Andy Mitten: Football's real heroes
I HAVE gone from interviewing Socrates in sunny Brazil to Altrincham's manager Graham Heathcote at a murky Moss Lane. Debt-free Alty punch well above their weight in football's fifth tier. They are 11th in the Blue Square Premier, a fine achievement given they are one of just four part-time teams in a league which includes two previous League Cup winners - Oxford United and Luton Town. Such rivals enjoy crowds up to six times the Robins' average gate of 1,152 and pay players up to £1,000 a week, while Alty's mixture of taxi drivers, teachers and accountants take home between £100 and £500. Those players recently travelled over 1,000 miles in one week for games against Ebbsfleet and AFC Wimbledon while keeping up the day jobs. My grandfather Sam played for Altrincham after the war and he reckoned games against rivals Northwich were more tense than Normandy battles. My brother Joz also enjoyed a mixed five months at Moss Lane in 2005 which started with a ban for "smacking a Scouse" opponent and finished with him scoring the penalty at Nuneaton which helped propel Altrincham back into non-League's top division. Heathcote is the central character at Altrincham. He joined the Robins as a player at 16 and earned £5.25 a week working at the Port of Manchester when one Altrincham director offered every player £1,000 if they could beat Everton in a 1975 FA Cup tie. With a history of hard-working and wealthy directors like Peter Swales and Noel White (later chairman at Liverpool), Alty were known as the Manchester United of non-League football. They forced a draw at Goodison and 35,530 were at the replay at Old Trafford. "Driving up the Chester Road to Old Trafford was like Wembley Way for us," recalls Heathcote. "City played the next night and had a smaller crowd." Everton won, but Heathcote later scored a penalty in front of the Kop in a cup tie against Liverpool, despite Alan Kennedy saying: `Bet you a fiver you don't score.' "He paid up," said Heathcote. "And he sent me a card years later asking for his fiver back!" The glory days were well over when Heathcote took charge in 2002, with Altrincham fourth from bottom in the UniBond Premier. Gates of 450 and debts of £700,000 pushed the club to the brink of going under. Their most recent turnover was £625,000. "We don't owe a bean now," Heathcote says proudly. "We live within our means, we've worked hard and are stable in this division. We're a hard-to-beat team who haven't spent a penny on transfer or signing on fees, but we've thrown ourselves into the local community. We pay for football coaching in 14 local schools and I take kids on ground tours. We now see Alty shirts around the town and we have a lot of kids at games." Staging United's reserve games helps while chairman Geoff Goodwin is integral to the success. He owns a coach company and drives the Australian cricket team when they tour here, the likes of Ricky Ponting and Glenn McGrath have become friends, been to games and are happy to help out at fundraising dinners. Bar Heathcote and one employee, everyone at the club is a volunteer. Still, there's no pleasing some. "A fan came up to me during a recent game and said: `Heathcote, you're useless, clueless. You don't know what you are doing and never have,'" he explains. Criticise him? The people of Altrincham should erect a statue of him outside the Cresta Court Hotel. ANDY Mitten's latest book `Glory, Glory, Man United in the 90's - the Players' Stories' was the best selling football book on Amazon last month.
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