Looking Back At: 1978/79 (Part Two)

This is Part Two of a five-part series courtesy of Malcolm Johnson

Part One Here

September

The possibility of a new signing emerged with the news that former Scottish international midfielder/forward Jim McCalliog had been training with the Imps after a spell playing in Norway.

Another tough game in more ways than one was now in prospect with the visit to Sincil Bank of Sheffield Wednesday now in their fourth season at third tier level. Starting with this game the club ended their policy of reduced admission prices for unaccompanied ‘juveniles’ on the Sincil Bank terracing in an attempt to combat hooliganism. Chairman Heneage Dove said this was to help prevent any confrontation between home and away supporters either side of the barrier separating them and to “induce our young supporters to revert to their original position behind the Railway End goal”.

It was somewhat unusual to read Willie Bell in the programme mentioning that he had recently “had the honour of speaking at Welbourn church” the previous Sunday. Nothing wrong with that, of course, but not something you would associate with a football manager – but it made sense in the light of later revelations (to coin a phrase).

The only team change for the visit of Wednesday saw Brendan Guest make his first start of the season in place of fellow 19-year-old Billy Wright whose involvement with the first team, as it turned out, was now at an end. By far the highest attendance of the season of just over 7,000, although with a large proportion from Sheffield, turned out to see Wednesday achieve their first win of the season. Once again, defensive errors sandwiching a goal by Terry Cooper resulted in a 2-1 defeat.

It was announced after the game that Jim McCalliog, who had appeared to be about to reject Lincoln in favour of joining Derby County had decided to join the Imps after all. This appeared to be a real coup for the Imps, with the 31-year-old, who along with his five Scottish caps, had played over 450 games and scored more than 70 goals for clubs in the top two divisions. These had mostly been for Sheffield Wednesday and Wolves along with spells with Manchester United and Southampton. Having briefly been player-coach with the team he played for Norway, it was perhaps the lure of the same post with the Imps that tempted him to Sincil Bank. It was duly announced that he was taking over from former Graham Taylor protégé and member of the 1975/76 championship side Ian Branfoot who left to join Southampton as youth team coach.

 

Three defeats in a row had now put City in the relegation zone, and after the following Saturday’s visit to Rotherham they found themselves in last place. The 2-0 defeat at Millmoor made it two out two with that scoreline in the away matches I’d seen in the season so far. The new player-coach came straight into the side with John Fleming dropping to the bench, while the other change saw David Sunley returning to the attack in place of John Ward who was unfit with a virus complaint.

A familiar face in the Rotherham side was old favourite Dave Smith who was giving the lie to Willie Bell’s assertion that he was not consistently good enough for the Third Division. He had not missed a game for the Millers so far, including being part of their side that had recently put a full-strength Arsenal out of the League Cup. Almost predictably, Smith scored what was his first goal for Rotherham, declaring afterwards how pleased he was to score against his old club to add to the home side’s first half penalty.

Since the restoration to the side of Brendan Guest for the Sheffield Wednesday game City had fielded the same back four as had performed so solidly under Willie Bell the previous season but they were now looking less effective as a unit. However, they no longer had the hard-working protection of the two Phils, Hubbard and Neale in front of them, with the former still out with his foot injury, and Neale only just returned after staying on with Worcestershire to the final end of the cricket season. However, prior to the midweek visit of Graham Taylor’s sixth-placed Watford side the manager stated “We shall be a difficult side for anyone to beat at home”.

What didn’t help for the meeting with Watford was a sudden glut of injury problems. With Phil Hubbard still unfit a blow was the suffering of injuries at Rotherham by Alan Harding and Jim McCalliog, plus although Phil Neale had returned to training with the club he was not being considered for the match by Willie Bell: “There is no way he can be match fit, and he is by no means a major problem for me.” The deal for signing Malcolm Page from Birmingham seemed to be on again, with terms between the two clubs agreed for payment of a transfer fee speculated to be £35,000, but after meeting with the player Bell announced that the club were not prepared to meet his wage demands.

John Fleming came back into the side in place of McCalliog, but a late injury to Mick Harford saw Glenn Cockerill replace him up front to make his first appearance since March. To replace the injured Harding, Bell had various options, including recalling John Ward and possibly playing Cockerill on the left or – most obviously – bringing in Phil Neale. Another possibility was to play Alan Eden who at least had a handful of first team appearances behind him, but instead Bell chose to play 17-year-old apprentice David Burrows.

 

The very respectable attendance of 5,924 was not too far short of that for the visit of Sheffield Wednesday despite defeat in that game and at Rotherham the previous Saturday, and as it was a midweek game must have included a lot fewer visiting supporters. But despite many having predicted defeat for City no-one thought it would turn out to be quite as humiliating as the biggest home defeat for over sixteen years.

