Top Flight Player, Top Class Manager?

Crawley appointed former Leeds hero turned villain Harry Kewell as their new manager yesterday, taking a gamble on a top-flight player being a good lower league manager. As much as Crawley hope that it works out for them, if they took our own experiences as an indication then they’re in for a torrid season.

There have been four occasions in living memory where a player with a reputation in the top flight has taken over the reigns at Lincoln City, and only once has it even remotely worked. Here are three of  the players who have taken residence in the manager’s office, and a look at how it turned out for them.

David Herd

David Herd was perhaps the first big-name players to park his car behind the St Andrews Stand, and arguably the most succesful. He was quite a name when he arrived at Lincoln in 1971. He had played for Arsenal for seven seasons, scoring 97 times from 166 outings before switching to Manchester United due to a lack of trophies at Highbury. He secured three in his seven seasons at United, winning the league in 1965 and 1967 and the FA Cup in 1963. He scored  114 goals in 202 outings before winding down his career with Stoke having been capped five times by Scotland. He then went to Waterford in Ireland, but not before talking to City about the vacant managers job. Bert Loxley got it, but when that didn’t pan out the Scotsman came back from Ireland to save Lincoln City.

He took over a struggling side, and in May 1971 City had to apply for re-election. We’d been used to it after an appalling run in the 1960’s, but as it turned out it would be the last time we had to do so. There were positives though, Herd  gave a debut to a local boy called John Ward who went on to have a half-decent career. City were successful in applying to remain in the Football League and Herd began to reshape the side. In came players such as Frank McMahon and John Worsdale, and out went old favourites like Roger Holmes and Bobby Svarc. When the next season kicked off, for the first time in many years Lincoln mounted a serious promotion challenge. An opening day win against Colchester due to goals from Phil Hubbard and Dave Smith in front of 6607 at Sincil Bank certainly got fans thinking, and by the time September 29th came 15015 were convinced enough to watch us despatch Grimsby Town by 3-0. The Imps were in business.

City were almost invincible at home, not losing until April 15th 1972 against Darlington. The team was an embryonic form of the superstar side of the 1976 season, with Graham Taylor on the playing staff along with John Ward, Percy Freeman, Phil Hubbard and Dave Smith.

In January David Herd became the first ever Imps manager to win a manager of the month award after victories over Workington, (1-0), Brentford (4-1) and Doncaster (2-0) with a 2-2 draw in front of 15856 at Grimsby as well. Form faltered towards the end of March but despite a late season loss of form (just two wins in ten) The Imps finished fifth, seven points behind eventual league winners Grimsby and just three points behind promoted Brentford in third.

Herd wasn’t a popular man though. He often tried to coach Fourth Division footballers as if they were in the top flight, and as a good player himself he was known to showboat in training. After all, here was a player who had been there and won that already. In order to try to placate the growing rift between squad and manager, left-back Graham Taylor was promoted to ‘player-coach’ to liaise between the two.  By December 1972 of the following season, things had gotten bad. City hadn’t won for eight matches and the rift between manager and players hadn’t healed. Chairman Dennis Bocock invite Herd to resign. Herd accepted the invitation, and our first foray into ‘top flight player’ territory was over. On December 7th 1972, Graham Taylor took over a manager.

Image result for willie bell footballer

Willie Bell

Willie Bell had been a part of the Don Revie dynasty at Leeds, albeit leaving in 1967 before it all really kicked off. He’d helped them win the Second Division,  and then come runner-up twice in the First Division. He’d been a losing FA Cup finalist too, and been a runner-up in a European Competition called the Inter City Fairs Cup. He left for Leicester City, where he again appeared in an FA Cup final. He arrived at Lincoln shortly after a two-year spell as Birmingham manager came to an end.

Willie Bell wasn’t your typical football manager, not by a long shot. He was (and still is) a devout Christian, a man who wouldn’t rant at players and who would never tolerate bad language. He took over a side second from bottom in the table, and immediately he steadied the ship. His first six games saw a debut for a big centre forward called Mick Harford, another club legend blooded by a former top-flight player. Six draws didn’t set the world alight, but it did give City some consistency.

