To Hull and Back – The Evolution of Murphy’s Imps

Today we should have been playing Hull City, but as usual, we have fallen foul of a Christmas period disrupted.

Usually, it is the snow or bad weather which curtails the action early, but this year it is a virus that we have known about for long enough. I suppose, thanks to Covid, we are top at New Year. I say thanks to the virus, Michael Appleton and the players have had a fair bit to do with it as well.

I had planned an article around two Hull City matches which stuck out for me, nine goals spanning little under two years. They marked the early signs of Murphy’s exciting side of the early eighties, and perhaps again as they were on the rise to becoming the side people still talk about fondly to this day. In the absence of actual match action, I shall bring you the article anyway.

Firstly, it did strike me how a whole generation of Lincoln City fans probably don’t see Hull as a rival. We last played them in 2004, meaning if you are 21 or younger it is only proximity that defines any animosity we have towards them. However, if you are over that age, you may well recall running battles up and down the High Street, the Barbican pub being turned into their own little fortress and of course, the stinging fact that they were the largest city in the country never to have hosted top-flight football. For the record, that is now Plymouth.

Old rivals at the KC Stadium, 2003 – Courtesy Graham Burrell

Hull City were the big rivals, and their arrival at the Bank often brought the biggest crowd of the season. In 2003/04, the Scunthorpe game attracted 5324 (901 visitors), Mansfield 6034 (1735 visitors) and Hull 7069 (1983 visitors). For the record, Boston was 7114 with 1284 visitors. Calling our clashes with the Tigers the derby would have stretched it, but it was as big as any Stags, Cods or Scunts invasion, without a doubt.

The first game I wanted to visit was a clash with Hull back in May 1979. It wasn’t a good year for Imps fans. Willie Bell had lasted a little under a year, taking over from George Kerr who in turn had failed to build on Graham Taylor’s legacy. Bell was widely hated by Imps fans, not least for jetting off to America for two weeks before the 78/79 season. He went after a 13th game without a win saw the Imps rooted to the bottom of the table. On November 18th, Colin Murphy took charge of his first Imps game, a 3-3 draw with Plymouth Argyle. A day later, yours truly was born and within four matches, we had another win, 1-0 at Peterborough.

Fast forward to May 5th. The Imps were already relegated to the Fourth Division after Murphy struggles to halt the slide. January really did for us, losing all three league games 2-0. there were no games in February and March opened with a 6-0 hiding at Swindon, Murphy knew there was work to be done, the Imps had 23 points from 42 games and were ten from safety, whilst Hull arrived in 11th place with little to play for, but would have been a shoo-in on anyone’s accumulator, had they been a thing.

The Imps lined up Grotier, Hughes, Laybourne, Cross, Guest, Cooper, Hobson, Ward, Harford, Watson, and Cockerill. The names on there show what stage the side was at, evolving from the Taylor era and towards the success that we eventually encountered.

Hull, 1978/79

The match report shows the opening half-hour was a challenge for City. Peter Grotier was ‘back in form with a bang’ according to Maurice Burton, making five or six splendid saves before we finally broke the deadlock. Graham Watson, a Willie Bell signing grabbed his second goal of the season (the first having given Murphy his first win as manager). David Hughes broke away, turning the ball inside for Watson to have a swing at. he missed, but it broke right for him to have a second stab, with which he made no mistake. The Imps led 1-0 in front of just 2532, looking for only a fourth home win since Boxing Day.

Five minutes before half time, City scored again, giving them what Burton described as ‘the almost unknown luxury’ of a two-goal lead. It was a debated goal too, Mick Harford’s deep cross turned home by Hobson, with Watson getting a touch. The official report gives it to Watson, but the Nannestad’s gave it to Hobson. I’ll give it to Hobson too, but whoever it was, it gave the Imps a two-goal lead in the first game that it meant very little.

Brendan Guest hit the post with a free-kick on 55 minutes, before the imps put the game beyond doubt. Watson was involved again, pointing to space where he wanted Cockerill to go before feeding the young midfielder. With the sort of skill that later made him a legend, Cockerill switched the ball to Harford in the middle, and Mick needed no invitation to slam the ball home. It made it three goals in three games for Harford, and two in successive matches afterwards gave him six for the season, five on the spin and left him as the joint leading scorer in the league.

Gareth Roberts pulled one back for the Tigers before Hobson added his second of the game with ten minutes left. Cockerill nodded the ball down to Harford (yup, I do have that the right way round), and he teed up John ward, who looked certain to score. Goalie Wealands saved ward’s effort, but Hobson slammed home the rebound. Mike Horswill added a second for Hull, but the Imps got the win, scoring four in a game for the first (and only) time that season.

a double for Hobson

Defeats at home to Blackpool (2-1) and Bury (4-1) brought Harford two goals but nothing else for the Imps. The final day saw us turned over 2-0 at Mansfield Town to draw the curtain on our stay in the Third Division. The win against Hull was a blip of sorts, one win from eight that gave fans a moment to cheer, but little real hope for the future. We sank back into the basement division, leaving Hull where they were. we finished with 25 points, 15 clear of safety under two points for a win. To put that into context, it would be like a team today finishing 22 points adrift. Last season Bolton, with their points deduction, were 21 points adrift. yup, it was that bad.

