Yesterday I started a look back at the reign of John Beck, a period so packed with controversy and excitement that it can hardly be done justice in a few thousand words. Clearly the reign of Beck is as divisive as any subject I’ve ever discussed, feelings towards him go from admiration of achievements to intense dislike of his methods and personality.
We left off at the end of the 1996 season. Euro 96 was upon us, and football fans everywhere revelled in our very own ‘summer of love’, the summer that football came home. I was a 17-year old youth in Wragby, my only cares were football, music, girls and beer in that order. That wonderful summer was spent in the Adam and Even in Wragby watching arguably the best England side of my lifetime come oh-so-close to lifting a major title. When I look back on my younger years, 1996 were halcyon days, the days I will always feel were the best of my life. I’m sure they weren’t that good, after all I was only earning £85 a week.
Anyway as the warm summer began to draw to a close, all eyes turned on Lincoln City and it’s somewhat controversial manager John Beck. As part of the Darren Huckerby deal, Newcastle United were coming to play a friendly at Sincil Bank. It took on real significance when Alan Shearer joined them for £15m, a world record transfer deal. Instead of saving him for the Charity Shield just a few days later, he was blooded at Lincoln City. The TV cameras arrived on Friday 9th August 1996, and yours truly took his place in the Linpave Stand to watch the show.
Beck had been in charge nine months, but the summer afforded him the time to finally clear the decks of those players he did not want in his squad. Out went Paul Mudd, Paul Wanless, Phil Daley and Andy Leaning. Out also went promising youth player Ben Dixon, off to Blackpool for £15k. We’d need the money, because John Beck liked to spend to ensure his team were competitive.
In the squad in time for the Newcastle game were Tony Dennis and Worrell Sterling, two players who barely made a ripple in the history of our club. More significantly in came robust midfielder Mark Hone on a free transfer from Southend, and 23-year old defender Kevin Austin. Austin was one of the finest defenders ever to grace the Sincil Bank turf, and the £30,000 spent on him was real value for money, although it needed to be as it was part funded by John Beck’s ‘buy me a player’ campaign. I chipped in, I’m sure of it, even on £85 a week I was buying into the John Beck hype. In his heyday Austin was quick and strong, able to read a game superbly and with a physique more suited to a boxer. Sadly, after leaving City for Barnsley he suffered an injury and never really achieved his undoubted potential.
Alan Sharer got his debut goal, a penalty that (perhaps) would have the betting people at the FA scrabbling for their charge sheet these days. A soft handball from Steve Holmes gave him his headline moment, and Phil Albert added a second to kill City off. The result wasn’t important, but the 10,000 strong crowd was. Beck had squeezed every last penny out of Darren Huckerby, and if HM Customs and Revenue were to be believed, it wasn’t just professionally he tried to get himself a few extra bob.
On the day loan signing Jae Martin found his way onto the bench, City were opening the doors at Sincil Bank for the first league game of the season against Leyton Orient. An opening day defeat at Torquay had punctured a few hopes, but a credible 2-2 draw at Hartlepool in the Coca Cola Cup had given slight cause for hope. Those in attendance, me included, noticed our manager did not come out for the pre-match warm up, and he did not take his place in the dugout. Had he been sacked? That was the question on our lips even after Gareth Ainsworth had bagged his second of the season to earn a 1-1 draw. Just where was John Beck?
He’d been arrested by HM Customs and Revenue with regards to a whiskey VAT fraud or something of that ilk, and escorted from the ground just minutes ahead of kick-off. He was eventually released without charge, and in fairness to him he was never charged. It was embarrassing for the club though, and after the petrol receipts a few months before I imagine it got the chairman’s pulse racing a little harder. Two games in, one point on the board and the focus of the media on the club for the wrong reasons, so quickly after being here for all the right ones. Where did we go next?
Once again results and achievement papered over the cracks that were visible in the relationships of those in charge. Hartlepool came back to Sincil Bank in the Coca Cola Cup and were beaten 3-2 thanks to goals from Steve Holmes, Colin Alcide and a first for Jae Martin. That meant a guaranteed draw against a big club, and they didn’t come any bigger than Manchester City. Another big night was due at Sincil Bank, and despite just two league wins by the time they arrived (Barnet 1-0, Swansea 2-1), Lincoln played like a team of champions.