After Christmas City lost just six times in 26 games, and on the back of giving Harford a debut, he did the same for Gordon Hobson as well. An eventual finish of 16th was seen as a good job, given that George Kerr had been heading for the trapdoor.

In the summer Bell tried to bring in a few of his big name friends to aid the fight. Former Leeds player Paul Reaney was said to be close to arriving, as was the legendary England striker Allan ‘Sniffer’ Clarke. Clarke instead joined Barnsley as manager, but that wasn’t so much a case of ‘the one that got away’ as ‘the one we wish had got away’. More on him. Bell also surprised a few people by taking two weeks off to fly to America. John Beck found out the hard way that unsolicited holidays can cause you to lose your job, but in the case of Bell, it was the other way around.

After winning on the opening day of the season, Willie Bell and Lincoln crashed and burned. By October 21st’s defeat against Swindon Town, Lincoln hadn’t won in 13 matches. The 5-0 thrashing at Sincil Bank by Graham Taylor’s Watford didn’t help cement Bell’s relationship with the crowd, nor did the arrival of club-record signing Tommy Tynan for £33,000. By the time Tynan scored his first (and only) goal for Lincoln, Willie Bell had left. The devout Christian had actually spent his American holiday chatting to a Colorado based Christian organisation about becoming a coach there. 13 win-less games merely accentuated the move, although spending such a large amount of money on a player before resigning was a particularly un-Christian thing to do. After Willie Bell the Imps needed someone they could rely on, and in came Colin Murphy. Two top-flight players fail, and both times the pieces were picked up by club legends.

Allan Clarke, England striker as we failed to qualify for the 1974 World Cup

Allan Clarke

19 England caps, 10 goals. A league title in 1974, and runners-up medals in 1970, 71 and 1972. The FA Cup? Yup, 1972 and two runners-up medals in 1970 and 1973. Charity Shields, Fairs Cup, and even a European Cup runners-up medal. Allan Clarke had pretty much done it all as a member of Don Revie’s Leeds side. He was perhaps the most high-profile manager we have had, the one who had the most glittering and decorated football career. After almost signing as a player in 1978, he finally arrived as a manager in 1990, ironically after Colin Murphy departed for the second time.

Clarke insisted he wanted to play football the right way, no more ‘long ball’ which is what he assumed Colin Murphy had preferred. His inflexible approach would be his ultimate downfall, and chairman John Reames mentioned having doubts the same day he was appointed, when a belligerent Clarke refused to eat Chinese food to celebrate.

Lincoln had tough players, players ready to kick and fight. They were good players but players who were used to a direct Fourth Division approach. Slick passing wasn’t what was needed if you wanted to succeed down there, and like David Herd before him, Clarke was guilty of expecting too much from Fourth Division footballers.

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, but any joy was short-lived. On September 8th 1990 tragedy struck. York City striker David Longhurst suffered a heart attack on the pitch in their match with the Imps. He was pronounced dead when he arrived at the hospital, eventually diagnosed as suffering from a rare heart condition. The game was abandoned at half time, with the score officially recorded as 0-0.

Clarke tried to bring in top-flight youngsters to aid our on field recovery, Gary Powell joined from Everton and didn’t score. In fact City went ten matches winning 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. He wanted to play neat attractive football, intricate and technical, 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.

“There’s too many (non-league players). 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.”

In the FA Cup things got worse. Crewe visited and we were soundly thrashed 4-1, Tony Lormor grabbing our goal. 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.

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, we were 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.”

As before an Imps legend followed, albeit a playing legend rather than a managerial one. Steve Thompson took over, and he steered those ‘Fourth Division’ footballers to a 14th placed finish, before climbing as high as tenth the next season. Horses for courses, Mr Clarke.

I know I’ve missed one off, but I think there is scope for him to have a blog all of his own. All I’ll say is at least the three I’ve already mentioned didn’t give us one foot in the National League, I don’t want to worry Crawley fans unjustly.





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