Appointed manager of Lincoln City the previous November at the age of 28 Graham Taylor had suffered a rocky start to his managerial career with the Imps slumping close to the re-election zone, writes Malcolm Johnson.
However, after finally getting into his stride, and bringing in players such as midfielders Terry Heath and Alan Harding, and full back Dennis Leigh some improved results had seen City finish the 1972/73 Fourth Division season comfortably in 10th place.
Changes to the playing squad in the summer of 1973 saw four players in and four out, mostly with regard to defenders. The trio of Derek Trevis, Terry Branston and Tommy Spencer had between them filled the two central defensive positions for the majority of the last two seasons, with Trevis also featuring in midfield and up front. He was now released, and after spending the summer playing in America joined Stockport County. It had become clear that the now 35-year-old Branston was no longer part of Graham Taylor’s plans and had only played in the latter part of the season due to the absence of an alternative. Now, although remaining on the club’s books he was to spend the whole of the coming season out on loan, firstly to Long Eaton United and then Nuneaton Borough. Spencer, although a key member of the side that had narrowly missed out on promotion in 1972 had then suffered a season hit by injury and although retained in the squad was evidently not rated by Taylor as his first-choice centre half. Playing alongside Terry Cooper, now established in the centre of defence, was to be the 26-year-old Sam Ellis, bought from Mansfield Town for £7,000. Ellis’s chief claim to fame was of appearing as a late selection for Sheffield Wednesday as a 19-year-old in the 1966 FA Cup Final. He had gone on to play over 150 games in the top two divisions for the Owls before joining Mansfield.
Another change of personnel came at right back, with Mick Bloor, despite many supporters feeling he had had a good season being released to join Darlington. His replacement was the tall Ian Branfoot, who, Like Sam Ellis had started at Sheffield Wednesday before making around 160 appearances for Doncaster Rovers. His arrival for a cost of £7,500 meant that three quarters of City’s back four had been brought in by Taylor since his appointment.
The one other player released was 20-year-old winger David Walls who had been brought to the club two years previously by then manager David Herd. Walls dropped into local football and was replaced by another young forward. Ian Musson, aged 19, had been born in Lincoln but joined Sheffield Wednesday and had been unable to progress with them.
Also arriving was experienced midfielder Terry Heath who had come on loan from Scunthorpe United in February with his signing being made permanent at the end of the season for £2,000. Also coming from Scunthorpe was well-known lower division striker George Kerr, aged 30, who now took over from George Higgins as assistant to Graham Taylor and coach with responsibility for the under-19 side. This had been entered into the Northern Intermediate League for the first time, a competition comprised of the youth teams of league clubs in the north of the country.
Meanwhile the big off-the-field news of the early summer of 1973 had been a split between the football club and its supporters club.
The existing Lincoln City Supporters Club had been formed in 1952 and had been the main fund-raising organisation for the football club, often donating money for specific purposes, most notably ground improvements such as roofing the north-eastern corner terracing and the installation of floodlights. The Supporters Club’s biggest source of funds came from regular bingo sessions at the Drill Hall on Broadgate, but some doubt had arisen over whether their use of those premises could continue. Therefore, a large sum of money had been reserved towards the purchase of a building on Great Northern Terrace. The football club, however, felt that all money raised should come direct to them despite it being pointed out that improved premises for the Supporters Club would likely mean better financial assistance coming from them in the future.
Matters came to a head with a vote by the club’s directors under chairman Dennis Bocock at Lincoln City’s annual meeting to withdraw all facilities from the Supporters Club and ban its officers from using its name in any of their fund-raising activities. The chairman claimed that the Supporters Club’s unwillingness to hand over some of the money raised over the past few years had brought about the failure to sign three players during the season just ended and that somewhere in the region of £20,000 had been held back
Director Heneage Dove who had abstained from the vote tried in vain to bring the two sides together, saying “In every dispute there are faults on both sides…I well realise that I am in the middle of no man’s land and that bullets might fly”. Long-serving Supporters Club officials Vic Withers and Malcolm Applewhite agreed that negotiations were desirable, but the latter pointed out that a decrease in the number of regular meetings with the club’s board over recent years had not helped the situation. Supporters Club chairman Harry Wilmot revealed that a few years previously in order to help with new premises for the Supporters Club the football club had offered to sell them the St Andrew’s car park at the ground for £10,000 provided a building was erected “on stilts” so the area could still be used for training – but there had been no query at that time about how the construction of the new building was to be funded.
However, nothing came of any attempt at a reconciliation and Lincoln City was dropped from the title of the supporters club which was re-named the Lincoln & District Football Supporters Club with funds raised going to support local football in general, while fund-raising activities for the football club were now solely the province of the Red Imps Association which had been in operation for the last four years or so.
Pre-season training started with a week at the Billingham Sports Centre in the north east including behind closed doors matches against Darlington (one win and one defeat) and Bishop Auckland (draw) with a cost being knocks suffered by Dixie McNeil, Terry Heath and Dave Smith. This was followed by a visit to Third Division Chesterfield with City second best in a 3-1 defeat, and a reverse of this scoreline away to Sleaford Town. Two home matches then took place, the first being a return game against Bishop Auckland as the top Northern League side were overwhelmed 10-1 with hat-tricks for Alan Harding and Dixie McNeil. The final friendly provided a much stiffer test and another McNeil goal and one from defender Terry Cooper produced an encouraging 2-0 win over a Second Division Nottingham Forest side that included the likes of Duncan McKenzie, Martin O’Neill and a 17-year-old youth player called Tony Woodcock.
The new season dawned, with manager Graham Taylor saying nothing more than “We are hoping for a good season…Whether or not we shall be successful depends entirely upon our achievements on the field of play”. He also appealed for supporters “not to discredit the club” in view of the opposition at Sincil Bank for the first game of the season being Scunthorpe United. The Iron had pipped the Imps to promotion two seasons ago but had made an immediate return to the Fourth Division and they attracted the first 6,000-plus crowd to Sincil Bank since the previous November.
As was now usual the new season saw a new design for the match programme and an increase in price by – this being the age of inflation – 42% to 10p. A smaller page size was compensated for by there being only one advert in the whole programme (for the Football Echo). Needless to say, despite the Supporters Club notes having been a regular feature of the programme for many years they were now absent following the recent falling-out. Instead there was a page devoted to the activities of the Red Imps Association, which included running the refreshment bars at the ground, the organisation of away trips and not least the selling of Golden Goal and Match Draw tickets available from ‘our pretty Red Imp Girls in their smart red uniforms’, one of which was donated by department store Mawer & Collingham.
A popular move was the restoration of the traditional playing kit of red and white stripes and black shorts last seen nine years before.
The game saw league debuts for Sam Ellis and Ian Branfoot making up a back four with Terry Cooper and Dennis Leigh that was to be a regular sight on the pitch for City over the next few years. With a midfield of Colin Symm, Terry Heath and Dave Smith, and Alan Harding, John Ward and Dixie McNeil in attack a goal from the latter to add to his six in the pre-season games was enough to beat Scunthorpe, although this was aided by a penalty save from goalkeeper John Kennedy in a game of missed chances by the Imps. The following Tuesday night saw an immediate exit from the League Cup at the hands of another relegated side as Rotherham United overturned Colin Symm’s first half strike to win 2-1 at Millmoor.