Looking Back: Why Lincoln City could be responsible for Liverpool domestic dominance

Saturday 14th November 1959

Lincoln City 4 Liverpool 2 (Football League Division Two)

Over the years, and dating back to 1893, Lincoln City have played Liverpool a total of 23 times in league and cup competitions with their last meeting coming at Anfield in February 1961, writes Malcolm Johnson.

The Merseyside club’s visit to Sincil Bank in November 1959 was the Imps’ last win over them in a home match. Manager Bill Anderson, now in his thirteenth season in full charge of team affairs, by means of some shrewd transfer dealings had twice achieved promotion with City from the old Division Three (North) to the Second Division (now the Championship). Now in their eighth successive season in the second tier of the Football League it was a real Golden Age for the Imps, regularly competing on equal terms with clubs such as West Ham United, Nottingham Forest, Leeds United, and the visitors on this day, Liverpool.

City had avoided relegation by a single point in each of the last two seasons and had made a poor start to the current one with only two wins in the first ten games seeing them bottom of the division at the end of September. Since then, however, a run of four wins in five games, including by 5-0 away at Hull and 6-2 against Derby County in the last home match had put them in 17th place going into today’s match.

In contrast to City, Liverpool were at one of the lowest points in their history. Five times Football League champions, they were midway through their longest-ever spell outside the top division after relegation in 1954. Also, in contrast to City, however, they had not finished outside the top four in their last four seasons. Managed since 1956 by former long-serving midfielder Phil Taylor Liverpool had spent most of the season so far in mid-table, rising to 8th following the previous Saturday’s win over Aston Villa.

Credit – Lincoln City FC: The Official History

The teams were:

City:

  1. Bill Heath
  2. Russell Green
  3. Jeff Smith
  4. Fred Middleton
  5. Dennis Gratton
  6. Bob Jackson
  7. John McClelland
  8. Ron Harbertson
  9. Andy Graver
  10. Bert Linnecor
  11. Ron Smillie

Liverpool:

  1. Doug Rudham
  2. John Molyneux
  3. Ronnie Moran
  4. Johnny Wheeler
  5. Dick White
  6. Barry Wilkinson
  7. Jimmy Harrower
  8. Roger Hunt
  9. Dave Hickson
  10. Jimmy Melia
  11. Alan A’Court

Goalkeeper for City was burly six-footer, Bill Heath, in his second season with the club and now first choice since the departure of Mitchell Downie in the close season. Full backs were utility player Russell Green, coming in for regular right back Ron Allen, and the cultured Jeff Smith, at the time considered to be one of the best left backs in the division and in the third season of a career that would see him become seventh in the list of players to have made the most appearances for the Imps. With the even-longer serving Tony Emery having finished his Imps career during the previous season his latest successor at centre half was 25-year-old Dennis Gratton signed from Sheffield United in September after seven years of mainly reserve team football at Bramall Lane. Alongside him was another 25-year-old in Bob Jackson who had joined from Oldham in 1955 and had featured mostly at right back before moving into the centre and becoming a regular there in the current season.

In the 4-2-4 formation which most clubs employed at the time City’s two midfielders were Fred Middleton and Bert Linnecor. The fair-haired Middleton was another player like Smith to eventually make over 300 appearances for the Imps and had been an integral part of City’s stay in the Second Division since arriving from Newcastle United in 1954. Linnecor had been mainly a reserve with Birmingham City before coming to Sincil Bank as part of a transfer deal which saw Under-23 International Dick Neal moving to St Andrews in April 1957. He was to find some goalscoring form in the current season, finishing as second-highest scorer with 14 goals including a hat-trick at Anfield in the return match with today’s opponents.

Right winger was John McClelland who had joined the club a year previously from Manchester City in an exchange deal for midfielder George Hannah. As well as a provider he was also a scorer of goals and had registered a hat-trick in the recent win over Derby County. In fact, he was to finish the season as top scorer with 18 goals and would surely have been a candidate for player of the season if such awards had existed in those days. Aged 25, he was the only member of the current team to play at the same level after leaving City, spending five seasons with Portsmouth. On the other wing was the diminutive Ron Smillie now in his fourth season after joining from Barnsley where he had played mostly in the reserves.

