THIRTY years ago, the lights went out on Lincoln City’s Football League existence as they became the first team to drop into the Conference following the introduction of automatic relegation from the ’92 club’.
The 1986-87 season will always be a campaign the older Sincil Bank faithful will want to forget as a second-half capitulation saw Lincoln plummet from a top-six position on New Year’s Day to the bottom of the table following that awful May afternoon in south Wales when City were beaten 2-0 by Swansea, while, down in Devon, a police dog-inspired Torquay scored an unlikely injury-time equaliser against Crewe to earn one of the most valuable points in their history to ensure they stayed up at the Imps’ expense.
Much like the relegation side from 2010-11, most of the players – along with George Kerr and Peter Daniel, who both navigated City towards the iceberg – from that catastrophic campaign will go down in Lincoln City folklore for all the wrong reasons due to their contributions to the club’s downfall. But unlike the Steve Tilson-era side, there were actually a few decent players amongst the dross all those years ago, with one of the finest young centre-backs to ever pull on a City shirt, Gary Strodder, securing a dream move to West Ham during that season. John McGinley was to redeem himself by playing a pivotal role in the Conference-winning side, while young left-back Shane Nicholson would go on to greater things with Derby and West Brom.
Then there was Gary Lund, who could well have been a Lincoln City legend had he signed for the club in any other season. He scored 16 league goals in that fateful campaign, which was the best return by an Imps leading marksman since Derek Bell hammered in 29 four years earlier, and only bettered by Phil Brown/McGinley over the next nine years. To put that goals tally in context, he scored more than Lee Thorpe when City won promotion to the third tier in 1998, and more than Matt Rhead managed last season when Lincoln won the National League. And still Lincoln were relegated, although his contribution was similar to that of Ashley Grimes, who notched 17 as the Imps plummeted back out of the Football League again in 2011.
Lund arrived at Sincil Bank from big rivals Grimsby Town in the summer of 1986, persuaded by the vision of manager George Kerr, with the lure of a promotion-winning campaign – following their relegation from the old Division Three – music to the young striker’s ears. The then 21-year-old, who had scored 30 goals in 74 games in three seasons with the Mariners, had fallen out with Town boss Mick Lyons and saw a move down the A46, albeit a drop of two divisions, as a way of re-igniting his passion for the game. The Imps were optimistic of the road ahead and Lund couldn’t wait to be a part of it.
So, in a swap deal, with midfielder Phil Turner heading to Cleethorpes, Lund arrived at Sincil Bank ready to fire the Imps to the promised land, but after a decent start, the season turned into a nightmare of epic proportions of which the footballer-turned-estate agent stills feels the guilt of being part of the side that put Lincoln on the map for all the wrong reasons.
This is the story of Gary Lund’s one and only season with the Imps, which was resplendent with goals and a rejected big-money bid, but above all else despair and sorrow, and regrets…
After seeing Warren Ward and Neil Redfearn top score with just eight goals apiece as City were relegated from Division Three, Imps gaffer Kerr was on the lookout for someone to spearhead his attack and fire the Imps back to whence they came. Discovering that the talented Lund was unhappy at his former club, Kerr dangled a tantalising carrot to the young hitman, with promises of glory and success at Sincil Bank.
“Mick Lyons took charge of Grimsby and for whatever reason we didn’t really get on too well,” recalls Lund, now 52. “I don’t think I was his sort of player and we didn’t gel. I needed to get out of Grimsby and have a fresh start somewhere else.
“The deal came about with Lincoln as Phil Turner was going the other way, so a swap deal was arranged. It was a good opportunity to re-launch my career. George Kerr sold me the promise of Lincoln going places – unfortunately the wrong way – but he had big ideas for the club and to be fair, everything looked rosy for the first half of the season, until the wheels came off.
“I had heard a little bit about George, but didn’t play under him at Grimsby as he had left the club by the time I was there. People who I knew had told me a little bit about him and they said he was a brash Scottish chap. Lincoln was just down the road for me. I had just bought a house in Grimsby and that meant I didn’t have to move, and I was sold on the idea that the club were going places. At that time they looked like a club who would be moving upwards.
