Looking Back At: 1975/76 (Part 5)

City were now left with three away matches to play, starting with a visit to Barnsley on Easter Monday. I would normally have gone there, but the 5-0 win over Doncaster and the championship celebrations just rounded the season off for me and I stayed at home. Plenty of others evidently made the journey though, as it must have been due to the numbers of Imps supporters that the attendance of over 8,000 was two or three times Barnsley’s usual for the season. In an unchanged side Percy Freeman headed the only goal of the match before Peter Grotier saved a penalty to preserve both points and move City on to 72 points and equal the best ever for any division in the Football League set by Doncaster in 1947. Tranmere and Reading both won but Huddersfield’s catastrophic home defeat by a Southport side already doomed to 23rd place meant they were now almost of the running.

City finished the season with a long weekend on the south coast. First there was a visit to Torquay in a game which, with probably an eye his cricketing career with Worcestershire, saw Phil Neale replaced at left back by 18-year-old David Wiggett. Otherwise unchanged, City led 2-1 through goals from Sam Ellis and Percy Freeman’s sixth in four games but were pegged back by a late equaliser. However, the point moved City on to 73 for the season and broke the all-time record for any division. Northampton won their final game the night before to take them to a total of 68 points for the season, a measure of City’s achievement being that this was only one short of the previous record for the division.  Reading won 3-1 at home to Crewe to clinch third place while Huddersfield were clinging to a mathematical possibility of finishing fourth after beating Watford at home. This hope was ended when Tranmere’s draw at home to Bradford City two days later secured them fourth place.

The season ended with another draw at Bournemouth on the Monday night in a game postponed from the end of February due to the outbreak of flu at the Dean Court club. An unchanged side earned a point thanks to John Ward’s first goal in six games to move the total up one more to 74. Another record to go was that of the fewest defeats in a season in the Fourth Division, City’s total of just four beating out of sight the previous record of seven, held by six clubs.

Perhaps because, as Graham Taylor had said, “We just don’t want the season to end” a series of games then took place over the next month, starting with the visit of First Division Coventry City to Sincil Bank the following Wednesday night in a friendly match to mark the presentation of the Fourth Division championship trophy. Over nine and a half thousand turned out to see goals from Percy Freeman and John Ward in a 2-2 draw against a full-strength visiting side. Just over a week later City lost 1-0 away at Rotherham in a memorial match for one of their former players, and the middle of May saw a visit to Boston United to take part in one of the occasional challenge matches staged for the Mather Cup and which doubled as a testimonial match for the Pilgrims’ captain Freddie Taylor. This produced a 2-2 draw with City winning 7-5 on penalties.

The season could be said to have finally ended in the last week of May during a trip to Gibraltar to take part in a four-team tournament arranged by the Government of Gibraltar. City had become involved in this through the business interests of director Reg Brealey and as well as the official party from the club the Red Imps Association and the Supporters Club had also organised a trip for supporters. City played two games before being eliminated, drawing 2-2 with Sheffield United and 3-3 with Blackburn Rovers, losing both times on penalties.

It was this visit which saw the origins of Lincoln Red Imps FC of Gibraltar.  City vice-chairman Reg Brealey inspired a friend and business contact to form the club which he agreed to sponsor as long as they named themselves after Lincoln. The club were to achieve unprecedented success in the Gibraltar National League, and in more recent times after Gibraltar became members of UEFA in 2014 have brought the name of Lincoln to European competition.

So finally ended what was arguably the greatest season in the club’s history, rivalled only by 2016/17 which did outdo 1975/76 in terms of cup exploits, but neither the National League-winning side, nor the 1951/52 Third Division (North) championship side so absolutely dominated the rest of the division as Graham Taylor’s men did.  It was often said during the season that City ought to have been promoted the year before, and that therefore they were effectively a Third Division side playing in the Fourth Division. People have also theorised that if they had gone up the year before, then playing as they did, they would have gone straight through the Third Division up to the Second. One thing to bear in mind though, is something Graham Taylor would often mention – the effect of the devastating disappointment following the defeat at Southport at the end of the previous season which took promotion away, and how the team coped with it. Having learnt how to lose the players no longer feared losing and therefore played with freedom, knowing that if defeat came in a match, they could cope with it. The consequence was the free-flowing attacking football which devastated the opposition so many times, but which if it hadn’t been for the experience of the previous season might not have happened.

While playing without fear of losing may have been one factor in the team’s success there were others of significance. City had a settled back four playing together for the third season in a row, and in amongst all the goal-scoring feats it’s sometimes forgotten that the record of 39 goals conceded in the league had only been bettered once before in the club’s history, and that had been back in 1901/02 when only 34 games were played. It also helped that City had the best goalkeeper in the division and good defensive organisation which would see midfielder Dennis Booth often making a fifth defender – ‘sweeping up in front of the back four’ as the expression used to be.