Centre forward for City was the legendary Andy Graver, the club’s all-time record goalscorer and now in his third spell after twice being sold for big fees by manager Bill Anderson. Now aged 32, dare it be said that his best scoring days were behind him, but although he had just four goals to his name in the season so far, he would still go on to finish with the respectable total of 12 from 31 games. Graver was partnered in attack by 29-year-old Ron Harbertson, signed from Darlington in March 1958 in time for his nine goals in eleven games to play a big part in City’s last gasp avoidance of relegation that season. He had been less prolific since then but his five goals in the season so far had come in the last five games sparking City’s improved form in that period.

After making a solitary international appearance for his native South Africa goalkeeper Doug Rudham had come to the attention of Liverpool while touring England with his national side in 1954. He was initially first choice keeper, but in the last three seasons had only made occasional appearances when deputising for Scottish international Tommy Younger before winning his place back at the start of the current season. This game was however, to be his last appearance for the club.

Right back, the tough-tackling John Molyneux had been a regular since signing from Chester for a fee of £5,500 in 1955 and was to go on to make over 250 appearances for the club until losing his place under new manager Bill Shankly. He was partnered by the local-born 25-year-old Ronnie Moran who had come through the ranks and was to play over 350 games for the club before joining the coaching staff and becoming a member of the famous Anfield Boot Room, also having two brief spells as caretaker manager. Centre half Dick White had been signed in November 1955 from his home-town Scunthorpe United for a fee £8,000 which was a record for the North Lincolnshire club at the time. He had been a regular in the side for the last two seasons, but was another player to lose his place under Bill Shankly, eventually being replaced by Ron Yeats. White was partnered in the centre of the defence by Barry Wilkinson who had joined from amateur side Bishop Auckland in 1953 but made only occasional appearances until becoming a regular during the previous season. He was however, quickly to lose his place on the arrival of Shankly.

In midfield, 31-year-old Johnny Wheeler had joined from Bolton Wanderers for £9,000 after playing for them in the ‘Matthews’ FA Cup Final in 1953 and winning one England cap. Again, he was another player to lose his place within a year or two, losing out to the young Gordon Milne. Alongside him was Jimmy Melia, aged 22 but already balding who like Moran had come through the ranks at Liverpool and was to go on to have a lengthy coaching and managerial career. He had top scored for Liverpool in the previous season with 21 goals from midfield and was to be one of the few players to keep his place under Shankly, winning two England caps and playing enough games in the 1963/64 season to earn a League Championship medal before joining Wolves for a club record fee of £48,000. Moving on for another record fee he had several seasons at Southampton before becoming player-manager first of Aldershot then of Crewe, before a brief spell at Southport. After various coaching and scouting roles, he returned to management with Brighton, taking them to the 1983 FA Cup Final.

On the right wing for this game was the tricky but inconsistent Jimmy Harrower who had joined from Hibernian in January 1958 and usually competed with Melia for the midfield position. Another player soon not to find favour with Bill Shankly, Harrower was to return to his native Scotland early in 1961. Left winger was the speedy Alan A’Court, aged 25, who had joined as an amateur in 1952, soon winning a regular place and who is still the youngest-ever Liverpool player to make 200 league appearances. He had five England caps to his name, including playing three games in the 1958 World Cup Finals in Sweden. In favour with Shankly, injuries then began to take a toll on his Liverpool career and after over 350 games for the club he left in 1964 to join Tranmere Rovers.

Something of an ‘old-fashioned’ centre forward for Liverpool was Dave Hickson, a name largely forgotten today, but rating a mention by Bill Anderson in his programme notes as “that personality”, so evidently a well-known figure at the time. In fact, Anderson went on to mention the player’s “big reputation as an enthusiastic player of the game – a human dynamo” and that “his all action soccer makes him a dangerous raider”, finishing by saying “our team will certainly have to be right on their toes”.  Hickson had started his league career in 1951 with Everton where he had been coached in the arts of centre forward play by the legendary Dixie Dean. A prolific scorer for the Toffees he had then played for Aston Villa and Huddersfield before returning to Everton in 1957. Slightly less prolific in this second spell, there had nevertheless been uproar from both sets of supporters following his recent sale to local rivals Liverpool, making his debut at Anfield with two goals the previous Saturday. He was to win over supporters who objected to the signing of a player from their Merseyside rivals by finishing the season with a total of 21 goals from 27 games, but after a further season, and nearing his 32nd birthday was allowed to leave by Bill Shankly.

