Len Allchurch- Wizard of the Wing !
Seeing a recent thread on Marionsboard on the subject of the best wingers Ask any County fan – post 1965 – to name the greatest winger to have played for the Hatters I’d wager that Len Allchurch would get the vote. In fact, I’d go a step further. Ask any County fan to nominate the best player to have played for the club and I’m certain the name of Len Allchurch wouldn’t be far from their thoughts.
It makes it all the more surprising when you consider the Welsh wizard was just six days short of his 32nd birthday when he made his County debut in a bruising Cheshire derby against Tranmere Rovers on September 6 1965.
Born in Swansea on September 12 1933, Len – younger brother of Ivor, one of Wales’ all-time greats – won Welsh schoolboy honours before signing for his hometown team at the age of 17. National Service interrupted his career at the Vetch but he still managed 272 appearances before heading north, in 1961, to Sheffield United for a fee of £18,000.
|Len at Sheff Utd ( front row left)|
United hoped that signing Len, late in the season, would strengthen their bid to win promotion to the old First Division. The gamble paid off handsomely. “They regarded me as a lucky mascot,” recalled Len. “I happened to score a few goals in the run-in and we just managed to hold off the challenge of Liverpool to win promotion.”
The Blades were an established First Division team four years later when County made their audacious bid – don’t forget that just four months earlier the Hatters ended the season bottom of the Football League.
But in September 1965 Vic Bernard’s GO GO GO COUNTY bandwagon was well and truly on the road. It was boom time down at Edgeley Park and the charismatic Bernard didn’t waste an opportunity to put County on the back page of every newspaper.
Quite simply the chairman saw the chance of landing Allchurch not only as another massive publicity stunt but also another piece in his jigsaw to back up his “we’ll win Division Four in 12 months,” boast.
That’s all very well, but why would an established top-flight player want to drop to the lower reaches of Division Four? “At the time I was in and out of the United team,” Len explained. “And as soon as I talked with County I could sense that they were a club going places. The offer was a good one so I had no hesitation signing.”
But although Len was happy with his own personal terms the Blades weren’t prepared to let him go on the cheap. County had to hand over £10,000 to make the magician, at almost 32 years old, the most expensive player in Stockport County’s history.
“I suppose it was a big fee for a 32-year-old,” reasoned Len. “And I think Vic Bernard was a little bit concerned about it. I remember him saying to me that if any of then other Directors asked my age to tell them that I was 28!”
10,107 fans saw Len score on his debut. And although a very physical Tranmere side won 2-1 the result didn’t seem to matter. Derek Potter wrote in the Daily Express: “County were surging along on the wave of fanatical support.” The town had no doubt whatsoever that County would win Division Four. Bernard had said so.
County missed out on promotion in Len’s first season. But there were no mistakes 12 months later when skipper Matt Woods gloriously led his team to the Fourth Division title. “The team was very confident before a ball had been kicked that we would end the season as champions,” said Len. “We didn’t have the youngest side around but it was packed with experience.”
The team’s confidence proved to be correct. County were top-of-the-table all season and won the championship with ease. And, although the side couldn’t be described as attacking, defensively they were without equal as 19 clean sheets illustrates perfectly.
Bill Atkins had signed in March 1967 to boost the promotion bid and soon into the following season County signed another nomadic forward who, virtually overnight, became an Edgeley Park legend.
The pairing of Jim Fryatt and Atkins, with Allchurch and Johnny Price supplying the bullets from the wing, turned County from a dour, defensive side to one that scored goals for fun, particularly at Edgeley Park. Len said: “Wingers were going out of fashion at the time but with me and Toppo (Price) we always played with two. And I think it worked quite well.”
|Price & Allchurch AND Len White what a forward line!|
To work well, though, wingers need the men in the middle to convert crosses into goals. And County had two of the very best in Atkins and Fryatt. “Both great players,” agreed Len. “And I’d even go as far to say that Jim was one of the best I’ve ever seen in the air. He wasn’t particularly tall, but he could hang there. And when he headed them, he headed with power. Jim certainly didn’t let the ball just hit him. But he could also play a bit on the deck. He was no mug with the ball at his feet.”
A reminder to Len that Fryatt scored 22 league goals from his first 32 games at Edgeley Park produced another glowing testimony. “Jim was the nearest player in the air to John Charles,” enthused Len.
As Charles is one of British football’s all-time great players, that’s some testimony. But what of a comparison in today’s game? “I don’t think you see players like Jim anymore,” added Len. "I suppose the nearest to him regarding heading ability would possibly be Les Ferdinand."
Len also has some fond memories of Atkins. “Bill was a very useful player. As a tall player he was another good target for Toppo and me. Bill was also very good on the ground as well and, if you remember, he had a great shot.”
