Looking Back At: Imps v Oxford, 1983

Saturday 30th April 1983

 Lincoln City 1 Oxford United 1 (Football League Division Three)

 

The Imps had missed out on promotion to the Second Division (now the Championship) by a single point after drawing 1-1 with Fulham at Craven Cottage in the last game of the previous season, writes Malcolm Johnson.

But from the start of 1982/83 a run of fourteen wins in eighteen games had put them five points clear at the top of the Third Division by mid-December. Results had then begun to be more mixed, but City were still in first place at the end of January although the effects of having a small playing squad had started to catch up with them. Manager Colin Murphy, who had now been in charge of the club for over four years had wished to boost the squad by the signing of two attacking players – Ross Jack from Norwich City, and John Thomas from Bolton – but the outlay of around £32,000 had been vetoed by club chairman Gilbert Blades.

Matters then came to a head following a 3-0 home defeat by Portsmouth, and two further home defeats which left City now hanging on to the third promotion place. Protests by the supporters, which included death threats to the chairman and the vandalising of his property led to the resignation of the entire board of directors. Two games later a new board, headed by former chairman Dennis Houlston was in place with City still in third place, but although it was announced that Colin Murphy could now have the two players he had wished for they did not arrive until the close season.

New players did come in, however, to boost the squad numbers, starting with former Wolves centre half Colin Brazier on a free transfer from Birmingham City. He was followed by attacking midfielder Chris Thompson on loan from Second Division Bolton and veteran ex-Mansfield and Chesterfield striker Ernie Moss who joined for a small fee from Fourth Division Port Vale.

Prior to the meeting with Oxford United, only two wins in the last seven league games had put City in seventh place and just about clinging on to a faint mathematical hope of promotion as were Oxford, one place and two points above them.

Like City, Oxford had made a good start to the season, challenging the Imps for first place until mid-October, before falling away towards mid-table. Six wins in a row had then moved them into contention again until mid-January since when their form had rather paralleled City’s. Their manager was Jim Smith, the former City midfield player from the Ron Gray era of the late 1960s. He had just completed a year in charge at the Manor Ground and was now about half way through a lengthy managerial career, having earlier achieved success with Boston United, Colchester, Blackburn and Birmingham.

Oxford were currently hitting the headlines for the wrong reasons with their chairman the notorious press baron Robert Maxwell announcing that he was about to acquire a controlling interest in fellow Third Division side Reading. His plan was then to merge the two clubs into a new one to be named Thames Valley Royals or possibly Thames Valley United, to play at a new ground to be built at a location such as Didcot somewhere between the two towns. Following uproar from both sets of supporters the move was eventually blocked by a High Court injunction.

The teams were:

City:

  1. David Felgate
  2. David Carr
  3. Gordon Simmonite
  4. Stuart Hibberd
  5. Trevor Peake
  6. Steve Thompson
  7. Marshall Burke
  8. Ernie Moss
  9. Gordon Hobson
  10. Derek Bell
  11. George Shipley
  12. Gary Strodder (for Burke)

Oxford:

  1. Steve Hardwick
  2. David Fogg
  3. Tim Smithers
  4. Trevor Hebberd
  5. Gary Briggs
  6. Malcolm Shotton
  7. Mark Jones
  8. Andy Thomas
  9. Mick Vinter
  10. George Lawrence
  11. Kevin Brock
  12. Neil Whatmore (for Fogg)

City goalkeeper David Felgate had joined initially on loan from Bolton Wanderers in September 1980, then permanently for a fee of £25,000 three months later. Missing only a handful of games since his arrival the Welshman had recently been included in the Wales squad for a European Championship qualifier but was not to earn an international cap for another year. He had recently been voted as the best goalkeeper in the division in the annual PFA awards.

Recent signing Colin Brazier who had played the previous game at right back was suspended so there was a recall for David Carr for what turned out to be his last appearance for the club prior to being released in the summer. The former Luton Town man had joined the club for £20,000 in the summer of 1979 and had been first choice right back in the current season before yielding his place to the craggy Gordon Simmonite who had joined from Blackpool for £6,000 in late November. Simmonite had spent two years with Boston United winning five England semi-professional caps before playing for the Lancashire club in the Third and Fourth Divisions. He was at left back in this game as the long-serving Phil Neale had now taken up his summer job of captaining Worcestershire in cricket’s County Championship.

City’s central defence was the well-tried partnership of Trevor Peake and Steve Thompson now in their third season of playing together. The 26-year-old Peake was another player to be named in the PFA Third Division Team of the Year and had joined in the summer of 1979 from non-league Nuneaton Borough for a fee of £15,000, while the solid Thompson, a year older than Peake had signed for the club a year later from Boston United for a similar fee.

In City’s usual 4-3-3 formation, the midfield three were Stuart Hibberd, Marshall Burke and George Shipley. The tall and combative 21-year-old Hibberd had started the season as first choice in midfield before losing his place to new signing Burke and had now been recalled to the side due to the absence through injury of Phil Turner, like Hibberd a product of City’s nursery club in Sheffield. Marshall Burke had been a regular since joining from Blackburn Rovers in October for a fee of £2,500 after making around 40 appearances for the Second Division club. The trio was completed by the skilful George Shipley who had become City’s record signing in January 1980 joining from Southampton at a cost of £45,000 from Southampton with whom he had had limited first team experience. He had contributed ten goals in the season so far.

