Forty years ago, saw the inaugural new ‘Alliance Premier League’ campaign, which brought together the top sides from the Southern and Northern Premier Leagues into one division. This was designed to take on ‘the Old Pals Act’ which invariably kept non-league sides out of the Football League as automatic promotion and relegation into the ‘elite’ did not exist back then.
Hereford had gained promotion on the back of their giant-killing FA Cup exploits in 1972 at the expense of Barrow, but that was via a league club members’ ballot. Indeed, very little media coverage was awarded to clubs outside the Football League at that time – unless they went on a cup run.
That is why the Alliance Premier League came about – the forerunner of the Conference – or National League as it is now known.
It is quite a shock to see clubs such as Barnet, Yeovil, Scarborough, Weymouth and Bangor City in the Alliance League that opening campaign.
Meanwhile, Hereford United under boss Mike Bailey were in Division 4 of the Football League, and signed Scotsman Dave Cunningham for £25,000 from Aston Villa in the summer, joining youngsters like Chris Price, Andy Feeley and Steve Emery. A return to non-league football was not even considered the remotest possibility…
The Alliance League was expected to be dominated by the northern clubs, but in the end five of the divisions top seven were clubs previously seen as rivals in the Southern League.
Altrincham were the inaugural champions, edging out Weymouth by just two points in the end.
The Robins were a strong, powerful unit with the likes of Stan Allan, John Davison and John Owens at the back, tough-tackling John King in midfield, John Rogers and Jeff Johnson in attack and former Manchester United star Alex Stepney in goal.
As winners of the Alliance Premier League, Altrincham won the right to apply for election to the Football League to replace one of the bottom teams in the 1979/80 Fourth Division. Hereford, Darlington, Crewe Alexandra and Rochdale all had poor seasons and ended in the re-election zone.
Indeed, Hereford had sacked Bailey and assistant Bobby Gould in October, bringing in the former Stockport, Plymouth & Blackburn centre-forward Frank Lord as manager from South Africa. The move back-fired.
A last-day away victory at bottom club Rochdale was not enough to drag Hereford out of the mire, and the chief problem all season had been the lack of goals. Just 38 were scored by United in 46 games.
As it happened, United were re-elected with few problems. Darlington topped the poll with 49 votes, whilst Hereford and Crewe were hot on their heels with 48 a-piece. The real battle was between Rochdale and Altrincham, with Rochdale retaining their place in the Football League by the narrowest of margins – 26 votes to 25.
The National League will be celebrating its 40th Anniversary Season this year with a number of events across the country.
Gravesend & Northfleet
By Keith Hall