We will all remember certain matches for our entire lives, and we’ll be recounting stories of them around the ground for years to come. Anyone who has experienced this season will talk about how they were there when Sean Raggett’s goal beat Burnley, or when the fog set in as we beat Oldham 3-2.
Fans of an older generation have other matches they remember, and one of the earliest memories I have of Dad talking about Lincoln City, was him discussing the night the wall came down against Stoke. As it’s a Sunday in the post season, news is hard to come by and I need to write to feel useful, I thought I’d talk about that night for a while I am telling you my Dad’s recollections matted together with a bit of my own research though, after al I (obviously) wasn’t born then.
It was the early part of our record-breaking 1975/76 season, and the League Cup initially brought us together with Chesterfield. After losing 3-1 at Newport on the opening day, John Ward settled the fan’s nerves somewhat with all four goals in a 4-2 win at Sincil Bank. A couple of days later we beat Torquay by the same margin in the league, and we hung on to our advantage in the second leg against the Spireites (just), losing 3-2 at Saltergate to give us a 6-5 aggregate score. The big boys enter the race at that stage, and we were paired with Stoke City.
If you think ‘Stoke City’ these days you probably think of mid-table also-rans of the Premier League don’t you? Drawing them would be comparable with drawing, say, Burnley in the FA Cup? You’d be right in 2017, but in 1975 Stoke City were a different prospect altogether. Stoke had won the League Cup in 1972, and been semi-finalists in the FA Cup in 1971 and 1972. They had even qualified for Europe in 1972 and 1974, losing to Kaiserslauten and Ajax, then one of the world’s best teams. They had finished just four points shy of the title in May 1975, this Stoke side were a big draw.
They had decent players too. Alan Hudson, picked for England in 1975, was amongst their ranks. They had Jimmy Greenhoff, a tricky and delicate centre forward who had plenty of honours as a member of Don Revie’s Leeds, and whom later spent four seasons at Manchester United. They also had a goal keeper by the name of Peter Shilton, a player signed for £350,000. That may seem insignificant now, but in 1975 it made him the world’s most expensive number one. The was no doubt this was a big draw for City, 4327 watched the league clash with Reading on the Saturday before, but 13472 were in attendance as the Potters rolled into town.
City lined up as follows: Peter Grotier, Ian Branfoot, Dennis Leigh, Dennis Booth, Sam Ellis, Terry Cooper, John Fleming, John Ward, Percy Freeman, Dave Smith, Alan Harding.
Stoke perhaps took their eye off the ball, they dropped £160,000 striker Geoff Salmons, choosing instead to go with Ian Moores. History would prove that Moores was the better player, he bagged eleven all season whilst Salmons only struck five.
The Imps started the game with the sort of intensity and purpose that would have Danny Cowley purring with delight. Dennis Booth drove a shot at Shilton which he went full length to save. Stoke battled back quickly Ian Moores firing wide when it looked easier to score, and then Alan Hudson having an effort hacked away by Peter Grotier. Fans all around the ground were certainly getting their money’s worth.
The game swung back in Lincoln’s favour, Alan Harding had an effort tipped over the bar, and both John Ward and Percy Freeman were terrorising the top-flight defenders. Alan Bloor and Alan Dodd were at the heart of the Stoke defence, and I imagined they scarcely had to deal with such raw power when facing the likes of Ajax. My Dad tells me he believed an upset was on the cards.
Then, heartbreak for City. John Fleming intercepted a weak ball from Alan Hudson, and he looked to play it back to the safe hands of Peter Grotier. I imagine there was a sharp intake of breath from 13,000 people as instead he rolled it gently into the path of Jimmy Greenhoff. He might not have picked up an England cap, but First Division strikers do not need second invites in those circumstances. Stoke were 1-0 up on 18 minutes. Was it going to be a long night for Lincoln?
No. With a resilience that perhaps wasn’t seen again at Sincil Bank for just over 40 years, City bounced straight back into the game. It was a goal created and scored by Alan Harding, one of the players from that season that perhaps doesn’t get the plaudits that the likes of Freeman, Ward and Smith do. He picked up the ball on the edge of the 18-yard area, rode one tackle, evaded a second and moved into a yard of space. He needed no more than that, his low drive went past the England goal keeper to bring Fourth Division Lincoln City level within a minute.
