Looking Back At: Billingham Synthonia (FA Cup) 1989

Saturday 18th November 1989


Lincoln City 1 Billingham Synthonia 0 (FA Cup First Round)



Over the thirty years prior to this match Lincoln City had played at home against non-league teams in the FA Cup on only a handful of occasions, and although these had produced a couple of big wins (Nuneaton Borough 6-0, Brigg Town 4-1), the Imps had struggled to beat Morecambe and Gateshead (both 1-0) and been held to a draw by Telford United, writes Malcolm Johnson.

In the First Round of the competition in the 1989/90 season they were drawn against a team which on first hearing sounded more like a classical orchestra than a football club. However, rather than anything to do with symphonies it turned out the north eastern club’s name was actually Billingham Synthonia, the name being a contraction of ‘Synthetic Ammonia’. This was an agricultural fertiliser manufactured by chemicals giant ICI, the largest employer in Billingham for many years, and with which the club was affiliated.

Billingham were members of the Northern League which at the time was not part of the football pyramid but could perhaps be seen as equivalent to the Northern Premier League’s lower division and so three levels below Lincoln’s Fourth Division status. They had progressed to the First Round of the Cup for the second time in three seasons by beating fellow Northern League sides Guisborough and North Shields, plus Netherfield and Gateshead from the Northern Premier League.

Shane Nicholson v Billingham

The ‘Synners’ were the reigning champions of the Northern League, having won it for the second time in three seasons, and were in something of a purple patch in the club’s history. They were managed by 41-year-old Tony Lee whose Football League career had been limited to around two dozen appearances for Bradford City and Darlington. He had been appointed manager during the 1987/88 season, guiding Synthonia to a third-place finish before last season’s league championship. After leaving the club the following year he was to go on to manage a string of clubs in the north east.

Colin Murphy had returned for a second spell as Lincoln manager to lead them out of the GM Vauxhall Conference at the first attempt in the 1987/88 season. Back in the Football League, hopes were high of immediate further upward progress, but despite a club record transfer fee being paid out for the return of Gordon Hobson, one of the stars of the successful Murphy side of earlier in the decade, the Imps were never seriously in the running for promotion. Things had looked more promising at the start of the current season, with four straight wins putting the Imps top of the division. More recently, however, a run of six league games without a win had seen them fall to eighth place at the time of this match.

The teams were:


  1. Mark Wallington
  2. Paul Williams
  3. David Clarke
  4. Shane Nicholson
  5. Steve Thompson
  6. Darren Davis
  7. Alan Roberts
  8. Graham Bressington
  9. Mark Sertori
  10. Matt Carmichael
  11. Bob Cumming
  12. John Schofield (for Cumming)
  13. Gordon Hobson (for Roberts)



  1. Mark Mullen
  2. Colin Steer
  3. Dave Parry
  4. Neil Granycome
  5. Tony Lynch
  6. Stuart Coleby
  7. Peter McMullen
  8. Barney Mallone
  9. Charlie Butler
  10. Peter Singh
  11. Ritchie Allen
  12. Terry Cochrane (for Singh)
  13. Les Scott


In goal for the Imps was the experienced Mark Wallington. Sleaford-born, he had been on City’s books as a schoolboy before going on to play over 450 games in the top two divisions for Leicester City before twice winning promotion with Derby County. Now aged 37, he had returned to the Imps for the start of the previous season and was making his first appearance in the current campaign as a replacement for the injured Andy Gorton.


Paul Williams


Full backs for City were 18-year-old Paul Williams and David Clarke, one of the five survivors of the Conference-winning side in the lineup. Williams was on a short-term loan from Derby County to help cover for the absence through injury of regular right back from the start of the season Paul Casey. He was later to go on to play a large number of games in the top two divisions as a defender or midfielder, mainly for Derby and Coventry. The skilful Clarke, signed from Notts County for £5,000 as part of the influx of new players before the start of the Conference season had previously had top flight experience with the Meadow Lane club.

