Usually when I do these pieces I’m looking back an Imps win, a snapshot of a time we were triumphant over the side due to play us next. Today I’m looking at a defeat, one that continued a miserable run.
On January 24th 1998 it was the Magpies turn to visit us. They were on course for the League title, something we had coveted. Since our FA Cup defeat by Emley though we’d collapsed, and instead of snatching the title we were desperately hoping to hold on to a play-off spot.
The ever-divisive John Beck was in charge, and we went into the match on the back of a 2-2 draw with 10-man Scarborough. We’d thrown away a lead, then left it until the last minute for Dean Walling to get us a share of the points. Lincoln were playing ugly, Beck wasn’t popular and the atmosphere was strained. We needed a good result against our local rivals to keep us in contention for promotion. County were 10 points clear at the top, we were clinging on to seventh under pressure from Exeter, Torquay, Macclesfield, Chester and Orient. Tense times.
The team that Beck built wasn’t all that bad. Kevin Austin and Dean Walling were both good defenders, Terry Fleming roamed the midfield whilst Gavin Gordon and Paul Smith looked for goals up front. The County team featured several ex-Imps amongst their ranks, Gary Jones had spent time on loan at Sincil Bank whilst Ian Baraclough and Gary Strodder had played at the turn of the 1990’s too.
5911 fans arrived at Sincil Bank for the big match, and I found myself having to ‘borrow’ a car from a friend who was on holiday. I had a feeling it wasn’t a match to be missed, I’d been a vocal supporter of John Beck all season and I desperately wanted us to prove the doubters wrong.
Just after the hour mark I wanted the world to swallow me up. Gary Strodder had nodded the ball through to Sean Farrell after five minutes, and County were 1-0 up. In a show of virtual dominance County poured forward, and it was no surprise when Ian Baraclough fired in from 20 yards with 25 minutes gone. That was swiftly followed with a scrambled third, Sean Farrell saw his shot saved by John Vaughn, but former Imp Strodder was on hand to grab his side’s third. It looked like being a humiliating afternoon for City. We’d barely threatened, a Mark Hone header from eight yards perhaps the best chance of a terrible first half.
John Beck decided a change was needed, off came Gavin Gordon and on went Steve Brown, super sub. Brown was an enthusiastic player, if not a little limited in ability. I let out a little groan as I saw the board go up, here we were, a long ball team, taking off a big striker. Genius.
Then we got a stroke of luck. Ian Richardson rolled a ball back to his keeper, harmless at first. Then as Ward came to meet it the pitch played an ace: the ball bobbled past his foot and away towards goal. Paul Smith was on hand to tap into an empty net to pull back a goal for City. The celebrations were muted, it wasn’t as if we’d worked our way up front and scored, but a goal is a goal.
If the ground wasn’t noisy for our first, it erupted five minutes later. Lee Thorpe spread the ball out wide to Steve Brown, he whipped in a teasing cross that flashed in front of Darren Ward, and Mark Hone was on hand to tap in from eight yards. 3-2, and it was game on. We’d finally scored from open play too, and the momentum seemed to swing our way. Suddenly, all around the ground, there was belief.
For the next ten minute or so City looked to get level, forcing a corner on the hour mark. Hone lifted the ball across, Dean Waling flicked it on – the ball seemed to hang in the air for a moment – then Steve Brown appeared with an acrobatic overhead kick. He caught the ball sweetly and it beat Ward at his near post. 3-3. Sincil Bank erupted.
Whenever a goal is scored in those circumstances it is dangerous, the crowd were still celebrating after County kicked off. Surely now we’d go on and score again to despatch the champions-elect and get our own promotion charge back on track? I was thinking that exact thought as an innocuous cross evaded our defence and Gary Jones nipped in to make it 4-3. Literally within seconds of getting level we’d throw it away. John Beck was having a meltdown on the touch line, and the crowd fell silent. You wouldn’t have realised though, because the County fans replaced the noise immediately.
The game remained end-to-end but the writing seemed on the wall. On 73 minutes John Vaughan had the ball at his feet looking to clear. He delayed sending it early, allowing Sean Farrell to charge him down, and embarrassingly for our keeper his clearance didn’t beat the player. Farrell had the easiest of opportunities to roll the ball into an empty net. 5-3, self destruct.
County did what all good team do and killed the game in the last ten minutes, City had looked out of ideas since the third goal, and when the whistle went there was a chorus of boos aimed at Beck. Ten games without a win, and as we listened to the final scores being read out things got worse. Chester had beaten Cambridge. Macclesfield had won, Orient had won, and Torquay had too. From starting the day in 7th we ended it 11th. The John Beck dream was dying fast, the long unbeaten run of late 1997 was gone and the club were in a downward spiral. Just how Beck liked it. He went five unbeaten in February, recording wins away at Cardiff and against Hull and promotion chasing Barnet at the Bank. It mattered not, his days were numbered, despite only losing one more game as City boss he was sacked in March in the aftermath of a home draw with Swansea City.
Of course despite the terrible tactics and wildly inconsistent form we were promoted that season. County went up as Champions and we followed in third place. Interestingly the bottom five in the basement division that year were Cardiff, Swansea, Hull, Brighton and Doncaster. How times change.