Despite having put the days of struggle earlier in the decade behind them the Imps had failed to sustain a hoped-for promotion challenge the previous season, falling away to finish eighth in Division Four writes Malcolm Johnson.
The lack of goals from a consistent striker was a big factor in this, with left winger Dave Smith finishing as top scorer with only 11. However, the emergence from the reserves of the diminutive but speedy Rod Fletcher seemed as if would solve the goalscoring problem.
The few players released during the summer of 1969 included goalkeeper Dave Tennant who, after two seasons as a backup to John Kennedy, now joined Rochdale, newly promoted to Division Three. Left winger Lewis Thom joined Bradford (Park Avenue) and striker Peter Kearns dropped into the Southern League with Weymouth.
A major surprise was the departure of midfield rock Jim Smith who at the age of 28 became player-manager of Boston United to start on a lengthy and illustrious managerial career.
Prior to the start of the season, chairman Walter Mant had declared the directors were fully intent on strengthening the team with a large sum of money reserved for new players for an all-out promotion drive. But there were few signs of this, with four out of the five new players joining having cost nothing, including utility player John Mackin on a two-month trial after being released by Northampton Town and 20-year-old striker Roy Turnbull from Scottish club Hearts.
The main new signing was a replacement for Jim Smith in the shape of 30-year-old Scotsman Billy Taylor who had been on the fringe of Nottingham Forest’s first team for several seasons. Like his namesake Graham, now starting his second season with the Imps, he was another player with coaching qualifications already under his belt.
The one transfer fee paid was £4,000 for slightly-built midfielder Dave Helliwell, aged 21, from Blackburn Rovers for whom he had played a dozen or so games in the Second Division. Finally, with perhaps some doubt over John Kennedy’s fitness after the fractured elbow that had caused him to miss the second half of the previous season, in came goalkeeper Colin Withers from Aston Villa. Aged 29, he had made around 250 appearances for the Villa and his other home town club Birmingham City in the top two divisions before losing his regular first team place.
While there was once again an air of optimism at the start of the season it was less so than the year before, and although 1968/69 had seen nine league crowds of over 8,000 at Sincil Bank there were barely 7,000 of us present for the opening game against Colchester United.
The match programme, its price thankfully still unchanged at 9d (4p) was also unchanged (less thankfully) in content, including the adverts, and was still bound around the Football League Review magazine. In the Supporters Club Notes, advance notice was given that voting papers would be given out towards the end of the season for an Imps ‘Footballer of the Year’ award to be presented at the Annual Dinner.
On the pitch, new signings Bill Taylor and Dave Helliwell partnered each other in midfield and with Gordon Hughes missing through injury Jack Lewis found himself on the right wing. The previously out-of-favour Bobby Svarc partnered Rod Fletcher up front. Surprisingly omitted from the starting lineup for the first time was George Peden, with Phil Hubbard in the side at right back and Graham Taylor on the left.
Despite a good start, with two goals in 30 seconds from Fletcher to carry on his form from the end of the previous season City were pegged back by half time and it look a late goal by defender Ray Harford to rescue a point. Maurice Burton in the Football Echo described the performance as not entirely convincing, saying Helliwell was seldom in the picture and criticising Withers’ performance in goal.
Coincidentally being on holiday in London the following week I was able to get to City’s First Round League Cup match at Vicarage Road against newly-promoted Second Division side Watford. With John Mackin making his debut in place of Lewis the Imps, despite taking the lead with a goal from Hubbard, were perhaps flattered by a 2-1 defeat.
With John Kennedy quickly restored to the side in place of Withers a defeat at York was followed by a second 3-3 draw in a row at Sincil Bank, this time after going 3-1 up against Southend thanks to a debut goal from Billy Taylor and a first goal on his 10th appearance for the club by Alick Jeffrey now preferred to Svarc. However, two late goals were conceded to let a point slip away.
The winless start to the season went on with a run of two draws and three defeats as George Peden was recalled to the side with Phil Hubbard moved first up front and then into midfield as Helliwell was found wanting. One of these games saw the only visit to Sincil Bank in a competitive game by a member of England’s 1966 World Cup winning side, left back Ray Wilson featuring for Oldham Athletic in their 1-0 win.
Away from the first team, there was news of the signing of an 18-year-old amateur player from local side Adelaide Park, as John Ward soon made his debut for the reserves, notching a goal in his third game for them.
With Dave Helliwell given a game on the right wing before being left out of the side it was perhaps no surprise that after eight games the inclusion of Gordon Hughes for his first game after a cartilage operation produced the first win as he created both goals in a 2-0 success against Chester. With City now next to bottom of the league it was also no surprise to see the attendance down to less than four and a half thousand, the lowest for 18 months.
More much-needed points immediately followed with the first away win of the season coming at what better place than Grimsby as I made it to three away games in a row for the first time. Again, Hughes was the creator as a goal by Jeffrey in the 2-0 win was followed by another in a defeat at Brentford. The other scorer at Blundell Park, Rod Fletcher then embarked on a run of 6 goals in 7 games which brought a return of 8 points out of 14 and moved City up towards mid-table. This included a 1-0 win over Exeter City which saw a debut for powerful midfielder Trevor Meath, signed from Walsall for £6,000 in a bid to solve the problem of who to play alongside Bill Taylor.
Meath’s signing allowed Phil Hubbard to move back into defence following a knee injury suffered by Ray Harford that was to keep him out of action for nearly four months. John Mackin had meanwhile been released following his trial period and joined York City, featuring for them as they were beaten 4-0 at Sincil Bank in City’s best result of the season so far. This included a penalty from Bill Taylor and a goal from Jack Lewis, in for the injured Dave Smith, who “cracked a scorcher” as Ron Gray put it. While Trevor Meath’s first goal for the club was securing a point at Aldershot, the following midweek I was at Meadow Lane taking my chance of seeing the reserves in action. The game was notable for the City side including a 20-year-old striker on trial from Isthmian League side Wycombe Wanderers named Viv Busby. Not kept on, it was a case of what might have been as he went on to have an extensive career in the top two divisions, appearing for Fulham in the 1975 FA Cup Final.