A look back at Mossley AFC’s Wembley trail

With the lack of real football in our television schedules due to that pandemic, our broadcasters have had to fill the airtime with some of our greatest footballing moments. It has meant ITV rerunning Euro ’96; also trending topics that would have been relevant if Twitter existed in 2001.

Had Twitter existed in 2001, Germany and Brian Moore would have been in the Top Ten. The ecstasy was England’s 5 – 1 win over Germany. The agony would have been the death of Brian Moore, the legendary ITV commentator.

Back in 2001, Mossley AFC were in the First Division of the North West Counties Football League. At the time of England’s celebrated win over Germany, they drew 1 – 1 against Abbey Hey.

If we go back to 1980, things were different then.

Top Dog in Tameside

Back in 1980, Mossley AFC was Tameside’s top football club. They finished the previous season with a stunning 116 goals and picked up their first Northern Premier League Premier Division title. They also won the Northern Premier League Cup at Maine Road, beating Northwich Victoria 4 – 1. In 1979 – 80, they successfully defended their NPL title.

Before 1986, Mossley could have put in an application for Football League status. Back then, clubs willing to join the Football League would have to send a prospectus to their office in Lytham St. Annes and make a case for membership. Bottom clubs in what was then the Football League’s Fourth Division had to apply for reelection. The last Football League side to fail reelection was Southport in 1978, whose place was taken by Wigan Athletic.

Altrincham made several applications without success. In the 1950s, Ashton United tried and failed. So far, the only Tameside club to have been in the Football League remains Stalybridge Celtic – founder members of the Football League Third Division (North) in 1921.

In 1979, a new national non-league competition was created – the Alliance Premier League. It is now today’s National League Premier Division, much expanded with northern and southern second divisions. Mossley’s Seel Park got a ‘B’ grade from the APL’s ground assessors and couldn’t join the new league. Altrincham and Northwich Victoria – whom the Lilywhites thrashed at Maine Road – became founder members.

The Alliance Premier League took in the cream of the Northern Premier, Southern and Isthmian leagues. Altrincham won the first two titles with Runcorn winning the next one. In 1980, Mossley’s elevation to the APL was scuppered again by ground grading issues. A bit of a sore point considering that Canal Street, Runcorn’s ground, had half the seating capacity of Seel Park.

Witton Albion, 1979 – 80 season’s NPL runners-up with a more advanced ground than Runcorn (in the Central Ground) failed too. Therefore the third placed team, Frickley Athletic, gained promotion to the new national league.

In 1980, there was one thing that would overshadow the internal politics of ground grading and Mossley’s successful defence of the Northern Premier League title.

Mossley’s Road To Wembley

Mossley’s F.A. Trophy run began when yours truly had yet to pick up a pen in anger. The Lilywhites also had a decent F.A. Cup run before losing 5 – 2 to York City in the First Round Proper. Back then, the Minstermen were a Football League side. (Who would have thought 40 years ago that they would be playing Curzon Ashton?)

Mossley’s F.A. Trophy Run

  • 1st Round: Spennymoor United (H): won 3 – 1 (Smith 2, Skeete) (657);
  • 2nd Round: Boston (A): drew 0 – 0 (338);
  • 2nd Round Replay: Boston (H): won 6 – 3 (Skeete 3, Smith, Moore, Gorman) (530);
  • 3rd Round: Altrincham (A): won 5 – 1 (Moore 3, Smith 2) (2,525);
  • Quarter Final: Blyth Spartans (H): drew 1 – 1 (own goal) (2,427);
  • Quarter Final Replay: Blyth Spartans (A): won 2 – 0 (Smith, Moore) (3,402);
  • Semi Final, First Leg: Boston United (H): drew 1 – 1 (Gorman) (3,408);
  • Semi Final, Second Leg: Boston United (A): won 2 – 1 (Keelan 2)Mossley win 3 – 2 on aggregate (4,590);
  • Final: Dagenham (Wembley): lost 1 – 2 (Smith) (26,000).

Mossley’s campaign began with a 3 – 1 win over Spennymoor United in the First Round. Ian Smith’s brace and Leo Skeete’s goal separated the two sides. In the Second Round, a nil-nil draw at Tattershall Road led to an emphatic 6 – 3 victory in a replay at Seel Park. A game which The Advertiser‘s one-time Mossley correspondent thought was truly dire. Netting them in for the Lilywhites were Leo Skeete with a hat trick, with Ian Smith, David Moore and Kevin Gorman doubling the goal tally.

