Saturday August 9th 1980 saw the Imps kick off their season at Sincil Bank in the League Cup against Hull. The visitors were seen as illustrious opposition at such an early stage of the competition. They only just escaped relegation to Division Four at the end of the previous season which would have meant their first ever spell in the basement division.
Sadly for the club the game wasn’t as big a draw as it should have been. Only the token 3,500 turned up for what should have yielded 8,000 or more. It was those stay away 4,500 who missed out on a real feast of football in the Imps curtain-raising opener. From the first blow of referee RW Toselands whistle the Imps took the game to their near neighbours. The expected gulf in class never showed as a slick City side first broke up and then took apart the sorry Tigers. A Mick Harford hat trick was backed up by a goal a piece for George Shipley and Derek Bell. Bell was a local lad who’d come to the Imps from local football via Derby County. He’d finished most of the previous season as a regular centre forward but hadn’t scored as freely as some might like. A goal in a 5-0 rout was just the tonic to cure the fans uncertainty over him. Hull took the bus back up the A15 with a massive task facing them at Boothferry Park just three days later. They really shouldn’t have worried. Mick Harford took his goals scored to 5 in just 2 outings to give the Imps a 7-0 aggregate win. The league began to take note.
It was inevitable that a result like that would make people aware of exactly how good the Imps were, and Division Four should have sat up and taken note. Harford may have stolen the headlines but Gordon Hobson hadn’t featured in either game and he was itching to make it wasn’t only Mick Harfords name up in lights. Hobson had picked up a knee ligament injury in the pre season games and an operation meant he would miss the start of the Imps campaign.
The seasons opening game saw City host local rivals Peterborough United. The Posh had a good following in south Lincolnshire with town like Spalding, Bourne and Stamford housing many Peterborough fans. However once again Mick Harford scored the goal that sent The Posh back down the A15 with a point to show for their efforts. It wasn’t the rampant start fans had hoped for but nonetheless it was a point, and to get one on the board early doors is a big psychological advantage. Four days later they took their one point all the way down to Torquay. The fixture list often dealt the Imps a raw deal and no doubt an 800 mile round trip on a Wednesday was probably as raw as it could get. Financially the club had to decide whether they stay overnight or suffer a four-hour trip straight after a battling football game. The club opted to stay over and City responded with a fine 2-1 win thanks to the man of the moment Mick Harford. It seemed everything the big man touched turned to goals and with the news that Gordon Hobson would be fit for the next game with Wigan the future looked very rosy.
It was a Hobson inspired Imps that continued their excellent run all the way through August. Hobson duly began writing his own headlines with a goal in the 2-0 win over Wigan. Tony Cunningham hit the other to send The Imps top of Division Four with everything still alive and well in the cup. Another Third Division side were to visit The Bank in the form of Swindon Town. Swindon were hardly the form side of Division Three having suffered three losses in their opening three fixtures, but as always the cup throws the form book out of the window. City battled valiantly in front of nearly 5,000 fans to record a 1-1 draw courtesy of George Shipleys strike. Back to the County Ground just a week later.
The game in-between the two-cup ties was a trip to Gresty Road, Crewe. The team were beginning to look solid with Colin Boulton performing very well behind an exemplary back four of Trevor Thompson, Nolan Keeley, Trevor Peake and Steve Thompson. The defence were battling superbly in the face of any adversary, and this was epitomised in the game at Gresty Road.
The Imps were 1-0 up when Boulton challenged for the ball in the area. A sickening collision with a Crewe forward saw the keeper stricken on the turf clearly in agony. The stretchers were brought on as Boulton was removed from the field of play and Steve Thompson took over in goal. City made it through to half time with some dogged defending and some quick breakaway football. Thompson received the very best protection from the men in front of him as Crewe desperately tried to take advantage of the Imps misfortune. Just after half time things got worse for City. David Hughes was sent off to leave the Imps battling with ten men and a defender in goal. To make matters worse their only sub had been forward Craig Ramsay who joined Harford and Hobson on the field. The Imps attacking outlook miraculously took off and further goals saw City win the tie 3-0. Gordon Hobson scored a brace as he looked towards catching Mick Harford as the clubs leading scorer. After the game it became apparent the Boulton would not play football again. His right leg had been broken and after just seven appearances for the Imps he bowed out of professional football.
