Any gloom arising from the defeat at Newport was dispelled by John Ward, showing no signs of his recent illness, scoring all City’s goals in a 4-2 win over the Third Division side. This was not only a first for me but was in fact the first time a City player had hit four goals in a match since Andy Graver twenty-two years previously. The visitors had taken the lead through an own goal by Terry Cooper, but then came Ward’s goals, all from headers, to put City in control of the tie although Chesterfield did pull one back in the last five minutes.
Graham Taylor had said he would like to bring in a couple of players to strengthen the squad, but with everyone fully fit and available again there seemed little urgency when the midweek score-line was repeated at Sincil Bank the following Saturday against Torquay United
Sam Ellis returned to the side following his suspension to the exclusion of Neale but with John Fleming having created a good impression so far, he retained his place in midfield with the also available again Dennis Booth not even in the squad as Percy Freeman continued on the bench. In fact, Fleming gave a man of the match display with some supporters considering that he was doing a better job in midfield than the popular Booth. We’ve heard in more recent times of a certain midfield player ‘ratting around’, well Fleming in a similar fashion had quickly earned the nickname ‘Fleming the Ferret’.
The attendance for the visit of Torquay turned out to be the lowest for a home match all season, and was exactly forty fewer than for the Chesterfield cup game, but with Devon being rather further for visiting supporters to travel than Derbyshire it probably represented an increase in home support. Yet another goal from John Ward and a first for Fleming twice put City ahead in the first half only for Torquay to quickly equalise both times. Ian Branfoot then restored the lead midway through the second half, with Percy Freeman coming off the subs’ bench to score a late goal to make it a four-goal haul for the second game in a row.
As well as two-leg ties being an innovation for the League Cup another first was the playing of several of the second-legs on the August Bank Holiday Monday. It was therefore a simple bus ride for me to get up to Chesterfield for the 3.15pm kick-off. This time Terry Cooper was the defender missing, this time through injury, with Branfoot moving into his place and Phil Neale again coming in at right back. Also injured was John Ward so Percy Freeman started in his place with Dick Krzywicki on the bench as John Fleming was moved to play wide on the right so that Dennis Booth could be brought back into the side.
City increased their two-goal aggregate lead in the tie almost straight away with Peter Graham’s first goal of the season before the home side pulled a goal back. It became 6-3 on aggregate not long after half time thanks to a Sam Ellis penalty, and although two Chesterfield goals in the last 16 minutes – one of them by 17-year-old defender Les Hunter who was to play for the Imps many years later – won the game for them by 3-2 it was the Imps who went through to the next round with a 6-5 aggregate score-line. The reward was a home tie with First Division side Stoke City.
Less glamorous was the next league game which was away at Hartlepool. Apart from the return of Ward in place of Freeman who dropped to the bench it was an unchanged team that went two goals behind to the home side before half time. But City then tightened up their defence, with Phil Neale prominent in particular and Dave Smith pulled one back soon after the break with something of a fluke goal. Sub’ Freeman then set Fleming up for an equaliser with half an hour to play but neither side could find a winner.
All the goalscoring in the games so far, especially in the League Cup, perhaps tended to obscure the fact that City had only made an average start to the league season with just three points gained from the six available and were placed in mid-table. The fact that early-season league tables mean very little however was emphasised by the fact that current leaders Darlington with a 100% record were to finish the season in 20th place. However, City’s performances then began to be reflected in the league position starting with the visit to Sincil Bank of a Reading team strongly fancied for promotion after three seasons of near-misses. Terry Cooper was fit to return to the exclusion of Neale while Percy Freeman and Peter Graham changed places from the Hartlepool game with the latter now on the bench. The attendance was slightly up but still in the four-thousands to see City go a goal down just before half time to the visitors’ mercurial striker Robin Friday. But Sam Ellis headed in a corner to equalise for the Imps midway through the second half and they quickly went ahead thanks to a crashing 25-yard shot from Alan Harding. Peter Graham, who had earlier replaced Fleming then scored City’s third goal in eight minutes for a final score-line of 3-1.
