The next visitors to Sincil Bank were again what being in the Third Division was all about. Instead of playing the likes of Hartlepool, Newport and Rochdale week after week the Imps were now facing Sheffield Wednesday for the first time in nearly 28 years. The Owls were currently at a low ebb as a club having been established members of the top division as recently as 1970, but were now competing in the third tier for only the second season in their history.
Supporters of both clubs turned out in force for this one, and the attendance of 14,706 was the highest at Sincil Bank for over four years. Unchanged for the sixth game in a row, and boosted by the news that Terry Cooper had now signed a new contract, the visitors however had the better of the first half, taking the lead five minutes before half time. However, Percy Freeman quickly equalised with his third goal in four games but although in turn having the better of the second half the Imps were unable to find a winner, resulting in their third draw in four home games.
City had risen to sixth in the table following the victory at Chesterfield but the single point gained against Sheffield Wednesday followed by defeat at promotion-chasing Wrexham the following Saturday put them back to twelfth. A change was made for the game at the Racecourse Ground with Phil Hubbard coming in in place of John Fleming, with Peter Graham back in the squad and coming off the bench in a bid to rescue the game in the second half. However, the home side with four Welsh internationals in their side were too good for the Imps in a 3-0 win.
In order to give him some league experience 19-year-old defender David Wiggett was allowed to join Fourth Division side Hartlepool on a month’s loan, something which was to eventually lead to tragic consequences which no-one could have foreseen.
As with the trip to Portsmouth, the next Saturday was another long journey to a new ground for me – all the way to Gillingham in Kent. Peter Graham dropped out of the squad again, but John Fleming now returned, playing on the left with Alan Harding on the bench. After withstanding early pressure from Gillingham, the Imps, with good performances from Hubbard and Booth, turned the tide to win with the only goal of the game scored by John Ward midway through the second half.
Next opponents at Sincil Bank were previous season’s promotion rivals Reading as the attendance dipped below 7,000 again to Graham Taylor’s disappointment. An unchanged side, leading at the break through Terry Cooper’s second goal of the season took control of the match with two goals in two minutes from Ward after Alan Harding replaced Fleming for the second half, a quick reply from Reading’s Mick Hollis being only a consolation.
The two wins in a row had moved City from twelfth place to fourth and they retained that position in midweek with a 2-1 win at Oxford with a goal apiece for Freeman and Ward as John Fleming returned with Phil Hubbard now on the bench.
Hubbard, who had replaced Fleming for the last half hour of the game at Oxford now took over as the regular first choice to play wide on the right as Peter Graham returned to the squad on the bench for the visit of Rotherham United. This was the first Friday night game of the season as City continued with their policy of playing some games that evening instead of on a Saturday. The only game being played that night, a win in front over 9,000 at Sincil Bank would have made City the overnight leaders of the division. Things started well with an early goal by Percy Freeman from a free kick although this was quickly equalised by the visitors. City went back in front through a Phil Hubbard header from a corner just before the hour mark and were still leading 2-1 when as usual I had to leave the match before the end in order to get the last train back to Newark. It was after I got home that I found Rotherham had snatched a late equaliser, and while the point was enough to put City into third place by the end of the following day’s results that was to be as good as it got all season. Inconsistent results meant the Imps were never to do any better than be on the fringe of the promotion race.
In contrast to the previous season’s triumphs City had found it difficult to win at home since the step up to the higher division with four draws in the league out of six games. Worse now came with a first home defeat for almost 20 months, a run of 38 games in all competitions. Bury were the Wednesday night visitors, a team three places below City, for a game in which following the disappointment of the draw with Rotherham the attendance dropped below 7,000 again. An unchanged line-up took an early lead through Phil Hubbard only for the visitors to come back to lead 2-1 at the break. Bury’s veteran midfielder Billy Rudd made it 3-1 late on with Dave Smith’s last- minute goal too little too late.
