Another dive into the annals of history with our very own Imps’ oracle, Malcolm Johnson.
For the first time in four years, the summer of 1968 did not involve an anxious wait to learn of City’s fate following an application for re-election to the Football League.
However, not satisfied with a mid-table finish manager Ron Gray made some changes to his playing squad, including the arrival of two players who were to have a significant effect on the club’s fortunes over the next several years. One of these was a full back who at the age of 23 already had a coaching qualification under his belt, a certain Graham Taylor who joined from Grimsby Town where he had made almost 200 appearances for them and was dropping down to the Fourth Division for the first time. He replaced regular right back Mick Brown who joined Southern League Cambridge United to pursue his own coaching career.
Incoming from Middlesbrough where first team opportunities had been limited was a 20-year-old left winger called Dave Smith who was to go on to be one of only three players to make over 400 appearances for the Imps.
As well as Brown another rather surprising departure was popular midfielder Billy Cobb, who together with long out-of-favour Ray Lancaster departed on what was to be a well-worn path to Boston United. Also released were striker Clive Ford to play in America, reserve full back Alan York whose only first team appearance had been in a Lincolnshire Cup match, and fringe player Bobby Samuels who joined non-league Stevenage. Winger John Gregson followed Brown to Cambridge, and his replacement as back-up to Gordon Hughes was John Harrison, a 22-year-old from Sheffield United’s reserves. Finally, a substantial £7,000 was spent on midfielder Graham Parker, also aged 22, from Rotherham United.
After an excellent run of results at the end of the previous season there was an air of expectancy among supporters for a real promotion push and on the first day of the new season over 8,000 turned up for the visit of Notts County. We were not disappointed as the Magpies were swept aside with two goals from Jack Lewis, standing in for the injured Roger Holmes, and unusually, goals from both full backs – a George Peden penalty and a 25-yard cannonball shot from Graham Taylor. The latter had been appointed captain in place of the suspended Jim Grummett whose place in defence was filled by the 19-year-old Phil Hubbard who had previously only featured in the side as a full back or striker. With Lew Thom also injured Dave Smith came in for his debut and made an instant impression on the left wing.
The match programme proved to be unchanged from the previous season apart from a 50% price increase to 9d (4p) and was still built around the Football League Review magazine, a publication which regularly featured the name of Jack Lewis in the list of Top Ten best-looking footballers as voted for by (we assume) female readers.
Three successive 8,000-plus home attendances, including a First Round League Cup win over Mansfield Town for the second season in a row, were then followed by one of over 10,000 as City’s 100% winning start to the season continued with a 2-1 Wednesday night win over Southend to put them two points clear at the top of the table. This match was a first for me, as being aware that the last train back to Nottingham left at 8.30 pm I had not so far managed any midweek games and so missed out on the previous season’s big League Cup nights. However, I now discovered a train as far as Newark leaving St Marks station at around 9.20pm. This was in the days when 7.30pm was the standard kick-off time and the half time interval was ten minutes, so in theory, games were due to finish at 9.10pm – which just allowed time to make it to St Marks station for what was the last train of the day. In practice, of course there was usually some injury time, so it meant leaving a few minutes before the end of the game – how many minutes depended on how fast I felt like running down the High Street. Arrival at Newark North Gate was followed by a walk across the town to the bus station for the last bus to Nottingham and arrival home at around 11.30pm. I hated midweek games!
Unfortunately, the good start to the season came crashing to an end with a 5-0 defeat at Darlington, followed by a League Cup exit at Scunthorpe which had Ron Gray claiming the Imps were “robbed of a replay by a hotly disputed offside goal”. This game saw the first changes to the lineup with Jim Grummett back in the side, replacing Lewis in midfield, but a home defeat to a defensively-minded Swansea Town side followed as chairman Walter Mant found it necessary to insert a notice into the programme that vandalism and hooliganism would not be tolerated at Sincil Bank and asking for ‘unruly’ supporters to be identified. Meanwhile, Ray Harford’s form at centre half was attracting attention, with rumours of a £40,000 price tag and interest from clubs such as Manchester United and Portsmouth.
A mini-unbeaten run followed, starting with a goal from Roger Holmes bringing the points back from Wrexham on his return from injury. With both Jim and Dave Smith missing Graham Parker made his debut in midfield and Lew Thom returned as Grummett took over from Phil Hubbard in defence. A George Peden penalty to secure a point at Bradford (Park Avenue) put the left back top of the City scoring charts with three goals and emphasised where the side’s failings lay, but there was no problem when struggling Grimsby were seen off by 3-0 at Sincil Bank in front of over 9,000, the game featuring a first goal for Dave Smith. Three away games in a row then brought just two points including a draw at Port Vale thanks to a goal from Hubbard who, with Norman Corner not fully fit returned to side in attack for one match after scoring five goals in an ‘A’ team match. Parker’s brief run in the side came to an end when he was replaced by Jack Lewis.
A 3-0 win against York kept City one point off a promotion place, but with Jim Smith back in midfield the game was marred by Roger Holmes suffering a badly broken leg which was to keep him out of football for 18 months. There were also reports of what was becoming an increasing trend of ‘silly trouble on the terraces’, with ‘juvenile fun makers’ letting off fireworks.
Lewis, in and out of the side, replaced Holmes for a run of games although Graham Parker was brought back for one game as only one point was gained from three games to put City down to 8th place as I ventured up to Doncaster for my first away match of the season. A bitterly cold November day was warmed by goals from Peter Kearns and Dave Smith bringing back the points from the eventual champions.
City were in fourth place when the FA Cup trail started with a visit to Macclesfield Town, leading the Northern Premier League ahead of Wigan Athletic in the days when that competition was one step below the Football League. I made the complicated journey by bus to stand on a grassy bank at the Moss Rose ground to see John Harrison make his debut for the suspended Gordon Hughes in a hard-fought 3-1 win. The game also featured Dave Smith as the latest midfield replacement for Roger Holmes with Lewis Thom back on the left wing. The Second Round draw produced a trip to fellow promotion-chasers Chester, but first they were beaten 2-0 at Sincil Bank to move City above them into third place. There followed a goalless draw at Scunthorpe in a game which saw five later Football League managers on the pitch – two of them also to be in charge of England, including the then 17-year-old Kevin Keegan.
Although City were doing reasonably well there had been concerns about a lack of goal threat up front with main strikers Kearns and Corner only mustering ten between them. To remedy this the Leicester City fringe first team player Bobby Svarc was signed for £6,000.