After winning the Fourth Division championship with a record number of points and scoring over 100 goals in the process, not surprisingly manager Graham Taylor saw little need to make many changes to the playing squad in the summer of 1976 as Lincoln City prepared to embark on their first season in the Third Division for fifteen years, writes Malcolm Johnson.
No players were released and initially, none joined, although Taylor had expressed an interest in signing future England striker Tony Woodcock from Nottingham Forest. He had spent a month on loan at Sincil Bank in the latter part of the previous season scoring one goal in four appearances. It appears that an offer was made for the player but turned down, and after a loan spell with Doncaster that autumn Woodcock then became an integral part of the Forest side that won promotion to the First Division scoring 11 goals in 30 games.
No doubt prompted by the collapse of the wall in front of the South Park End terracing during the League Cup match against Stoke City the previous September Lincolnshire County Council had insisted that certain safety work be carried out at Sincil Bank. The cost of £18,500 for this may perhaps be a reason why, assuming Nottingham Forest did name a price for Tony Woodcock City were unable to meet it.
The safety work included the construction of fire exits at the front of both stands. In the case of the South Park stand, after the collapse of the wall against Stoke piles of blocks had appeared and it had originally been assumed these were for rebuilding the wall. However, it was now seen that they were being used for the construction of stairways to provide the fire exits. These took up so much space that it was clear the terracing could not be used again. There were fears that these fire exits, and also those provided for the St Andrews stand would partially block the view of spectators, and there was also a concern that along with buttressing of the wall around the front of the terraces, the raising of its height would mean younger supporters standing at the front would be unable to see over the top of it.
Pre-season training included a week away at Oakham, and the rock-hard ground due to the long summer heat wave that year was blamed for centre half and captain Sam Ellis suffering an achilles tendon injury which was to keep him out of action until late August.
Due to the safety work being carried out at Sincil Bank no pre-season matches were able to be played there, with Lincolnshire Cup games against Grimsby and Scunthorpe having to be switched away from home. The first of these, against Grimsby, saw Dennis Leigh, fit again after the appendicitis operation which had caused him to miss the last two months of the previous season return at left back. With Ian Branfoot filling in for Sam Ellis in the middle of the defence 17-year-old Brendan Guest came in at right back. Also making a welcome return after injury was striker Peter Graham, but the goals in City’s 2-1 win came from Branfoot, and controversially in the eighth minute of injury time from a penalty rather unusually taken by goalkeeper Peter Grotier. The match at Scunthorpe also ended 2-1, and also thanks to a late penalty by Grotier which added to a strike by John Ward as Percy Freeman came into the side in place of Graham.
The remaining pre-season games came in a four-team tournament played on a mini-league basis called the Shipp Cup. This was organised by the Cambridgeshire Football Association who had invited City to take part in it. The first game in the competition saw City travel to Hillsborough the day after their game at Scunthorpe to take on Sheffield Wednesday. Beaten 1-0 by the Owls, City also lost 2-1 at Peterborough before finishing with a 1-1 draw at Cambridge United.
Competitive football then began with the Football League Cup. The previous season had seen something new in that First Round ties were played over two legs and now another innovation was that both legs in the first round were to be played before the start of the league season. This was something that Graham Taylor for one was not too happy about, saying “It is an important competition and things haven’t really settled down yet.”
With Sam Ellis out of action and Phil Neale still away on cricketing duties where he had now become a regular in the Worcestershire First Xl, Taylor acted as he had done in the past to bring in a player on loan. This was 23-year-old centre back Ian Bolton who arrived for a month from Notts County. With over 60 appearances behind him for the Meadow Lane club he was to link up with Graham Taylor again a year later and play a major part in Watford’s rise through the divisions.
The first leg League Cup games were played on the same Saturday afternoon as the FA Charity Shield and City travelled to Doncaster to play the side they had met in the last game of the previous season. Ian Bolton made his Imps debut and with Peter Grotier having taken a knock in one of the Shipp Cup games reserve keeper Jimmy Gordon came into the side for only his second game in two years. Otherwise the team had a very familiar look, with Dennis Leigh back in competitive action at left back, and although John Ward was missing the pairing of Peter Graham and Percy Freeman up front was no hardship. As Dennis Booth was also absent Dick Krzywicki came in on the right wing, allowing John Fleming to move into midfield.
The Imps took an early lead with Peter Graham’s goal marking his comeback from his long injury lay-off but Doncaster quickly equalised to make the sides all square going into the second leg.
With Dick Krzywicki suffering a hamstring injury which would keep him out of the second leg the following week Graham Taylor moved quickly to bring in former favourite Phil Hubbard from Grimsby for a fee of £6,000. Now aged 27, Hubbard had started his career with City as an apprentice over ten years before and shown himself capable of playing just about anywhere on the pitch before his goalscoring exploits in the first half of the 1971/72 season earned a £20,000 move to Second Division Norwich City. Like a certain centre half nearly fifty years later his move to the East Anglian club had not worked out and after a handful of appearances he had moved on to Grimsby Town for a similar fee. With the Mariners he had mostly played wide on the right and with Krzywicki increasingly suffering from injury problems it was possible that Taylor already had Hubbard lined up to bring in after being close to signing him in each of the previous two seasons.
