Although neither had featured in the squad for the previous two games, following the match with Watford City had requested an extension of the loans from Nottingham Forest of Bert Bowery and Tony Woodcock to the end of the season to cover for any further absences of the regular first-teamers. However, both had returned to the City Ground by the time of the visit of Newport County which meant that with Percy Freeman failing a fitness test young David Wiggett had to be brought into the squad as substitute, Dick Krzywicki returning to the starting line-up.
Newport had been challenging for a promotion place until the turn of the year but had then fallen away and were on a run of ten defeats in eleven games. So, in front of another 8,000-plus crowd it was no surprise when City took a two-goal lead in the first half thanks to a brace of headers from John Ward. Goals from Alan Harding and John Fleming with only one in reply from the visitors ensured what we had by now come to consider as another routine win. The points moved City on to 61 and three points clear of Northampton who were held to a 1-1 draw at home by fifth-placed Huddersfield. Reading also drew at Rochdale to remain third, six points adrift of Northampton, while Tranmere had beaten Swansea the previous night. This meant that City’s points total could now only be exceeded by the four teams immediately below them and as Tranmere and Huddersfield had still to play each other just a single point from eight games would ensure promotion. Despite this, and with what happened at the end of the previous season in mind plus memories of 1972 when City also missed out when seeming to be heading for promotion, I was taking nothing for granted! I remember setting off for the following Wednesday night’s home game with Darlington, being given a lift to the station after work by a colleague and saying to him “Surely we can’t fail now?”.
As it turned out, when I arrived in Lincoln and got a copy of that night’s Echo, I found we’d already done it! This was in consequence of results elsewhere the previous night, and in the days before the invention of the Internet, Radio Lincolnshire or even Teletext, while it was possible to find out the results of matches, for what those results meant you had to wait until it was filtered through the local paper. There may have been people who worked out what the results meant and it may have circulated by word of mouth throughout Lincoln, but I’m willing to bet I wasn’t the only one to first learn of City’s promotion through the local paper.
What had happened was that on the Monday night Huddersfield had drawn away at Brentford to keep themselves in the running, but more crucial were the events of the following night. Northampton were held at home by Torquay, which only had a possible bearing on the championship, but the key result was a shock home defeat for Tranmere at the hands of Hartlepool. So as Tranmere and Huddersfield still had to play each other they couldn’t both overtake City’s points total.
So, a first promotion for City for 24 years, and a long-awaited return to the Third Division after fourteen seasons in the lowest tier.
Following a lap of honour by the players before the match an unchanged line-up produced one of the narrower wins of the season with Dennis Booth’s second goal of the season and one from Dave Smith giving a 2-1 win in front of a crowd of over ten thousand.
The next objective was to win the championship, with the win over Darlington putting the Imps four points ahead of Northampton with two games in hand, but with a difficult game coming up against third-placed Reading, the only other team who could still finish above City.
With Percy Freeman still unfit it was again an unchanged squad for the visit to Elm Park in front of an attendance of over 15,000, Reading’s highest of the season. In a close game John Ward’s equaliser was enough for a point to move the Imps on to 64 for the season but Northampton’s win at Bradford City cut the gap to three points whilst assuring themselves of promotion. Tranmere were still hanging on to fourth place despite losing to City’s last opponents Darlington as Huddersfield missed the chance to overtake them by being held to a draw at home by Scunthorpe.
The game at Reading was City’s first in a run of five games in ten days, the next one coming at Stockport the following Monday night in a game postponed from FA Cup Third Round day. One of City’s games in hand over Northampton, a triumphant 3-0 win not only stretched the lead over them to five points but goals from Dick Krzywicki, Alan Harding and Dave Smith made it 100 league goals in the season so far, the first team to achieve this feat for nine years. The honour of scoring the 100th goal perhaps fittingly falling to Smith who had been with City through thick and thin for the last eight seasons.
The return match with Stockport then took place four days later on Good Friday afternoon in front of another 10,000-plus crowd. The first change to the line-up in five games was forced due to a one-match suspension for Dennis Booth, but the good news was that Percy Freeman was fit to return up front, although wearing an unfamiliar number four shirt, the reshuffle seeing Dick Krzywicki on the right wing with John Fleming taking Booth’s role. Booth took his place behind the microphone, entertaining the crowd with his impressions of the likes of Brian Clough, and referring to the wearer of his usual shirt number as ‘a big bully’.
Stockport were managed by former Imps player-boss Roy Chapman, appointed after enjoying some success with non-league Stafford Rangers. They were currently just below half way in the league table, showing that so far Chapman was making a better fist of the job than he had with City. He had evidently learned from the defeat earlier in the week, and Stockport frustrated City up to half time before a goal from Freeman just after the break was added to by a Sam Ellis penalty. The points moved City onto 68, just one short of Notts County’s record for the division. Northampton had had an impressive 4-1 win over Reading the night before so it meant two points were still needed for the championship. The win set a new club record of 20 home wins in a league season, beating the 1951/52 Third Division (North) championship side.
In the days when three games were played over the Easter weekend it was not uncommon to have two home games in two days, and that was the case this year so we were all back at Sincil Bank the following afternoon. In fact, ‘all’ plus quite a few more as the gate of 14,096 was the highest of the season and was the fifth five-figure attendance in the last seven games at Sincil Bank. This period had also seen crowds of over ten thousand in the away matches, at Scunthorpe and Reading. The average home league attendance for the season was 8,401, the highest since the penultimate Second Division season in 1959/60 and was a figure not to be exceeded for over forty years.
Visitors Doncaster Rovers were in seventh place but any realistic hopes they still had of breaking into the top four had gone with a 1-0 defeat at Rochdale the day before. Dennis Booth was back for City, allowing John Fleming to revert to the right with Dick Krzywicki dropping to the bench. In a way the game summed up the whole season as City cruised into a 3-0 half time lead with goals from Ian Branfoot, Percy Freeman and Alan Harding. After the break a spectacular diving header from Freeman and Sam Ellis’s tenth penalty of the season saw City score five or more goals for the fourth time in two months and secure the championship with a tally of 70 points, beating Notts County’s Fourth Division record of 69 set in 1971. The game was the 31st win of the season, also breaking Notts County’s record and these achievements also saw two club records broken, with the 70 points and 31 wins beating the 69 points and 30 wins of the 1951/52 Division Three (North) championship side. It was City’s first unbeaten Football League season at home since 1901/02 when fewer games were played.
After the final whistle I joined a large part of the crowd in treading the sacred turf to gather on the pitch as the players celebrated at the front of the directors’ box in the St Andrews stand, bottles of champagne being sprayed onto the press box roof below!
For the other promotion places, Reading were without a game so Tranmere were able to move above them into third place with a 3-0 win over Huddersfield which was a severe blow to the Yorkshire clubs hopes of promotion. Bournemouth’s home draw with Torquay effectively put them out of the running so it was a case of any two from three to go up with City and Northampton.