15835 days. That is how long has elapsed since the Imps last went to Fratton Park and won a game of football.
The date was September 17th, 1977. This writer still wasn’t even a twinkle in my Dad’s eye, whilst Elvis Presley topped the charts with Way Down. A pint of bitter would cost you 27p, a pint of milk around 13p. It was a long time ago.
It wasn’t a classic period in Imps history either, with Graham Taylor having recently left the club. In his place, George Kerr, and believe me he was no Michael Appleton. It is fair to say when the 1976 era ended, there was no immediate new bounce. The 1977/78 season started badly, with City going down 1-0 at Bury, drawing 2-2 with Walsall at home then losing to Shrewsbury (1-3), Port Vale (1-2), Peterborough (0-1), and Oxford United (0-1) in Division Three. We did manage a win in the League Cup, 1-0 against Mansfield who were a division above us, then drew the second leg 0-0 before Bolton beat us 1-0 in the second round. By the time we headed to Fratton Park, we were rock bottom of the Third Division, one of only two sides without a win.
Portsmouth had managed a win, just the one mind, beating Chesterfield 3-0, but under the old two points for a win system, it meant they were still only three ahead of us, despite losing just twice. doubtless, it still felt like a long journey down to Hampshire for Kerr’s beleaguered side.
The Imps were beset by injury problems, with Dave Smith, Alan Harding, John Ward and Terry Cooper all sitting out. A young Glenn Cockerill had made a couple of starts, but he missed out too, with striker Alan Cork coming in on loan for the game
The Imps team for the trip to Fratton Park was Grotier, Neale, Leigh, Booth, Wiggington, Crombie, Hubbard, Graham, Cork, Fleming and Eden, with Brendan Guest on the bench. One of the names that might not be as familiar as some on there is Dean Crombie, a local lad who went on to leave later in the season to join Kerr at Grimsby, and later won the FRT with Bolton Wanderers. The other is 18-year-old Alan Eden, signed from a Sunderland Boys Club along with Mick Harford and Mick Smith. he was making his debut for the Imps, but sadly never settled and made just six appearances in total. Portsmouth had the likes of Bobby Stokes, an FA Cup winner with Southampton just a couple of years early, and David Kemp who had a reputation for scoring plenty of goals in the lower division. Steve Foster was also a part of their squad, he would go on to play for England in 1982.
As is always the case with Portsmouth, a healthy crowd turned out to witness the event, 11370. It was the second-highest crowd the Imps would play in front of all season, beaten only by an October trip to Hillsborough.
City started the game nervously, as you’d expect from a struggling side. Clive Green had a decent chance which Grotier had to save at his feet, whilst Kemp also stung the keeper’s gloves as they looked to press home their territorial advantage.
Despite the ropey start, both to the game and to the season, City rallied. Five minutes before half time we took the lead from a corner, Crombie’s delivery finding the head of an unmarked Graham, who nodded past Steve Middleton.
That goal gave the Imps a new lease of life and immediately after the restart it was almost two courtesy of a teenage Alan Cork. Cork, of course, would go on to be a key part of the Wimbledon Crazy Gang, and he saw an effort saved by the keeper. he wasn’t to be denied though and on 67 minutes, he made the second for Lincoln. He cut out a cheap pass from Paul Cahill in the middle of the park and made a run forward, almost unopposed. He tried to round the keeper, but as he did Foster got back, only to deflect the ball into the net for an own goal. It was harsh on Cork, who played five times for City without scoring, as it robbed him of what would have been a fine individual effort.
City could have made it three as Pompey imploded, but Phil Hubbard’s smart effort was saved well by the keeper in the 79th minute. Middleton had a solid game, and according to the News of the World ‘pitiful Portsmouth owed a debt of gratitude to Steve Middleton for keeping the score within reason’. He also saved smartly from Fleming late on as we threatened to run riot.
The game ended 2-0 to the Imps, but the media were not impressed. Indeed, the NoTW also said that Lincoln could ‘take little encouragement from a mediocre all round performance except the confidence that comes with winning’. Basically, two bad teams were in a battle to find out which was worse. On the day, Pompey were.
The Imps used that as a platform to go two unbeaten, winning again a week later courtesy of Graham’s goal against Chesterfield, before drawing 0-0 with Hereford. That was a boost that was short lived though, and the Imps slumped. The aforementioned defeat at Sheffield Wednesday, managed by Jack Charlton, came as the Owls were rock bottom of the league and the week after Dennis Booth went to join Graham Taylor at Watford. Kerr missed out on transfer targets too, Wayne Entwistle opting to join Sunderland instead of us, leaving the side lacking goals.
Another big turning point came on November 26th against another of England’s World Cup winners. Nobby Stiles managed Preston as we visited there in the FA Cup, and with 27 minutes left City led 2-0, thanks to Alan Harding and Clive Wiggington. Preston rallied and won 3-2, all but sealing Kerr’s fate. Immediately after Gillingham won 2-0 at the Bank in December he was fired. The Imps drew up a shortlist of two – Bobby Gould (who managed Wimbledon to that 1988 FA Cup win) and Willie Bell (who managed US side Liberty Flames into the NCAA Division I). They plumped for Bell, of which I will write little more.
We even did the double over Pompey that season, Kerr signing Alan Jones bagging the only goal of the return game. The Imps finished 16th after the horrible start, nine points clear of the bottom four. Pompey were rock bottom and relegated.
We have been to Fratton Park four times since, losing there in 1979/80 (4-0), drawing 1-1 in 81/82, losing 4-1 in 82/83 and finally getting beaten 1-0 last season, thanks to a John Marquis goal. Wouldn’t it be nice if we finally got that 44 year hoodoo off our back for good?