It was then time for the visit of Stoke City and over 13,000 turned up at Sincil Bank for an echo of City’s League Cup exploits of eight years previously when another top-flight side had been vanquished. As with Newcastle United that night the visitors this time round also fielded a side with players at the top level of the game. Most notably for Stoke these included the great Peter Shilton, at the time the world’s most expensive goalkeeper, and former Chelsea and England playmaker Alan Hudson. They could also boast top striker Jimmy Greenhoff and current international players, midfielder John Mahoney for Wales and Irish winger Terry Conroy.
City fielded an unchanged team against a visiting side lying 19th in the First Division and not in the best form having just lost 3-0 at Middlesbrough and with only one win to their name – although to put things into perspective that had come by 1-0 against Arsenal at Highbury. Chances to score were missed at both ends before Jimmy Greenhoff gave Stoke the lead midway through the first half after intercepting a back pass from John Fleming. But an equaliser came quickly when Alan Harding latched on to a loose ball and beat two defenders to put the ball into the net from ten yards. It was against the run of play when City scored the winning goal in the 68th minute, Dave Smith charging through on the left of the area to fire in a shot which Peter Shilton could only parry for Dennis Booth to dive forward and head into the net. Immediately it was seen that the Stoke supporters at the other end had spilled onto the pitch and a pitch invasion was feared – something that was all too common in football at the time – but it turned out that the wall in front of the South Park terracing had collapsed and after five minutes’ delay the match resumed. Again, there were chances at both ends but City held on for what Graham Taylor said was the greatest moment of his managerial career.
With regard to the collapsed wall, although initial work towards its rebuilding was said to have started straight away nothing further was able to be done and it proved to be the last time the terracing at the South Park end of the ground was ever used.
Back in league action, the next game sent City to Huddersfield, newly relegated to the fourth tier for the first time in their history and favourites to bounce straight back. Currently top of the table and unbeaten in the league they were however yet to win at home. I made my way by a mixture of bus and train to Leeds Road to see City again field an unchanged line-up.
The game started with City showing some effects of their League Cup heroics, but they rode their luck with some missed chances by the home side before taking the lead after half an hour with John Fleming’s third goal of the season. Early in the second half Dennis Leigh was sent off for a second bookable offence but in a hard-working performance the Imps held on for a win which moved them above Huddersfield into the fourth promotion place, level on points with current leaders Newport who, like Darlington were to sink down the league table through the season and would eventually have to seek re-election.
Despite the cup success and the recent good form in the league there were surprisingly still only just over five thousand at Sincil Bank the following Saturday for the visit of Exeter City. It was again an unchanged line-up with Percy Freeman giving the Imps a second-minute lead which they held at half time. Two goals from John Ward, taking him to seven for the season, and a fine strike from Terry Cooper all within the space of twenty minutes, ensured another very comfortable win for City with only a late consolation goal for Exeter. The 4-1 win moved City up to second place behind Reading on goal average and they were not to fall any lower for the rest of the season.
The following Wednesday night saw a visit to Southport, scene of the traumatic last day defeat the previous season. However, this time a fifth win in a row kept the Imps in second place, still behind Reading who had won at Hartlepool two night before. Again, an unchanged line-up was fielded and Ward and Freeman both scored for the second game in a row in a 2-1 score-line. The attendance of just 871 at Haig Avenue was the first time City had played a league game in front of a three-figure crowd since 1935, which, coincidentally or otherwise, had also been at Southport.
For the second time in just under a year I then made the longish journey up to Darlington. After briefly leading the table at the end of August the Quakers had drifted down to mid-table, and a repeat of the 4-1 win that had cheered me up the previous season might have been expected on current form. But for the first time the free-scoring attack failed to fire and a 0-0 draw in torrential rain was a fair result on the day. City now slipped a point behind Reading at the top who had beaten Bournemouth 2-1 at home, but were still in second place on goal average ahead of Northampton and Tranmere who had both registered away wins. However, a gap of two points had opened up over fifth-placed Huddersfield.
City’s record in September of five wins and a draw from six games, including the defeat of Stoke earned Graham Taylor his second manager of the month award and his first of the current season.