Football is a game that polarises opinion at the best of times, and in Lincoln City’s recent history, nobody causes such division of opinion as John Beck.
Football trailblazer? Power-crazed megalomaniac? A builder of solid and tough to beat teams? Charlatan? I’m sure his fans and his critics could find arguments for and against his management style, his playing style and his personality. One thing is for sure though, he did build a decent Lincoln City side.
In 1995/96 the country was booming. Cool Britannia was everywhere, the charts were full of great music, the cinemas were full of great films and as a teenager I felt I was growing up in one of the time periods that would be talked about for ever. Forget the Swinging Sixties, forget punk and forget all that eighties nonsense, this was Britpop. This was the age of Oasis and Blur, of Lemon Hooch, baggy jeans and Barracuda’s nightclub. In fact there was very little to bring a young man like me down, other than Lincoln City.
Sam Ellis had almost completed a fairly uninspiring spell in charge of the club. He kicked off the 95/96 season with an away win at favourites Preston North End. Two of our best players were on the score sheet, rampaging full-back Dean West and tricky winger David Puttnam. On the Monday after that I went into town, bought a home shirt for myself and a copy of the Cast CD single ‘Finetime’. It felt like it was indeed, a fine time. It wasn’t.
After three defeats and a draw, the unpopular Ellis was sacked. I’d witnessed the 2-2 draw with Scunthorpe a week earlier, a Lincoln were direct, unattractive and incredibly lucky to get a draw. Just 2674 watched Tony Daws and Udo ‘boom boom boom’ Onwere score for use. One week later, Steve Wicks sat in the stands watching over his future charges as we lost to Barnet.
Wicks lasted 40-odd days in charge. He lost five league games, drawing one against Bury (Daws and Onwere again). He got rid of the incredibly popular Dean West for a journeyman midfielder by the name of Kevin Hulme, a player you’ll no doubt have long-since forgotten. He got rid of David Puttnam too, one of the most graceful players of the time at the Bank, bringing in striker Steve Brown from Gillingham as part of a swap deal. It would be akin to us swapping Nathan Arnold and Alex Woodyard for two players who go on to have as much impact as dampened toilet paper thrown at a brick wall.
The manner of Wicks departure was messy. On Thursday 12th and Friday 13th (unlucky not just for Wicks in the end), John Beck was interviewed for a job that wasn’t actually available. The Imps drew 0-0 at Scarborough on the 14th, but the news had leaked that Wicks was on his way. Even before the invention of Facebook and Twitter, news like that spreads fast. Wicks was phoned the following day by Reames to have his departure confirmed, as if he hadn’t already realised. He’d be okay, he was soon scouting for Newcastle United, and it just so happened he’d seen a forward in red and white he liked the look of.
So, John Beck became the third man to pull his chair up to the managers desk at Sincil Bank in less than two months. On September 1st, Sam Ellis was preparing for his last game, the 3-1 defeat at Barnet. On October 1st, Steve Wicks was smarting from a 3-0 defeat at Plymouth, and by November 1st City had turned over Mansfield Town 2-1, the ever-dependable Udo Onwere and a ginger kid from Preston called Steve Holmes bagging the goals.
John Alexander Beck was something of a football paradox. He had been a cultured and skilled midfielder in his time, a key member of the Fulham side that narrowly beat us to a place in the Second Division in the early 1980’s. Indeed had he not scored an equaliser in the first game at Sincil Bank of the 81/82 season, a draw would have been sufficient in the final game at Craven Cottage to earn us promotion.
As a manager he believed in winning games the wrong way, not by skill and guile but by utilising the dark arts and being a strong unit. Shortly after our 4-3 1989 Boxing Day win over Cambridge, their manager Graham Turner was sacked and John Beck took over. Five months later they won the Fourth Division play-offs, and a year after that they won the Second Division play-offs as well. He favoured disciplined and direct football, and in his third season he took them to within touching distance of the Holy Grail, the Premier League. They lost a play-off semi final to Leicester City, and the dream began to evaporate. His style of play was not enjoyed by Cambridge fans, despite the success it had brought, and within months of the play-off defeat he was gone.
