A chance now to have a look back at the 1980/81 season in the first of three parts documenting the birth of Colin Murphy’s successful sides of the 1980s.
The 1980/81 season was a season of high hopes for the Imps at its outset. A credible 7th finish the season before had brought optimism and belief that this could be City’s year. The team was relatively young but had showed much promise with a 12 match unbeaten run at the tail end of the previous campaign. Manager Colin Murphy was making plenty of noise in the local press as to his teams chances. He had every right to be optimistic.
Following the Championship winning season of 1976 City had undergone a massive change. Manager Graham Taylor left for Elton Johns Watford in June 1977, and City began to flounder. The stars of the 1975/76 season jumped ship as City began to lose their shape. When any lower league teams hits a purple patch its common for bigger clubs to begin their scouting, and the winning cycle attracted interest in City’s players. Inevitably Taylor also took many of the clubs top players, and by the time Colin Murphy surfaced in 1978 the club were staring relegation in the face and had a squad of misfits including record £33,000 signing Tommy Tynan. First George Kerr and then Willie Bell had a crack at managing the Imps and both failed miserable. Kerr managed just a few months before Bell replaced him, and then despite spending a lot of money Bell also failed. Bell perhaps famously lost the bond he had with the supporters as they began cheering Taylors Watford in a demoralising 5-0 defeat at Sincil Bank for the Imps. In November 1978 Colin Murphy parked his car at the back of the Hunters Stand for the first time and took charge of the Imps.
Murphy suffered relegation in May 1979 and began clearing out his disgruntled squad. Tynan went to Newport for £20,000 and a number of other players also left as Murphy shaped the squad to his liking. By the time August 1980 arrived Murphy had assembled a promising teams combining youth with some tough non-league players. There were a few good cash signings including a new club record £45,000 for winger George Shipley. After a run of 12 games unbeaten at the end of the previous season City were amongst the favourites for the Fourth Division Championship.
However the spectre of financial trouble loomed large over the club. Chairman Heanage Dove had claimed turnstile takings the previous year were less than 1/3 of the wage bill. In actual fact Dove was understating the problem. The previous years rebuilding of an ageing squad had cost a total of £300,000. Despite the costly process of rebuilding following Taylor’s departure the fans weren’t entirely convinced with the result. New signings and rebuilding was met with scepticism in the City by fans who couldn’t face losing some of their heroes from the years just past. In the 1976 season the Imps often hit 10,000 home fans. Now in this post-Taylor, national recession-era the gates had sunk to around the 3,000 mark, which meant income from gate receipts, was just £87,000. It was a bold gamble by Murphy to reshape the squad so drastically and in August 1980 it wasn’t certain whether that gamble would pay off. Dove quickly underlined what was required for City to survive.
“In our endeavour to achieve promotion we are only to aware of the need to keep the club solvent: an aspect that has become number one priority in the present financial climate, which means that from now on we must become nett sellers in the transfer market”
The words were written in the first match day programme of the season but had been featuring in local press for many weeks previous. The message to Imps fans was simple: City had to become a selling club in order to survive and if that affected the performances on the pitch then so be it. Bigger clubs once again began to eye up the Imps players. Youngsters such as Mick Harford and Gordon Hobson would undoubtedly catch the eye of clubs in both divisions two and one.
If selling were the way forward for the Imps then they had plenty of assets to cash in on. The most marketable was future England international Harford. He’d turned out 89 times for the Imps and scored 30 goals into the bargain. A towering six-footer Harford was rarely bustled off the ball and never shirked a challenge in the air or on the deck. He’d arrived from Lambton Street Boys Club back in July 1977 and rose through the ranks with a series of sterling no-nonsense displays. Opposition defenders hated playing against him but the home fans loved cheering for him. He became a favourite of every self-respecting Imps fan in the early eighties and was thought to be priceless to Lincoln City.
Another player considered to be a prime asset to cash in on was Hobson, a tricky winger cum forward from Sheffield who had scored 16 times in two seasons and was beginning to build up quite a reputation for himself as a player to be watched. He didn’t provide the aerial threat that was Harford’s trademark but he was often the provider for the big man’s goals. Equally as effective creating or finishing Hobson had scouts flocking to Sincil Bank in their droves with many fantastic displays. Like Harford, Hobson had been plying his trade in non-league soccer before some smart scouting earmarked him as a player with league potential.
Despite Heanage Dove ringing the bells of doom City still found some resources to recruit players for the new campaign. Peter Grotiers departure the season before had left a goalkeeping void to be filled, and Murphy turned to Derby County’s veteran stopper Colin Boulton. Boulton came to Sincil Bank with a bit of pedigree having been part of their successful First Divisions campaigns in the seventies. He was small for a keeper at 5”10 but his shot-stopping ability had earned him many plaudits in his long tenure at the Baseball Ground. City opted to recruit from the non-league when they moved for Weatherby youngster Stuart Naylor. Naylor was a goalkeeper who had been catching the eye in Yorkshire for some time and was seen as ideal long-term cover for Colin Boulton, possibly even his long-term replacement.