In the centre of the defence was another ex-Notts County man in the 22-year-old Darren Davis who had played almost 100 games for the Magpies before moving to Lincoln on a free transfer for the start of the previous season. He was partnered by the solid Steve Thompson who had been one of the mainstays of Colin Murphy’s earlier spell at the club. Now aged 34, he had played in the top flight for Charlton after leaving the Imps and returned to the club in the summer from Sheffield United.

Graham Bressington 

In midfield for City, were two more veterans of the Conference championship season, although Graham Bressington had only featured in around a dozen games after being signed from rivals Wycombe Wanderers midway through the season for a fee of £20,000. Alongside him was the 33-year-old Bob Cumming, signed from Grimsby as one the players Colin Murphy brought in for the start of the Conference season and in which he had been hugely influential. Back in the league, his appearances had been limited in the previous season due to injury and he had been hit by further troubles in the current campaign. On the right was Alan Roberts, a player whose £60,000 fee at the start of October had equalled City’s record when he arrived from Sheffield United after playing a big part in their Third Division promotion campaign the previous season. On the left was Newark-born Shane Nicholson who had become one of City’s youngest ever players when making his debut at the age of 16 three years previously. Capable of playing in midfield or anywhere on the left, he had played a big part in the Conference season at the age of 17 as one of the few players retained by Colin Murphy after City’s relegation from the league. Due to an apparent loss of form, he had made just four appearances so far in the current season but after a strong performance in a reserve team match, he had been restored to the side in place of John Schofield.

Up front City had been rather struggling for goals from their regular strikers with   the top scorer being Mark Sertori with five from 19 games. Matt Carmichael had just three goals from 14 games, while the currently suspended Paul Smith had two goals from six games after missing the start of the season through injury. The previous season’s top scorer Gordon Hobson had not so far featured at all because of injury. Consequently, Colin Murphy had been searching for a new striker with 30-year-old former Liverpool and Aston Villa star Alun Evans being mentioned along with Notts County’s Phil Stant. It appeared Stant had been close to signing but City were put off by an asking price of £200,000.

Mark Sertori

The two up front for this match therefore remained as Mark Sertori and Matt Carmichael. The 22-year-old Sertori had been one of several players brought in by Murphy from his previous club Stockport in time for the start of the Conference season in which he had played a significant part. Back in the league he had looked rather raw, but had improved as a target man in the current season without being a prolific scorer. Carmichael, a former soldier, had been bought out of the Army by City after impressing in pre-season matches. His professional career had got off to a sensational start as his two goals in two 1-0 wins had put City at the top of the table. Since then, however, he had only managed one further goal and since the return to fitness of Smith had been playing wide on the left.

City substitutes were midfielder John Schofield, signed from Gainsborough Trinity a year before for £10,000 and who had recently been featuring at right back in the absence of Paul Casey, and the now 31-year-old Hobson who was still not fully match fit. Like Thompson, he had been one of the mainstays of City’s successful side of the early 1980s before leaving to play in the top two divisions for Grimsby Town and Southampton from whom he had been bought back for a club record £60.000 early in the previous season.

In goal for Billingham was Mark Mullen who had been first choice in the position for two years and was to go on play over 200 games for the club. Right back Colin Steer was in his fourth season, and he was partnered on the left by Dave Parry who was in his second spell with the club after also playing for fellow Northern League side Peterlee Newtown. He was to go on to play over 400 games for Billingham. Centre half Tony Lynch was to finish not far behind Parry in terms of appearances, with a final total of over 380. He was now in his third season after previous Northern League experience with South Bank and Bishop Auckland. Lynch’s central defensive partner was club captain Stuart Coleby who had followed manager Tony Lee to Billingham from Whitby Town and was later to become first manager then chairman of the club.

