Heanage Dove decided he’d had enough just before Christmas. He decided to stand down as chairman amicably following too many years of battling debts.
He wanted to remain on the board but no longer wanted the pressure of being in the firing line. Local potato farmer Dennis Houlston took charge of the board an immediately had a big decision to make. Days before Dove’s resignation as chairman City had turned down a £70,000 offer for Harford. Since hitting a hat trick against Torquay Harford had been ruled out by injury, returning but not scoring in the 2-0 win over Bournemouth. Speculation had been mounting against his value in goals becoming significantly less than his value in pounds. It was rumoured Dove couldn’t bring himself to sanctioning the sale of the big man. Houlston would not shirk such responsibility.
Within days of taking over, Arthur Cox offered Lincoln £160,000 to take Harford to Newcastle Utd. United were in financial trouble as well but Harford was a very highly rated youngster and Newcastle felt his goals could turn around their fortunes. Houlston immediately made the big decision and sanctioned the sale. Fans recoiled in horror at losing their biggest asset. The big Geordie had hit 10 goals and formed a formidable partnership with Gordon Hobson. However, City’s finances dictated that they had to take the money and be contented. Dove may have stood down but his philosophy of City selling to survive had been carried on into the new administration.
Tony Cunningham was one player not altogether rueing the departure of Harford. Cunningham had been in and out of the side on account of Hobson and Harford’s form. He’d scored just once all season in the league, but with money tight it would be a promotion from within that would be needed to replace Harford. Cunningham was the man. As City’s only black player it had been a tough time for Cunningham. The early eighties saw some terrible racial abuse go unpunished and uninhibited. It was the depressing norm that coloured players would be the target of disgraceful chants and gestures and nobody would bat an eyelid. Sadly Cunningham admitted it a newspaper article that he had been the subject of some abuse early on in the season. He would have to overcome this as well as his relatively poor goal scoring form in order to win the fans over.
Amidst the furore of the Harford sale, City had a league challenge to mount. Port Vale were defeated 1-0 thanks to Phil Turner’s goal on Boxing Day, and the players quickly dusted themselves off for an appearance on Match of the Day against Mansfield the very next day. Mansfield were fourth, City second and the national press coverage of City’s form had continued unabated despite the player upheaval. The TV cameras wanted to catch the cream of the crop from the lower divisions. Harford’s sale put the name of Lincoln City up in lights. £160,000 was a record for a Fourth Division player and the vultures began to circle. Which other players could alert bigger clubs via the medium of television?
The answer was not a single one. The strain of playing two games in two days took its toll on the team. 8535 people came along only to witness a disappointing and lacklustre 1-1 draw. David Carr hit the City goal but the fans weren’t impressed and neither were the BBC cameras. They showed only a few minutes coverage which prompted anger from the City board. A letter was despatched to the Beeb asking them exactly why the cameras bothered coming if they were only going to show a snippet. It’s unlikely the BBC ever responded.
The sale of Harford seemed to affect Gordon Hobson’s goal-getting prowess, and it was down to some stern defending that City’s run continued. January brought a 1-1 draw with Bradford and wins over Crewe (2-1) and Wigan (2-0). Tony Cunningham hit his first goal since Harford’s departure in the win at Wigan, but the other goals came from the midfield as Hobson hit a blank patch. Early in the season, almost everything he touched went in, but now he couldn’t buy a goal. To add to the seemingly endless list of small worries for City Steve Thompson sustained an injury in the win over Crewe. David Hughes would have to fill the gap left by the injury to Thommo. A 1-0 home win on February 7th brought another Cunningham goal against Stockport. Gordon Hobson was still intent on ending his goal drought and the board were intent on retaining their talented manager’s services.
In late January Colin Murphy signed a new five-year deal with the club. The long unbeaten spell and profit in the transfer market convinced Houlston and his fellow board members that Murphy was the man to take the club forward, onward and upward. Second in the table with fourteen games to go it seemed promotion was imminent just two years after the heartbreak of relegation. Murphy had turned the club around using mainly players from the non-league scene. Around the City, he was seen as a miracle worker, enigmatic, charismatic and most of all successful. Fans believed in Colin Murphy and the club felt it had to do the same. As if to strengthen the belief in Murphy’s all-round acumen his star goalkeeper was called up to represent his country. Felgate had kept 14 clean sheets and conceded more than one goal on only two occasions. The tight defence was the foundation of City’s success and Felgate’s elevation to his national squad underlined the effectiveness of City’s back four.
