into the Birmingham box but instead the man who had given City the lead now could only direct the ball past a helpless Seaman. Years later Hopkins, a legend himself in Birmingham circles, would joke that he always knew Seaman, who went on to be the regular keeper for England and Arsenal for over a decade of winning League Titles and F A cups, would never amount to much. At the time though the Birmingham man was devastated to score a goal from which he and his team mates could not recover. Losing can be a habit and it was one Birmingham couldn't break.

At the final whistle Atrincham and their 1,200 travelling fans were able to take in the fact that they were only the second Non League side since the creation of the third tier of the Football League over sixty years earlier, to knock out a top flight club on their own patch. It would be over a quarter of a century before it would happen again.

But there was a not to be the adulation that such a victory merited. The 10 O’clock news hastily gave an extra thirty seconds of its bulletin to show the goals and more time was allocated on the following night's midweek Sportsnight programme but the imagination of the wider public, which should have taken Alty to their hearts, was not stirred by an event in a sport no longer deemed fashionable.

Apart from anything else, in the eyes of the media, this was Birmingham, a team that had shown itself hopelessly out of its depth among Football's elite. And they had lost to a team equally regarded by the media as one which should have taken its place among the League clubs years ago. It was a low key event not helped by the disgruntled Birmingham manager, Ron Saunders' refusal to allow the TV cameras into the victorious dressing room for the necessary iconic images that a giant killing dictates.

Mr Saunders, who had once walked out on Champions, Aston Villa in the middle of a victorious European Cup campaign to take over at City, now did the same, albeit this time perhaps encouraged by the board to fall on his sword for this was a defeat too far for most of the City faithful. To add insult to injury, Saunders stepped straight into the hot seat at local rivals, West Bromwich Albion, the one team lying below City in the First Division. By season's end he had the distinction of having been in charge of two of that season's relegated teams.

Without the expected media fanfare, Altrincham travelled to York in round four for the traditional dose of 'after the Lord Mayor's show' as the hosts ran out two goal winners but now for Alty came the need to win the Conference and claim the Football League place that now surely awaited.

The fates conspired against them however as a run to the F A trophy final diverted their attention from the League and by May they rested in fourth spot to an Enfield side who themselves found the League door still firmly closed. Alty won the F A trophy that season but it proved a watershed moment for the club. The talismanic King promptly left for the beaten Trophy finalists, Runcorn, and his team began to break up.

The promised land of League Football was dangled like a carrot for the following season when the League finally relented and introduced automatic promotion from the Conference but Altrincham could only finish fourth again. The club who had been among the biggest in the Non League land for over a decade slumped at just the wrong time and spent the next decade rarely finishing in the top half of the table until finally dropping out of the Conference and almost out of existence altogether. 

For Jeff Wealands the cup tie was ample revenge against a manager that had forced his move away from Birmingham. He kept a strong association with Alty and later joined the board of the club before going on to run a property company, Phil Densmore also kept contacts with the club as his son Sean played for them as they struggled in the Conference in the early years of the new century. Jeff Johnson suffered a knee injury while playing for the England semi pro team later in the year and although he played again, his games were limited before he retired in 1988. Phil Cuddy left the club in 1989 to continue his career in Non League Football but later returned to the club as reserve team coach. John Davison went on to clock up a record 677 appearances for Alty before he left the club in 1987. After playing he went into Non League management, most notably with Burscough. Mick Farrelly had been the substitute on the night against Birmingham but would go on to earn his place in Alty folklore by scoring the winning goal against Runcorn in that May's Trophy final at Wembley. After leaving Alty in 1989 he played for various other Non League clubs throughout the 1990s. Phil Gardner quickly found himself out of favour with the new management at Altrincham and left the club, although like many of the team, he later returned to work as editor of the club matchday programme. Peter Conning was signed by League side, Stockport County the following season but his season there proved unsuccessful and he was released back into Non League Football. John King would return as a saviour of the club twice in the 1990s and while he was able to save them from total extinction, he could not bring back the glory days of the 70s and 80s.

It must have been hard for the Altrincham players, staff and fans to take when, three years later, the next Non League victory over top flight opponents was met with the expected fanfare such a result deserves and which had not been given to Altrincham but by 1989 Football was on its road to recovery after the dark days of hooliganism.

Having largely missed the limelight at the time, Altrincham have been keen to rekindle the memory of their glory days and held twentieth and twenty-fifth anniversary dinners to celebrate the game. The Birmingham players and manager were invited as well but declined their invitation although 'winning' goal scorer, Hopkins remarked wryly, when asked of his invite. "Cheeky B*******. At least I suppose it means they have a sense of humour."

City: 1:David Seaman, 2:Ray Ranson, 3:Julian Dicks, 4:Jim Hagan, 5:Ken Armstrong, 6:Martin Kuhl {replaced by 12:Billy Wright} 7:Des Bremner, 8:Brian Roberts, 9:Andy Kennedy, 10:Nicky Platnauer, 11:Robert Hopkins
 
Altrincham: 1:Jeff Wealands, 2:Phil Gardner, 3:Peter Densmore, 4:Jeff Johnson, 5:Paul Cuddy, 6:Peter Conning, 7:Doug Newton, 8:John Davison, 9:Ronnie Ellis, 10:Paul Reid, 11:Gary Anderson,  {12: Mick Farrelly}