“I had come from the old Division Two, so it was a bit of a drop for me. But I was told by George that we hadn’t got Division Four players, we had better quality than that, we would do well and challenge for promotion and I would be back in Division Two before I knew it.”
The season could not have started better for Lund and City, with the new striker scoring on his debut against Colchester in a 3-1 success, while a few days later, the Imps won 2-1 at Wolves in the League Cup.
Just one victory followed in the next 13 matches, but a run of four straight wins got the Imps back on track and heading deep into 1986, Lund was well into double figures, with some big clubs keeping tabs on him.
“Everything was pretty good for the first four or five months of the season, I had banged quite a few goals in and to be honest, on a personal level, things could not have been going much better,” said Lund.
“Around Christmas time, Sheffield United wanted to sign me for £200,000 but George being George, tongue in cheek, said ‘well, if John Aldridge has gone to Liverpool for a million quid then Gary Lund is worth a million’. So that ended the interest from Sheffield United.
“I don’t think it (the club rejecting the offer) had an effect on me, but maybe without knowing it, it did. At the time when it was turned down, it wasn’t a massive issue as everything was going well. I was thinking ‘well, they’ve turned that down, but it’s not a problem as we’re near the top of the league and I’m scoring lots of goals, so if it’s not now it will probably be at the end of the season or soon after that maybe’. I had no regrets at the time and in my mind I just carried on and got on with it.
“For me, things were going well The Blades were watching me, I had scored lots of goals up to Christmas, and they made that bid, but little did we all know what was around the corner. I don’t why it dropped off dramatically.”
Lincoln lost their Christmas fixture at Scunthorpe, but after beating Burnley 2-1 on January 3, City were sat in a healthy sixth spot, although inexplicably the wheels completely fell off, as a run of five straight defeats – without Lincoln scoring a single goal – suddenly had Kerr’s men dropping down the table like the proverbial stone.
Even Lund’s form suffered. Before Christmas he had rattled in 14 league goals, but only two more were to follow from the New Year onwards as he became just one of a huge group of players to be struck with a lack of belief as the goals dried up.
“Coincidentally, it (the Sheffield United bid) happened pretty close to the time when the results went down,” said Lund. “I am not the sort of person to spit the dummy out and it was not in my best interests to down tools. I was doing my best, but it just wasn’t coming off and I was struggling along with the rest of the guys.”
He went on: “It was the first year of relegation to the Conference and I know for a fact that guys in the changing room were very, very nervous about that. When we started to slide down the table a little bit, it became a real issue. We had a quite a young team and a lot of them were on short contracts and everyone was petrified about what was going to happen. If we get relegated then I’m out of a job, for instance, and it really had an impact on the changing room. People were tensing up, freezing up and not being able to express themselves fully and that certainly had a big impact to how we performed in the latter stages of the season.
“I don’t think we were in the bottom spot until the very last game, but we always had this thought in our minds of ‘it will never happen as we’re so far away from it’ and maybe that was a bad thing, but we felt it (relegation) just couldn’t happen. There cannot be that many teams who are sixth at Christmas and end up finishing bottom of the league.”
A 2-1 win at Halifax only served to paper over the cracks as three more defeats to Leyton Orient, Tranmere and Peterborough led to Kerr’s dismissal, with the much-criticised Scot being sacked on March 7, to be replaced by veteran City midfielder Peter Daniel, who took over as player-boss.
“Whatever George tried, didn’t work,” recalled Lund. “He tried different training methods, different formations, but nothing came off. The rot had set in. Nobody knew what to do and things were spiralling out of control. We had some good players – Gary Strodder and Shane Nicholson, while we also signed Jimmy Gilligan and he had a good career after he left Lincoln.
“Players got on with George as for the first half of the season, everything was fine. There wasn’t any division in the changing room, he was well liked. He was quite an old school manager and was generally liked by everyone. But something just went wrong, he couldn’t find the solution and Peter Daniel couldn’t either when he took over from him. It was a slope that we just couldn’t get off – we kept sliding and siding.
“We couldn’t get a win from anywhere and whatever we did, just didn’t work. I can totally understand why George was sacked as he just wasn’t getting the results and we had struggled for a fair bit of time. In today’s day and age, he probably would not have lasted as long as he did.”