Early pressure by City led to nothing before Watford’s up-and-coming young striker Luther Blissett scored twice for the visitors following City mistakes. 3-0 up at half time, tall striker Ross Jenkins’s sixth goal of the season had given Watford their 5-0 score-line by the 67th minute as City folded up completely. By the time of the introduction of former City favourite Sam Ellis as substitute for Watford in the last quarter of an hour to play alongside another ex-Imp in midfielder Dennis Booth, the home supporters were reduced to cheering on the visitors as they recognised in their competence and style of play happier times at Sincil Bank.

Willie Bell described the support of the Sincil Bank crowd for Watford as “diabolical” and said they were “living in the past”. Maurice Burton, writing in the Football Echo the following Saturday tended to agree with him – although this hadn’t prevented him in his match report describing the manner of City’s defeat as “shameful in the extreme” and “an abject surrender of professional pride”.

Graham Taylor expressed his sadness that the City supporters had been wanting his new side to win – but he had rightly been hard-headed enough to recognise the situation at Lincoln and exploit it. Chiefly, this saw the inclusion of Sam Ellis in the Watford squad for the first time since being injured the previous March. Ellis himself said the reception he received from the City supporters when he came onto the pitch in the second half was the best thing that had ever happened to him in his football career.

Being no longer able to get to midweek games I wasn’t there myself, but if I had been I’ve no doubt I would have been on the side of Watford just as many of the supporters were and for the same reason. There comes a time during a heavy defeat when you almost want the opposition to keep on scoring in the hope that it will metaphorically put a bomb under the club and force a change for the better.

Something Willie Bell also said was that a big transition was taking place at the club – “Surely our regular supporters can see it?” The trouble was the supporters could see the ‘transition’ – but they didn’t like the nature of it and this match marked the point at which the majority had by now turned against the manager.

The following Saturday brought the visit of Carlisle United and the attendance was halved (although I was there). Jim McCalliog was now fit to return for his home debut in place of Fleming who dropped to the bench. Mick Harford was also back, with Glenn Cockerill moving out wide in place of young David Burrows who was left out after what would prove to be his sole first team appearance. It was Cockerill who earned City their third point of the season with an 80th minute equaliser after Carlisle had taken the lead just after the break.

The point gained against Carlisle lifted City off the foot of the table but they were back there again the following week after what was my third successive 2-0 away defeat after making the cross-country journey to Shrewsbury.

 

With Mick Harford’s foot in plaster following an injury sustained against Carlisle Glenn Cockerill switched to centre forward with John Fleming coming into a midfield three alongside McCalliog and David Hughes. The Imps had a good first half against the side in fifth place, but after conceding two goals either side of half time Shrewsbury had control of the game, with the Imps reduced to throwing young defender Mick Smith on for the last 12 minutes to play up front in place of an out-of-sorts Gordon Hobson.

The Imps were back in action again three days later with a Monday night visit to Brentford, only two points ahead of them in the league table. However, another two early goals conceded with only one in reply by Cockerill put them four points behind the Bees and a point adrift at the foot of the table. Changes for the match had seen David Hughes left out for the first time along with Hobson as Alan Harding returned to the side after regaining fitness and John Ward was recalled. Glenn Cockerill’s second goal in three games made him top scorer in the season so far.

There was now some movement on the transfer front, with the fairly substantial fee for the time of £15,000 being paid out for midfielder Graham Watson from Cambridge United. The 29-year-old had started his career with Doncaster alongside Dennis Leigh with both of them being signed as teenagers by Rotherham United manager Tommy Docherty. Watson had played a big part in Cambridge’s promotion from the Third Division the previous season but had featured just twice for them in the season so far. It was also announced that a club record fee of £33,000 had been agreed with Sheffield Wednesday for 22-year-old striker Tommy Tynan who Willie Bell had tried to sign during the previous season – one in which he had scored 21 goals. Ever-present for Wednesday in the current season he had just one goal to his name – scored against City at Sincil Bank.

 

Another striker who might have been (re)joining City was old favourite Percy Freeman. Having announced his retirement at the end of the 1976/77 season he then had a brief spell with Boston United and now at the age of 33 felt he could still have something to offer the club and had been back in training. He was evidently fit enough to play in a reserve match fairly soon afterwards, but it did not end happily with the ‘Big Fella’ sent off after just 28 minutes for two bookable offences. He then had to give up any hopes of a comeback as he was finding it difficult to find time to devote to training.

Phil Neale had finally been allowed by Bell to return to action in the same reserve match that had seen the end of Percy Freeman’s comeback, but he was still not back in the first team squad for the visit of Walsall. Annoyingly for me this was a Friday night match so was another I was unable to get to. Gordon Hobson was recalled to the side in place of the injured Harding, while Graham Watson made his debut with John Fleming left out altogether as the fit-again Hubbard returned on the bench.

Like Brentford, Walsall were not far above City in the league table, but City’s fourth point of the season in another 1-1 draw was not enough to lift them above last place. John Ward’s second-half equaliser was his first goal for over a year in a game which saw good performances from City’s new-look midfield pairing of McCalliog and Watson.