Graham Taylor and Danny Cowley were the managers responsible for delivering arguably the two greatest ever seasons in the history of Lincoln City FC, writes Malcolm Johnson.
This article is not intended as a comparison of what happened on the field during those two seasons so much as a look at the supporters’ response later on in terms of the numbers attending matches.
A look at the ups and downs of City’s attendance figures throughout the club’s history would be an instructive one if anyone was able to write it, the main difficulty being the lack of any readily available figures prior to the 1920s.
After Graham Taylor’s appointment as manager in succession to David Herd in December 1972 it took him nearly two years before he really got into his stride when a run of five wins in a row in which 18 goals were scored woke us up to something special happening. In the event promotion at the end of the season was missed by a fraction of a goal but this was followed in 1975/76 by the Fourth Division championship with all kinds of national and club records broken along the way. After a slow start, crowd numbers during that season gradually rose to the extent that five out of the last seven home games produced attendances in five figures.
The season average for 1975/76 for league games was 8,401 – the highest for sixteen years – but when the following season came along the figure of 14,096 that had cheered the Imps to the championship in the last game of the season was almost exactly halved to 7,089 for the first game of the new season. Admittedly this was for a League Cup tie but the first game in the Third Division for 14 years then saw only 6,372 turn up. Attendances fluctuated for the rest of the season, seemingly partly dependent on who the opposition were, but at the beginning of April with City still in with an outside chance of further promotion less than 7,000 turned up for a home game with York City. The eventual average for the season of 7,475 showed that almost 1,000 spectators per match had evaporated compared to the season before despite the successful side Graham Taylor had built.
Turning now to Danny Cowley (not forgetting his brother), he became manager of Lincoln City when they were at a very low ebb after five undistinguished years outside the league. In contrast to Graham Taylor it took him only until half way through his first season to mount a promotion challenge. The average league attendance was 5,151, which although usually in the three thousands for the early months had risen to nine and ten thousand respectively in the last two games when promotion was at stake. Following promotion back to League Two that sort of figure stayed on with eight or nine thousand being the norm to give a season average of 8,782 as a play-off place was attained.
Now we come to the direct comparison with Graham Taylor in the mid-1970s as Cowley’s side went on to emulate his achievement in winning the championship of the fourth tier. There was practically no let-up in the 8-10,000 figure for attendances, giving a final average of 9,006 – beating that for 1975/76, as in fact the previous season had done.
But now the significant thing – under Graham Taylor as already mentioned the first home game of the season after promotion to the third tier saw an attendance of 7,089 compared to a last game of the previous season figure of over 14,000 and an average of 8,401. But the first home attendance of the season for Danny Cowley’s side was 8,668, just 1200 or so down on the last game of the previous season and less than four hundred down on the season average.
Of course, we then had firstly the departure of Danny Cowley and the following March the cutting short of the season due to the Covid pandemic. But despite some indifferent results at times following the change of manager the attendances still, for the most part, held steady at 8-10,000 and the average for the truncated season came in at 8,986 – a drop of just twenty people per game. This in comparison with a drop of 926 per game following Graham Taylor’s promotion season.
So, those are the figures, now a brief look at the two managers. Graham Taylor’s success came after a period of around fifteen years in which City’s fortunes had mostly been generally mediocre and at times downright depressing. Danny Cowley was appointed following what was rather a shorter period of miserable times but which was balanced out by six years being spent actually outside the Football League.
In both cases, supporters were in a state of being disillusioned with the club, but both Taylor and Cowley adopted a similar policy of going out into the community to make supporters feel part of the club again. Allied with success on the field they came flocking back, but the difference to me seems to be that with Taylor they didn’t stay back.
When researching the story of the 1976/77 season it surprised me how often Taylor expressed his disappointment at the size of the crowds following promotion to the Third Division, and with the possibility of further promotion to what is now the Championship, even questioning whether the people of Lincoln deserved at team at that level – an opinion which was shared by the Lincolnshire Echo’s Maurice Burton.
In comparison, as the figures show, after Danny Cowley took the club into the third tier there was next to no falling off of the support albeit the season was cut short, and I think it’s quite reasonable to suppose that in the current season, if supporters had been allowed into the ground, the numbers would still have held up, especially given the brand of football being played.
Many of us who lived through the Graham Taylor era looked upon him as the ‘Messiah’ for what he did for the club. I was personally less involved with Danny Cowley’s first season, but after that when the club had my full attention again I for one grew to feel exactly the same way about Danny Cowley’s management.
After Taylor left all that he had built up in terms of getting people involved with the club disappeared straight away. In contrast, with Cowley, over a year later it seems to me his legacy is still continuing in terms of feeling and support in numbers for the club.