It’s time for Part Three of Malcolm Johnson’s excellent look at the 1974/75 season, starting in the winter of 1975.
Graham Taylor’s bad luck with FA Cup draws which was to be in evidence again the following season produced another away tie in the Third Round, this time with a Swindon Town side currently challenging for promotion from Division Three. Colin Symm and Alan Harding were fit to return to the starting line-up, but with Peter Graham now injured Dick Krzywicki had to be switched up front. Preferred to Gordon Byron on the subs’ bench was Phil Neale and he made his first team debut, replacing Krzywicki who had to be stretchered off with a fractured cheekbone just before the interval. With something of a makeshift side for the rest of the game the Imps had no reply to two Swindon goals either side of half time.
With Graham and Krzywicki now joining Ward on the list of injured strikers Graham Taylor had to do something and did to some acclaim by getting the ever-popular Percy Freeman to return from Reading where he had not altogether had a happy time. Sold for £11,500 two years previously the 29-year-old returned for a fee of just of £1,500 – shades of Andy Graver!
Almost predictably Freeman’s first game after his return from Reading was – at Reading. Having foregone the chance to go to Swindon the week before I was at Elm Park to see the return of ‘Big Percy’, his inclusion being the only change to the line-up. City, however, went down to a second successive 1-0 away league defeat thanks to a wonder strike by Reading midfielder John Murray. The game was only notable for Phil Neale now making his Football League debut, coming off the bench as a replacement for the injured Symm.
Perhaps disheartened by the Reading result the attendance was down to around five and a half thousand the following Friday night for the second home game with Hartlepool in a month. A boost was the return of Dick Krzywicki to fitness, which was just as well as Colin Symm had now succumbed to an ankle injury which would keep him out for several games. Phil Neale now made his home debut, coming off the bench in place of Dennis Booth in midfield as Ade Coker’s first and only goal for the club and Alan Harding’s sixth of the season produced a score-line which flattered the visiting side.
Once again, I was off somewhere else on the Saturday, this time for a first ever visit to Hillsborough for a Second Division match between a Sheffield Wednesday side which included later Imp David Sunley, and a Portsmouth team with former Arsenal stars George Graham and Peter Marinello. As for the Imps, a goalless draw at a muddy Stockport on the Monday night was enough to move them up to third place in the table, the clean sheet being achieved largely thanks to a 78th-minute penalty save from Peter Grotier.
As City had a blank Saturday the following week due to league leaders Mansfield Town’s involvement in the FA Cup, I made the short journey to Leicester for an intriguing Fourth Round tie with non-league Leatherhead. The Isthmian League side had reached that stage after beating Third Division sides Colchester and Brighton in the previous two rounds and sensationally took a 2-0 half time lead at Filbert Street, one of the goals coming from striker Chris Kelly who become known from his score predictions to the media as the ‘Leatherhead Lip’. However, the First Division side, featuring later Imps Mark Wallington and Graham Cross came back to win 3-2.
With Ade Coker having returned to West Ham, Colin Symm out and Dick Krzywicki doubtful after taking a knock at Stockport, Graham Taylor brought in another loan player – 21-year-old winger Phil O’Connor from Luton where he had had limited first team experience. Good news was the return to the side of Peter Graham. With Krzywicki starting on the bench O’Connor scored in the third minute of his debut at Torquay with Percy Freeman making it 2-0 soon afterwards with his first goal after his return. Penalties were then awarded to both sides, with Peter Grotier making his second save in successive matches, while Sam Ellis made no mistake with his second half effort after Torquay had pulled a goal back in between. Once again there was another first for Phil Neale, making his first start for City and also his first game at left back as Dennis Leigh’s appeals against his suspension for being sent off at Port Vale back in November had finally been settled resulting in a reduction to missing just this one match.
City now reverted back to Saturdays for home games – to my relief, as I always preferred a leisurely Saturday to dashing about for last trains and buses on a Friday night. The game itself was a big one against second-placed Shrewsbury Town who along with leaders Mansfield, were well clear of the rest of the division. City were still holding on to third place, but there were just two points between them and Exeter in eighth although the Imps had games in hand on most of the other teams. Dennis Leigh was back from his one-match suspension as Phil Neale dropped out of the squad to make way for John Ward, back from his injury lay-off, to be named on the bench. But Dick Krzywicki was missing again meaning Phil O’Connor retained his place on the wing. The visitors were fresh from putting seven goals past Doncaster the previous week, but on the other hand had conceded four to the next-to-bottom Rovers. They proceeded to let in another three against a Percy Freeman-inspired City with ‘The Big Fella’ adding to goals from Ian Branfoot and Dave Smith as they outplayed the visitors with a 3-0 win to put themselves five points behind the Shrews with four games in hand.
