Words by John Edwards
It was with profound sadness that the club announced yesterday that John King, legend of all Alty legends, had died.
As tributes continue to be paid to the most iconic career in the contemporary history of Altrincham FC, the club can confirm that our players will wear black armbands away to Bracknell in the Isuzu FA Trophy on Saturday and again in Tuesday's Vanarama National League fixture with Bromley at The J.Davidson Stadium, prior to which there will be a minute's silence and a reflection on the great man's immense contribution to the Robins' cause.
The epitome of total commitment and inspirational leadership, John had spells with Wigan Athletic and Northwich Victoria before arriving at Moss Lane in November 1977 for a £3,500 fee that will surely go down as the ultimate example of money well spent.
One of the last pieces in a jigsaw expertly put together by manager Tony Sanders, the talented as well as tough midfielder led from the front as Alty dominated the non-League scene and collected one piece of silverware after another.
The glorious King era kicked off with an FA Trophy triumph at Wembley in 1978, when the Alty skipper received the gleaming prize from Sir Stanley Rous (pictured) after scoring the third goal in a 3-1 win over Leatherhead.
After finishing the following season as Northern Premier League runners-up, Alty entered the brave new world of a national competition for non-League's elite, and how they took it by storm, ruling the roost as champions in the inaugural campaign and the one after, with their bearded midfield marauder very much at the forefront of their sterling deeds.
Alty's FA Cup exploits at the time are as much a part of the King legend. Between 1979 and 1982, Alty became the only non-League club ever to reach the third round of the oldest national football competition in the world in four consecutive seasons
In January 1986, they made it to the fourth round for the only time in the club's entire history, losing 2-0 at York City after winning at Blackpool in round two and, famously, at Birmingham City in round three.
When an injury in another Wembley Trophy final appearance curtailed his playing days in 1982, he took his indefatigable approach to football, and life in general, into management as boss of South Liverpool before returning to Moss Lane to replace Sanders.
What a task, stepping into the shoes of the singularly-successful Sanders, yet John was back at Wembley within two years, leading his team out ahead of a 1-0 win over Runcorn that brought him the rare distinction of being an FA Trophy winner as a player and manager.
In his second spell in the Moss Lane hot seat at the end of the 80s, he built a team that was a match for most that have been produced in the club's recent history, packed with top players and that so nearly took the Robins back to the pinnacle of non-League football.
In the 1990-91 campaign, that King side went on a 28-match unbeaten run, which remained a National League record until Crawley Town surpassed it in 2010-11, and looked odds-on to gain a place in the Football League until a five-match winless run allowed Barnet to pip them for promotion.
Key players included Paul Showler, Ken McKenna, John Brady, Gary Anderson, Jeff Wealands, Paul Rowlands, Andy Reid and Harry Wiggins, and another name fondly remembered from that exciting period was defender Paul France, who took to social media to express his sorrow at John's passing.
"Very sad news," he wrote. "Kingy was the best manager I ever played for. I have some great memories of John and some great memories in football because of John. He created the best team spirit and was respected, and slightly feared, by all his players.
"Football was a passion, but he also made it enjoyable. Most importantly, Kingy was a good man who cared for his players, his coaching team and for Alty. Here's to you, gaffer."
There were warm, heartfelt words , too, from Alty President and former Chairman Grahame Rowley, who said: "A born leader, both on and off the pitch, John truly encompassed the word “Legend” when you refer to past players of the club. He was captain of the all-conquering Altrincham sides – scoring at Wembley in our first visit there against Leatherhead - and our two title-winning campaigns at the start of the Alliance League.
"He was an honest and forthright person who wore his heart on his sleeve – always giving 100% himself and motivating others to exceed their expectations on numerous occasions. What some people won’t know is that he was also the changing room joker, using humour as a motivational tool and dressing up in women’s clothes or as a pantomime horse to calm the nerves before big games. He always had time for the younger element of our crowd, being seen as a “gentle giant” after his colossus displays on the pitch.
"He truly had the club in his heart with everything he did; from playing the game, to management on three separate occasions and gifting his shares to me so that the club could prosper. These “A” shares were converted to voting shares and I then gifted them to the club so that the present Board could take a controlling interest in the club that we all love.
