1966/67 was a great year to be a English football fan. England had won the World Cup, and the country was gripped by a wave of positivity. In Lincoln the Swinging Sixties passed us by though, it was the decade our club fell apart, the Sinking Sixties more than anything.
Our first game of the decade saw us draw 3-3 with Bristol Rovers in the Second Division, now the Championship. We’d been a staple of the second tier for many years, never troubling the top two but always just about holding our own. In 1960/61 we suffered relegation to the Third Division, and in 1961/62 we fell again into the Fourth. We went from playing Liverpool and Sunderland in from of 25,000+, to visiting places such as Barrow and Workington where just a few thousand hardy souls made the effort. It was a spectacular fall from grace.
Back then there was no automatic relegation or promotion, so each season we finished in the bottom four we had to apply for re-election to the Football League. It was a humiliating experience, heading down to the FA cap in hand to beg for another season as a professional club. If you were elected out of the league, there was little way back. Once you’d gone, it was the death knell for your status as a club. Bradford Park Avenue, Barrow, Workington and Southport all went, none have been back.
It seems odd then, that this wretched period in the Imps history should harbour a match so great that people like me feel inclined to write about it, but on December 3rd 1966 Lincoln registered a result that still gets talked about to this day.
Even by our own plunging standards the 1966/67 season had started badly. Up until December we’d won just two league games, 3-1 at home to Brentford and 2-0 at home to Tranmere, Much of our side had broken up and disappeared, leading to defeats away at Hartlepool (5-0) and embarrassingly at home to Southport (4-0). Applying for re-election looked a certainty, and whilst the country listened to the sounds of the Beach Boys ‘Good Vibrations’, Sincil Bank had nothing but negativity and apprehension.
Luton Town were the visitors, a side with a fine home record but who were terrible on their travels. They lost three times in total at home that season, but were beaten 18 times on their travels. They came to play a City side that had managed back to back draws, both 1-1 against Crewe and Wrexham at Sincil Bank. A draw seemed a likely result.
Ron Gray had just taken over as manager, and despite the lack of funds around the place he knew we needed new blood. City were rock bottom of Division Four, and his arrival signalled the mini unbeaten run. Ahead of the Hatters visiting he signed an inside right from Brentford called Billy Cobb for the princely sum of £2000.
Walter William Cobb, ‘Billy’ to his friends, had an unremarkable career up until that point. He was a native of Newark, a Forest youth That found his way to Lincoln via Plymouth Argyle and Brentford for transfer fees totalling around £20k, no small figure in those days. At 26 he still held much promise, a player that had threatened to break through to the top flight without ever actually doing so. Ron Gray saw promise, Billy Cobb saw a move back to his native area.
Fresh from a respectable 4-3 defeat at Third Division Scunthorpe, City took to the pitch, fans expectant of nothing. Just 2893 turned up on a bitterly cold day to witness a match that has stood the test of time ever since. City were utterly ruthless from start to finish. Roger Holmes opened the scoring in just the second minute, and from there Lincoln never looked back. Cobb got a debut goal, assisted by Alfred Jones returning to the defence after a significant spell out with injury.
At half time it was 3-0, City were on their way to their third league win of the season. Few could believe what happened in the second 45 minute spell. Luton came out all guns blazing and pulled a goal back, and for a few moments it looked as if Lincoln’s hard work in the first half might go to waste. Then the goals started coming. On 79 minutes Cobb made history with an overhead kick that completed his hat trick, becoming the first player to do so. His record stood for the next 51 years, until Lee Angol did the same against Braintree last year.
Even more remarkable was not one of the goals came from a header. It was a ruthless destruction of the Hatters, fluid and fast with lots of free-flowing football into feet. It was the Lincoln City team the fans always suspected lurked somewhere under the façade of a struggling Fourth Division side, the sort of team they’d become accustomed to watching in the Second Division.
By the time the final whistle blew a confident and brazen Imps had romped home 8-1. In addition to Billy Cobb’s three goals, Joe Bonson had grabbed two, Roy Chapman bagged a brace and Roger Holmes had one as well. The win was the biggest City had experienced since 1953 when they defeated Blackburn 8-0 at the Bank, and the biggest they would get for 14 years, until Northampton were beaten 8-0 in 1980.
As for Billy Cobb, he didn’t keep up the form he showed in that first game. In 66 further appearances he scored just seven times, and by the end of the season City were four points adrift of Bradford Park Avenue and York City. Luton extracted some revenge, winning 2-1 at Kenilworth Road in April 1967. We successfully applied to retain our Football League status, gaining 46 votes, which was six more than fourth from bottom Rochdale. Clearly our days in the Second tier served us well.
Applications from Wigan Athletic, Romford, Hereford United, Bedford Town, Cambridge United, Chelmsford City, Wellington Town, Wimbledon, Yeovil Town, Cambridge City, Corby Town, Guildford City, Kettering Town and Scarborough all failed. Those teams shared 22 votes, whereas the four remaining Football League teams had 174 between them. No matter how much we feared re-election, it really was a closed shop. In truth being elected to Division Four was a tough business. In 1960 Peterborough were elected at the expense of Gateshead, but it wasn’t until 1970 that Cambridge became the next team to take a spot at the top table, this time at Bradford Park Avenue’s expense. We thought we had it tough bouncing back after 2011!
The 1960’s were far from good days to be a City fan, but Ron Gray did set the wheels in motion for a revival that culminated in Graham Taylor’s title win 10 years later. Whilst 1966 means so much to so many people who remember it fondly, there is a small slice of England’s green lands that remember it for nothing more than an 8-1 thrashing of Luton Town in an otherwise miserable season.