Thoughts of reaching second place however received a setback with a 2-0 defeat at mid-table Hartlepool the following Wednesday night in the fixture postponed from early December due to the virus outbreak at Sincil Bank. John Ward was able to take the place of Peter Graham who was back on the injured list but it did not help that Percy Freeman had to be stretchered off with an ankle injury to be replaced by Phil Neale after no more than a minute played. With these further injuries, including Neale himself suffering a badly cut leg, it was just as well that City then had another blank Saturday, once again due to Mansfield’s involvement in the FA Cup as they had now reached the Fifth Round.
The attendance for the Shrewsbury game had been the first 8,000-plus crowd at Sincil Bank for nearly three years, but perhaps due to the defeat at Hartlepool it was down by around two thousand for the visit of mid-table Barnsley. The ten-day break between games had allowed Percy Freeman to recover from his ankle injury and Dick Krzywicki was able to return on the bench, replacing O’Connor at half time in what was the latter’s last appearance in his loan spell. After taking an early lead through a Freeman header from a corner City then came under some pressure in the second half from a Barnsley side featuring later Imps manager John Pickering at centre half. However, goals in the last six minutes of the game from John Ward and Dave Smith sealed the points which kept City in fourth place, ahead of Rotherham on goal average but two points behind Chester although with no less than four games in hand on the Cheshire club.
The method of using goal average to separate teams equal on points now began to play a big part in City’s season, especially at the end of it. It had been in use ever since the very first season of the Football League back in 1888 and was arrived at by dividing the number of goals scored by the number conceded with the higher the number the better. But by now it had begun to be seen as rewarding defensive rather than attacking play, as any win to nil was always better than any win when at least one goal was conceded, however big the winning margin. For example, if a team won a series of three games by 1-0, 1-0 and 2-1 that would give a goal average of 4, whereas if another team won three games by 3-1, 3-1 and 3-1 their goal average would be the lesser figure of 3. There was concern that fewer goals were being scored in the modern game and because of this there had started to be calls for a change. In 1969 Arsenal had proposed the present-day method of using goal difference but this had been rejected by the clubs – unfortunately for City as it turned out.
One of City’s four games in hand came against a table-topping Mansfield Town side who had lost only three times in the league all season. In a sign of things to come in later years the match was played on a Tuesday night due to the Stags team being required to attend a civic reception the following evening. Despite rumours on Lincoln’s ‘soccer grapevine’ that defender Terry Cooper had signed for Leicester City for the massive fee for the time of either £65,000 or £85,000 depending on you heard it from the Welshman continued to be named in the City side. In fact, the only changes saw the return of Dick Krzywicki on the wing and the fit-again Peter Graham taking the place of Ward, who although scoring against Barnsley had also been guilty of several missed chances in that game.
Mansfield’s visit, being not only a fourth versus first clash but also a local derby drew an attendance of over 13,000 – the highest at Sincil Bank since a similarly top of the table meeting with Scunthorpe United three years previously. I was able to have a lift to the game with a couple of Stags supporters who I worked with, and on the way home they were happier than I was after watching a rather dour midfield battle in a goalless draw with neither side really at their best.
In this month the first ever Sponsor a Player scheme had been announced and drew an encouraging response. By mid-April a page was able to be included in the match programme showing that all 16 professionals had been fully sponsored at the rate of £7 for their playing strip, £10 for boots and £10 for training kit.
The result against Mansfield moved City a point closer to Chester but no further ahead of Rotherham in fifth place as they also drew, in their case with Barnsley. Realistically there was little chance of catching either of the top two so it was a case of battling it out for the third or fourth spot. The draw with the Stags was made into a point gained rather than lost thanks to a 2-1 win at Exeter the following Saturday. However, Chester and Rotherham also won so there were no changes to the top five placings. There was an unchanged starting lineup for the game at Exeter which saw the home side take the lead in the first half. But then as in the recent game at neighbouring Torquay it was a case of penalties for both sides. Exeter’s Lammie Robertson put his over the bar but Sam Ellis made no mistake after substitute John Ward was brought down 15 minutes from the end. Ward himself then struck a late winner.
