(This article has been amended to remove false information about Alan being an orphan. Alan was born and raised by his biological parents in Southport. Apologies for any offence caused. – Simon Winter)
Harry Redknapp described him as “the best he had ever seen”, a player who had “ability like I have rarely seen, not even in the top division”. He was something else, this fella. It was frightening how much talent he had.”
Old ‘Arry has played with and managed some marvellous footballers during his long spanning association with football – so who was he talking about in such glowing terms? Paolo Di Canio? Frank Lampard? Gareth Bale? None of the above, Redknapp was talking about Alan Groves.
Groves was born in Southport in October 1948 and he took the long route to a career in football, first working as a lorry driver. Having seen the hard side of life, Groves had an appreciation for football and recognized how lucky he and others were to play for a living. He loved football for what it was – a game to be enjoyed.
Groves’ legendary status began to build when he signed for Bournemouth in 1973 and playing alongside Redknapp he dazzled fans with his unmatched dribbling and wing wizardry. He would regularly beat 3, 4 and even 5 players on one of his trademark jinking runs. He was a big fella too, standing over 6 feet tall, who was as hard as he was quick. He used to say to defenders after receiving a strong tackle, “don’t do that son you’ll only hurt yourself”.
Groves was sold to Oldham for just £10,000 after a solitary season at Bournemouth, by new manager Trevor Hartley much to the ire of the Cherrie’s fans. Groves wasn’t happy about the transfer either and when Oldham and Bournemouth met that season in a league game, Groves went on a mazy dribble before stopping dead in front of the dugout. He then fired a rocket into the subs bench at Hartley – the ball pinging around like a pinball. Groves scored in that game and also helped Oldham to promotion that season, beating his old club to the spot.
Oldham Athletic saw Groves best years. He was every bit an iconic superstar footballer, smoking 80 fags a day, sporting a massive afro and wearing a bead necklace, which many of the young Oldham fans took to wearing in tribute to their hero. Groves could be seen rocketing around town in any number of flashy cars and had a flashy wife to go along with it. He married Debbie Huxley when she was only 16 and when she refused to go back to school after the wedding, Groves got in a bit of bother with the law, much to the amusement of opposing fans who would sing Sam Cooke’s “Only 16” to Groves – not that he cared. The Kop sang “send your wife to school”, but that’s where Groves was taking defenders week on week.
In one game, Groves skinned a defender before stopping and sitting on the ball, pretending to tie his shoelace. Once the bewildered defender approached him, he took off again down the wing and rifled in a screamer from 20 yards. Groves had a special relationship with the Oldham fans, especially those sat on the Broadway side under the clock, with whom he would regularly chat to during games. He would ask the young lads looking on which way he should skin the defender next. Groves would also back into an opposing fullback and chat to the crowd at the same time, telling them that the defender was a “right wanker”, before turning and skinning the same player, much to the glee of his devotees.
You won’t hear much about Groves when people recount the greatest players who have played in English league football, nor will you find much footage of his wonderful skills, but he remains a certain generation of Oldham fan’s favourite player. It is in these fans memories and shared stories that Groves’ legend lives on and ensures his story is forever engrained in Latic’s folklore. Each member of that generation has a story to tell about him. One such fan said of Groves:
“A genius. A unique talent and someone that I am proud to say I saw play for Oldham Athletic.”
Another said: “Quite simply Alan Groves was an entertainer the likes of which I doubt this game let alone the club will ever see again.”
The memories keep on coming: “I remember him taking a right wing corner with his left foot in the 6-0 thrashing of Hudders in ’74 (scored 6 goals 3 times that season I think). The ball was headed out to where he’d moved to after taking it about 5-10 yards in from the goal line and 5 yards in from the touch line. He just volleyed it back in first time over everyone’s heads right into the top far corner. Magic.”
Another admirer: “Alan Groves was a fantastic footballer, I have never seen anybody including a certain G. Best, leave so many for dead so quickly and he was as strong as an Ox .”
One reporter from the Oldham Chronicle gave this opinion about Groves in 1975: “For my money, he’s probably the best orthodox outside-left in the Football League.
“He can take on and beat opponents, he is completely without fear, and possesses that rare quality of the star entertainers. It would be a great pity if Groves were not given a chance to prove himself at international level before the next World Cup. I am firmly convinced that with Groves, England would be a vastly more entertaining side and considerably more effective. I hope that someone, somewhere will tell Don Revie [then England manager] to take a look at the magical Alan Groves.”
Unfortunately, Groves was never capped and failed to take his talents to the highest levels in England. In 1977, Blackpool paid Oldham £30,000 to take the flying winger to Bloomfield Road. But Groves story was to end in tragedy as he died of heart failure in June 1978 aged just 29. In October of this year, Groves was the people’s choice to be permanently commemorated as part of Athletic’s new North Stand. A fitting tribute to a wonderfully talented footballer who had a short life but left a long lasting legacy of memories for a modest club, whose fans cherish those who perform heroics in blue at Boundary Park.
by Simon Winter