For two seasons (1967-68 and 1969-69) County were promotion candidates and Second Division (old) football was a real possibility with the two strikers gorging themselves on the rich pickings supplied by Allchurch and Price.
Fryatt and Atkins scored 65 league goals for the Hatters in less than two seasons together. But all was not well financially. Fryatt was sold to Blackburn and not long after Atkins was on his way to Portsmouth. Decent fees were received but the players were never replaced.
And not until the arrival of Kevin Francis and Andy Preece, some 25 years later, did County have such a pair of prolific strikers.
In an attempt to appease disillusioned fans Bernard again broke County’s transfer record when he paid Glentoran £15,000 to bring one of football’s biggest names, Alex Young, to Edgeley Park.
But the gamble failed. “Alex didn’t play too many games, did he?” recalled Len. “He could be absolutely brilliant in training, but I don’t think he wanted it too much. He wasn’t too enthusiastic about playing.”
Young, a former-Everton icon, scored 5 goals in 23 games. But for County the writing was on the wall, particularly when a certain Welshman was given a free transfer.
Rumours at the time suggested that County thought Len was too old, but that was never the case. “Oh, No! It was nothing like that,” smiled Len. “Even when I was at Sheffield I always intended to finish my career at the Vetch. My wife’s from Swansea and we both felt it was the right time to return. If I remember rightly, during my last season at County I was having a house built in South Wales so I was training at the Vetch and travelling up to Stockport for matches.”
County’s loss was the Swans’ gain. As the Hatters, under Walter Galbraith, plummeted into Division Four, a Swansea side inspired by the ‘old man’ was making the opposite journey. Remarkably, 36-year-old Len was an ever-present. And 12 months later he still managed to play a further 27 games as the South Wales’ club consolidated their place in Division Three.
Retiring at 38, with more than 600 senior games under his belt, did he do anything special to keep himself fit? “No, not really,” said Len. “I enjoyed my training, though. I can hardly recall missing a day’s training in my career. Perhaps that’s the secret.”
The conversation, though, soon returns to the 1960s as Len fondly remembers some more of his teammates. “Ken Mulhearn, a great ‘keeper. We never thought we’d replace him when he went to City (Manchester). But we did with Alan Ogley. Then there was Billy Haydock, an attacking fullback who I had a great understanding with. Big Matt Woods, Eddie Stuart, Freddie Goodwin. All of them very good players.”
|Freddie Goodwin still graces County games...home & away !|
One player, though, stood out above all the others. Len White. “What a wonderful player,” Allchurch said glowingly. “He was a big friend of my brother’s from their days at Newcastle. And even though he was at the end of his career at County he was still a marvellous player.”
On a personal note Len thoroughly enjoyed his international career. “We got 79 caps, Ivor and I. It sounds better like that, doesn’t it?” he quipped, referring, no doubt, to the fact that his ‘big brother’ won 68 of that impressive total of Welsh caps.
|Charles bros, Len and Ivor on duty for Wales !|
However, that doesn’t diminish the pride Len shows when talking of his country. “It was always an honour playing for Wales,” he said. But what are the highlights? “Playing in the same side as Ivor and the Charles brothers, Mel and John, is one. And the other has to be playing against Brazil in the Maracana Stadium in front of 120,000 fans”
Len also has another, perhaps unique, claim to fame as he explains: “Another thing I’m proud about is that I’ve helped all the three clubs I’ve played for to promotion at some stage of my career. That’s very satisfying.”
His Welsh caps are proudly displayed in his Mumbles’ home. Alongside them, though, is another trophy that catches my eye. ‘Stockport County Player of the Year 1968-69’. “Yes, Player of the Year in my last season at County,” said Len. “I’d actually left County when the award was made yet two fans came all the way down to Swansea to give me the trophy. That meant a lot to me.”
The County fans made a big impression on the maestro and, thirty years on, Len still remembers the atmosphere during that halcyon era. “Friday night was County night, wasn’t it?” he recalled. “The atmosphere inside Edgeley Park, particularly the Cheadle End, was absolutely brilliant. I’ll tell you this, because of the crowd no team fancied coming to Edgeley Park. We didn’t lose many at home did we?”
Talking to Len about County it is eminently obvious that the club and the town hold many fond memories. “I enjoyed my time at County immensely", he agreed. “And to be perfectly honest with you if I hadn’t been at the end of my career I would never have left Edgeley Park. I’ve go some wonderful memories of my time in Stockport.”
|Len with his much treasured SCAN certificate !|
(Ed note:Len Allchurch is not in the best of health just now,but Len was talking to Des Hinks in 1995, and hedgegrower reproduces the article with great pride, as a small tribute to a terrific player !)