While City had achieved a couple of good results on visits to Mansfield in the 1970s so far, they had also gone down to some disappointing defeats and that was the case again. A 3-1 defeat meant it was the first time they had lost two league games in a row for well over two years. No changes were made to the team other than the return of John Fleming on the bench, and under continual pressure from the home side the Imps were glad to be only a goal down at half time. Following an unlucky own goal by Phil Hubbard the Stags went further ahead through winger Jim McCaffrey, a perennial thorn in City’s side over the years, and Dave Smith’s second goal in two games close to the end was only a consolation. The win moved Mansfield above City who dropped to ninth place with Graham Taylor now beginning to receive some criticism from some supporters.
There was encouraging financial news with the announcement of a record profit of £44,406 which was a big turn-around from a loss of £20,000 a year previously. This was perhaps not surprising given some of the large attendances that had cheered City to the Fourth Division championship, but also to be taken into account were record amounts received from the Supporters Club of £17,500 and the Red Imps Association with £20,000.
Some significant player news was the announcement that 17-year-old former Louth United striker Glenn Cockerill had signed professional terms with City after a six-match trial including games in the Northern Intermediate League side. Meanwhile, fellow youth team player Brendan Guest who had been undergoing trials with the England Youth international squad was also given a professional contract. Another emerging talent was young striker Mark Cox, in double figures with goals in the Northern Intermediate side plus five goals in four of the behind closed doors friendly matches. Less good news was that Dick Krzywicki, who had not featured since the early part of the season had been forced to retire from football as a consequence of his persistent hamstring injury.
Despite the setbacks in results, the attendance did hold steady in the mid-six thousands for the following Saturday which saw a visit from fellow promoted club Tranmere Rovers. Currently in mid-table two places below the Imps they had drawn six of their last eight matches and proceeded to make it seven from nine as City themselves now made it six draws from nine games in all competitions at home. Peter Graham, who had not started a game since August was now deemed fully fit and came into the line-up with John Ward dropping to the bench, but it was Percy Freeman’s two goals, one after just 27 seconds of the match that gave City a 2-0 half time lead. However, the visitors pulled a goal back soon after the re-start and got their equaliser with six minutes to go.
It was now time for the FA Cup and just for a change, in fact for the first time since Graham Taylor had become manager the Imps had a home draw. The opponents were Morecambe who were then members of the Northern Premier League which at the time was just one level below the Football League. Although City had faced non-league opposition away from home in the FA Cup in recent seasons Morecambe were the first such club to visit Sincil Bank since then-Midland League side Peterborough United had won a Third Round replay in 1957. Morecambe had just avoided relegation the previous season but were currently in mid-table in their division.
In the absence of Alan Harding, Dave Smith moved over to the left with Phil Hubbard in midfield as John Fleming returned to the side on the right. An attendance of 6,111 boosted by two or three hundred visiting supporters saw the Imps struggle to break down a hardworking side, but man of the match Percy Freeman scored with a flying header just before the hour mark to bring him level with John Ward as leading scorer with eight goals.
Back in league action, the following Saturday brought another new ground for me and another long-ish journey as City visited Preston North End’s ground at Deepdale for the first time since the early 1930s.
Placed fifth in the table, two places above City Preston were in good league form not having conceded a goal in four games. They proceeded to make it five in a row with a 3-0 win as a side which included past and future European Cup winning players David Sadler and Mark Lawrenson were too good in attack for a City side which saw the return of John Ward in place of Peter Graham
The defeat at Preston saw City slip to 12th place and extended their run of league games without a win to five – something we had not been accustomed to over the past couple of seasons! Despite this there were reports linking Graham Taylor with the manager’s job at Derby County struggling at the wrong end of the First Division who had just sacked Dave Mackay. As it turned out, the Rams rather surprisingly gave the job to their young reserve team coach named Colin Murphy. Also said to be in the frame for Taylor were Sunderland, another club struggling at the wrong end of the top division. However, Taylor was able to confirm that no approaches had been made and that “At the moment I am getting on with the job at Lincoln.”