After a slow start to the previous season the Graham Taylor method had really taken off and from the beginning of November onwards the Imps were never lower than fifth in the league table, writes Malcolm Johnson.
Unfortunately, after losing the last game of the season at Southport fifth place was where they finished. The method of using goal average to separate teams with the same number of points saw fourth-placed Chester promoted on a tiny fraction of a goal.
The defeat at Southport had been traumatic for all concerned including the team but had served to bond the players together with a determination to go one better next time. Perhaps because of this team spirit and also with Graham Taylor feeling the players had shown they were good enough he made few alterations to the playing squad in the summer of 1975. This may have also been partly due to financial reasons as following the record fee of £16,666 paid for Peter Grotier at the beginning of the season no transfer fees had been paid (and none received) other than the minimal amount paid for the return of Percy Freeman in January. This contrasted with the calendar year 1973 when a substantial total had been expended on Alan Harding, Ian Branfoot, Sam Ellis and Peter Graham. This investment was now at last to produce a real dividend.
City’s squad at the start of 1974/75 had been no larger than that for the first half of the 1982/83 season which was to draw a lot of criticism for its small size, and it had only been increased by one with the signing of Freeman. Until the return of the ‘big fella’ City had suffered from only having two recognised strikers with just winger Dick Krzywicki as back-up, the drawback being that if the Welshman was called on to play in the centre it weakened the right-wing position. That was now solved by the signing of John Fleming, a 22-year-old midfielder who had been captain of Oxford United’s reserve team and had made a total of 80 first team appearances for the Second Division club. It has to be said that Fleming was a step up from the player he replaced, Colin Symm who departed on the well-worn path to Boston United.
Also released was young midfield player Gordon Byron, who although making several appearances in the first half of the season, mainly in FA Cup games, had hardly been seen since the turn of the year. He now joined Nottingham-based Midland League side Clifton All Whites.
Another drawback to the previous season had been the lack of cover for any of the back four positions, leading to players having to be signed on loan for short periods. This had begun to be solved half way through the season with the inclusion in the squad of an amateur player called Phil Neale who had been turning out for City’s reserve side in midweek and Lincoln United on Saturdays while studying at Leeds University. He had played in a total of ten games from January onwards and now with a degree in Russian under his belt the 21-year-old joined City as a full-time professional, replacing Byron in the squad and with the ability to provide quality cover in either full back position.
Following a shareholders’ meeting in the middle of August there was an upheaval in the boardroom with the replacement of Charles Warner as chairman by Heneage Dove, four years after his earlier stint in the same role. Warner and the three other existing directors were replaced by five newcomers, two of whom – Gilbert Blades and Dennis Houlston – would in later years go on to hold the chairman’s position. Dove and his new colleagues claimed the change was necessary for the financial stability of the club – although they said this did not mean money would be immediately available for new players.
The pre-season matches started with a trip to Grimsby for a Lincolnshire Senior Cup semi-final. With Sam Ellis and Dennis Booth both due to miss the first game of the league season due to suspension former apprentice David Wiggett, who had recently signed professional forms, was given a game at centre half and John Fleming was included in midfield. The newcomer was on the mark with a goal, and there was also one for winger Dick Krzywicki, but the Imps went down 3-2 to the Third Division Mariners.
Three matches were played against non-league opposition, were all away from home, and all produced wins, at Spalding, Skegness and Sleaford, the first two of these by 2-0.
In addition to the public games, matches were played behind closed doors against Peterborough and Rotherham which were both drawn. These games were a sign of things to come, as no reserve side was to be fielded for the coming season although the youth team continued to play in the Northern Intermediate League. Instead what functioned as a reserve side came with a series of private matches. These took place throughout the season, eventually totalling 17 games against opposition varying from the likes of a Lincoln Sunday League Xl, Winterton Rangers and Ruston Bucyrus up to teams such as Grantham, Bridlington Trinity and Spalding.
For the first match of the season away at Newport County Sam Ellis and Dennis Booth were both suspended for an accumulation of penalty points carried over from the previous season. John Fleming made his Imps debut in place of Booth in midfield while 18-year-old David Wiggett came into the centre of defence for his second full game. The rest of the team was that which had served City so well the previous season, starting with Peter Grotier who had been voted the best goalkeeper in the division. Although Ellis was absent on this occasion, the back four, with full backs Ian Branfoot and Dennis Leigh and central defender Terry Cooper were embarking on their third season of playing together. Wide players were Dick Krzywicki and Alan Harding with the long-serving Dave Smith in the middle, while up front Peter Graham was partnered in this match by big Percy Freeman with John Ward on the bench.
Graham Taylor had said a good start to the season was important, but although Freeman, fit again after a summer hospital operation equalised an early goal by Newport the home side scored twice more before half time and ran out 3-1 winners. As things turned out however it was to be not only the heaviest defeat the side were to suffer all season, but the only time three goals were conceded in a league match.
I didn’t make the trip to Newport, probably assuming it was too far for a day trip, but instead went to London to see a Second Division match between Orient (as they were simply known at that time), with a young Laurie Cunningham in their side, and Blackburn Rovers. I remember arriving back in Nottingham, going to buy a copy of the Football Post, and someone hanging around the newspaper seller saying “You don’t need that – I can tell you all the results!”
“Oh yeah? How did Newport get on?”
“They won 3-1”
Cue for gloom on my part, and the thought that the new season showed no sign of being any improvement on the last three or four.
The first home game of the season came the following Wednesday night with the visit of Third Division Chesterfield in the League Cup, the first season in which First Round ties were played over two legs. Despite the defeat at Newport, and bearing in mind it was a local derby the attendance of just over 4,000 was quite an encouraging one in the circumstances.
The editor of the match programme, club secretary Dick Chester, had indicated the previous season’s effort had been poorly received, and the new version certainly showed some improvement with eight extra pages, which unusually came without any increase in price. For the first time for several years there was neither any representation of the cathedral on the front cover, nor any notes from the manager – this being disappointing in the case of Graham Taylor whose thoughts were always worth reading. This had been replaced by a column of news and general notes, presumably written by Chester. However, there was the return of a page by the Lincolnshire Echo’s Maurice Burton, Supporters Club notes, more space devoted to the opposition, including a biography of their manager, highlights of previous meetings, and a profile of a City player. Another first was the appearance of team line-ups on the front cover, so I’m afraid this includes my player ratings for the match.
With Booth and Ellis still suspended John Fleming continued in midfield but Ian Branfoot was moved into the centre of defence to partner Terry Cooper. The right back position was filled by Phil Neale who was available for this match after starting a cricketing career in the summer, playing regularly for Worcestershire’s Second Xl and recently making his County Championship debut with a score of 49. The only other change saw John Ward replace Percy Freeman up front with the latter dropping to the bench after both had had recently been taken ill.
Sad news off the field was the death of Harry Wilmot, the long-serving chairman of the Supporters Club.