In May 1977 Lincoln City had finished in a respectable ninth place at the end of their first season in the Football League’s third tier for fifteen years, writes Malcolm Johnson.
With Graham Taylor having completed four and a half seasons as manager the club was looking in a very stable condition on the field with things heading in the right direction. However, within a month all that was to change.
In fact, at various times over the past year other clubs looking for a new manager had increasingly begun to take note of Taylor’s success at Lincoln and he had been linked with jobs at Derby County, Sunderland, Newcastle United and most recently, Watford – the only one of these clubs to be in a lower division.
It seemed only a matter of time before the ambitious manager left Lincoln behind him, and while criticism has often been levelled at the board of directors for not providing him with more financial resources Taylor himself had, on several occasions during the season just ended, levelled criticism at the supporters for not turning up in greater numbers. This had come to a head in mid-April when he expressed disappointment that fewer than 7,000 supporters were present for a game which put City just four points off the promotion places. “In the end, the supporters will get what they deserve. There are not enough people in Lincoln to warrant a Second Division team,” he said.
Having turned down Watford in April, Taylor was then contacted again by their millionaire pop star chairman Elton John in the middle of June, as well as by First Division Leicester City who were reportedly put off by the £20,000 compensation they would be required to pay to Lincoln. Another top flight club in the frame for Taylor’s services at the same time was West Bromwich Albion but Taylor was less than impressed with the attitude of their chairman Bert Millichip, later to become chairman of the Football Association. This was in direct contrast to the opinion he formed of Elton John, being much taken by the singer’s ambition for his football club, and the fact that, also unlike West Bromwich, not only did he not baulk at paying the £20,000 compensation fee but also offered a salary and contract equal to what any First Division club would have paid.
It seemed to us supporters at the time that Taylor was almost certain to go to West Bromwich – after all, who could blame him for taking the opportunity to manage a First Division club? – and it was with some amazement that we learned he had taken a step back into the Fourth Division.
There seemed no likelihood of Taylor taking his assistant George Kerr with him to Watford – in fact it seems Kerr was more interested in succeeding to the manager’s job at Lincoln – nor full back Ian Branfoot who it is known he had a high regard for, and who had taken on more of a coaching than playing role towards the end of the season. In fact, the board acted much more quickly than their successors would do several years later when the time next came to find a replacement for a successful manager, and within a matter of days appointed Kerr as manager. By all accounts not looking outside the club at all they aimed for continuity, the 34-year-old Kerr having completed four years as assistant to Taylor and would therefore be expected to be thoroughly steeped in his methods.
The only player to have been released at the end of the season was teenage midfielder Peter Sellars whose only brief first team experience had been over a year before, while popular striker Percy Freeman had decided to retire from football although not yet 32 years old. Almost straight after the end of the season, Graham Taylor had taken immediate steps to sign a replacement for Freeman, lining up 22-year-old Jeff Hemmerman who had surprisingly been given a free transfer by Second Division Hull City despite finishing as their top scorer with seven goals from 27 games. Hemmerman’s main claim to fame had been as the winner of Match of the Day’s ‘Goal of the Month’ competition the previous March. However, the player decided instead to join City’s Third Division rivals, Port Vale. Taylor departed for Watford soon afterwards and his successor elected not to pursue a replacement for the departed Freeman. This was to leave City with only two recognised strikers for two places in the team apart from raw teenagers Glenn Cockerill and Mark Cox.
Almost Taylor’s last act before leaving the club was to secure the services of four more teenagers who had been recommended to the club by a friend of the Sunderland-born City player Alan Harding. These were all players with the Lambton Street Boys Club in that city, and all aged 18 were tall midfielder Mick Harford, centre half Mick Smith, left back Keith Laybourne and midfielder/winger Alan Eden. Taylor had been to see them play, and according to Harford three of them arrived at Lincoln on the same day that Taylor left, with Eden joining a few weeks later. All four players were to eventually appear in the City first team, and two of them would go on to have notable careers in football.
Although not taking any of his assistants with him to Watford Graham Taylor had earmarked two of the players. He had to bide his time for midfielder Dennis Booth but couldn’t do without his right-hand man on the field, City’s centre half and captain Sam Ellis, and a move was quickly engineered for the winner of City’s Player of the Year award for the last two seasons. He refused a new long-term contract offered to him by City, and although Ellis said that several clubs had been in contact with him, he was not interested in going anywhere else but Watford “Only ‘the gaffer’ could have persuaded me to leave Lincoln.” Although Watford had offered just £4,000 for the 30-year-old City held out for a more realistic £15,000 although Ellis appealed to the FA to have this reduced.