Shilton may have been beaten once, but it was him alone that stood between Lincoln and a real upset. Alan Bloor played a shocking pass towards the big keeper, John Ward seized on it and launched a shot towards goal. From nowhere Shilton gave a display of why he was worth £350,000, palming the ball back out, away from danger. It dropped for Dave Smith, and he fired wide of the empty net. Before half time Alan Harding almost put City 2-1 up, a powerful drive had Shilton at full stretch, and nobody in the ground knew how he stopped it going in.
At half time the chatter was that of disbelief. This Lincoln side was good, the fans knew that. Graham Taylor had only brought in one new face in the summer, John Fleming. They’d finished outside of the promotion places on goal difference, and Taylor believed by staying together they could achieve great things. The early season defeat at Newport had been forgotten, as had the second leg defeat at Saltergate. City were on a roll, but here in the warm early evening September air was a real test of how good they might be. 1-1 with a side that pressed for the First Division Championship last season? How good were Lincoln City?
For the first fifteen minutes of the second half, the answer was ‘resilient’ rather than good. They had started with an intensity and pace about their game in the first half, but Stoke brought the game to them for the opening exchanges of the second period. Eire international Terry Conroy was at the heart of everything they did, pulling the strings from an advanced midfield role. Sam Ellis cleared a Conroy effort off the line, whilst Grotier was match for efforts from Greenhoff and Ian Moores.
Stoke poured forward sensing the game was there for the taking, but Lincoln City of 1975/76 were always a danger. As one Stoke attack broke down, City were able to spring a counter. Ian Branfoot set Percy Freeman clear, and the big striker looked set to give Lincoln an unlikely 2-1 lead. Shilton proved his credentials though, diving at the feet of our battering ram of a centre forward and claiming the ball. Respite, but only for a brief moment.
Again Lincoln sprung a counter, this time Dave Smith brought the ball away with a recognisable injection of acceleration. He beat the full-back and fired a shot across the Stoke penalty area. Once again the safe hands of Shilton were there to prevent City taking the lead, and he parried the shot away. This time though, luck was not on his side. The ball landed at the feet of Dennis Booth, and he stooped low to head the ball back towards the net. Shilton could do nothing other than watch Fourth Division Lincoln City take the lead.
The ground erupted as you’d imagine. Fans surged forward with delight, those from Stoke perhaps with anger. It might have been the Sincil Bank roar that did it, it might have been the pressure of all of those fans clamouring to kick every ball. Whatever force was responsible, the outcome was the same. The wall behind the South Park stand came tumbling down.
You would expect chaos and pandemonium, but the situation was handled extremely well. 18 people needed treatment, two were hospitalised. The St Johns Ambulance crew and Police Officers immediately took control of the scene and moved to minimise disruption to the game. There were 13,000 fans wanting to see the conclusion of a terrific game of football, and within five minutes of the collapse, the game was back on.
The delay played into Lincoln’s favour, and as the game entered the final stages Stoke hadn’t threatened to breach the Imps defence. They threw caution to the wind as the game wore down, and they had the final chance of the game. Jimmy Greenhoff’s shot was well saved by Peter Grotier at the expense of a corner. Terry Cooper headed the resulting cross away from goal, but it fell to the feet of Jackie Marsh who blasted his shot wide. It was the final roll of the dice for the First Division side, shortly afterwards referee Mr Reeves of Leicester blew his whistle to bring down the curtain on a remarkable act of giant killing. It was Leicester City of the First Division who ended the Imps interest in the competition just a month later, but as we know City went on to appear in the FA Cup fourth round, and win the Division Four title.
What of Stoke City? They finished in 12th that season, five places shy of our conquerors Leicester. Sunderland knocked them out of the FA Cup at the fifth round stage, and before the season was out they’d given a debut to Garth Crooks, then a fresh faced youth team player. They suffered a set back in January of 1976 though, the roof blew off their Butler Street Stand, and the following season Jimmy Greenhoff, Alan Hudson and Mike Pejic were sold to help cover the cost of replacing it. That left them with a threadbare squad, and as we finished 9th in the Third Division, they were relegated to the Second.
Our paths came dangerously close to passing, but we’ve met just twice in the following 41 years. They visited in Sincil Bank as a Second Division side (now League One) in 1998 winning 2-1 despite Tony Battersby giving us an 8th minute lead. The return fixture in April 1999 saw them win 2-0.
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