Yesterday, I wrote about arguably the greatest Easter of them all, 2017.
Today, I wanted to go back a little further in time, to what was my first real Easter Monday of them all, 1988. I’m stretching it a bit, my first Easter Monday as an Imps fan was away at Stockport back in 1987, a game we lost 1-0. Incidentally, had we drawn that game against Colin Murphy’s team, we would have stayed in the Football League. We lost thanks to a 71st-minute Andy Hodgkinson goal, in the end they stayed up and that set us on a collision course for what might just be my first derby.
Murphy left Stockport to come back to City, bringing Phil Brown, Clive Evans, David Mossman and Mark Sertori with him. Without going into too much detail, we then weaved our way through a season of highs and lows, starting badly but eventually fighting to the top end of the table. Remember, this was the first time a club had automatically been relegated out of the Football League, and everyone wanted a piece of us. It is not arrogant to say it would be like Manchester United or Liverpool being relegated to the Championship now – we were the team they all wanted. Hell, I think even the Conference powers that be wanted that too, sticking us away to their two top teams in the opening fixtures. Life was tough.
It was a challenge on and off the field. There were brawls and battles, players got kicked all over the place and one or two punched their way out of trouble. The season simmered and boiled intermittently, passing through our first ever league meeting with Boston United on Boxing Day, before arriving somewhat triumphantly on Easter Monday, exactly 33 years ago.
The build-up to the game was interesting, to say the least. Barnet had picked up ten points from 12 going into the Easter weekend, and they held a lead of five points, albeit having played two matches more. City were looking to strengthen and did some business with the Pilgrims before we met. Paul Casey, a former Sheffield United right-back, joined for £15,000, whilst we loaned them Allen Crombie, who had appeared just once for us all season. On April 1st, we headed off to Fisher Athletic and drew 1-1 thanks to Bobby Cummings’ goal. It might have been a disaster for City, but Crombie and Boston had other ideas. He inspired them to a 2-1 win, scoring the opening goal and assisting their late winner, giving us a chance of reeling the Bees in. Interestingly, the ‘well-behaved contingent from Lincoln City’ were watching the game, deciding our trip to Fisher was perhaps a little too far.
As the first official league meeting between the two clubs, the hype was huge in the days leading into the game. The two clubs had beaten the Conference attendance record on Boxing Day, and were expected to do so again as City hunted that elusive promotion. Clippings from the time (courtesy of Malcolm Johnson) show the expectation of a full house, and the worry that apathy from Boston fans might scupper it. On the day, 7542 turned out in what was not a long-standing Conference record – it was beaten less than a month later. That attendance would raise eyebrows across the country, as Oxford’s First Division tie with Portsmouth only attracted 115 more supporters – that was a top flight game.
The two club’s ties were perhaps stronger than you might realise too. David Beavon, Gerard Creane, Warren Ward and Bobby Mitchell all played for Boston, all being former Imps, whilst Crombie missed out due to the nature of his loan deal. On the bench, former Imps manager George Kerr sat as Pilgrim’s manager, doubtless a popular figure after his disastrous stints as City boss. Gordon Simmonite played for us, he had a couple of years at York Street, and Steve Buckley would go on to play for them the following season. In a further tie to the Pilgrims, Murphy’s assistant was Dick Bate, who had previously played for Boston. Bate had quite a career, joining his former Pilgrims boss Howard Wilkinson at Leeds the following season as a coach, and even taking over as caretaker manager of England Women for a game in 1998.
City were without the injured Shane Nicholson and Paul Smith for the game, as well as the suspended Andy Moore who had been booked at Fisher, so we lined up as follows: Nigel Batch, Clive Evans, Dave Clarke, Paul Casey, Trevor Matthewson, Steve Buckley, Gordon Simmonite, Bob Cumming, Phil Brown, Mark Sertori, John McGinley with Tony Simmons and Graham Bressington on the bench. Warren Ward got a start for Boston, as did the other three former Imps. Interestingly, or so I thought at the age of nine, Paul Casey was listed on the programme as playing for Boston, such was the speed of the deal to secure him at the Bank.
