In June 1990 Colin Murphy resigned from Lincoln City after two seasons back at the club. He’d led us to a GMVC title at the first attempt, and then followed up with respectable 10th two seasons in a row. He decided after a 5-1 defeat on the final day to 1990 Champions Exeter City that he would move on.
There were three applicants for the post, Graham Carr, Barry Fry and former Leeds striker Allan Clarke. All three were interviewed at John Reames home, and it was Clarke who impressed the most. In his book ‘Past Imperfect’, Brian Halford tells that things weren’t right from the start. Clarke was taken to a Chinese restaurant to celebrate, but he steadfastly refused to eat anything but English food. It was the early signs of stubborn belligerence on the new managers behalf.
The early 1990’s were semi-exciting times at Sincil Bank. The ground’s development was continuing in earnest, and Clarke’s first game was a friendly against his former club Leeds that signalled the opening of the Stacey West stand. I wasn’t there to witness the opening of my ‘spiritual home’, but Clarke’s new signing Sean Dunphy suffered a knee injury that kept him out of action for the next year and a half.
Clarke insisted he wanted to play football the right way, and his inflexible approach would be his ultimate downfall. Lincoln had tough players, good players but players who were used to a direct Fourth Division approach. Slick passing wasn’t the order of the day if you wanted to succeed down there.
The season started well enough, we opened with a 2-2 draw at Burnley thanks to goals from Paul Smith and Grant Brown. That was followed by a win over Halifax in the league, sandwiched between two legs against them in the Rumbelows Cup, which we lost 2-1 on aggregate.
On September 8th 1990 tragedy struck. York City striker David Longhurst suffered a heart attack on the pitch in their match with the Imps. Paul Casey was closest to him as he collapsed, but he could do nothing to help him. He was pronounced dead when he arrived at the hospital, eventually diagnosed as suffering from a rare heart condition.
The game was abandoned, and a week later City took to the pitch again. This time we featured an Allan Clarke signing, Gary Powell from Everton. He arrived on loan having impressed in a Central League match playing up front with Tony Cottee.
Whilst playing up front with Neil Smith he was considerably less successful, scoring no goals in his eleven outings. Two matches on from his arrival City had drawn twice, and they began to sink down the league. Clarke brought in Lee Warren to try to pep up his midfield, and a goal on his debut away at Scunthorpe gave us hope he might be of help. His goal was possibly the only thing we did to move towards goal all afternoon, and two from Scunthorpe condemned us to our first league defeat of the season. Warren played just twice more before returning to Bradford.
In the next ten matches City won just one game, 3-1 at home to Northampton Town. Crowds were averaging less than 2,500 and the Clarke revolution saw us drop to 22nd in the league. It could be speculated that the tragic events at Bootham Crescent had affected the minds of the players, but in truth the manager was simply not working out. His refused to do anything but try to play football, and the players weren’t responding to his methods.
He wanted to play neat attractive football, but blamed the players he had at his disposal for not being capable of doing what he wanted. Clarke could not take the blame himself though, instead he lay fault at the feet of the players Colin Murphy had signed, particularly those from the non-league scene.
“There’s too many. We are trying to get the players to play football but there are quite a few players at the club who can’t play football. No matter how hard you work with them, they don’t come up to the required standard. End of story.”
Quite who he was referring to is of some interest. Indeed looking at the squad list from that time I can only see Graham Bressington and Matt Carmichael who came from non-league, both good footballers who served the club well. Neil Smith had come from the non-league scene but his contribution equalled that of Gary Powell, one of Clarke’s signings. Keith Scott had also come from non-league, but he was out at Gateshead in the Conference, scoring goals and didn’t make an appearance for Clarke until his final match as manager.
As a youngster I was attending a few games around this time. My first taste of the Stacey West came on November 24th, just a week after watching our FA Cup tie with Crewe from the St Andrews Stand. Against Crewe we were soundly thrashed 4-1, Tony Lormor grabbing our goal. For his programme notes against Darlington Clarke wrote:
“We conceded two bad goals after which we were unable to get back and our performance deteriorated. We have now to put that bitterly disappointing performance and result against Crewe behind us, get back to the task of improving our form and position. We must not become and easy touch, but show character and determination.”
Clarke had moved to try to improve results by bringing in midfielder David Wilson on loan from Manchester United, and proven goal scorer Phil Stant from Notts County. He’d scored 49 goals in 89 games for Hereford and was seen as a great way to climb away from the foot of the table.
We went into that game in 22nd position, and we came out of it second from bottom. That day City lost 3-0, and it became apparent we were an easy touch. 200 fans stormed on the pitch to protest against what was happening at our club, although I wasn’t one of them. I was only twelve and I didn’t know why we had suddenly become so crap. I just knew we had.
David Wilson returned to Man Utd after four appearances in which City drew one (0-0) and lost three (0-3, 0-4, 1-4). Phil Stant, who later claimed Clarke didn’t even know who he was when he signed, played three more times before departing the club, albeit not for ever.
Something had to give as Clarke’s horrible reign lurched from bad to worse. Second from bottom in the league, out of both cups and we hadn’t even opened the first day of our advent calendars. Lincoln City’s season was all but over, aside from the Leyland DAF Trophy of course. On November 27th we played Birmingham City in the preliminary rounds. We lost 2-0.
179 days in to his reign Allan Clarke was sacked. John Reames said “Sadly a lot of the players had lost confidence in him. Allan tried to do things the way Leeds did them, but he had played in a great Leeds team. Here he was dealing with Fourth Division footballers and it was a total disaster.”
Meanwhile Barry Fry’s Barnet sat second in the Conference, a league they would ultimately win to gain Football League status.
The irony was that for all his moaning about players, Clarke started eight of the players against Darlington that had kicked off the season in August against Burnley. Those players were Paul Casey, Shane Nicholson, Grant Brown, Steve Stoutt, Darren Davis, John Schofield, Paul Smith and David Puttnam, and it would have possibly been nine had Tony Lormor not got injured in the Halifax win. Most of those were decent footballers, renowned names in Lincoln City history. Clarke hadn’t suffered from having a bad squad, he suffered from managing them badly.
City began the search for a new manager, but just days after Clarke left we registered a 2-0 home win over Scarborough, and once Steve Thompson was appointed we lost just twice in ten games. That was with the same players, those apparent ‘non-league’ players that Allan Clark had been so desperately unable to model into a proper team.
His reign had been unpopular from the start, although John Reames was ‘damned if he did, damned if he didn’t’, as Barry Fry would have been equally as unpopular. Sometimes a chairman cannot appoint the right man in the fans eyes, and in this instance the club would have been better ensuring Mr Murphy stayed to continue his good work.
As for Allan Clarke, unsurprisingly he didn’t manage again, and now resides in Scunthorpe.