So, the first home match of the season turned out to be against the same opposition as in the last home game of the previous season. The Wednesday night visit of Doncaster Rovers in the second leg of the League Cup tie drew an attendance of almost exactly half that which had seen the Imps clinch the Fourth Division championship, but just over 7,000 was perhaps not too unreasonable with a first home game in the Third Division to come the following Saturday.
Unusually for the inflationary 1970s the price of the match programme remained the same for the third year in a row, and while this meant a reduction in the number of pages this was compensated for by an increase in page size and a return to a glossy paper format. The cover design was basically the same as before although slight changes would be made later in the season. Inside, advertisements were reduced to just two – but these did take up the whole of the two centre pages, otherwise most of the usual features were present, with a better presentation of photographs due to the better paper quality.
Players returning to fitness saw Peter Grotier back in goal in place of Jimmy Gordon while Dennis Booth was on the bench. Phil Hubbard came into the side straight away, but had a fairly undistinguished game in what was a generally below par performance by the Imps as Peter Graham scored again in another 1-1 draw meaning a replay would be necessary.
A large-size, glossy yearbook had been produced for the previous season in association with local engineering firm Smith-Clayton Forge and given away free to supporters, and a similar publication now appeared looking back on the successful promotion season. Although again sponsored by the Forge, it included much less material about them and this time a charge of 20p was made for the publication which, as a comparison, was twice the cost of the match programme.
The rather less than attractive opposition for City’s first home game in the Third Division since 1962 was Shrewsbury Town and this, along with the disappointing midweek draw with Doncaster may have contributed to an attendance of 6,372. This was over 2,000 down on the previous season’s average and contrasted rather disappointingly with the 14,000 that had turned out for the last home game of the previous season. One wonders whether these figures were somewhere at the back of Graham Taylor’s mind ten or so months later.
Changes to the side saw Dennis Booth return to the starting lineup in place of John Fleming and John Ward make his first appearance of the season replacing Peter Graham, who despite his two goals in two games started on the bench. The Shrews were familiar opposition from two seasons previously when they had beaten City to promotion although the Imps had come out on top in their two meetings with them. They provided a sterner test this time, although there was a better performance by Hubbard as City were held to their third 1-1 draw in a row with their goal coming from defender Terry Cooper.
The League Cup replay the following Tuesday night meant the postponement of the scheduled league match at Walsall and as Doncaster declined to toss a coin to decide the venue it had to take place on a neutral ground. This was decreed to be the City Ground at Nottingham which suited me fine!
The minimal four-page programme was provided by the host club, and with only 3,726 there we were rather rattling around the 47,000-plus capacity stadium. Good news was that Sam Ellis was fit to return at centre half in an otherwise unchanged team and he it was who gave the Imps an early lead from the penalty spot. However, the Rovers equalised almost immediately and took the lead before half time, both goals coming from big striker Brendan O’Callaghan to make in three in the last two games of the tie for him. Dick Krzywicki, on as substitute in what would turn out to be his last game for the Imps apart from a Lincolnshire Cup appearance set up Phil Hubbard to equalise with his first Imps goal since his return, but mainly thwarted by Doncaster goalkeeper Dennis Peacock the Imps were unable to force a winner during the rest of the 90 minutes and extra time.
New rules for the ties in the competition played over two legs were that if scores were level at the end of 30 minutes extra time in a replay away goals in the original home and away legs were to count double. However, as both had ended 1-1 it meant a first-ever penalty shoot-out was required to settle things. Unfortunately, City got off to a bad start with a miss from the ‘penalty king’ Sam Ellis. Peter Grotier, following on from his penalty-taking exploits in the pre-season matches, kept City in the contest at 1-2 before Percy Freeman blasted his effort over the bar. Dennis Leigh then scored, followed by a miss from Doncaster’s Ian Miller, but Phil Hubbard with City’s fifth penalty saw it saved by Peacock as Rovers went through by 3-2 to gain the reward of a home game with high-flying First Division side Derby County in the next round.
The first away fixture in the Third Division was again like Shrewsbury, against a side City had been used to meeting in the division below. Northampton Town had been the only side to seriously threaten City’s championship challenge the previous season and had been one of only four teams to record a win over the Imps, winning 1-0 at their County Ground home for the third season in a row. They proceeded to make it four in a row as City turned in an uninspiring performance with some blame being attached to the state of the pitch. With Northampton sharing the ground with Northamptonshire County Cricket Club part of the pitch was still in use as a car park for cricketing spectators and was reported as being “covered in ruts, divots and bumps”. While Phil Neale, now returned from his own cricketing duties to the exclusion of Dennis Leigh at left back may have felt at home there, an otherwise unchanged team were unable to create much attacking threat.
A surprise then came with the news that long-serving defender Terry Cooper had been placed on the transfer list. It transpired that Cooper had been playing without a contract since the beginning of July after refusing to accept any new offers made to him. With this impasse, and with Graham Taylor refusing to meet the player’s financial demands he had been put up for sale at a price of £50,000 while continuing to be paid under the terms of his old contract.