Fast forward little over a year. City finished seventh in Division Four in 1979/80, and as 80/81 dawned there was hope we might be able to push on for promotion. The team looked very different and when Hull were drawn as our League Cup opponents, we would get a barometer of where we were in terms of development. Sure, we’d beaten them 4-2 at the Bank as we went down, but it was a freak result. They were on the slide, finishing 8th after that defeat to us, but 20th the year after. It was a case of a developing Lincoln against a floundering Hull City, and it showed what a difference a year makes.

They arrived at the Bank on August 9th, a week before the league season started. The League Cup was a two-legged affair and ahead of the game, Colin murphy conceded that it would be tough for City. Hull had signed Dennis Booth, as well as Wales international Nick Deacy. They boasted future Arsenal man Brian Marwood, and future England manager Steve McClaren amongst their ranks. “Football is not just about money,” Murph said before the game. “To a certain extent, the players at Lincoln City have proved that. It is up to our players to prove that they are determined and if they do, their attitude will overcome the other factors that are against us.”

Phil Turner attacking during the League Cup clash

City lined up Boulton, Thompson, Keeley, Thompson, Peake, Carr, Turner, Harford, Cunningham, Bell, Shipley and Hughes, with Craig Ramsay on the bench. One year later and yet suddenly, the Murphy legends are almost all in place. Gordon Hobson missed out through an injury sustained in a friendly against Boston, meaning Derek Bell got a chance up top.

Bearing in mind the Imps upset the form books a year before, this time it was us who were favourites, despite the differences in divisions. City were unbeaten at home in a year and despite Hull having a relatively expensively-assembled side, Maurice Burton confirmed they were only expected to ‘run the Imps close’.

The first half was goalless, although the Imps were in control. Steve Thompson was commended in the match report, although Burton says ‘though he has no pretensions yet to being a constructive ball player, his presence is enough to deter any would-be aggressor’. I take that as him being the no-nonsense centre half we got to know later in his Imps career.

The game took off in the second half, with Tony Cunningham the provider. Cunningham was highlighted as one of the Imps’ key players that afternoon, and he beat two Tigers’ defenders to rattle off a shot at Tony Norman’s goal. Norman saved, but Harford followed up on the rebound to give the Imps a 1-0 lead.

Just past the hour mark that turned to 2-0. The amber defenders survived a big penalty shout as John Roberts appeared to handle in the box. The referee waved it away as the ball fell to Cunningham and like a magnet, players were drawn to him. Those players included Norman, the keeper, and it left TC to pop the ball into the path of Bell, who slammed home a second.

At 2-0, our writer Malcolm Johnson recalls Dennis Booth getting a bit of stick. Booth had a reputation as a bit of a comedian, of course, and when Hull lined up to defend a corner at the Railway End he wouldn’t have been in a very jocular mood – someone shouted out “Tell us a joke, Dennis!”. He didn’t, but the Hull defence did continue to provide the laughs.

Within ten minutes, it was 3-0. Bell turned provider, breaking down the left with pace and cutting in on the touchline. As players closed in, he pulled the ball back for Harford, who gleefully smashed home his second of the game. The lead was described by Burton as being ‘beyond the dreams of City’s followers’. Booth’s dreams were shattered as he was replaced almost immediately, with steve McClaren coming on. He is said to have had a ‘wry grimace’ as he took his seat on the bench. It wouldn’t have got any better.

On 82 minutes Bell once again played Harford in, who finished with aplomb from 20-yards out to secure his hattrick. There was still time for one more, Cunningham getting away from his man and providing the ammunition for George Shipley, who made no mistake. The Imps took a five-goal lead to Boothferry Park, where just three days later they won 2-0 to progress to the next round.

One year was all it took to change the fortunes of the club, one year of Murphy’s deals, tactics and collecting of talent. Hull were the whipping boys at both ends of the transition, and come the end of the 80/81 season the two sides swapped places. The Imps finished second to Southend, beating Northampton 8-0 on their way there, whilst Hull were rock bottom of the Third Division and relegated to the Fourth for the first time in their history. One year later, Hull were visitors in the League Cup again and were beaten comprehensively again. City came within a whisker of the Second Divison 9now the Championship) and Murphy’s side was complete.

Two games again Hull, two big City wins, but one whole year of development, progression and evolution. Maybe, just maybe, we will be drawing the same conclusions ahead of the visit by Peterborough early next year. Will we see a similar result and outcome to a year ago, but be in an infinitely better place? Who knows.