Uwe Rosler gave Man City a lead, but this was John Beck’s Lincoln, and they knew how to fight. In the basement division our fight was often matched or bettered by that of teams around us, but the stars of Manchester City weren’t use to Terry Fleming’s tough tackles, or Mark Hone’s bite and vigour. Fleming scored, so did giant Dutchman Gijsbert Bos. The ever-dependable Steve Holmes bagged as well, and finally Jon Whitney completed the rout. 7599 fans had seen the big side dismantled, destroyed and disposed of with clinical efficiency.
Off the pitch Lincoln City were becoming despised by the opposition. John Beck took every opportunity to capitalise on ‘marginal gains’, but not in the way Danny Cowley does. Beck would disrupt the opposition and attempt to intimidate them off the pitch. Dressing rooms would be flooded, toilets blocked, sugar swapped for salt in their cups of tea (if it came at all) and loud music would be played into their changing rooms. The players were encouraged to bang on the opposition dressing room door as they went out onto the pitch, and you could forget about warm showers. The antics weren’t to everyone’s taste, but being nice didn’t get you league points.
Beck was just as belligerent with his own players. In the 2-2 draw away at Hartlepool, Mark Hone came on as a sub for Tony Dennis, and was allegedly brought off moments later for failing to adhere to the strict instruction of playing the ball into danger alley. Jason Minett came on for a rather shocked Hone. It might have given us an amusing anecdote years later, but Mark Hone was a good midfielder and he didn’t deserve the stigma of being treated that way. Beck was a disciplinarian, it was his way or no way. Mind you, that continued to pay dividends in the cup.
City had to keep it tight in the away leg, but they went one better. Bos scored an early goal and City shut up shop to record a 1-0 win, and a plum tie against Premier League side Southampton featuring such football giants as Matt Le Tissier and Egil Ostenstad. Big names, big games but City had a league to concentrate on as well. I’m told after their win at Maine Road , City enjoyed some hot showers and sugary tea.
That was all well and good, but those rumblings of discontent continued off the field. Beck had a clause in his two-year deal that stipulated if he were dismissed, it would cost the club £50,000. John Reames didn’t have that sort of money to spare, but as a side step they decided to issue Beck his notice. It wasn’t an indication of him being sacked, but the board had begun to get jumpy at Beck’s brash behaviour and the club’s reputation. Now, if the club wanted to keep Beck, they would negotiate a new deal, but in two years time they were not renewing the current deal, clause and all. The whole charade meant very little in real terms, but it was further posturing in a relationship that had irrevocably broken down less the 12 months in.
Beck wanted more money to spend too. Jae Martin was proving to be a real hit with the fans, but the club contested they couldn’t afford the £25,000 to sign him up. Beck asked for the money, John Reames refused and produced letters complaining about the Imps style of pay and brash tactics. Shortly afterwards those brash tactics had Imps fans dancing in the streets of Southampton after a 2-2 draw in the Coca Cola Cup. First Mark Hone and then Gareth Ainsworth cancelled out Southampton strikes, and a money-spinning replay was set for Sincil Bank.
Before that, a league match with Colchester which brought a 3-2 win. Who scored one of the goals? None other than Jae Martin. Ever the showman, Beck hoisted the young player up on his shoulders and carried him towards the Linpave Stand to chanting of ‘sign him up’. If this were a game of chess, Beck had just moved in check, not mate but still leaving the board on he defensive. A big cup tie, more revenue and a sway of public opinion towards manager and player. Martin was signed, and he scored just twice more all season, one of those our only goal in a 7-1 thrashing in the reverse fixture against Colchester.
Southampton came and spent most of their evening 1-0 down in front of 10,500 fans. It was, of course, winding-blinding Gareth Ainsworth who netted the goal. Amidst all of the verbal battling between fans, between manager and board and amidst all of the criticism, one thing remained certain. That boy was a bloody hero. I was there as I was for almost all of that season, and we ran Premier League Southampton as close as we could. To a man, City were superb.
