City’s next game took them to a Watford side struggling just one point outside the re-election zone. This was very different circumstances to the Imps’ last visit there six years earlier in a League Cup tie when the Vicarage Road side were a Second Division club. I’d been there for that game, but when I arrived in Watford this time found I’d totally forgotten the way to the ground. Managing to find it, I arrived on the open terracing at the Kop end of the ground just in time to see Alan Harding’s 35-second opener. Sam Ellis was missing due to having fractured his cheekbone in the closing minutes of the previous game so Ian Branfoot moved into the middle with Phil Neale slotting in at right back. John Fleming was restored to the side in place of Krzywicki while John Ward remained on the bench.
Watford equalised soon after half time, by which time Dennis Leigh had been taken off with a head injury. This meant another seamless re-arrangement of the team with Neale moving across to the left, Dennis Booth to right back and with substitute John Ward on, a move to the previously-tried 4-3-1-2 formation. It was therefore no weakened side which ran out 3-1 winners with Peter Graham’s brace in the last quarter of an hour making it 10 goals in the last eight games for him.
Northampton had beaten Crewe 2-1 so it was still on goal average that City were ahead of them at the top of the table. The gap to fifth place now widened to eight points as Huddersfield’s home defeat to Exeter saw them overtaken by Bournemouth.
News of the youth setup at this time was that to assist George Kerr the club had appointed former Scunthorpe United manager Ron Ashman on a part-time basis to act as a youth scout, plus former goalkeeper John Kennedy would be acting as schools liaison officer in the City. The club already ran a nursery club in Sheffield at under-13 to under-15 level overseen by former reserve full back Geoff Worth, with teenage defender David Wiggett a product of this.
It was now time for the second round of the FA Cup and a short bus ride for me to Mansfield who after an outstanding Fourth Division championship season were finding life in the third tier more difficult and were currently bottom of the division.
Despite his fears that his fractured cheekbone would prevent him from playing against his old club Sam Ellis was back in the side, with Ian Branfoot reverting to right back and Phil Neale moving across to the left in place of Dennis Leigh who had suffered a badly cut forehead at Watford. Also missing, due to an injury in training was Alan Harding which meant all three strikers were again in the side, and, although not announced until that morning, Peter Grotier was also forced to miss the match due to an injured thumb. This meant a first team debut for 20-year-old goalkeeper Jimmy Gordon who had joined the club in the summer of 1974.
It was a nervous start for Gordon, especially when he was beaten by a shot from Stags’ midfielder Ian McDonald after 16 minutes. But City equalised with a trademark Ian Branfoot header from a near-post corner by Dennis Booth, and Percy Freeman hit what turned out to be the winning goal before half time. Gordon then went on to play the game of his life, capped by a fantastic double save in the last seconds of the game. No better tribute could be paid to him than a rueful remark to me by a Mansfield-supporting friend after the game, not knowing of the team change, “Grotier was good, wasn’t he?”
Meanwhile, the other three clubs in the top four, all having gone out of the Cup in the first round had arranged league matches and Northampton picked up a point at Exeter to move back above City into top place. They remained there the following Saturday, this time playing Exeter at home and beating them 3-1. City, meanwhile were in the goals again at home to Bradford City although things didn’t initially go their way. Peter Grotier and Alan Harding were fit to return so City returned to their usual formation with John Ward dropping to the bench. Surprisingly, and presumably due to it being Christmas Shopping Saturday the attendance dipped below 7,000 – although it was to be for the last time in the season. It looked plain sailing after Harding’s 17th minute goal put City ahead, but headers from Bradford’s big centre forward Joe Cooke put the visitors 2-1 up at half time. City seemed certain to equalise four minutes into the second half when John Ward, who had replaced Freeman during the interval was brought down for a penalty. But after 13 successful penalties in a row over the past two seasons everyone was stunned when Sam Ellis put the spot kick wide. However, it wasn’t long before the equaliser came with Ward’s first goal for six weeks and then Ellis made amends for his penalty miss by heading the Imps into the lead and another goal for Harding rounded off the scoring.
The next game was at Doncaster on Boxing Day, and I can’t now remember why I didn’t go there. I can only think that although there were still trains on Boxing Day at that time there may have been a reduced service which meant it wasn’t possible. Spending the last two months just outside the promotion places the Rovers had slipped to seventh after surprisingly losing 3-1 at Workington. However, boosted by supporters making the short journey from Lincoln there was a bumper holiday crowd of over 14,000 to see the Imps’ second successive 4-2 win. Dennis Leigh was fit to return to the side, but bad news was that Peter Graham had suffered knee trouble which with a cartilage operation required, would force him to miss the rest of the season. The advantage was now seen of starting the season with three strikers in the squad as John Ward was able to slot into the side after being on the bench for the previous three games. A brace took his tally for the season to 17 goals, and there were two more for Percy Freeman to take him to 14 as City quickly recovered from an early goal by Doncaster to take the lead and never lose it. As Northampton had lost 3-0 at Hartlepool the win took City back to the top of the table and with fifth-placed Bournemouth not having a game the gap to them widened to ten points.
The result at Doncaster, City’s sixth league win in a row, and the league position had both of the local newspapers’ sports editors in confident mood, with Maurice Burton in the Echo pointing out that something like a point a match would ensure promotion, and the Chronicle’s Steve Harrison feeling sure nothing could stop the Imps now.
City were in action again the following day, and in fact the squad had been together in a hotel in Lincoln since Christmas night “to help in getting the players in the right spirit for the matches” as Graham Taylor said. It certainly paid off with another win, although this time by only 2-1 against a defensive Barnsley side in front of the second five-figure crowd in two days. 12,074 were at Sincil Bank, the highest league crowd of the season so far. With Alan Harding injured again Dick Krzywicki came in on the right with John Fleming moving into the middle. The Imps were indebted to Terry Cooper for the win when he scored in the 88th minute following a long throw-in. Barnsley had earlier equalised a first half penalty by Sam Ellis, who had shown no signs of nerves after his miss from the spot a week earlier.
Northampton had beaten Newport 3-0 so the Imps remained a point ahead of them at the top and were still 10 points ahead of fifth-placed Bournemouth.
With a record of five wins in five games, not surprisingly Graham Taylor was named Manager of the Month for the third time out of the last four – the first time in the history of the award that this had happened. The manager commented: “The players have won it and all the thanks are due to them.”