Looking Back At: 1977/78 (Part Three)

You can find Part One of Malcolm’s excellent review of the 1977/78 season here

You can find Part Two here

Today, we look at winter 1977/78, and the Imps first few games under Willie Bell.


Thanks to their immediate FA Cup exit the Imps were now free to concentrate on the league and visited Bradford City, one point and two places above them. Changes were made to the team, partly due to injuries which saw goalkeeper Jimmy Gordon come in for his first game of the season and in the absence of Peter Graham 18-year-old Mark Cox, a prolific scorer in youth and reserve team games was given a first start. Elsewhere, Dennis Leigh retained his place at the expense of Brendan Guest as Phil Neale reverted to full back, Dean Crombie returning in central defence. The game was marked by a first goal for the club by Glenn Cockerill, and a first of the season for Dave Smith in a 2-2 draw after an eight-minute spell midway through the first half had seen City fall behind, equalise with Cockerill’s 25-yard shot then go behind again, Smith’s second equaliser also coming in the first half in what was a display of some spirit if not much else. The point gained did nothing to improve on City’s 22nd place in the division.

Second in the table Gillingham were the visitors to Sincil Bank for the next match, and provided difficult opposition in City’s current situation. Peter Graham was now fit again but Mark Cox retained his place in the side with Graham not even on the subs’ bench which was occupied by Mick Harford. Alan Harding was now injured but although it might have been expected John Fleming would come back into the side with some rearrangement of the midfield, Kerr instead brought in Alan Eden to play wide on the left, saying that when a first team player was missing the reserve who played the same role in the reserves should take his place. The side therefore contained five out of twelve players aged 20 or under. Eden turned in a particularly poor performance (as did Phil Hubbard as the main striker) and was substituted by Mick Harford, making his first team debut, as City lost to a goal in each half by the visitors.

The desperately poor showing against Gillingham rather brought matters to a head over George Kerr’s future. I remember leaving the ground after the defeat thinking it would be the last we saw of George Kerr in the dugout, and so it proved (at least for a few years!). There had been much speculation in previous weeks over whether the manager would or should be sacked, although the sports editors of the two local papers had generally declared themselves against it, and there were some supporters who thought he should be given more time. When the directors had given Kerr a month to improve results following the defeat at Sheffield Wednesday the Imps at the time were 22nd in the league table. A month and a half had now gone by and the Imps were still in 22nd place with a record in that time of one win, three draws and three defeats, including an FA Cup exit.

The consequence was that by the middle of the following week Kerr was out of a job. Some felt he should have been given more money to bring new players in – although it was reported that £20-25,000 had recently been made available – notable among these being the club’s vice president and former chairman Dennis Bocock who said he should have been given £100,000. But I believe the worry that I, many supporters, and probably the board had was that after all the years of struggle to get out of the Fourth Division we looked like finding ourselves back in it again after two seasons. Although with the occasional good result the performances of the team had generally been disappointing, with the nature of the defeat by Gillingham likely being the straw that broke the camel’s back. It also appeared that several players were unsettled, with several having requested transfers at various times.

It’s fair to say George Kerr had been unlucky with injuries to key players, especially early in the season, in particular with John Ward being out of action – but in this case it showed up his failure to sign another striker in the close season. Phil Hubbard had filled in up front on a few occasions in the previous season, but his recent performances in that position showed that his best days as a striker were about six years in the past. To Kerr’s credit was the introduction of young players into the side such as Mick Smith, Glenn Cockerill and now Mick Harford – but he relied too much on too many of these too soon – and some, such as Mark Cox and Alan Eden, were not to prove of the same calibre as the others.

For now, Bert Loxley was put in charge of playing affairs while a new manager was sought, preferably in time for City’s next game, which due to the early FA Cup exit was not until Boxing Day. First, however, was the matter of the club’s AGM and there was some speculation there might be some sort of upheaval in the boardroom. However, although director Reg Brealey stepped down this was said to be due to business commitments and not linked to the current situation.

The board moved quickly to find a new manager and, in contrast to the last two appointments, this time looked outside the club. There were several expressions of interest, including from ex-City player Derek Trevis, currently playing in America, and it was narrowed down to a shortlist of two. One of these was the 31-year-old Bristol Rovers striker Bobby Gould who Kerr had tried to sign earlier in the season and who would in later years go on to manage a string of clubs plus spend a controversial four years in charge of Wales. However, the board went for experience and gave the job to former Birmingham City manager Willie Bell.

The 40-year-old Bell, as a left-back, had been an early part of Leeds United’s rise to success under Don Revie and as well as winning two Scotland international caps had further top flight experience with Leicester City before finishing his playing career in the Third Division with Brighton. Beginning his coaching career with the south coast club he then moved to Birmingham and after five years as first-team coach was given the manager’s job. After two seasons in charge of the First Division club he had been sacked by them at the beginning of September after starting the season with five defeats in a row.

If events had happened slightly differently Bell might not have joined Lincoln, as two days after his appointment, he was approached to be manager of Canada. However, although he had not yet signed a contract with City, he stuck to his agreement to take the job at Sincil Bank.

Willie Bell’s first game in charge was a Boxing Day visit to sixth-place Colchester United and his team selection was perhaps influenced by the side fielded by interim manager Bert Loxley in a friendly match at Scunthorpe. Loxley had included all the players remaining at the club from the championship season of two years before. Bell followed suit, so out went, Crombie, Cox, Cockerill and Eden and in addition to the return of the fit-again Grotier and Harding, Terry Cooper was back in defence, John Fleming wide on the right and Peter Graham up front. Phil Hubbard was moved to right back where he had frequently played early in his career, with Denis Leigh in midfield. Bell did, however, bring in Mick Harford for his first start. Graham’s seventh goal of the season gave the Imps a first half lead but they had to settle for a point after the home side equalised after the break.

Another difficult game came the following day at Sincil Bank with the visit of third-placed Tranmere Rovers, and perhaps partly due to it being a Bank Holiday and partly due to an interest in seeing if the new manager could make a difference it drew the best attendance of the season so far of just under six and a half thousand. In a scrappy game City fell behind after 18 minutes to a goal from Tranmere’s prolific striker Ronnie Moore and then Dave Smith had to be substituted by Brendan Guest after half an hour with an injury which was to keep him out of the team for some time. However, a rare goal from Dennis Leigh just before the break turned out to be enough to give City a point as they continued to mark time in the bottom four places.

Another point was gained the following Saturday at mid-table Chester as Brendan Guest returned at full back so Phil Hubbard could replace the injured Smith in midfield. The game marked Mick Harford’s first goal for the club and a first of the season for Phil Neale to earn another point in a 2-2 draw which moved City up one place to 21st with only six points separating the teams in the whole lower half of the division.