Also in the Second Round Proper, Dagenham (whom Mossley would meet at Wembley), beat Stalybridge Celtic 5 – 0 at Bower Fold. The ‘Bridge’s run began with a 2 – 2 draw against Tow Law Town in the First Qualifying Round. In spite of this setback against the eventual winners, Peter Wragg’s side would go on to win the ‘Bridge’s first ever Cheshire County League title. 57 years after the first team replaced their own reserve side in 1923.

In the Third Round, the goals kept on coming for Mossley: soon-to-be-Alliance Premier League title winners Altrincham were disposed of at Moss Lane with a 5 – 1 thrashing. This time with a David Moore hat trick and a brace from Ian Smith.

On reaching the Quarter Finals, it was clear that Mossley AFC were about to set the footballing world alight. A clear ‘stuff you’ (or words to that effect) to those who rejected their membership application to the new national non-league competition. Nearly 2,500 people went to see a 1 – 1 draw against Blyth Spartans at Seel Park. In the replay at Croft Park, a similar turn out saw a 2 – 0 win, thanks to goals by Ian Smith and David Moore.

Come the 12 April 1980, it was the turn of Boston United. By then, Mossley had reached the F.A. Trophy Semi Finals – the first Tameside club to do that. Nine years before Hyde United achieved that feat. Instead of neutral venues, the F.A. Trophy Semi Finals have been two-legged since the start of the competition. At Seel Park, over 3,000 fans saw the first leg: a 1 – 1 draw thanks to Kevin Gorman’s goal.

A week later, in the Second Leg, Kevan Keelan booked Mossley’s place at Wembley with a brace at York Street. Mossley won 3 – 2 on aggregate and, 20 goals later, on the verge of a fairytale ending at the Twin Towers.

Despite outplaying the Daggers in the second half, Mossley lost 2 – 1 to the Isthmian League side. Ian Smith scored Mossley’s only goal, whereas George Duck opened the scoring for Dagenham. Their late winner came from Chris Maycock.

Unlike Mossley, Dagenham had had been to Wembley three times before – albeit on the losing side. Their previous visit was in 1977 when Scarborough lifted the F.A. Trophy. In 1971, in the F.A. Amateur Cup, they lost to the all-conquering Skelmersdale United side. The year before saw them losing to Enfield.

On their way back from Wembley, they were met with a civic reception on Mossley Market Ground. Defeated they were, yet far from downhearted. Certainly not trophy-less that season, having successfully defended their NPL title. At the former gas works near The George Hotel, an open-top Merseyside PTE bus waited in the wings for the Lilywhites, whisking them up to Top Mossley. For posterity, Mossley’s memorable day was recorded on Granada Television’s Mossley Goes To Wembley documentary.

How did they do it?

The Mossley sides of the late 1970s to early 1980s captured the footballing imagination beyond the Tameside area. Of the 26,000 fans that warm Saturday, 10,000 of which were Mossley fans. Which, presumably, equated to the whole town descending on the Twin Towers. Besides coaches and private cars, some passengers took a specially chartered train to Wembley, with stops at Greenfield, Mossley and Stalybridge stations.

On the pitch, it was a few astute signings from local teams and an effective strike force that could make mincemeat out of opposing back fours. First up was Leo Skeete, a loan signing that would be transformational for the club’s fortunes. He joined Mossley in January 1975, on loan from Rochdale. Eighteen appearances later, he would see out the rest of the 1970s and the early 1980s as a Mossley player.

David Moore, also from the same legendary forward line, moved to Mossley from Radcliffe Borough in 1974. For Chairman Ian Morecroft, probably the best £100 ever to have been spent. In his opening season, he scored 21 league goals – 38 in all competitions. Completing the picture in 1977 was Ian Smith, who moved to Seel Park. In 1978 – 79, he scored 38 goals in all competitions yet he wasn’t Mossley’s top goalscorer. That was David Moore with 41 goals. Leo Skeete netted 26; Eamonn O’Keefe – who returned to England after a spell in Saudi Arabia bagged 32 goals.

