The decline in the season reached a new low on November 9th, 1985. The Imps visited Derby County, a side Champions a decade before but struggling on hard times. The old Baseball Ground was an imposing place to play football and without a win in seven matches, the Imps expected little.
The line up was one unfamiliar to many supporters from a season before, as well as those looking back now. Alan Judge played in goal, the back four consisted of Mark McCarrick, Robert McNeil, Gary Richards and Gary Strodder. Of those players, Richards played once more for City and Strodder kept his place. The others never played again after a horror show.
They were joined by Ian Measham in making their way out of the club as Derby ran riot, winning by seven goals to nil. It was a thrashing of epic proportions and if John Pickering didn’t fear for his job, he should have done.
It was a reflection on the austerity the club were showing. Balancing the books took precedent over winning football matches at it showed as players like Gary Richards were so obviously out of their depth. A year earlier a team with Steve Thompson, Gordon Hobson and George Shipley had beaten Gillingham 2-0, but twelve months had left the club crumbling.
By the end of the month Pickering had rolled the dice, bringing in Peter Daniel. He was a former Wolves defender of some repute who’d had a spell playing in America and he cost the club £23,000. He made his debut on the day Bob Latchford scored his final Imps goal as we lost 3-2 at Wigan.
The defence looked shot to pieces, even when we bagged three at home to York, they let in four. On December 14th, on Daniels second appearance for the club, Cardiff City hammered us 4-0. Enough was enough, the board sacked Pickering.
In his programme notes ahead of the game he spoke of McCarrick, never to play for the club again, as being close to full fitness and Richards, never to start a game again, being given a full contract after being employed on a non contract basis. He also said; “The mood in the club is spot on. No depression, no wrong attitudes, you wouldn’t know we were struggling.” That was unless you paid money on the turnstile and watched Cardiff tear the lads apart.
Three days before Christmas, Rotherham came to the Bank and finally the Imps kept a clean sheet. It was the first since beating Brentford in September, but rather amusingly the programme had John Pickering’s face blacked out on his programme notes with a Christmas message underneath. A point at home against Rotherham didn’t make for a Merry Christmas, but it improved on 18 conceded goals in just four matches.
By New Year’s Day, the club had made an appointment, George Kerr came back after being sacked in 1978. He’d since led Grimsby to a title and managed Rotherham, building his reputation within the game. He raided the Millers for a handful of players too, brining the prolific Kevin Kilmore in, as well as Bobby Mitchell and Ian McInnes.
Finally, on January 11th and the second match Kerr managed, City got a win. McInnes grabbed both goals on a dream debut against Bury as we registered a 2-0 victory. City started the day second from bottom but 2226 fans turned up to finally see a win, 16 games and 101 days after the last one. It was relief, but with Wolves rock bottom City were still three points adrift of safety.
Oddly, despite Pickering praising the attitude before he left, Kerr wasn’t as impressed.
“There are standards off the field that contribute to the success on it and I have to be honest and say that some of those disturb me just as much as those on the pitch.” He was damning in his anger, saying; “I believe that without those basic standards of wanting to work hard and be successful then nobody has a chance of getting anywhere.”
A week later it was business as usual as City went down 2-0 at Gillingham.
After Fourth Division Scunthorpe won 3-1 at the Bank in front of 1235 in the Freight Rover Trophy, Kerr made further changes. He sold Stuart Naylor to West Brom for £100,000 and brought in veteran keeper Trevor Swinburne. Swinburne’s first game was a 2-0 defeat at Blackpool, making our record against them played three, lost three, conceded six, scored nil.
There was a bit of a new manager bump. The side won three matches on the bounce in March, beating Newport away (2-1), Reading away (2-0) and hammering Swansea 4-0 at the Bank in a game attended by 500 more fans than usual. Young Willie Gamble bagged four in four, adding a dish of optimism and hope to the usual menu of angst and despair.
It left City one point from safety, above Cardiff City, Swansea City and Wolves in the table. The big hitting trio were all on hard times, with the Imps hoping to catch Newport and Bob Latchford to save the season. we weren’t going to buy our way out, Kerr commenting ahead of the clash with Notts County that he was relying on the likes of Gamble and McInnes, both 18, to come through and help the club and that he wouldn’t be ‘knocking on the chairman’s door’ for any of the Stuart Naylor money.
The Imps lost 2-0 to the Magpies and by the time we drew 1-1 with Bolton in our third home game on the bounce, crowds sunk back to 2,200.
Off the field the club were pleading poverty, with Director CJ Rodman stating in the notes for the Notts County game that the club were in a critical stage and would only know if they’d survive in the following two months. It was a dire warning, offsetting any positive steps being made on the field. It was more remarkable to think that £100,000 had been banked for Stuart Naylor and not spent.
That air of doom and gloom quickly spread with one win in seven. The club closed the Sincil Bank side of the ground to home fans for the visit of Derby, anticipating 6,000 of their fans. The total attendance was 6237 across both clubs and a 1-0 win for the visitors.
Still, the chances were there to stay up. The Imps had played 39 matches and were fourth from bottom, with Bury and Newport above them on 41 and 40 points. Cardiff were third from bottom, but had played four games more. It was still in Lincoln’s hands.
Plymouth Argyle came to the Bank for a rearranged match on April 16th, with a win enough to take the Imps out of the bottom five. As it transpired, a draw was also enough and Gary West’s goal gave us that.
The games were coming thick and fast, with the Imps in action no fewer than five times in 14 days. York beat us 1-0 at Boothferry Crescent, before Warren Ward struck to help us to the double over Brentford at Griffin Park. Despite the three points, we slipped back into the bottom four. We were never to get back out of it.
Two home draws sealed our fate, against Wigan and Bristol Rovers. After that we needed a miracle and despite having relegated Cardiff and Wolves to play, we went down. Just 2174 turned up to watch up play Wolves on the final day, Willie Gamble and Warren Ward scoring as we lost 3-2.
After such a poor season, the club announced a surplus of £100,000 according to Brian Halford’s book Past Imperfect, with John Reames quoted as later saying “I took it over and ran it like a business. I hadn’t learned that at that level it is impossible to run a football club successfully at a profit.”
City finished fourth from bottom, three points from safety but with an appalling goal difference. The slick football of the opening matches had gone and before Christmas the fate of the club had been largely sealed. Still, with just one more win and one more draw, they would have stayed up at Bury’s expense. It wasn’t to be and 32 years later, we still haven’t managed successive seasons in the third tier.