That game must have had a peculiar magic because I know I’m not the only one who still regards it as the most exciting game I’ve ever seen. The scoring followed almost exactly the same pattern as today, we coasted into a 4-1 lead early in the second half then were pegged back to 4-4 before a decisive strike, but the context was different. Back then, we were up against undoubtedly the best team outside of the Football League. The previous season they had won the APL (with us a close second) but were yet again denied promotion via the re-election system, allegedly because a chairman who had promised them support was delayed in traffic and arrived too late to vote. They had played Liverpool at Anfield in the Cup and had the closest thing to star quality at our level.
We, on the other hand, were sliding fast from a side that had pushed Alty all the way for the title and were beginning to sniff the possibility of a relegation struggle. So Rockingham Road was buzzing as we built an unlikely 4-1 lead. I can still remember Stewart Atkins riding a very heavy challenge (a certain penalty), opting to stay on his feet to slot in the fourth. Then like a wounded animal Altrincham began to claw it back and we watched in growing dismay as the lead was wiped out. In goal we had the callow Kevin Fox, who modelled his curly perm on Peter Shilton but for us never really recovered from the moment when he rose to clasp a routine catch only to drop it for an unmissable equaliser.
So with the scores level the tension was suddenly intense. When we recall this game as the most exciting, what we really mean is the last 10-15 minutes. With things on a knife edge, we were awarded a penalty. As Frankie Murphy prepared to take the kick, Altrincham’s notorious John King warned him of certain unpleasant, possibly season ending consequences if he was to score. The kick was saved but in the ensuing scramble Paul Haverson shot through a crowd of players and RR erupted.
I still recall the nervous shaking excitement of those last few minutes. Just a couple of league points at stake, but it felt like a big cup tie. I can’t say that today stirred up quite the same emotions. A lot of water has passed under the bridge, and the atmosphere was different. But it was strange how the sheer rarity of what was unfolding acted like a little time machine, and there I was back in 1981…