May 9th, 1987, will be remembered by Imps’ fans of a certain age for one thing, and one thing only. Relegation.
It was the first time I saw my Dad cry, the only time I saw my Granddad cry and it came at the end of my first season as a fan, albeit as an eight-year-old one. I could barely understand what relegation meant back then, nor did I know what had been the ultimate architect of our misery. Paul Dobson. Jim McNichol was bitten by a dog in the Torquay and Crewe game, and in the injury time that followed Dobson grabbed a leveller for Torquay. They stayed up, we went down and I would imagine Dobson was about as popular as Peter Daniel, George Kerr and over two decades later, Steve Tilson.
Fast forward to January 1991. The Imps have said hello, and goodbye, to Allan Clarke. Steve Thompson has taken over and City have just three goals in eight league fixtures. In that moment, we turned to Dobson. The Hartlepool-born striker had previously bagged 24 goals in 80 games for his hometown club, before moving 366 miles south to Plainmoor, where he twice finished as leading scorer, with 16 from 39 in 1986/87, and 22 from 38 the following season. He moved back up north, hitting 10 in 24 games for Doncaster and 22 in 61 games for Scarborough. Prolific? Possibly. Proven? Absolutely. What could possibly go wrong?
Wikipedia’s page on Dobson, a fountain of false knowledge, claims his arrival wasn’t welcomed by fans. I haven’t seen evidence of that, indeed the issues of Deranged Ferret that cover that period make no mention of displeasure at all. What we needed was goals and on his debut, he got one, as we beat Walsall 2-1. A debut goal always sets the fans at ease.
After nine starts, disaster struck, as he was hacked out of the game against former loan side Hereford. He scored one in six on loan with them earlier in the season, but within a minute of coming on, he was kicked up in the air and stretchered off, ending his season with an ankle injury. He was watching on from the stands as the Imps beat Carlisle 6-2 on the final day, with Lormor bagging four, sparking hopes of goals the following season.
He was back for the opening game of the 1991/92 campaign, bagging as we beat Cardiff 2-1, although it is described by DF as a goal scored with his ‘on his arse as usual’. He appeared three times in the league, then missed the 6-0 defeat against Barnet, as well as two 2-0 wins at Carlisle and Maidstone. He did score as we won 4-3 against Chester in the League Cup, but went out on away goals, and was back for three league games, scoring as we lost to Chesterfield, before dropping out of the side once more.
He missed 12 games, in which we scored 11 goals. Nine of those came in the space of a week across two matches, but in general, we looked shot shy. Could Paul Dobson get a game? Nope, but when he did appear, as a sub against Gillingham, he scored in a 1-0 win. Still, there was no start and as we moved into Easter, rumours abound that he was on his way. It baffled many, a ‘proven’ striker sat in the stands, watching on as the incumbents of a first-team spot laboured to goalless displays.
His departure, or the start of it at least, was confirmed in a rather brutal fans forum, in which his signing was branded a mistake. News he was off came either side of our 1-0 win against Maidstone, first talk of him being a mistake hit the headlines, then after Matt Carmichael gave us a 1-0 win, news broke of him being given a free transfer, if a club could be found to take him.
Dobson lasted a few more months, even taking part in pre-season matches against Kempston Rovers, Worksop and Middlesbrough. Luckily, one might say, a club was found and he left for Darlington at the start of the season. He struggled to make an impact at the Feethams, but played through until 1995 with non-league Gateshead.
Was Paul Dobson a mistake? In the DF editorial for January 1992, three months before the ‘mistake’ headline, they state that Thommo said he wasn’t picking Dobson as he wasn’t a team player, but also speculated that picking him for another game would trigger a £10,000 payment to Scarborough. With three goals from just four starts, he certainly had a better record than Tony Lormor and Jason Lee, but both were younger and both proved that Thommo’s faith in them was correct.
Personally, as a youngster, I was always baffled why Dobson didn’t get more game time. I’m sure that his six goals in 23 matches doesn’t look that impressive to some, but remember much of his time was spent on the bench – 14 starts and nine outings as a sub. When you look at his haul from the off – six from 14 in all competitions, it is decent.
What did go wrong for Paul Dobson at Lincoln City? Was it tied to that goal he scored that relegated us? Was it the ankle injury at Hereford which curtailed his season? Or did we not want to pay Scarborough any more money for a 28-year-old who wouldn’t bring a fee back to the club in return? Only those in charge of the club at the time know the truth.
Huge thanks to Malcolm Johnson for the headlines here. I woke up yesterday wondering if I’d dreamed the ‘mistake’ headline, and within an hour, I had it on my computer!