Partnering Hickson in attack was the one player whose name to modern eyes leaps out from the team sheet. Roger Hunt, in seven years’ time to become a member of England’s World Cup-winning team, was a 21-year-old who had only turned professional in the summer on completion of his National Service in the army. He had made his first team debut two months previously, scoring in a 2-0 win over Scunthorpe and had now won a regular place in the side with five goals in ten games. Winning numerous honours with Liverpool he was to end his career as their record Football League goal-scorer, although Ian Rush would overtake his total in all competitions for the club.

The match attendance of 10,799 was fairly typical for the season although it was around 1500 down on the previous match which had seen the big win against Derby. It’s intriguing to think that if spectators had been allowed in to the League Cup meeting with Liverpool in 2020 the attendance might have been not far short of the same figure.

With Sincil Bank one of several Football League grounds still without floodlights the game kicked off at 2.30pm in order to finish while it was still daylight – although from my memories of games in those days it could get quite murky at times late in the second half, especially if there was a little mist about.

The Imps took the lead in the eighth minute with Andy Graver’s fifth goal of the season but this was equalised by Dave Hickson 20 minutes later when he took the ball around City goalkeeper Bill Heath. The aggressive centre forward also had a shot blocked on the line by Dennis Gratton. However, somewhat against the run of play City were back in the lead again in the 37th minute when a passing move between John Molyneux and Johnny Wheeler broke down in the Liverpool half. The ball was sent down the middle of the field with right winger John McClelland in pursuit and he beat Rudham to the ball to push it under the goalkeeper’s body for his fifth goal in three games.

City were finding that their more direct approach was more effective than Liverpool’s cross-field passing in midfield and they went further ahead just after the hour mark when Melia lost possession in midfield. The ball was quickly moved forward to create an opening for Bert Linnecor to drive the ball into the top corner of the net after his initial effort was blocked by a defender.

Fifteen minutes from the end a headed flick on from Ron Harbertson set up Graver to hit the ball past Rudham for his second goal of the match. Maybe following the example set by City, Liverpool moved the ball quickly for once when right winger Jimmy Harrower whipped in a cross for Roger Hunt to score the final goal of the game with six minutes remaining.

My father took me to a handful of games in the 1959/60 season, but this is one of only two I have a specific recollection of. For some reason, instead of our usual place on the Sincil Bank terracing we stood in the corner near to the players’ entrance to the field and I have a distinct memory of Liverpool being booed off at the end as being a dirty side. This is born out to some extent by the match report, although that indicates the booing was directed at Dave Hickson in particular after he had committed a bad foul on Fred Middleton in the last minute of the game. A Liverpool Daily Post reporter however considered the boos “unjust”, that Hickson’s conduct was “exemplary”, and it was merely “accidental” that the player “came in contact with the referee as he came away with the ball.”

City’s fourth home win of the season moved them up one place in the league table to 16th, five points clear of the relegation zone, while Liverpool slipped three places to 11th, just two points ahead of the Imps.

Lincoln had risen to 13th by the beginning of January and despite some mixed form at times, when they dipped below 15th that was their final placing. But in the following season, although a brief run of good results saw them mid-table in September it was downhill after that, including this time a 2-1 home defeat to Liverpool. A run of eight successive defeats in February and March with a 2-0 defeat at Anfield saw City finish a miserable 9 points adrift of the rest of the division and leave a second tier they have not been back to since. I had already lost interest before then and did not start following their fortunes again until three years later by which time only three players were remaining from the 1959 game. Russell Green and Bert Linnecor had both departed by the end of the season while Jeff Smith remained until Ron Gray had his clear-out of players in the summer of 1967.

As for Liverpool, it’s maybe not stretching a point too much to say the heavy defeat inflicted on them by Lincoln City that November day in 1959 was responsible for all the success they have had over the last 60 years. Three days later manager Phil Taylor resigned, and within a month the club had appointed a new manager named Bill Shankly. The rest as they say is history.