Up front, another expensive signing was Derek Bell who had cost £33,000 from Barnsley a couple of months before the signing of Shipley. Previously troubled by injuries he was having his best season for the club with 29 goals in all competitions including the Football League Trophy but was surprisingly to be sold to Chesterfield in the summer. City’s second-longest serving player was Gordon Hobson who had broken through into the first team in the days of Willie Bell as manager in 1978. Still only 25, he had top scored for City as they won promotion from the Fourth Division in 1981 and had 16 goals to his name this time around. The dynamic Glenn Cockerill, who was a third player in the PFA team of the year and loan signing Chris Thompson were both injured, so the 33-year-old Ernie Moss kept his place in the side.

City substitute was promising 18-year-old defender Gary Strodder, a product of the youth side with half a dozen or so appearances in the first team behind him.

In goal for Oxford was Steve Hardwick who had joined from Newcastle United in February for a fee of £15,000 after making almost 100 appearances for them. He had started his career with Chesterfield as one of a string of impressive goalkeepers to emerge from the Derbyshire club.

At right back was the experienced David Fogg, now in his seventh season with Oxford after several years with Wrexham. Partnering him was Tim Smithers who had spent much of his career as a midfielder and who had been signed for £15,000 in the summer of 1980 from Nuneaton Borough where he had played alongside City’s Trevor Peake. The centre of the defence comprised the solid partnership of Gary Briggs and Malcolm Shotton. Briggs had made over 200 appearances since signing from Middlesbrough, while Shotton had joined from Nuneaton along with Smithers for another £15,000.

In midfield were the 24-year-old Trevor Hebberd who had started his career with Southampton as a centre forward before converting to midfield and had joined Oxford in March 1982 for a fee of £80,000. His skilful play was to be a feature of Oxford’s forthcoming rise to the First Division and League Cup success. He eventually wound his career down well into his thirties with a season at Lincoln during Sam Ellis’s time as manager. Mark Jones had turned professional in 1979 and was a product of the club’s youth policy as was Kevin Brock who had broken through into the first team at the age of 17. Also part of Oxford’s rise, he later spent time with Newcastle United.

Another player to have joined from Southampton was winger or striker George Lawrence who had been signed for £45,000 the previous November after a loan spell the previous season. Strikers were Andy Thomas and Mick Vinter. Thomas was another youth product who had finished as leading scorer with 18 goals the season before, while Vinter had joined from Wrexham for £25,000 prior to the start of the season. He had originally made his name with Notts County who had sold him to the North Wales club for £150,000. Substitute, and returning from injury, was another striker in Neil Whatmore who had scored over 100 goals in nearly 300 games for Bolton Wanderers before Birmingham City paid £350,000 for his services in 1981. However, he had seldom been in favour at the St Andrews club and had joined Oxford in October for £25,000.

The 1980s were a time of low attendances throughout football in general, and the total for the 1982/83 season was to be the lowest since the War with worse to come. The figure of 2,812 for the visit of Oxford turned out to be City’s third worst of the season, but even when they had been topping the division earlier on they had struggled to get as many as five thousand.

City got off to a good start following a corner with three minutes gone when Oxford’s Mick Vinter headed the ball into his own net under pressure from Ernie Moss. But after that, with City’s midfield “woefully inadequate” as Maurice Burton put it in his Sports Echo report, Oxford were the better side for most of the match. City seldom looked capable of adding to their lead with Moss fighting for every ball but finding little support in attack. The visitors, however, were kept at bay by David Felgate’s display in goal as he made a series of saves which preserved the lead until 20 minutes from the end. At last Felgate was beaten when he saved a close range shot by Malcolm Shotton following a corner, but with him unable to hold onto the ball it fell for George Lawrence to volley into the net. The goalkeeper was then helpless when a “shocking” back pass by David Carr left him stranded only for Oxford striker Andy Thomas to miss an open goal.

Oxford manager Jim Smith considered his side were “at least four goals better than Lincoln” and put their failure to score these four goals down to the pressure of wanting to keep their promotion hopes alive. As it was, only gaining a point each was enough to effectively end any faint hopes either side had of promotion.

I remember nothing of the match, but my player ratings show an average performance by all the players with the exception of David Felgate, agreeing with the Sports Echo about his being Man of the Match.

The draw meant City remained in seventh place and two wins in the last three games of the season did no more than lift them to a final placing of sixth. It was then downhill for them though as Colin Murphy’s side began to break up starting with the departure of Trevor Peake during the summer, and they could do no better than a mid-table finish the following season.

Oxford emulated City in winning their final two games of the season and finished in fifth place. Under Jim Smith they then went in the opposite direction to Lincoln, winning the Third Division championship the following season and reaching the First Division the year after that.