Many of us can remember the last time Lincoln City were in the third tier. The year was 1998 and we were pitched against Fulham, Stoke, Manchester City and Reading.
If we continue to press for a promotion, many will look back to that season and talk about it fondly. Few will go back further, few will want to recall the time before that, when the Third Division has been home for eight years out of ten.
When Graham Taylor put us in the Third Division in 1976, that became home. When I first picked up the mantle of supporting the Imps, my Dad said we were a ‘third division side in the fourth division’. That was 1986/87 and I’d missed the season before, the year when it all came down around our ears.
Your Dad might talk about the early eighties fondly, if not maybe you recall those years. We enjoyed big cup runs and had excellent players who went on to represent England and win FA Cups. We had a superb side in that period and should have ended up in the Second Division, now the Championship.
We didn’t though, we moved into the summer of 1985 broken by a number of incidents and situations, both on and off the field. It’s hard to begin to describe how that summer must have felt for Lincoln fans, with the horrors of the Bradford Fire Disaster so fresh in the memory.
That afternoon in May 1985 will forever be something we talk about, remembering the 56 and the horrors that befell innocent football supporters that afternoon, but for the Lincoln board that year it wasn’t something to remember and poignantly ponder on, it was a reality. It had happened just a month or two before and it defined and shaped our club.
We immediately closed the South Park stand for that season, the timber-based end of the ground that I remember only as the Hunters Stand. Eventually, all four sides of Sincil Bank would be developed. Two other events helped shaped what we’d now call the ‘supporter experience’ that season. The Heysel disaster and the Millwall rioting in the previous season saw the club introduce a membership scheme, an unpopular precursor to Margaret Thatcher’s idea of identity cards for all supporters.
The rookie board weren’t just faced with off the field challenges. Colin Murphy, the man responsible for our early eighties success, walked away from the club by mutual consent. Despite the success in his early years at the club, finishing 18th the year before had left him flat.
The lack of funding to build the side he wanted had held the club back and after six and a half years in charge, he left in search of a different challenge. Key players left too, Steve Thompson, George Shipley and Gordon Hobson were three who had been heroes to many. John Thomas and Alan Walker left as well, all in all bringing in around £110,000. That equates to around £320,000 now. Imagine if we lost Michael Bostwick, Harry Anderson, Bruno Andrade, Tom Pett and James Wilson for that money now.
On top of that, imagine having to appoint a new manager who would come in and not only replace those players, but also get us firing again. It was a thankless task from the start.
In the book ‘Past Imperfect’, Geoff Davey is quoted as saying the board dithered over the choice of manager. They wanted to get someone in early, to give them the whole summer to build a squad. There were several on the shortlist, including Asa Hartford, Eddie May, Colin Todd and John Pickering. Hartford was offered it and turned it down, a couple of others were approached to. Eventually, John Pickering took the job, but he was by no means the first choice.
He brought in Phil Boersma, a former Liverpool player and UEFA Cup winner as his assistant. With a management team in place, signings had to be made.
The big summer signing was another man who’d won trophies, namely Bob Latchford from Everton. He had 12 England caps to his name, back in the day when it was tough to win one, but at 34 was nearing the end of his career. The club were unable to attract further players of sufficient quality to replace those heading out. Gary West came in from Sheffield United, but we then scoured non league for the likes of Steve Richards who had been with Gainsborough. A move for Gary Emmanuel, formerly of Swansea and Bristol City, fell through. Andy Toman arrived from Bishop Auckland and Warren Ward also joined the club.
It’s perhaps fair to say that expectation wasn’t high, with the only pre-season wins coming against Welbourn, Spalding and the Lincoln Sunday League. Middlesbrough, Sunderland, Peterborough and Gainsborough all bet the Imps, leaving fans dubious as to what might happen.
Perhaps that contributed to the dismal crowd of 2,099 for the opening day win against Gillingham. Neil Redfearn bagged the only goal of the game, with new signing Latchford going off with a back injury. It wasn’t an ideal start in terms of personnel, but it was a win.
John Pickering wrote in his first notes of the season: “As we all know this club has been turned upside down during the last five months, eight or nine players have left the club in that time and as I see it, all but one would have gone regardless.”
The team were playing a different brand of football, trying to pass and create chances on the floor, but they were clearly struggling for quality. Steve Richards and Gary West formed a partnership in defence, whereas the year before it had been Walker and Thompson. Steve Burke came in on loan from QPR to replace Latchford, scoring once as we went out of the Milk Cup 4-2 on aggregate to York City. He failed to net in four league appearances and soon left the club.
The side weren’t consistent, but they weren’t woeful either. They lost to Rotherham 1-0, then beat Walsall 3-2. Heavy defeat at Bury, 4-0, was offset by a 3-0 home win against Brentford. Warren Ward was proving to be a bargain, he netted against Bolton (1-1), Doncaster (3-3) and Bournemouth, managed by Harry Redknapp, who we beat 3-2.
By October 6th the Imps had climbed as high as sixth in the table, drawing 1-1 with Newport County thanks to a John McGinley goal. Just two defeats in 11 and an unbeaten home record gave us hope of mounting a promotion challenge.
There were still problems though. Just 1989 watched as we drew with Newport, crowds weren’t responding to the run of form. The membership scheme was proving to be unpopular and a reduction in car parking at the ground caused concerns too. Whilst things weren’t going too badly on the field, the rumblings of discontent could be felt throughout the club.
The membership scheme eventually had to be discontinued in early October, with John Reames writing in his programme notes head of the Blackpool match: “We trust this will be temporary and we would like to thank our supporters who cared and bothered enough to get a card.”
By that point the Imps had lost four matches on the bounce, against Swansea (3-1, Redfearn), Plymouth (2-1, Ward) and Notts County (3-2, Turner and Latchford) away from home, as well as 1-0 against Reading at the Bank.
That left us 17th in the table and seemingly a long way rom the early season promise.
Next Part (in a couple of days time): More manager woes and a humbling at the Baseball Ground