He spent some time at Preston North End after his October 1992 dismissal from Cambridge, and again he guided them to a play-off place in the Third Division. They were beaten by Wycombe there, and once again he ended up being replaced in November 1994, this time by Gary Peters. He moved up to Southport to run a business away from football, but in October of 1995 John Reames was on the telephone.
On his first day John Beck claimed that he could guarantee he’d keep City out of the Conference, but he could guarantee he’d offer us the best chance of staying out. City were rock bottom having grabbed just six points from 12 matches. The average attendance at the Bank was 2,488, not surprising seeing as we hadn’t won at home. The club needed an overhaul, it needed driving forward by a man with charisma, a work ethic and clear ideas of how to progress. It needed significant changes to the personnel too, and despite his apparent belligerence and his unsavoury tactics, it needed John Beck.
John Beck didn’t believe he was as bad as the press and football purists made out. Upon joining City he said:
“A lot of garbage has been written about my style, and my reputation has been built up by the media and adopted by those who knock success. Football is not about style, or management. It’s about players. All I have ever tried to do as a manager is encourage the players to put all of their efforts into that system which produces the best results”.
If results were what was needed, then his cv read impressively. In two of his seasons at Cambridge they were not only in the promotion hunt, but also top scorers in the country. They twice reached the quarter finals of the FA Cup too, and he made a start of Dion Dublin, the stereotypical ‘big man’ that Beck loved. He may not have promised to keep us out of the Conference, but he had a bolder promise to make:
“My philosophy at Lincoln will be to excite and entertain people by providing Lincoln City with a method of play, which will, on average, result in us scoring more than the opposition….. At each club I’ve been at, I’ve tried to lead people into thinking ‘team’. Much can be achieved together, but little can be achieved alone. Until the FA introduce a game that pits one v one, its eleven against eleven, and only by playing as a team will we bring the club success.”
We then lost his first game in charge at home to Cardiff by one goal to nil. From meagre beginnings and all that.
John Beck did turn things around for us after that horrible start. He cleared out the ‘dross’ as he saw it, and brought in trusted generals whom he’d worked with before. Out went Paul Wanless, his crime being that he was a ball playing midfielder. Very shortly after he arrived, out went Darren Huckerby, his crime being that he was worth £500,000 and that Steve Wicks wanted to take him to Newcastle. Out went ‘Super’ Joe Allon, bought by Ellis for £42,500 but flogged by Beck for £40,000 after five outings and no goals. Even fan favourite David ‘Magic’ Johnson struggled to get a look in.
In came former Preston players Steve Holmes and Barry Richardson, stalwarts of Lincoln City for seasons to come. In came right back Jason Barnett, no Dean West but as combative and ruthless as they came. As the season progressed in came Jon Witney (see Jason Barnett but add a lot more ruthlessness), Terry Fleming and Colin Alcide. All were typical John Beck players, stronger than a builders sweaty socks, tougher than overcooked pork and yet resilient and committed footballers. Finally, the crowning achievement, arguably one of the best players to ever pull on the red and white stripes. In came Sir Gareth, of Ainsworth. Here was a new hero for the success starved fans to behold, with his rock star persona and his love of the fans, he became the focal point for the John Beck revolution. Finally, here in LN5, Cool Britannia had arrived, and with it came the oddity of winning football matches.
John Beck certainly cultivated that team ethos. He had the players in factories and schools, he thrust them into the community with the same vigour which Graham Taylor had twenty years previous. He built an imaginary wall around Sincil Bank to protect ‘little old Lincoln’, and he pleaded with the local community to help with everything from training facilities to providing digs for trialists. He created Team Lincoln, and after the disarray of the previous year or two it was refreshing from this fans view.