Whilst the Imps had been sharpening their claws on Crewe, Swindon had been continuing their run of poor form. They lost 4-1 away at Reading and were looking every inch a side that may slip out of the cup competition.
Colin Murphy picked up City’s first honour of the season by becoming Augusts Manager of The Month in Division Four. It wasn’t hard to see why as a slick City side had managed to win four and draw one. Murphy became only the third Imps manager to lift the award following David Herd in 1972 and Graham Taylor who lifted the award five times during his illustrious spell at Sincil Bank. Murphy was more than happy to accept the award, but insisted it would be business as usual against Swindon. Business as usual it was as City had a problem to face before the Swindon clash namely the absence of a tried and tested keeper. Boulton had been a veteran keeper with experience to spare but unfortunately for the Imps their other keepers were not. Stuart Naylor was still seen as too young for league competition and that just left Kevin Fox. Fox had played a couple of games the season before after arriving from the same nursery team that gave City Phil Turner. He may have filled a gap but he wasn’t a long-term solution to the serious problem created by Boultons injury. City needed a reliable pair of hands between the sticks and despite his heroics at Crewe there wasn’t a chance Steve Thompson would be changing position. For the Swindon clash it was Fox who donned the gloves.
Perhaps it was Fox’s inexperience, perhaps it was the backlash from a fired up Swindon side desperate to avoid embarrassment. Either way The Robins battled against a focused City side to secure a 2-0 win and a 3-1 aggregate victory. The opportunity of a big money clash in the third round had been ripped away from City, and they had just three days to turn it all around for the league visit of Halifax Town.
Top of Murphy’s list was the recruitment of a goalkeeper. When a player suffers such a serious injury as Boulton did, the managers plans have to be drastically rethought. Murphy hadn’t banked on having to bring in a player, neither had Heanage Dove. However with Fox clearly not up to the job of keeping City in the title hunt the board and manager had to act fast. Limited resources meant a player couldn’t be signed permanently so the club looked for a loan player to step into the job. Enter David Felgate.
Felgate was a keeper who had travelled the lower leagues out on loan from Bolton Wanderers. He spent loan spells at Rochdale, Bradford, Crewe and Rochdale again before Bolton agreed to let him move to the Imps. He signed on an initial one months loan and stepped straight into the side to face Halifax. Felgate also cut a distinctive figure in between the sticks with dark moustache and long flowing dark curly hair. He also stood 6’1 tall and weighed 13 stone making him a daunting figure for any forward to attempt to beat. Murphy’s scouting seemed to have paid off again even at the short notice demanded by Boultons injury.
The Halifax game was comfortably won by three goals to nil with another Gordon Hobson brace. Steve Thompson weighed in with a goal proving he wasn’t only a goalkeeper and a centre back. Thommo’s displays were already winning him many admirers across the City and it was clear to most observers that Thompson would have quite a future in the game.
A 0-0 draw with Stockport followed before the Imps suffered their first defeat of the season at home to lowly Aldershot. However the defeat didn’t really diminish the Imps position in the table as they continued to set the pace in the basement league. Along with Southend City were becoming the team to beat.
Another Gordon Hobson goal saw City come away from their first ever appearance at Plough Lane, Wimbledon with a 1-0 win followed a week later with a hard fought 2-2 draw with local rivals Scunthorpe United. Traditionally Grimsby Town were the Imps main local rivals, but as they looked to climb the league spectrum the big local derby came in the form of ‘The Iron’ from the Old Showground. Goals from Mick Harford and David Hughes meant the Imps were still unbeaten at Sincil Bank. The next game saw the return fixture against Aldershot in which City snatched a 0-0 draw. By the end of September City sat atop Division Four having lost just once in the first two months of the league season.
October brought seven league clashes and a county cup final The Imps way, and with a packed fixture list came all the usual problems of fatigue and match weariness. 9693 packed into Belle Vue to see City defeat Doncaster by 1-0 courtesy of a Gordon Hobson strike followed by a 3-0 home win over Rochdale four days later, with Hobson again on target assisted by goals from Phil Neale and Trevor Peake. Once again City were setting the pace for all others to follow.
Gordon Hobson with the match ball after the 8-0 win over Northampton
David Felgate had impressed sufficiently to earn himself a permanent move to the bank. Despite Doves warnings of City becoming nett sellers there was still £25,000 left over to make the keepers move from Bolton a permanent one. Felgate had been earning rave reviews from local and national press and as a Welsh national a call up to the international squad didn’t seem too far away. Murphy finalised the deal in between the two victories at the start of October to ensure that nothing would derail the Imps promotion push.