"He will be missed by all true Alty fans – a leader, a talisman, a friend. RIP, John."
Alty co-chairman Bill Waterson added: "John embodied the spirit, fight and quality of Altrincham FC for nigh-on 20 years, as an inspirational captain, thrice as a manager who scaled the highest heights and to the last as a major shareholder who put the club’s best interests at heart.
"As a player he was an absolute legend, someone who turned a very good team into a great one. After a year, he was leading the team to a 1-1 draw
with Spurs at White Hart Lane in the third round of the FA Cup.
"In his second spell as manager, he led us to within an ace of the Football League, with what many regard as the best Altrincham team of all time in 90-91.
"When I talk about “our best season for nearly 30 years”, this is the one I am comparing us to. As Alty nearly went under in subsequent years, Kingy made sure the club survived and was effectively the club’s largest shareholder for a number of years.
"It was only six years ago that he proposed returning these shares to the club, for us to raise much needed funds and launch the club on our current trajectory. Most of the shares that were his are now owned by the current board, and therefore his influence at Alty persists to this day.
"All of the above presents the incredible influence that John King had on the club, but it does not give full measure of the man by any means. The man was a behemoth, bestriding the non-League football stage for many years, striking fear into his opponents and inspiring his team mates in equal measure.
"There was no-one you would rather have at your side in a battle, and seeing him lining up against you would give you more than pause for thought. Any story you heard about Kingy, no matter how far-fetched would turn out to be true.
"From hammering on the Kettering Town dressing room door before the title decider, telling them to come and meet their fate, to being praised to the
high heavens by Bill Shankly at Anfield before our game with Liverpool; from his exploits in the Bleeding Wolf in Hale (I was there!) to his brawling in the centre circle with George Jones from Lancaster City at the end of a game in 1978, you could not invent a story about the man that was not then exceeded by hard cold facts!
"I was lucky enough to meet him at the Chesterfield game earlier this season when he came to watch his nephew Jeff, and though he was a shadow of the great man of yore, the memories came flooding back.
"Truly the greatest on-the-pitch leader we have ever seen pull on the red and white (or rip if off as he did at Wembley in 78 and again at Gravesend in 1980) and second only to Noel White as the greatest person ever associated with this club."
Though it is the best part of 30 years since John's official connection with Alty came to an end, his affection for the Robins was obvious every time he subsequently called in on the club he clearly loved.
A few years ago, a television company asked if it would be possible for some of the great names from the Sanders era to convene and relive the glory days over tea and sandwiches in the Moss Lane boardroom while the cameras filmed their reminiscences.
It was a request that was granted in the blink of an eye, and so it was that Sanders, King, Graham Heathcote, John Rogers and Jeff Johnson sat round a table and selected the best of the many unforgettable moments they shared in Alty colours.
Brian Flynn, Mark Bennett and I were fortunate enough to be in on the trip down Memory Lane, and it was evident to all of us from the ever-present glint in John's eye that he was relishing being back in the company of his comrades-in-arms.
One question thrown into the mix concerned maintaining standards week-in, week-out and whether it was ever a problem staying focused, when you were up at the top and there to be shot at.
Graham Heathcote answered it with a wry smile and a nod towards his old skipper, as he said: "He kept us focused - don't you worry about that!"
That we are all able to focus on an Alty team in this brave new age of full-time professional football at what is now The J.Davidson Stadium is largely down to John and what happened in his third spell as manager.
It began in February 1994, with Alty bottom of the league, but with John weaving his magic and galvanising the troops in his usual rousing fashion, the Robins finished the campaign in a respectable 10th place and kept the momentum going to occupy fourth position the following season.
All seemed to be set fair, and the club appeared to be heading in the right direction, but all that changed in June 1995, when John Maunders resigned as Chairman, leaving the club with no assets or liabilities.
Who should step in and save the day? John King, of course, who bought Maunders' shares for £1, effectively becoming Altrincham owner and keeping the club afloat.
We owe you so much, John, Alty saviour, no less. May you rest in peace.