News over the weekend was that goalkeeper Peter Grotier had emulated Ian Branfoot the previous year in being voted into the PFA’s Fourth Division Team of the Year.
Staying in the Bristol area the Imps remained in the South West for a visit to Newport on the Monday night. Another of their games in hand over Chester, it was another to produce only a single point, but this was enough to draw level on points with the Cheshire side and move ahead of them into third place on goal average. With Alan Harding now missing Dick Krzywicki was on the bench as Colin Symm came into the side for something of a change of formation as all three strikers were included. It was Ward who gave City the lead only for Newport to equalise two minutes from time. The point gained came at some cost as a pulled hamstring for Percy Freeman caused him to miss the majority of the rest of the season.
The following Saturday brought a visit from fourth-from-bottom Swansea City, and although everybody was expecting another win Graham Taylor warned that such games could be dangerous. Unfortunately, he was proved right as City went down to their first home defeat of the season and it turned out to be the game when City’s promotion challenge began to falter. Krzywicki was back in place of Freeman but with Alan Harding still out Colin Symm retained his place with Gordon Byron returning to the bench. In an out-of-sorts display City were two goals down at half time but came out after the interval to a great deal of encouragement from the crowd. However, when 17-year-old future Welsh International Robbie James put the Swans 3-0 up five minutes later the cheers turned to a slow hand clap. John Ward’s fourth goal in five games was then the best the Imps could manage. But with Chester losing at Reading the Imps remained ahead of them on goal average with two games in hand and a point clear of Rotherham in fifth.
A chance to put things right came at Rochdale the following Saturday, and I paid my first visit to Spotland to be part of a crowd of only just over fifteen hundred, a fairly typical attendance for the Lancashire club at that time. Alan Harding was back but Dick Krzywicki on the bench as Colin Symm continued in the side, and with Terry Cooper injured City were forced to bring in 17-year-old youth team defender David Wiggett. The youngster gave a steady display in his first start for the senior side as City were largely untroubled by Rochdale and it looked as though Sam Ellis’s seventh penalty of the season early in the second half would be enough for a win. However, as at Newport a goal for the home side right at the death saw another point slip away. With Chester held at home by Mansfield City were still ahead of them, but slipped to fourth as Rotherham’s win over Doncaster put the Millers up to third on goal average. All three teams were level on points but the Imps still had two games in hand over Chester. Four points behind Chester were Reading and Bradford City as it was beginning to look like a case of any four from five for promotion, although with Mansfield and Shrewsbury nine and five points respectively ahead it was realistically only third and fourth places at stake.
If the home game with Shrewsbury had been a ‘four-pointer’ (two points for a win in those days) the visit to Chester the following Wednesday night was even more so. Unfortunately, it resulted in “the worst possible defeat” as Graham Taylor put it, with the home side hammering City 4-1. Dick Krzywicki replaced Alan Harding in the side and although Terry Cooper was back, he and Ellis both looked badly out of form as although Peter Graham equalised an early goal from Chester with his first in 14 matches Chester were well worth their win. Rotherham had won the previous night so remained in third place ahead of Chester as City slipped to fifth, two points adrift.
Yet another four-pointer came the following Saturday with the visit of Rotherham and this time City came out on top in front of an 8,000-plus crowd. Dick Krzywicki retained his place as Colin Symm had suffered an ankle injury at Chester, and with Alan Harding back City fielded what was their strongest side. Back to their best, they took control of the game in the first twenty minutes with goals from Harding and man-of-the-match John Ward. City were still in fifth place after the match behind Rotherham on goal average as Chester picked up a point at Brentford to move into third.
The following weekend was Easter, but with City having no game on either Good Friday or Easter Saturday I was on my travels again, first to Grimsby to see former Imps Jack Lewis and Phil Hubbard playing for the Mariners against Chesterfield in the Third Division. Then the following day I was in Birmingham for the Second Division local derby between Aston Villa, featuring players such as Brian Little and Chris Nicholl, and West Bromwich Albion who included a 19-year-old Trevor Thompson, later to play for City under Colin Murphy.
City themselves had games on Easter Monday against Cambridge United and the following night at Scunthorpe. Cambridge had steadily climbed the table since the appointment of Ron Atkinson as manager the previous November and were currently in seventh place. City were able to field an unchanged side for their visit but another crowd of over 8,000 were treated to an uninspiring game with no goals from either side.