I’m going to conclude my look back at the reign of John Beck today. You’ve had a chance to read how he came in and sorted out a team in disarray, saving us from certain relegation, and you’ve read how, in his first full season, we were one game from achieving a play-off place and were victorious against the mighty Manchester City. On the menu today, promotion and with it perhaps the most divisive period in Lincoln City’s turbulent history. Just how is it that a man could all-but guide us to a first promotion out of the basement division since the early 1980’s, and yet still be hated by a majority of the club’s fan base?
The 1997/98 season didn’t have the best of starts for the controversial manager and his beleaguered chairman. Assistant Manager John Still, so often the voice of reason and bridge between the two, left the club for the role as manager of Barnet. Shane Westley was appointed as the new assistant, an unspectacular player in whom John Beck believed he could trust. However, with Still gone the fragile relationship between manager and board developed another crack or two.
That said, the board still felt they could achieve promotion under the manager’s guidance. A club-record fee of £75,000 was paid to Carlisle United for Dean Walling, an experienced and competent defender. He completed a back five of Barnett, Austin, Walling, Holmes and Whitney, a defence to be feared throughout the lower leagues. It had goals in it, it had clean sheets in it and most of all it had steel and durability. No centre forwards would bully us any longer, and days of 7-1 maulings at Bury and Colchester were hoped to be in the past.
We also held on to Gareth Ainsworth in the summer, although a six-figure valuation and serious cash shortfall meant it was only to be a matter of time. He had finished leading scorer in the unsuccessful play-off campaign of the previous season, but bigger clubs were circling and Beck knew it was only a matter of time before he was sold. Of course it meant another game of chess between manager and board, who would come out on top this time?
Another new face joining over the summer was striker Lee Thorpe, released by Blackpool but impressive in a pre-season trial. He looked to add firepower to the Ainsworth and Stant forward line, but in truth he was a replacement rather than an addition.
The season had scarcely started when rumours of interest in Ainsworth began again. Two wins from three (Shrewsbury 1-0 and Notts County 2-1) left us in a promising position when Scarborough visited on August 30th. Ainsworth was unplayable that day, he bagged his first Imps hat trick with a master class of skill, style and his typical determination. At the final whistle he came over to the fans to acknowledge us as he always did, only this time it was different. This time he had a tear in his eye. This time it wasn’t just a round of applause, it was goodbye. He wanted out, and I assume with two away games in ten day, he knew this was his last outing at the Bank. He turned out twice more, the final time coming in the midweek defeat at Rotherham, before £500,000 arrived in our bank account in exchange for his services. Port Vale were the recipients of his unique style and skill set. He’d arrived at Sincil Bank on the back of a disappointing spell at Preston North End, but he left a much more rounded player with a Premier League future ahead of him. Say what you want about John Beck, but that was his doing.
Another situation that was entirely John Beck’s own doing was the issue with youth team player Danny Lynn. Beck had been asked to chat to the younger players about discipline and application, and he delivered a strongly worded and passionate speech, brimming with anger and so-called motivation. He made his way down a line of players admonishing each and every one of them. When he reached Lynn his words had fired him up so much he crossed a line. He grabbed the player by the throat to make his point, and once again John Reames secretary found herself writing a warning out on her typewriter. Lynn never made the first team, he left the club shortly after. I suppose anyone who crossed the manager was always going to have his cards marked, except John Reames of course.
Beck’s personal life was unfolding and yet that was when he performed at his best. His star striker had left, and he encountered personal problems that saw him arrive at the ground one day with his possessions in his car. It is rumoured a break up caused him a degree of stress, he often slept at the office and according to sources had been prescribed medication to deal with his issues. This was 1997 though, any thoughts of compassion for a man suffering from depression were at least fifteen years away. Beck had pressure from all angles, and from that Lincoln City sprung a 18-match unbeaten run.
It wasn’t pretty, it never was, but at 19-years old I had begun to realise that success comes around on rare occasions when you follow the Imps, and therefore you should embrace it no matter what it looks like. The ball moved forward, quickly, but for 18 games that tactic had opposition players completely bamboozled. It wasn’t just the long ball though, at the back we were as strong as any defence I’d seen. Nine clean sheets in eleven games are testament to that, between September 13th and November 8th we conceded just twice. It might not have been for the purists, but fans did begin to buy into the team. 3019 turned up for the opening home game of the season against Shrewsbury, but the visit of Leyton Orient on November 1st attracted over 4,100.
There was a sniff of an FA Cup run as well, perhaps a money-spinning tie similar to Manchester City could help strengthen John Beck’s case with the fans? A tantalising first round draw saw Gainsborough Trinity visit the Bank, and a 1-1 draw called for a replay. Both sides chose to hold that at Sincil Bank, and ten-man Lincoln triumphed 3-2, thanks in the main to a brace from defender turned goal scorer Dean Walling.
