The year is 1997 – it is literally hours before my 19th birthday, and the Imps are going to give me a present I’ll never forget.
At least, that’s how I saw it. Exactly 24 years ago today, Doncaster visited the Bank. After 17 games, John Beck’s Imps were fourth in the table, just three points off the summit. Danny Bergara’s Rovers were rock bottom, already five points from safety and winless in 17 matches. They had already had four different managers in the dugout; former Chelsea striker Kerry Dixon left in August, Colin Richardson and Dave Cowling had short stints before Bergara came in. They had conceded the most goals in the division (40), we had conceded the fewest (13). It was one of those games you just know ain’t going to go to plan.
Any Doncaster fans reading this will shudder – this was their version of our 2010/11. It’s reported rogue owner Ken Richardson appeared to have bought into the club with a view to selling off the ground; the land was valued at £18m, and the master plan was to relocate. Unfortunately, when accelerant (petrol) was found near the site of a stand fire in 1995, the owner copped it. He was charged, and was to appear in court in 1999 – in the meantime, he went back to the club as owner.
That’s not a great basis for a new season, and it got worse. In February 1997 they faced a court winding-up order and Dixon claimed he wasn’t allowed to select the team. They finished 19th, and the Mexico 86 squad member was gone by the kick-off the following season. Cowling came, and went, in a month due to the owner’s interference. In came Bergara, and his first game was at Sincil Bank. It was chaos, unorganised and devastating for fans, but for a team like us, hunting promotion, it was surely a gimme. Surely.
They came to the Bank with a familiar face or two in their side. Adie Mike played upfront, and although he would later appear for Keith’s Imps, he had already trialled with us in the summer of 1997, but I doubt his speed was the sort of thing John beck felt he needed up front. They also has Lee Warren at the back; he had played on loan for us back under Allan Clarke in late 1990.
Enough about them, what of us? We’d started the season well, and were unbeaten in 12, albeit coming off the back of a draw against Gainsborough in the FA Cup. Fans weren’t convinced though; Beck’s side had drawn four of those game 0-0, another two were drawn 1-1 and we’d won 1-0 on four occasions as well. Entertainment wasn’t high up on the list of Beck’s traits, and some talented players cut frustrated figures. Leading scorer was Lee Thorpe of five, with Terry Fleming and Paul Miller next highest on two each.
Despite being fourth, we’d scored fewer goals than all but three of the division – even Hull City in 22nd had bagged 22. Imps fans had seen just 17, and four of those came from Gareth Ainsworth, who had left two months before. Still, it’s Doncaster, we’re going to win handsomely, right?
Well, no. That’s not how it works, and I’m afraid for everyone thinking we should be stuffing Bowers & Pitsea, or even this Doncaster side in 2021, you’ve got to look back over history to see that doesn’t happen.
The Imps lined up with Barry Richardson in goal, and a defence of Jason Barnett, Jon Whitney, Steve Holmes, Dean Walling and Kevin Austin. In midfield, we had Terry Fleming, and Mark Hone, with Gavin Gordon, Lee Thorpe and Phil Stant up front. I think it was a 5-2-3, although I guess it might have been a 3-4-3. Maybe. I don’t know. What I do know is just 2,957 fans turned out to watch a game that could have sent us top, and the referee was a certain George Cain, who would have his own moment in Imps history a couple of years later. In the days of three subs, we had Craig Stones, Steve Brown and Paul Smith, on loan from Nottingham Forest.
If we thought we were having it all our own way, we were wrong. Doncaster created the first chance, and were playing the better football. Maurice Hilton, who played nine Football League matches in a short-lived career, forced Barry Richardson into an early save. It was a scare, and not the last we’d have that night.
City took the lead with a fine goal on 14 minutes. I say ‘a fine goal’, I don’t mean a mazy run or anything like that, but an absolute bullet header from a player who doesn’t get enough love for what he did in a Lincoln shirt – Dean Walling. I loved Dean as a player, he was a tough centre half who got plenty of goals, and Mark Hone’s corner was the only invite he needed to nod City into the lead. Walling had arrived at the end of September, purchased with some of the Ainsworth money, and his fourth goal of the season brought him level with the departed striker for goals scored.
Sadly, the floodgates did not open. Chances were at a premium and the fans were not entertained. You know that bit in Gladiator, where Russell Crowe shouts something like ‘are you not entertained’ at the crowd? If someone had done that at Sincil Bank that night, you’d have heard it clearly as the crowd was sparse, and the answer would have been no. The thing is, John Beck’s Lincoln were like Steve Evans’ Gillingham; when you’re winning, it was bearable, but when it wasn’t pretty, my god it wasn’t pretty, These were decent players too; Walling, Austin and Holmes were as good as it got in the basement division, with Gavin Gordon playing at a higher level in his career too. Mark Hone and Terry Fleming could play a bit, they just weren’t allowed.
After writing this, I found the YouTube video above, so I guess you don’t even need to keep reading. Still, it’s a fine header, is it not?
City led through half time, but on the hour mark, the unthinkable happened; Doncaster levelled. It was another corner from the left, almost a carbon copy of our goal in the first half. Their scorer was Prince Moncrieffe, a forward they’d picked up from Hyde United. He bagged ten in 40 games for them in his only season as a professional and is claimed to have once played a game in a bobble hat. Yup, he scored. 1-1.
That was the kick up the rear City needed, and we immediately went on the offensive. Phil Stant could have had a couple in quick succession, but his efforts went wide of the post. It only took nine minutes for us to regain the lead though – Terry Fleming showing his quality to beat his full-back and deliver a pinpoint cross, which Steve Holmes gobbled up for his first goal of the season. There’s another player who doesn’t get as much love as he should; in my opinion, Holmes, Austin and Walling were every bit as good as Morgan, Weaver and Futcher, or even McCombe, McAuley and Morgan. As belligerent social media posters say; change my mind.
The facts do speak for themselves, and despite us chasing promotion, and them in danger of relegation, we both had four shots on target. Their best chance to level wasn’t even a shot; Darren Brookes’ saw his cross deflected off Kevin Austin, producing a superb one-handed save from Barry Richardson. Within minutes of it almost going to 2-2, Dean Walling had an effort up the other end which Donny hacked off the line,
Eventually, George Cain (who called 12 offsides in the game – he understood the rules then, at least) called time and the Imps had won 1-0. The outcome? We stayed fourth, but level on points (33) with Notts County and Exeter above us, and only a point behind leaders Posh. Four days later, as I nursed a monstrous hangover form my birthday celebration, we won 1-0 at Colchester, and hit the summit. The Imps were going up!
We were as well; despite being knocked out of the FA Cup by Emley, getting pumped 5-1 by Posh at their place on December 20th and sacking John Beck in early March, we went up in third place, courtesy of a 2-1 win against Brighton on the last day. It was only the second promotion of my Imps supporting life, and the first time we’d been in the third tier. As for Doncaster, they went down, as expected, with just four wins all season and (wait for it), a minus 83 goal difference. They lost 8-0 at Orient on December 28th, 7-1 at Cardiff in March and let in four or more against Notts County, Exeter, Us (in the second game), Rochdale, Darlington and Peterborough. Danny Bergara was gone before the end of the month, but quickly came back as a director of football, with Mark Weaver as the boss, someone far happier to let Richardson pick the team, apparently. It was a horrible year for them, but they bounced back, and were promoted back to the Football League in 2002/03. It has to be said, our fixture list is better with them on it, as it is a derby of sorts.