Whilst it was all action off the field there was still the small matter of Gordon Hobson’s goal drought. City travelled to Halifax and then Scunthorpe in search of Division Four points. Hobson hit a brace in each as City beat Halifax 3-1 and then drew 2-2 with Scunthorpe. Two 0-0 draws followed at home to Wimbledon and away at Tranmere to see City extend their unbeaten run to twelve games. Although they weren’t ripping their opposition to pieces they were consistently obtaining points and avoiding defeat. There was some disquiet from Imps fans who had wanted the repeat of 1976 that pre Christmas form had suggested, but for fans to be unhappy following a twelve game unbeaten run would seem to be a little fickle. Furthermore, City were still second in the league with games in hand of Southend. It was these games in hand that were causing the club problems. As fixtures were postponed it meant City would have more games to complete in a short space of time at the end of the season. With a full time playing squad of just 14 it would be a challenge to maintain the promotion push with such a small squad of tired legs.
Two more draws suggested that City were beginning to feel the strain. Tony Cunningham hit the goal in a 1-1 draw with Doncaster in front of 8832 people at Sincil Bank. Three days later a long trip to Darlington was rewarded with a point in another goalless draw. Four more days progressed and City finally surrendered their unbeaten run losing 1-0 at Bootham Crescent, York.
Youngster Wayne Biggins came in for Cunningham and scored on his debut, a 2-0 win over Hartlepool at Sincil Bank. A draw at Northampton wasn’t quite the entertaining game the two teams produced earlier in the season, but Gordon Hobson racked up his fifth goal against the Cobblers as they shared two goals. Hobson was again the provider as Hereford were beaten by a single goal a week later. On to Southend.
The match of the season proved to be an unexciting event. Southend angered Imps fans by charging £4 for City fans to stand and watch the game whilst only charging home fans £2. The Imps fans responded with a verbal battering for their hosts and were described as a ‘most unpleasant lot’ by Shrimpers officials. By kick off events off the pitch had threatened to overshadow the action on field. City took the game to Southend and pressurised the host’s goal early on. As the game drew on Southend came forward and City in the end did well to hold on to a 0-0 draw. It may not have been the football festival that it could have been, but City had once again succeeded in blunting the threat of the league’s top side in front of 12,000 fans. A big match hangover seemed to affect the Imps as they lost at Field Mill in mid April.
Southend all but had the Championship sewn up which meant City were fighting for second place. The ultimate aim was achieved when City defeated Port Vale 1-0 thanks to a Tony Cunningham header. City had rarely been exciting in the latter stages of the season, but they had appeared solid and dependable nonetheless. City had achieved promotion with three games to go, and could look forward to a season higher up the league spectrum. In the match day programme Tony Pullein speculated on the possibility of re-election being abolished in favour of a one up one down system with the Alliance Premier. On a day City were moving away from the basement league it seemed a fairly uninteresting article, but those with the power of hindsight may have been taking note.
Two further wins and a draw against Bournemouth (1-0), Darlington (1-0) and Bury (1-1) saw City finish in second place, nine points clear of third placed Bournemouth and just two adrift of champions Southend United. The fans were happy despite a few rumblings about defensive tactics later on in the season. Gone were the free flowing football days of 1976 to be replaced with consistent and tenacious football in 1981. However, City had managed to emulate the side of ’76 by breaking a football league record – least goals conceded in a season with just 25. It had been a tough, tight knit approach in the latter stages of the season that had produced consistency with a threadbare squad to ensure the Imps stayed one step ahead of the chasing pack.
Colin Murphy was delighted that promotion had been achieved and his efforts had been recognised. His joy was echoed around the City of Lincoln, from the Ermine to Hykeham and back again. The Lincoln Chronicle put out a ‘Lincoln City Promotion Special’ reporting on the fine showing the Imps had put up. The jubilant squad relaxed safe in the knowledge that next season would see them competing in Division Three after an absence of just two years.
“I would like to take my hat off to the players for their fine achievement. I think they have done remarkably well to keep the Championship in dispute until such a late stage. Their attitude has been first class all year and we must now look forward to entering the Third division in style looking for promotion to the second as opposed to mere survival”.
Colin Murphy was under no illusions that his words would spark fervour amongst Imps fans. He had won them over by obtaining his objective of promotion despite losing key players and operating on a tight budget.