City fans were delighted to see him in red and white too, because he was described as ‘outstanding’ by the Echo’s Julie Beavon as City romped to a huge win. It was Casey providing an assist as early as the eighth minute, picking up Sertori’s ball and lofting a cross into the area. It eluded Evans, but dropped to the feet of Matthewson who stroke the ball home with ease.
On quarter of an hour, there was a bizarre own goal. I’d love to say I recall the day clearly, my little chin rested on the granite wall at the Railway End of the ground, but I do not. I know that David Vaughan rescued the ball from McGinley and rolled it back to his keeper who was not there. From 20-yards, he gave the Imps a thoroughly odd 2-0 lead.
Boston looked tired, and had trouble putting a full side together. Mike Brolly played with stitches in his ankle and one of Kerr’s two subs was keeper Billy Millar. It was a surprise the Imps didn’t win by more, and perhaps we could have done had Beavon not cleared off the line on three separate occasions.
Boston didn’t go down without a fight though, and just before the half-hour mark, they got one back. It was soft to say the least, Matthewson passed back to Batch, who could pick the ball up in those days, but he fumbled and Paul Wilson brushed past and bundled the ball home. I expect my Dad swore a lot, but City were not in any danger. Just before half time, one of Beavon’s blocks on the line stopped a certain goal from Evans, only for McGinley to sweep in and stab home for 3-1.
The injured Brolly came off at half time for Gavin Ottewell, whilst the reserve keeper Millar also came on in the second half for the hapless McKenna. It didn’t matter, a resplendent City had eyes on the prize, a place in the Football League. The Imps poured forward time and again, but heading into the final couple of minutes, the brave Pilgrims resisted all attempts to add to the tally.
Then, two minutes from time, their former hero stabbed them firmly in the back. Casey rampaged down the right flank and fed in Sertori, who turned his defender before slotting the ball past Millar. With 90 on the clock, Casey was at it again, feeding in Sertori once more. This time, the striker strode free of a tired defence before sliding past the keeper from 15-yards and into the back of the net. When Mr Cruickshanks of Hartlepool blasted on his whistle, the score was 5-1 to the Mighty Imps.
To a degree, it meant very little, because a vivacious Barnet had smashed Maidstone at Underhill, winning 2-0 in front of a huge crowd of 3510. City had two games in hand, but the win sparked a brief stumble, although we did have nine games to play in April. We drew at Cheltenham a couple of days later, then lost at Macclesfield. The fiery win against Wealdstone gave us hope, but back-to-back defeats at Bath City and Runcorn left us on the edge, as did a draw with Maidstone. Barnet’s form had been terrible too, they picked up a meagre haul of points from matches against Weymouth, Northwich and Kidderminster. That left it all to play for with two matches to go, City on 76 points, Barnet on 77.
The Bees ended with Runcorn at home, who were fifth, and Welling away who were fighting for their lives in 19th. City had two home matches, Stafford (4th) and Wycombe (18th). On April 30, my Nan, Granddad and almost all of my family lined up as part of the 4,402 fans at the front of the Railway End as City turned Stafford over 2-1, courtesy of goals from Phil Brown and Clive Evans. The tannoy told us that at Underhill, Runcorn had secured only the second win of any visiting team at Underhill, in front of 5,143 fans.
As you probably know, that meant all change at the top – City hit the summit for the first time in the season and knew a win against Wycombe would secure a return to the Football League at the first time of asking. You know the rest.
Was that the greatest Easter Monday of all? Maybe it doesn’t trump 2017, but hammering county rivals 5-1 in their first-ever visit to your ground as league equals certainly takes some topping, as do three assists from a player who was due to start the game on the opposite side. It was my first Easter Monday at Sincil Bank and one I may not recall clearly, but that will always be with me.