View from the Press Box

Words John Edwards | Pictures Jonathan Moore

MY earliest Alty memory is of catching the 263 bus from the bottom end of Riddings Road in Timperley and walking down Moss Lane to watch a Robins side spearheaded by the incomparable Jack Swindells.

Work as a sports journalist then took me away from the area and restricted opportunities to attend Alty games. But I always followed the team's fortunes, and when the opportunity arose to volunteer as press and media officer in 2008, I was delighted to accept it.

Since taking early retirement from work nearly 10 years ago, I've been able to devote more time to writing duties at The J.Davidson Stadium. Here's my review of last season.

It has been a tale of onwards and upwards for Altrincham ever since Phil Parkinson and Neil Sorvel walked through the door seven years ago, progress all the way, but it's fair to say the Robins surpassed themselves during the course of the 2023-24 Vanarama National League campaign.

This time last year, Alty were celebrating the first anniversary of turning professional. If the club were still finding their feet and getting used to functioning as a full-time outfit, the same could probably be said of the team's endeavours to acquit themselves as a force in the National League.

They were getting there, but finishing 17th, 14th and 17th in the three seasons since being promoted via the National League North play-offs merely underlined the calibre of company they were keeping. As any number of big-name clubs with a proud Football League pedigree will readily attest, it's a tough league to get out of. At the top end it is, anyway.

Even so, optimism abounded that the club were continuing to move in the right direction, with good reason given the board's ambition and the way it was reflected in an ever-improving first-team squad, but few, if any, Alty fans were seriously anticipating a sustained promotion push when they convened at The J.Davidson Stadium for the opening league fixture against Dagenham & Redbridge last August.

That's what they got, though. A dream that for so many years seemed unattainable was suddenly tantalisingly within reach after an outstanding end to the campaign not only secured a play-off place but took us into it as the division's form team.

It wasn't to be, as we all know only too well, after Bromley overturned the Robins' 1-0 half-time lead in the semi-final to book their place at Wembley, where they edged out Solihull Moors for the coveted prize of a place in League Two. But what a season it was to finish fourth in the table and participate for the first time ever in the annual shoot-out that bestows Football League status on the winners. One none of us will forget in a hurry.

We should have known something special was on the horizon after we went into the campaign bolstered by the addition of Chris Conn-Clarke, this time on a full-time basis after two previous spells as a loanee. A signing to set pulses racing, if ever there was one, and with Justin Amaluzor adding even more attacking flair as a close-season capture from Aldershot Town, and keeper Ethan Ross and winger Alex Newby subsequently arriving on loan, it looked very much a squad built for success.

As with anything, seeing is believing, and the evidence was there for us all to marvel at when, after opening with three draws and a win, we faced eventual champions Chesterfield at The J.Davidson Stadium before a crowd of 2,714 that largely consisted of expectant Alty fans.

They were not disappointed, either. After going behind early on, the Robins gradually wrested control back to seal a memorable 2-1 triumph as Dior Angus equalised in the 84th minute and buried a spectacular added-time winner into the roof of the net. Cue pandemonium, with on-loan keeper Ross running the length of the pitch to join ecstatic team-mates and fans merging into one at a jubilant Venditan Golf Road End.

As the media team member responsible for written content, I looked on from the gantry, notebook and pen in hand, and couldn't help thinking the celebrations were somehow symbolic of the unity and unbreakable bond that exists between those charged with bringing success to the club on the pitch and those whose unwavering vocal support makes it more likely to happen.

It's a point the manager never tires of making, frequently dubbing a packed stadium the team's 12th man, and you couldn't doubt the veracity of his argument after witnessing how the league's outstanding team were eventually brought down by an Alty side who were urged on right to the very end.

Of course, it can't be a one-way street. Time was when fans were herded into grounds up and down the country, perhaps given the option to purchase a pie and a bovril and ushered out at full-time, but not anymore.

Quite rightly, it's all about the matchday experience these days, and Alty have devoted time, money and no little energy to making it as enjoyable as possible for Robins fans, not least with the advent of a new, improved, streamlined fan zone that offers a convivial atmosphere as well as a selection of craft beers, deliciously authentic curries and even live music.

Naturally, the football is an integral part of the overall package as well, and, good though the fan zone fare may have been throughout last season, it was eclipsed by events on the pitch.

The Robins' attacking play was irresistible, and if defeats at the hands of Bromley and Barnet towards the end of September planted a seed of doubt in anyone's mind, it was blown away by a 6-1 dismantling of Ebbsfleet United a couple of weeks later.

Newby marked his debut with a headed goal in only the fifth minute as Alty cruised to a 4-1 half-time lead, and after Ross saved a penalty in the second half, his third spot-kick stop in six games, the Robins scored two more. It was the first time they had scored six goals in a fifth-tier game since February 1991, and incredibly they went on to do it on another two occasions before the season was out.

We were loving Conn-Clarke's close control, trickery, impudence and prolific goalscoring, just loving it, and with Amaluzor often unstoppable with his surging, powerful runs and Newby growing in confidence, particularly after becoming a fully-fledged Robin at the end of January, Phil Parkinson's side were becoming the league's great entertainers.

It's one thing turning on the style and catching the eye, but it has to be effective as well, and proof that Alty had got the blend just right was looking irrefutable when they climbed into the play-off places with a more workmanlike 1-0 win at Maidenhead, three days after the six-goal extravaganza against Ebbsfleet, and stayed there until late-February.

There were so many highlights during that lengthy stay in the top seven, not least a brilliant curler into the top corner by Newby in a spectacular 6-1 demolition of Solihull Moors and a wonder goal late on by Conn-Clarke that sealed a 2-1 win over AFC Fylde.

That came nine days before Christmas, and the theme of seasonal festivities continued on December 23rd when Newby planted a stoppage-time free-kick into the top corner of Bromley's net to salvage a highly-creditable 2-2 draw.

The 5.30pm kick-off to accommodate live TV coverage two days before Christmas understandably didn't go down well with those making the arduous journey to south-east London, but I suppose it at least meant that the vast array of dazzling attacking talent at Alty's disposal received the nationwide exposure it deserved.

Even when momentum was hampered by the unexpected obstacle of a five-match losing streak that dropped them to ninth, a brutal sequence of gruelling away trips from one end of the country to the other not exactly helping, there could be no questioning Alty's resolve as they walloped York City 6-1 and signed off with a final burst of five wins and a draw from their last six games.

Quite a campaign, with the average home gate of 2,340 the best for decades, and while the Robins' attacking verve tended to hog the headlines, special mention also goes to a midfield held together expertly by Isaac Marriott and Elliot Osborne and a settled back four that usually comprised Lewis Banks, Jake Cooper, Lewis Baines and Eddy Jones and that held firm more often than not in front of a giant presence in Ross, who was, in any Alty fan's book, comfortably the best keeper in the league.

Roll on next season! It's one no Alty follower will want to miss, and if you subscribe to the widely-held view that a season ticket is far and away the best means of making sure of your place at every home league game but you haven't bought one yet, don't delay. The Early Bird offer is still available but only until May 31st, and you can get yours here.

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