Now then, Mark Hone. He found himself almost always linked with that match for the wrong reasons, but it was around that time I found myself canoodling on his sofa with a girl as a young Danny Hone slept upstairs. I had ‘hooked up’ with a particularly nice girl who lived just outside of Bardney, in the same hamlet as Mark Hone. She’d bagged a babysitting job and I was invited along to *ahem* keep her company. I didn’t realise I was making my way into the home of an Imps player, and she didn’t care what he did for a living. It wasn’t long before I spotted a plaque on the wall bearing the crest of Crystal Palace, and his name underneath amongst such legends as Ian Wright. Needless to say his tackle on Paul Ellender is not all I remember him for, given the panic that I might be caught red handed on his sofa with one hand up his babysitter’s top.
Anyway, on with the show. The second round threw up an intriguing tie against little known Emley. They were to visit Sincil Bank for what should be a routine thrashing and our chance to mix it with a big club. They didn’t read the script, and only a late, late Terry Fleming goal gave us a 2-2 draw, and a replay at Huddersfield’s McAlpine Stadium. I know the goal was late, because I heard the roar as I entered the City Bus Station, keen to catch the 5pm bus back to Wragby I’d left early. No doubt there was a babysitter somewhere in need of company.
So we were into the second round, what of the league? Little old Lincoln as Beck called us, were little no more. After a fine 2-1 win at Exeter we had hit the top of the table, primed for a jump to the third tier for the first time in my fandom. We had poached Gavin Gordon from Hull, a promising player whose arrival heralded a new dawn of recruitment. The Emley result was surely a blip, we were unbeaten in 18 games, top of the league and to top it all off, West Ham were pulled out of the hat for the third round match. The joy. What could possibly go wrong?
Everything could go wrong, and everything did go wrong. Despite our lofty perch, half of the fans were still not happy. I penned my first ever Imps related piece to the Sports Echo defending the club and John Beck, claiming we’d never had it so good. The very fact I felt I had to goes some way to illustrating the divide that had opened up. In fact there was no longer just a divide, there was a chasm, almost on ocean between those on his side, and those against him. If half the fans are against you when you’re top with one foot in the FA Cup, imagine how they feel when you drop out of the play-offs, lose to a village team at the expense of a lucrative third-round tie and endure a manager defend his position by claiming the club can’t afford to sack him.
On December 5th 1997 Lincoln City had their destiny in their hands, but just a few days later everything began to implode. A two-goal lead was surrendered against Emley before we were humiliatingly eliminated on penalties. Then the 16 games unbeaten run fell as we lost in the AWS against Wigan, and the yearly thrashing arrived just before Christmas at the hands of Peterborough (5-1). In late January Notts County also hit us for five, this time triumphing 5-3 in a thriller at Sincil Bank. That gave us our 10th game without a win, and we slipped out of the play-off places. In little under two months Beck had gone from hero to zero.
With each defeat a portion of fans moved over from the ‘Beck In’ camp, to the ‘Beck Out’ camp. Three wins in four against Cardiff (1-0), Hull (1-0) and Barnet (2-0) did little to appease the discontented masses. The other match of that spell was a Friday night trip to Cambridge, a match televised by Sky Sports. Their angle was Beck returning to his former club, a clash of footballing styles. It’s a good job they weren’t there to be entertained. Alan Brazil tore our ‘style’ to pieces, humiliating us as much as Emley had in front of the watching nation. I watched it in the Ship Inn at Horncastle, and to say we were bad would be doing us a favour. City were terrible, and John Beck clearly felt the pressure. Immediately after the match he took an unscheduled holiday, suffering himself from the stress of his break up and possibly losing his grip on the reigns. Prior to the Hull win he wrote:
“I ask you, the supporters, to be patient and have faith in the players. During our 18 match unbeaten run earlier in the season the luck went our way but in recent matches it has gone against us. I always knew that we would experience a blip but I will get it right. The only way for us to change our luck is through hard work. We have to be professional and adopt the correct attitude in everything we do. It is important that the supporters get behind the players at times like this and I am sure the true fans will continue to give us their full backing.”
It felt like a final roll of the dice, gambling on an appeal to the fans to not look at where we had been, top of the league, but the bigger picture. The problem was that the football was (at times) horrible to watch, and genuinely good footballers often looked stifled by rigid tactics designed to spoil games rather than win them. Crowds were down, hope was slipping away and despite still being in the hunt for promotion, Sincil Bank was not a nice place to be.
Just 2281 turned up for our early March clash with Swansea City, and a 1-1 draw gave us a third game in a row without a win. By now a majority of fans had switched over to the Beck Out brigade, and the few who still backed him, me included, stayed silent as the chorus of boos and demands he go rang out around the ground. In typical arrogant John Beck style he bundled his way into the media room after the game mocking the supporters.
“Beck out, Beck out,” he muttered smiling as he boldly sat down in front of the assembled journalists. “I don’t think this football club can afford, financially, professionally or in football terms to sack me.” At that point, the game really was over.