There was probably not much George Kerr could have done to retain the services of Ellis, but his second big mistake of the close season was not to sign a like-for-like replacement big centre half. Instead, he decided to partner the 5ft 9in Terry Cooper with the 5ft 11in Dean Crombie in the centre of City’s defence. The pair had in fact played together for five games towards the end of the season while Ellis was injured, although the last of these had been a 4-1 defeat at Crystal Palace. However, it appears that Kerr thought he had seen enough to think the partnership would work in the future.
If Graham Taylor had remained at City it seems more than likely Cooper would have left, with a deteriorating relationship between the two possibly stemming from a mid-season dispute over a new contract for the Welshman. Taylor then criticised the player’s motivation on the pitch, first leaving him out of the side for a game, and then in the last away match of the season, which was the Crystal Palace defeat, substituting him eight minutes from the end, accusing him of ‘not pulling his weight’.
City’s regular back four over the past few seasons had already started to evolve under Taylor, but the rest of the usual line-up had seen fewer changes and it’s not possible to say whether the manager if he had stayed would have made many alterations. As it was, the central midfield pairing of Dave Smith and Dennis Booth was still going strong, with Phil Hubbard and Alan Harding the two wide players, and the strikers being John Ward and Peter Graham who had mustered 35 goals between them in the season just ended. Other than Ward though, all of these players were aged either 28 or 29 so it may be that Taylor would have made changes to lower the average age slightly.
George Kerr certainly had his sights set on giving young players a chance, with the four from the Sunderland area added to the existing promising youngsters already at the club.
All this is speculation of course, and it has to be said that other than some doubts over the centre half position as far as the playing squad was concerned there was no reason not to be optimistic about another good season in the Third Division.
The first pre-season game saw a visit to Grimsby Town in the Lincolnshire Cup and two goals from Peter Graham produced a 2-2 draw with an almost full-strength side apart from the inclusion of Mick Smith at centre half as Dean Crombie played at left back. Another game in the same competition then saw a 1-1 draw with Scunthorpe in a game which had to be played at the Old Show Ground due to dressing room alterations being made at Sincil Bank. Phil Neale returned earlier than usual from his cricketing duties with Worcestershire and partnered Dennis Leigh at full back. Terry Cooper had sustained a ligament injury in the game at Grimsby, and surprisingly his place in defence alongside young Smith was taken by Peter Graham with Phil Hubbard playing up front. Graham had in fact played as a defender in the early part of his career so this was maybe not as strange as it seemed. Another of the Lambton Street contingent, Alan Eden came on as a late substitute, but City’s draw was thanks to a penalty scored by goalkeeper Peter Grotier. The pre-season wound up with a 0-0 draw at Southern League lower division side Corby Town.
During the close season it had emerged that Percy Freeman had decided to continue playing after all and had joined Boston United on a part-time basis after, as he put it, they had made him an offer he couldn’t refuse.
For the second year running the season started with the two legs of the League Cup First Round being played before the first league games. City had been drawn against the previous season’s Third Division champions Mansfield Town, just about to embark the first and so far, only second tier season in their history.
It was reported that clubs in the top two divisions including Derby County had made enquiries for Phil Neale with Kerr stating that he was valued at over £75,000, but he was forced to miss the first few games of the season due to a finger injury sustained in a friendly cricket match. Also missing was Terry Cooper, still out with his ligament injury so Mick Smith made his first team debut alongside Peter Graham in the centre of the defence as Kerr said that the youngster needed a more experienced player alongside him than the 20-year-old Crombie. Taking Graham’s place in attack alongside John Ward was Phil Hubbard again with John Fleming playing wide on the right as City fielded the midfield four that had won the Fourth Division championship two seasons before. In Neale’s absence, Brendan Guest partnered Dennis Leigh at full back with Crombie on the bench.
The match programme provided by the Second Division club, no doubt due to it being ‘only’ a League Cup tie, was the most perfunctory imaginable, being nothing but Mansfield’s fixture poster with the most basic match details printed on the back and folded over twice.
An 87th-minute goal by newly-appointed captain John Ward gave the Imps a 1-0 lead to take into the second leg, although they owed a lot to a fine display from goalkeeper Peter Grotier including a penalty save just before half time. The makeshift defence acquitted themselves well with young Mick Smith gaining confidence despite being faced with the prolific-scoring later City player Ernie Moss. “This boy could become the Lincoln City centre half for many years to come”, said his manager.
The second leg the following Wednesday night saw an unchanged line-up as a reasonably good attendance of 5,731 turned up to see the defence once again hold firm against the Second Division side in an uninspiring match as the 0-0 draw put the Imps into the next round.