At the back, John Fitton joined from Skelmersdale United in 1974 and made 354 appearances in goal. Predating Bob Murphy’s arrival was Alan Brown. Nicknamed ‘Bomber’, he was signed from the original incarnation of Bradford Park Avenue in 1971 and retired from the game ten years later in May 1981. Also key to the legendary Mossley sides was midfielder Jimmy O’Connor. A signing from Bury in 1972, he left Mossley in 1975 but returned to Seel Park in 1978. He stayed with the Lilywhites till the 21 February 1987, making 617 appearances.

Mossley’s success was partly due to a local lottery scheme. Sold locally at newsagents and door-to-door, as well as the football ground, it was a dependable revenue stream. It kept the club’s name in the public eye, especially so in the pre-internet age, and was inspired by a similar scheme at Oldham Athletic. Stalybridge Celtic had a similar scheme with a kiosk near Liptons.

Another factor could well have been local dissatisfaction with the bigger teams. Some Manchester United fans chose to stay away from Old Trafford because they felt Dave Sexton’s brand of football was uninspiring compared with the Tommy Docherty era. That the magic was happening on their doorstep was another reason. A 343 bus ride away, maybe a 416 ride away from Grotton.

A lot of their success was through Chairman Ian Morecroft. From 1972 to 1983, he got Mossley into the Northern Premier League and set the foundations for the Lilywhites’ imperial phase. A period which coincides with the original release of the Star Wars trilogy, Supertramp’s commercial peak and the opening of Bury Interchange. An imposing figure, Ian also had an encyclopaedic knowledge of the North West’s bus routes (and probably would have got on well with the creator of East of the M60).

From a part of North Manchester far far away, Bob Murphy had played for local teams including Newton Heath LYR. After retiring from injury, he took a six year break from football. In 1972, he started out as a scout for Mossley, who were then managed by Don Wilson. On Wilson’s resignation, Bob Murphy became Assistant Manager to George Sievwright, before being promoted as Team Manager in the 1974 – 75 season.

After leaving in November 1976, he moved to Stalybridge Celtic, then Northwich Victoria. Howard Wilkinson took over as Player Manager for the rest of the 1976 – 77 season. After Dick Bate’s tenure in the dugout – seeing the magic he worked with Northwich Victoria – Bob Murphy returned to Mossley AFC in January 1978. The rest, as they say… double sago at St. Joseph’s.

Working class grit and a never say die approach led to improved league placings and a few cup runs. After two NPL titles, they finished in the runners-up spot three times, in the 1980 – 81, 1981 – 82 and 1982 – 83 seasons.

What happened next?

The F.A. Trophy side

  1. John Fitton left Mossley to finish off his footballing career with Chadderton after 354 appearances for the Lilywhites. He was also involved with the club at boardroom level. He has also retired from his full time job at a PE Teacher.
  2. Alan Brown retired from senior football at the age of 28, following a broken leg in Mossley’s away game versus South Liverpool on the 08 April 1981. He continued to play football at lower levels into his 50s and worked for Manchester City Council.
  3. David Vaughan, after leaving Mossley in 1982, he managed Burton Albion and Matlock Town. His brother, Ian Vaughan would also make the trip to Matlock in 1987.
  4. Kevin Gorman left Mossley in 1983 but returned to Seel Park in 1989 after a stint at Stalybridge Celtic. In 1991, he moved to Aberdeen and had a fourteen-year stint as a Human Resources Manager in the oil industry. He has retired and moved to Grange-over-Sands. As for the spherical game we love, he is involved in walking football teams.
  5. John Salter remained a Mossley player till 1981, when he emigrated to South Africa.
  6. Harry Pollitt retired from football immediately after the F.A. Trophy final.
  7. Ian Smith later coached a junior team in Sheffield. He left the Lilywhites for Scarborough with the Seadogs handing a cheque over to Seel Park for £9,500.
  8. David Moore retired from football, ending his playing career at New Streetbridge Inn in Gorton. He has also worked as a butcher in Newton Heath.
  9. Leo Skeete left Mossley in 1982 to join Alliance Premier League side Runcorn for £3,500. He moved to Altrincham the following year before retiring from the game in 1984.
  10. Jimmy O’Connor moved to North Wales and ran his own pub, the Fford Derwin. He was also a director at Rhyl FC, which has recently gone into administration.
  11. Kevan Keelan, after leaving Mossley joined Macclesfield Town in 1981. Soon, he would join Peter O’Brien’s Stalybridge Celtic side and stay at the ‘Bridge till 1989. From 1986 to 1989 as manager, he took the ‘Bridge from the North West Counties Football League First Division to the NPL Premier Division before being succeeded by Phil Wilson. This too happened in his second stint at Bower Fold in 1998, when he left for Leigh RMI joining another ex-Celt, Steve Waywell. Kevan Keelan has retired from football related activities.
  12. Phil Wilson, a club record signing from Altrincham (£3,500) would be better known for his role as a Stalybridge Celtic managerial legend – taking them to (what is now) the National League Premier Division twice. Before leaving for Southport, the ‘Bridge won an unprecedented treble of the NPL Premier Division title, President’s Cup and Cheshire Senior Cup.