The players were as good as a club with little cash could hope for. With the exception of 34-year-old Boulton, the incomers were youngsters all eager to showcase their talent. The squad from the previous season had only begun to gel towards final stages at it seemed clear that the set of players Murphy had were going to be good enough to continue without too much fresh blood. Trevor Thompson, Nolan Keeley and Phil Neale had all been vying for full-back slots and there seemed little point in introducing further competition in these roles. Keeley had been injured the previous season but was seen as a first-team left-back despite only making three late-season appearances and a handful of midseason ones. Phil Neale’s cricketing duties ruled him out of some of the early games but once he was available his name was amongst the first on the team sheet. Neale had survived at City throughout Murphy’s late 70’s cull having first played for the club in January 1975. Neale was a keen cricketer and represented Worcestershire and county level which did lead to the odd conflict of interest. Previous manager Willie Bell gave little consideration to Neale’s requirements, but under Colin Murphy Neale had begun to flourish as a steady left-sided player and an equally as strong cricket captain. Trevor Thompson was the steadiest of the three had no prior commitments or injury problems to speak of. A former West Brom trainee Thompson arrived at Sincil Bank in 1978 for £15,000 from Newport County. Another player with a reputation for tough-tackling his bite was seen as the perfect antidote for fourth division attacks.
City also boasted a future FA Cup winner in Trevor Peake. He’d first played at Sincil Bank in 1976 for Nuneaton Borough in a 6-0 FA Cup First Round game. His team may have been put to the sword by a slick City but his performance impressed enough for him to be signed by City. A great presence in the air and all around the 18-yard box Peake was another player attracting national interest. Eventually, he’d star in Coventry’s 1987 Cup Final win over Spurs but for now, he made do with the humble surroundings of Sincil Bank much to City fans glee.
Towards the end of the previous year City also recruited local defender Steve Thompson. Although he’d need little introduction to Lincoln fans these days he wasn’t a widely renowned player at the time. Thompson was a central defender with a fierce challenge and a hint of the playboy image. He sported a neatly trimmed dark moustache and curly hair that sat just off the shoulder. Looking every inch the London playboy Thompson posed for his first official team picture with a medallion hanging down over his shirt! Fans would soon warm to his tireless work rate and never say die attitude, but no doubt there must have been some concern when he first rolled into Sincil Bank looking like an extra from Starsky and Hutch! ‘Thommo’ as he would affectionately become know was another Imps player making the step up from non-league soccer by moving for £15,000 from Boston United in April 1980
Glenn Cockerills departure in 1979 had created a vacant slot for a flair midfielder which had been filled by George Shipley. Shipley was a skilful, tricky attacking midfielder with both patience on the ball and instinctive passing as two traits in his impressive repertoire. Shipley had arrived with the influx of new faces in early from Southampton and was a perfect example of how a cash strapped board backed its ambitious and confident manager. Shipley hadn’t missed a game since completing his move the season before and that seemed a rarity for such a composed and elegant players. Division Four was all about tough tackles and bruising marking and Shipley’s ability to steer clear of injury was as bigger asset as City could hope for. The squad would be stretched to the limit from time to time and players who stay clear of enforced breaks could be extremely valuable.
David Carr provided the calming influence and ball-winning skills alongside Shipley in midfield. Carr was one of the players who just turned up and did a job. He had an unassuming nature on the field but his performances were every bit as important as the headline winning antics of Messrs Harford, Shipley and Hobson. Like Shipley, he managed to stay injury-free and had been ever-present the previous season. Another player vying for a midfield slot was Phil Turner. Turner was a product of a Sheffield based nursery club and one of several Imps players who originated from the Steel City. Turner’s chances had been limited but his development as a player was clear for all to see and he would be pushing for a place in the first eleven.
David Hughes was another midfield player who would be expecting a first-team outing on a regular basis. Hughes came to City in 1978 from Aston Villa but had missed much of the previous campaign through injury. He had in fact missed a large portion of the two previous campaigns, but as the season came onto the horizon Hughes found himself fit and raring to go.
Upfront Tony Cunningham backed up the talented pairing of Harford and Hobson. Cunningham hailed from Kingston, Jamaica but possessed all the ability and finesse of a Dutch international. He’d finished second in the leading goal scorer chart the previous season to Mick Harford and he intended to continue that form into the fresh campaign.
City’s pre-season campaign went well. A 2-1 win over first division Sunderland at RAF Church Stretton was followed by wins against Boston FC (2-1) and Jersey FA XI (2-1). The Sunderland victory prompted a whisper of optimism across Lincoln as The Mackems were a strong side expected to do well in the top flight. Luton Town beat the Imps 1-0 as did Boston United and the earliest pre-season game saw the Imps share a 1-1 draw with Scottish side Raith Rovers. Few fans read much into the results as a combination of trialists and youngsters often turned out alongside the odd splattering of first-team players. However, in early August the League Cup draw provided City with their first real competitive test: near neighbours Hull City in a two-legged first-round clash.
The tie with Hull promised to be a great affair for The Imps. Hull had recently been taken over by ex-Wales manager Mike Norman and featured a few familiar faces. As well as future Middlesborough manager Steve McClaren The Tigers would also bring former Imps hero Dennis Booth back to the ground where he saw so much success. All at the club knew that the clash with Hull meant two good gates and a real test on the field.
To be continued tomorrow