Another Hobson goal brought another point for the Imps against York at Sincil Bank before a respite from league action came in the form of the County Cup final against Grantham Town. Many years ago the County Cup had been the premier competition for the Imps, but by late 1980 it didn’t carry the same significance for the fans. Only 734 turned out at Sincil Bank to see the clash with Grantham expecting nothing more than a handful of youth team players and a few reserves. Those 734 fans wouldn’t be disappointed with the players on show. Murphy named no less than seven first team players including Felgate, Keeley, Peake, Shipley, Hobson, Harford and Phil Neale. The strong side were always favourites to capture Lincolnshire’s premier football trophy and ran out easy 3-0 winners with Peake, the prolific Gordon and George Shipley scoring the goals with Shipley converting a second half penalty.
Just four days after the County Cup City faced the arduous journey up the A1 to play Hartlepool United. City’s previous four games in a fortnight took its toll on their weary legs and they surrendered rather softly recording a 2-0 defeat. Colin Murphy wasn’t happy with his teams second defeat of the season, but with the Imps still in second place there was still plenty at stake.
A 2-1 win over Bradford four days later thanks to Mick Harford and Phil Neale set Imps fans hearts at rest. Colin Murphy proclaimed “I think we shall turn a corner this weekend and show some home form again”. Momentum had been regained and Northampton came to Sincil Bank on 25th of October less than confident of shutting out an increasingly rampant City side. How right they were to be concerned.
Felgate, Turner, Keeler, Hughes, Peake, Carr, Neale, S Thompson, Hobson, Harford and Shipley. That was the side City put out against the faltering Cobblers. 4060 Imps fans came to Sincil Bank, which felt strangely empty having seen crowds of 10,000 plus supporters crammed in just four years before. There’s little doubt that the 4060 who dug deep to find entrance fee’s in a time of recession left with a feeling they had well and truly got there moneys worth. City romped to a fantastic 8-0 win with Hobson hitting four and Harford and Shipley both netting a brace. The big teams took note and scouts from Newcastle and Birmingham were despatched to Sincil Bank. The fans began to see the sort of displays that Graham Taylor had patented back in 1976. Four years on it suddenly seemed that the good times were coming back. One big win had the City’s pulse racing once again.
Four days later 600 more fans came to see City dispose of Tranmere 2-0, followed by another 2-0 win over Hereford United at Edgar Street. A defeat at Rochdale left City second to Southend, with the Shrimpers coming to Lincoln next. A bumper crowd was promised as Southend came on the back of a big reputation. They sat three points clear of the Imps at this stage, and their squad and facilities were up to Second Division standard so they were widely expected to run away with the Championship. City had other ideas. 7237 fans cheered the Imps on and their support was duly rewarded. Phil Neale and the ever-consistent Gordon Hobson scored the goals in a 2-1 win. Once again people higher up the spectrum watched the reports intently.
The FA Cup draw had pitted City against Marine of the Northern Premier League. From the suburbs of Liverpool they were scheduled to come with no giantkilling pedigree and no solid non-league success to boast of. Their obscurity was furthered when it was announced just days after the draw that they had fielded an ineligible player in their fourth qualifying round win over Gateshead. They were expelled from the competition to leave Gateshead as City’s opponents in the first round.
Before the FA Cup tie there were ties with Torquay and Peterborough to negotiate. A rampant 5-0 win over Torquay saw the Imps replace Southend at the summit of Division Four. Three days later a defeat at Peterborough meant Southend replaced them at the top for the third time in the season. Northern Premier League outfit Gateshead made their FA Cup First Round debut and lost 1-0 thanks to Phil Turners strike. Crowds fell back to the four thousand mark as recession bit the City hard. The fall in attendances meant action would have to be taken.
As winter kicked in City dug deep and fought for their lives. The league defeat at Peterborough was the last one for four months as Murphy and the players strove to keep the chasing pack at bay and concentrated their attention on beating Southend at the game of cat and mouse at the top of the table.
Bury and Bournemouth were defeated 2-0 either side of the FA Cup Second Round tie against Burnley which City lost 2-0. Burnley had been a first division side just two years ago and were expected to progress at City’s expense.
Final Part tomorrow
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