Stuart Coleby

Midfielder Neil Granycombe had also played under Lee at Whitby Town as well as having a short spell with Billingham Town before joining the Synners four years ago. Also in midfield were Peter Singh, now in his second spell with the club, and Barney Malone, in his third season after joining from South Bank and who after completing 20 years with the club, would be another player to make over 400 appearances for them.

Right winger Peter McMullen was in his fifth season with Billingham after starting his career with Sunderland and was another player with long service ahead of him with a final total of over 350 games.

Billingham fielded a formidable strike force in this game with a pair of players who would eventually finish second and third in the list of the club’s all-time record goal-scorers. Charlie Butler had joined the club from Bishop Auckland around two years previously and had been the Northern League’s top scorer in the 1988/89 season. His Billingham record would eventually show a strike rate of almost a goal every two games in all but 400 appearances, while ahead of him in the scorers’ list was former Stockton player Richie Allen whose final total of 195 goals  would come from 40 fewer games than Butler.

On the bench for Billingham was defender Les Scott, another ex-Whitby Town player, now in this third season, and former Northern Ireland international winger Terry Cochrane, the one player in the lineup whose name was familiar to most Imps’ supporters. Now aged 36, he had joined the club at the start of the season after a brief spell with Hartlepool United, having made his name with Burnley and Middlesbrough.

As well as Cochrane in this game, Billingham could boast one or two other well-known figures who had played for them in the past, most notably the young Brian Clough who had turned out in a handful of games while working for ICI as had later TV presenter Frank Bough. Looking ahead, future Imps striker Ben Hutchinson had a spell on loan to the Synners during his Middlesbrough days.

The attendance of 2,903 for the game was the lowest of the season so far and was the first one to dip below the three and a half thousand mark as it appeared supporters were not enthused by the non-league opposition.


The match programme included some typically cryptic notes by Colin Murphy, with a mention of “…full, exacting circumstances in which we have placed ourselves will most certainly need to be extricated by our goodselves.”

The game saw an unimpressive performance by the Imps against a side playing with a tremendous battling spirit – maybe too much so, with Bob Cumming having to be stretchered off after less than 15 minutes with an ankle injury, and Alan Roberts also suffering an injury which saw him replaced by Gordon Hobson for the second half. But the visitors looked the better side for much of the game, with winger Peter McMullen firing wide of the post when clean through, and striker Charlie Butler seeing his header hit the bar. However, the game changed when Billingham’s danger man Ritchie Allen was sent off six minutes before the break for an incident with City defender Darren Davis. Enraged, the visitors’ manager Tony Lee stormed “The sending off was harsh. If we had eleven men, we would have won the game.”

Even facing ten men, the Imps were still less than convincing, and there was the prospect of a replay at Middlesbrough’s Ayresome Park ground until the 69th minute when a moment of quality from Shane Nicholson saw him send a blistering half volley into the roof of the net from the edge of the area.


The sponsors’ man of the match was Nicholson, but notwithstanding his winning goal my own player ratings show I thought Graham Bressington was the best of a set of players of which none were better than average, with poor performances from goalkeeper Mark Wallington, Mark Sertori and substitute Gordon Hobson. My only memory of the match now is of Shane Nicholson’s goal.

The game proved to be a costly one for City as it turned out to be Bob Cumming’s last appearance for the club due to the injury he suffered, and although joint-record signing Alan Roberts did return to play a few more games later in the season the nature of the knee injury he sustained brought an end to his playing career.

An early exit to the FA Trophy allowed Billingham to concentrate fully on the league which they did to good effect, winning the championship for the second year in a row.

As for the Imps, their FA Cup run ended in the next round with a 3-0 defeat at Rochdale. The much-needed new striker finally appeared the following February in the shape of Tony Lormor, and a revitalising of the squad with the signings of winger David Puttnam and the arrival on loan of midfielder John Cornforth saw them in the top three a month later. However, the return of the influential Cornforth to parent club Sunderland saw an end to the momentum and a slide out of even a play-off place to finish 10th for the second season in a row resulting in the departure of Colin Murphy.