As the Imps look towards a possible push for Championship football, unbelievably, many people’s thoughts turn to the last time we looked likely to get out of the bottom two divisions – 1982/83.
There are people far better placed than I to talk about what happened that season, but I shall try to illustrate the collapse for those who are younger than me and have a passing interest in what happened. It all started the season before, 1981/82, where the Imps missed out on promotion in a nail-biting final game against Fulham at Craven Cottage. That game could have seen us lifted into the Second Divison, now the Championship, instead we missed out on promotion by a single point, finishing fourth with Fulham third.
Chairman Dennis Houlston stepped down almost immediately and Lincoln solicitor Gilbert Blades took over. He immediately announced that the club was under huge financial pressure, to a point where we may even have to close. It wasn’t what fans wanted to hear, but what parallels with the summer of 2020? Financial ruin on the horizon, and yet the manager pulled something quite unique out of the bag. At first.
There was no top-flight bailout back in ’82, instead, the club sold Sincil Bank to the council and leased it back. It is reported (somewhere) that one of the stipulations of the deal was that the club put its financial house in order. The players got on board with this, they agreed an 8% cut in their bonuses at the start of the new campaign. The looming financial spectre was further staved off with the sale of Tony Cunningham to Barnsley, the club he made his debut against, with £90,000 flowing into the Imps’ coffers. With inflation, that deal would be worth somewhere in the region of £350,000 today.
That came after he had set the Imps on the way to an impressive ten home league wins in a row. Indeed, with a squad of just 13 senior players, 17 of the opening 24 matches were won, with the name of Lincoln City on top of the table from September through until February 1983. Second Division Leicester City were beaten in the League Cup (they were promoted to the top flight at the end of the season), whilst West Ham needed a replay to get past us in the next round. In an early incarnation of the EFL Trophy, First Division Norwich City were beaten too, just days after Millwall were humbled at the Bank.
A Derek Bell hat trick put paid to the Canaries and ten days later Bell hit another treble, as Bournemouth were smashed 9-0 in Harry Redknapp’s first game as a manager. Promotion looked almost certain. The players even took a mid-season trip to Mallorca, something used against them at a later date. Sadly, there was little accord behind the scenes, Unlike now, where fans and board seemingly read from the same song sheet, in 82/83 there was a chasm opening which would cause an implosion. Colin Murphy had stated openly that the team would not survive the season on 13 senior players, a point he made rather succinctly when he played keeper Stuart Naylor up top for a game against Newport.
It came to a head at the end of February as the Imps went five games without a win. Injuries and suspensions took their toll and Murphy wanted to add two players to his ranks – John Thomas from Chester and Ross Jack from Norwich. The cost would be around £30,000, but the board wouldn’t sign the cheque. They asked the players to take another bonus cut, but they refused. It was a Mexican standoff with the club’s future direction at stake.
The Imps lost 1-0 to Southend at the end of February and the situation became untenable. Manager Colin Murphy said his side were ‘terrible’ and they couldn’t keep patching themselves up and expect promotion. Chairman Blades blamed the players, labelling them ‘rubbish’. That allegedly caused many of them to consider moves, but it is believed they wanted to stay and win promotion for the supporters. They may have had good intentions, but two second-half goals against Plymouth in the next game cancelled out Derek Bell’s opener and pressure increased. Murphy and the players were cheered, Blades and the director jeered. A banner was unfurled on the West Bank stating ‘Blades Must Go’, sentiments repeated in graffiti near his home. Only a police presence prevented a pitch invasion becoming nasty as fans surged towards the St Andrews Stand.
Blades reacted angrily, blaming Murphy for turning the fans against the board. Words were all well and good, but the fans believed the board lacked ambition. In turn, Blades wanted to know why crowds of 12,000 watched on in 1976, but just 4000 turned up to the Southend game, and 3915 for Plymouth. The chairman and manager stared into each other’s eyes, waiting for one to blink.
It was the board who blinked first, the day after the Plymouth defeat. Blades offered his resignation and the whole board followed suit. He claimed he, and his wife, had been the subject of obnoxious abuse, vandalism and death threats. In his place, Dennis Houlston returned as chair, backed by a collection of local businessmen including one John Reames. Sadly, it was too little too late, despite reaching the final of the Football League Trophy.
Few truly cared about a final against Milwall on April 20th, especially not as it was played at Sincil Bank. It rained and the game was conducted on a quagmire of a pitch. Just days before the Norwich City game, City had beaten Millwall 3-1 to cement a lead at the top of the table. Embarrassingly we lost the cup final 3-2, and only 3142 fans cared enough to turn out. Three days later George Shipley, Phil Neale and Gordon Hobson were in the side that lost 1-0 to a rejuvenated Bournemouth.
City didn’t recover, winning just six of the last 22 matches to finish 6th in the table. Trevor Peake and Derek Bell left at the end of the season and despite rallying to beat Spurs in 83/84, we finished 14th and the rest of Murphy’s exciting side broke up. Ross Jack and John Thomas did eventually sign for City, Jack scoring 16 in 52 league starts, Thomas with 18 in 56. It was too little, too late though, and thus began a decline which ended just four years later in relegation from the Football League.
This time, with harmony from top to bottom, things could be very different indeed.