Late in the match Ostenstad appeared to take a swan dive in the box with Jason Barnett the closest too him. Was he fouled? No, clearly not. Even Ostenstad himself admitted it a year later, admitting he was shocked to receive a penalty but insisted it was an innocent tumble. Whatever. Southampton scored, City crumbled late and the not-so saintly Saints went on to win 3-1. Now we were left with a season pushing for the play-offs. If we were to strip away the finery and bluster of big cup matches, would we find substance enough for a promotion challenge?
Not at first. Only the signing of veteran striker Phil Stant, and the inevitable goals he brought, turned things around. There was no need for lobbying the board this time around £40k was found quickly to bring the proven goal scorer to Sincil Bank. He made an immediate impact, scoring in wins over Cardiff (3-1), Brighton (2-1) and Doncaster (3-1). In the Doncaster game, Jae Martin scored his final goal of the season, on January 25th. £25k well spent.
Results were still patchy, performances divided the fans, and vultures circled Sincil Bank. Gareth Ainsworth was the subject of a £400,000 bid from Wigan Athletic, but that was rebuffed. There was no secret we needed the money, net spend was high and we were still a mid-table fourth tier side. Carl Cort, later somehow a £7m player, joined on loan and scored just once as Wigan beat us 3-1, probably in retribution for not selling Ainsworth.
It was Ainsworth who lit up the season, ever-present, ever-battling and ever the fan’s friend. He was enigmatic, a real terrier on the pitch and a real hero off it. He was the first to applaud the fans after every game, and he was my personal hero. He talked in the Ferret about guitar music, he played on the wing like my previous hero David Puttnam, and he even played pool on a Thursday night for the Butcher and Beast at Heighington. I spent that whole Thursday sat, gobsmacked as we (the Adam and Eve) got stuffed 9-0. Here was a man I wanted to be. I didn’t even get an autograph.
Five wins in seven gave us a slim hope of the play-offs, and the Stant and Ainsworth combination was providing the hope. One of them scored in all five wins (Scarborough 2-0, Scunthorpe 2-0, Swansea 4-0, Cambridge 3-1 and Orient 3-2), and in the Swansea game a player called Craig Stones made his debut just 55 days shy of his 17th birthday. Why do I tell you this? Because Craig liked my ‘part one’ on Twitter last night, so it’s only fair to give him a shout, eh? Plus he had a curtain hair cut just like mine, but luckily for him, he wasn’t ginger.
Come the final day we were still in with a shout. We needed a win at home against Rochdale, and we hoped Cardiff or Northampton slipped up in their matches. It was possible, and 6495 paid their money to watch it unfold. We need not have bothered. A limp performance saw us beaten 2-0, and nobody really gave two-hoots about the other results. City were in the basement division for another season, despite the big spending.
Lincoln City had completed a season without sacking a manager, and if the truth be told they couldn’t afford to anyway. John Beck had a contract that was wrapped up tighter than a pound of vacuum packed bacon, and irrespective of how much he was disliked by the board, he would be in charge at the start of the 1997/98 campaign. Half of the fan base (me included) revelled in the fact we were challenging at the right end of the table again, the first time since Steve Thompson had been sacked. The other half, those who actually liked the game of football, hated what we stood for, hated getting a stiff neck looking up at the crowds and hated being entertained in such a rough and abrasive manner.
There was plenty to be hopeful about though. The club had resisted the advances for Ainsworth, and Kevin Austin was rapidly becoming a saleable asset as well. We had Jae Martin too, he was bound to come good too, surely? Most of all there was that lethal strike force of Ainsworth and Stant. The making of any great team is in the ability to score goals, and with the long balls into danger alley, Lincoln could score goals. If only we knew what the next twelve months held for us.
Tomorrow: This three-part (surprised me too, I thought I’d wrap it up in two) series finishes in unusual fashion for Lincoln, with a promotion. Find out more tomorrow.
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