By the end of November John Beck was manager of the month, courtesy of league wins over Mansfield (2-1, Onwere & Holmes), Torquay (2-0, Sir Gareth with a brace) and Northampton (1-0 Steve Brown), as well as AWS wins against Preston (2-1, Onwere & Steve Brown) and Darlington (1-0, Grant Brown). The day after the award we lost 2-1 to Cambridge.
Beck brought in an experienced assistant manager too, a man with whom we have crossed swords on many occasions since. John Still had already guided Maidstone to the Football League as manager, and had also been in charge at Peterborough. He would remain at City until June 1997, when Barnet came calling.
It wasn’t always pretty under John Beck, but the results did come. When it worked, teams didn’t know how to handle us. Scunthorpe were beaten 3-2 thanks to a late Phil Daley goal, Doncaster were thrashed 4-0 and Fulham were also on the end of a four goal hammering. However, when it didn’t work the product we were paying to see was awful. A trip to Gigg Lane in February saw us played off the park, losing 7-1, thanking our lucky stars it wasn’t double figures. When we were good, we were good (not pretty, never pretty). When we were bad, we were terrible.
John Beck honed a unique brand of regimented long ball that won few fans on either side of the segregated Linpave Stand. It didn’t even win the players over, as Gijsbert Bos explained to me in an interview last year:
“I don’t have to tell you our style of football under John Beck, it wasn’t quite attractive and we were not supposed to pass and play as we should, and definitely could. We had to play long ball and go down the channels as he preferred it. I can remember at home against Mansfield, with Lincoln 1-0 up, the game was really tight when I received the ball on the left halfway the pitch, I ran past a defender cut inside and scored a screamer in the top corner from about 25 yards. Afterwards John Beck was a little bit angry and told me if the ball wouldn’t have gone in he would have subbed me because I didn’t play down the channels, in his style. I thought he made a joke but he wasn’t joking. the game ended 2-1.”
That 2-1 win came on April 13th, and whether it was popular or not, City had been safe from relegation for best part of a month. From looking dead and buried in October, John Beck had built a side capable of staying in the Football League. The final game of the season saw City stick five past bottom side Torquay United in front of 5814.
Crowds were up, just. Safety was assured, the Imps finished 8th, 24 points above the Gulls, rooted to the bottom of the table. Of the side that kicked off against Preston at Deepdale, only Jason Minett played in that final game against Torquay, although Udo Onwere was ruled out through injury, and Grant Brown had missed the start of the season through the same reason. John Beck had picked the club up, dusted it down and given us a platform from which to build. The future looked rosy, right?
Well, it did and it didn’t. Without the internet the layman only heard snippets of possible disruption behind the scenes. John Beck kept us up, but he liked to spend money, money the board felt we didn’t have. He had been caught submitting some dubious petrol claims in February, and that had resulted in a written warning. With safety all-but assured, it seemed as though John Reames was now wondering if he had the right man for the long term. In Brian Halford’s book ‘Past Imperfect’, Reames is quoted as saying:
“John Beck had the same attitude to money as supporters. ‘You’ve got to find the money’, he’d say. You can’t find money if there is no source. Obviously, John had a reputation in football but I naively believed I could control him. Most people learn by experience, and I thought maybe he’d have changed slightly. In that first season he achieved everything he said he would achieve, but then nothing developed.”
Whether you agree with ‘nothing developing’ or not, we can discuss in Part Two of this article coming up tomorrow. All I know is that seventeen year old Gary, in his replica Imps shirt, ginger curtain-style hair cut and baggy jeans, had seen enough to be convinced this Lincoln City side could achieve great things. Okay, I’d been saying it every year since I first stepped foot in the ground, but there is something about a final day 5-0 win that convinces you world domination is up next at your club. I remember walking up into town on that warm afternoon in 1996 to buy a copy of Charmless Man by Blur (number nine in the charts I believe), not really believing that the title of the song applied to our saviour, John Beck. after all, who needs charm, grace and slick football when you’re winning matches?