John Reames had seen enough. He had poured his life into Lincoln City, and his struggle with Beck had been energy sapping and thoroughly unpleasant. He moved to dismiss his manager based not on performances, dwindling crowds or fan opinion, but for the unauthorised holiday taken after the Cambridge match. Wilfull neglect of duties, serious breach of contract, these days it would probably be classed as gross misconduct. In those instances the employer doesn’t have to pay a penny. John Beck was suspended, and finally dismissed.
Beck wasn’t happy. He claimed unfair dismissal, but that was rejected by a tribunal. Not surprising really, two written warnings and then a rock-solid gross misconduct charge had nailed his coffin lid well and truly shut. He had overseen a hoof into danger alley for the last time.
“What happened at Lincoln City turned my whole life around,” he is quoted as saying in Brian Halford’s ‘Past Imperfect’.
“I was quite happy running my business at Southport but they begged me to come in and keep them out of the Conference. I did that. I got a half-decent squad together and turned things round. Not just on the pitch. The players understood that being a footballer wasn’t just about playing football. I got them out in the community, into schools, and got the supporters’ band going. I talked to the fans – the Lincoln fans hadn’t been listened to for years. But as soon as we were safe from relegation in that first season, every thing changed. From then on, everything I set out was questioned. At every board meeting, before we got round to discussing important things, there had to be two hours of me justifying my style of play.”
He wasn’t amused at the final grounds of his dismissal either.
“Sure I went skiing. I told Shane Westley that I was going and I was contactable on my mobile all the time. I’d had one or two problems in my personal life so I went to the Alps to get away for a couple of days. Then I got back on the Thursday, spent a couple of days training with the players and on Saturday we beat Barnet 2-0. What’s the problem ? But they saw the chance to get rid of me and save themselves some money.”
Save money? Maybe it did, but I don’t think that was the root cause of Beck’s firing. Less than twelve months had elapsed when cracks first formed, and despite spending relatively big money on players and on community schemes, success was still eluding us. Beck did get fans onside for a while, he did galvanise the support, for a while. In the end though, the product served up on a Saturday afternoon was not satisfactory for the chairman, a bulk of the supporters and even some of the players. The harsh truth is we played bad football, we played ugly football and despite challenging for the play-offs, we played unpopular football. The 1996/97 season had brought the highs of Man City, Southampton and Gareth Ainsworth, but in 1997/98 we had the sour taste of Emley and potential play-off failure. John Beck made his position untenable after the Swansea game, and the board acted to reclaim their club.
One of Beck’s final acts was to suggest the club adopt a mascot for the 1998/99 season, and despite him going that was followed up on. Poacher the Imp was born, and I got my chance to be a part of the set-up for the next sixteen years.
As for the club? He left us on the edge of the play-off race with eleven games to go, but we were out of form and down on our luck. His assistant Shane Westley took over, and led us to victories in six of those games utilising exactly the same robust style. In April our match with Macclesfield bubbled over into a mass brawl, Barry Richardson and future Imp Ben Sedgemore were sent off but in truth five or six should have gone. It was a typical ‘John Beck’ incident, and it showed his influence was as strong as ever.
As it transpired, thanks to the horrible form of those around us, our form was enough not only to secure a play-off spot, but third place, and automatic promotion. On April 18th we gained revenge over Peterborough with a fine 3-0 victory, and yours truly got an Imps tattoo in the morning. £45, but the tattooist said that if City managed to beat Posh he’d refund me as it seemed unlikely! I got into the ground in time to see Jimmy Quinn have an early effort ruled out, and by the final whistle I was celebrating not only revenge for the 5-1 hammering, but also getting my money back thanks to Paul Smith and a Colin Alcide brace. It was still long ball, it still wasn’t pretty, but it’s easier to digest when you’re winning and it’s earning you free body art.
The final match of the season saw us needing to beat second from bottom Brighton, and hope Orient beat third-placed Torquay. For the second season in a row we were reliant on others first and foremost, but Orient did us the favour we needed, and we kept our half of the bargain as well. After a season of turmoil, dismay and apparent despair, Lincoln City were promoted to the third tier, and still (to date) the only occasion during my tenure as a fan that we’ve achieved a promotion within the Football League.
As for John Beck, he surfaced again a few years later at Cambridge, keeping them in Division Two. He was later assistant at village side Histon as they climbed to the Conference, but unsurprisingly left after falling out with the manager. He was last heard of coaching the UEFA B badge at St Georges Park, presumably leaning on his experiences as a ball playing midfielder rather than a football spoiling manager.
Whatever is said about Beck, whichever side of the fence you sat on, his contribution to the club has to be acknowledged. He saved us from relegation, and he gave us some unforgettable times at Sincil Bank. The ‘team that Beck built’ were never easy on the eye, but when won matches few cared, and ultimately it was his side that earned us a year out of the basement division. For my sins, I supported him right up until the end, but reading reports of the outburst at the Swansea match really changed my mind. Lincoln City Football Club is far bigger than any one individual, it always will be, and sadly John Beck lost sight of that.