It could be argued that City’s small squad the previous season was a big reason for the failure then, but there were actually fewer players used in 1975/76, the difference being an upgrade in quality in one or two cases. The summer signing of John Fleming was significant as he was able to fill in in centre midfield when required, in addition to what turned out to be his main role playing wide on the right. This meant the increasingly troubled by injury Dick Krzywicki when available could act as cover for a striking role, for which City, unlike in the previous season now had three players available instead of two. In fact, when one of these three, Peter Graham, was forced to miss the second half of the season through injury City were able to cope with his absence, only needing to bring in the two loan players Bert Bowery and Tony Woodcock for a short spell later on. Another improvement was the emergence of Phil Neale as something of a utility player, able to slot into midfield, but also to cover for either full back position which in turn allowed Ian Branfoot to cover for the centre backs, and more importantly when Dennis Leigh had to miss the last third of the season, Neale was able to slot in at left back with no loss of effectiveness to the team.

City used a total of 19 players in all matches during the season, with reserve goalkeeper Jimmy Gordon and apprentice Peter Sellars playing just once each and young defender David Wiggett appearing in four games. Loanees Bowery and Woodcock started two games each and made two substitute appearances each, with a goal each scored in their first game – the 6-0 win over Southport which was the only one in which they started a game together.

Lincoln’s two top scorers both enjoyed career-best figures – John Ward with 29, a total beaten that season only by Tranmere’s Ronnie Moore, and Percy Freeman with 25. Sam Ellis exactly equalled his total from the season before of 15 including ten penalties, while the fourth player in double figures was Peter Graham with 12. Three midfielders finished with 9 each – Dave Smith, Alan Harding and John Fleming while Ian Branfoot scored five, all coming from corners. Phil Neale scored four from midfield, and there were three from Dick Krzywicki, and two each from Dennis Booth and Terry Cooper.

The supporters’ Player of the Season award went to Sam Ellis, and almost needless to say, after winning the monthly award a fourth time for April, Graham Taylor was named Fourth Division Manager of the Year as well as being named Coach of the Year by the Football League Trainers & Coaches Association. Also, Peter Grotier was named by the Daily Express as Division Four Footballer of the Year.

Another piece of silverware received by the club was the Lincoln Civic Award. This was a trophy awarded annually to recognise an achievement of outstanding merit and which had brought credit to the City of Lincoln.

Amongst all the various records that were broken in this season the most significant was the one for the highest number of points in a league season. Under the system of two points for a win City’s total of 74 is one that will never be beaten due to the change to three for a win a few years later and ensures their place in the record books for all time. Although not a record, the other most significant achievement was the scoring of 111 league goals. It had once been commonplace for two or three teams every year to score a hundred or more, but it had not been achieved for nine years, and in an era of increasingly defensive football it had begun to be considered a thing of the past. All the more satisfying that City had done it.

So, after the dark days of the early to mid-1960s, a number of mediocre seasons, and three or four when hopes of promotion were raised only to be dashed the Imps had finally achieved their goal – and in style.

Elsewhere in football, Liverpool won the league championship for the first time under legendary manager Bob Paisley and completed a minor ‘double’ by also winning the UEFA Cup in an aggregate victory over Belgian side Club Bruges. Runners-up to Liverpool by just one point were Queens Park Rangers, while third-placed Manchester United suffered a shock defeat in the FA Cup Final when they were beaten 1-0 by Second Division Southampton who included later Imps player Jim McCalliog in their side. Also in European competition, West Ham United reached the final of the Cup Winners Cup but were beaten 4-2 by Anderlecht.

The Football League Cup was won by Manchester City who beat Newcastle United 2-1. Relegated from the First Division were Wolverhampton, Burnley and Sheffield United to be replaced by Second Division champions Sunderland along with Bristol City, reaching the top flight for the first time since pre-World War 1 days, and West Bromwich. Oxford United, York City and Portsmouth were relegated to be replaced by Third Division champions Hereford United, their former Lincoln striker Dixie McNeil finishing as top scorer in the whole of the Football League with 35 goals. Up with the Bulls went Cardiff City and Millwall, while at the other end of the division Sheffield Wednesday escaped falling into Division Four for the first time in their history by a single point. Instead, it was Aldershot who went down, along with Colchester, Southend and Halifax Town. The bottom four clubs in the league were all re-elected, comfortably so in the case of Stockport County, for whom in the end the managership of Roy Chapman had proven no more successful than it had with Lincoln, Newport County, and also Southport – although it was their second application in three years. Lucky to survive were Workington, making their third application in a row and who had only scraped in by a margin of eight votes a year ago. This time it was even closer, just three votes separating them from Southern League runners-up Yeovil.