Mossley AFC after the F.A. Trophy Final

The following year saw Mossley AFC claim its first scalp on a Football League side. Thanks to a cross by Mike Summerbee (yes, the Mike Summerbee), Dave Mobley scored the only goal in their F.A. Cup First Round Proper tie against Crewe Alexandra. Their next tie, also at home against Mansfield Town, saw them lose 1 – 3.

In the F.A. Trophy, they didn’t get to return to Wembley. They lost 3 – 5 to Bangor City in the Quarter Final that same season they beat Crewe Alexandra. In 1981, 1982, and 1983, the Lilywhites did reach the First Round Proper of the F.A. Cup. This time, losing to Stockport County at Edgeley Park (1 – 3), Huddersfield Town at Leeds Road (0 – 1) and Darlington (0 – 5) at Feethams Ground. After losing 2 – 4 to Southport at Haig Avenue, Bob Murphy resigned as Mossley manager.

Fortunes had taken a turn for the worse as money from the lottery scheme had dried up. Mossley ended the 1983 – 84 season rock bottom of the Northern Premier League with a single win to their name. From 1983 onwards, the club had a hand-to-mouth existence. Seel Park has survived demolition, after a change of ownership that could have seen houses on the site.

After hitting their lowest point in 1995 – demotion into the North West Counties Football League, Mossley AFC have steadily picked themselves up again. To a point where Dave Wild’s (and later, Andy Keogh’s) side has come tantalisingly close to returning to the Northern Premier League’s Premier Division. The one thing that stood in the way of that possibility was events external to Mossley’s control. The pandemic, which has led the expunging of the 2019 – 2020 season.

If I was writing these words in 1990 (and happen to be a good twenty years older than now), my look at Mossley AFC would have been far from rosy. I would have feared and vehemently opposed the loss of Seel Park in favour of a housing estate with twee names like Seel Close and Murphy Drive. I would have seen promise in their exciting new forward that would have cost Stalybridge Celtic £12,000 from Witton Albion four years later.

At the start of 2020, the future seemed to be more promising for Mossley AFC. Following recent events, we cannot predict anything. All we can do is hope the Tameside area remains a hotbed of semi-professional football. We sincerely hope there isn’t another 40 year wait till a Tameside club gets to a Wembley final.

And finally…

Our retrospective of Mossley AFC’s Wembley Final isn’t complete without Granada Television’s Mossley Goes To Wembley. As this was uploaded in the old days when YouTube had a 15 minute limit per clip, it is in three parts.

The film is nothing short of superb over its 27 minutes. It was aired on Granada Television in a prime time slot the Monday after their Trophy Final appearance. Presumably in place of Lingalongamax at 7pm (if anyone could clarify this, I would be most grateful).

“Ladies and gentlemen: today… today is the proudest moment in the history of Mossley… The Mayoress and I were honoured to be invited by Mossley Football Club to accompany them down to Wembley and believe me, we were proud of them…”

Charles Meredith, Mayor of Tameside (1980 – 81)

Further Reading

  • In Bed With Maradona: The Day Mossley Went to Wembley, Stuart Howard-Cofield (31 May 2013);
  • When Saturday Comes: As Good As It Got, Drew Whitworth (Issue 280, June 2010) – additional research by Steve Morecroft, nephew of the late Ian Morecroft;
  • Mossleyweb: like The Fall’s once-official website, the first version of the official Mossley AFC website became the once-official site of the Lilywhites in cyberspace. Highly recommended for statisticians and football historians.

S.V., 17 May 2020.

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