After a fourteen-year spell in the Fourth Division Lincoln City had finally emerged from it in triumphant style under manager Graham Taylor in 1976, writes Malcolm Johnson.
However, following the future England manager’s departure to Watford a year later two seasons of struggle had followed. Under Taylor’s former assistant George Kerr, the Imps had seemingly been headed for relegation until his replacement by former Birmingham City manager Willie Bell. However, a year later under Bell an even worse start to the 1978/79 season had followed, with the final unravelling of everything that Graham Taylor had built up. Bell’s mid-season replacement, one-time Derby County boss Colin Murphy had been left with too big a task to prevent the Imps from falling back ignominiously into the basement division after just three seasons in Division Three.
Murphy had seemed to bring a new spirit to the club on the field, but had been unable to achieve anything more than a temporary improvement in results
with the players at his disposal, saying that he preferred to wait until the close season to enter the transfer market. Going into the summer months it remained to be seen how much of a team rebuilding job would be carried out by Murphy as the majority of the players were still on contract for at least another year. But as the manager said, “Though some players are still on contract, it does not necessarily mean they won’t be leaving the club.” He went on to say it was time for a clear-out and a fresh start and that “when the season starts, the Lincoln supporters will be looking at a new team.”
Initially the only exits saw the previously announced departures of full back Dennis Leigh and veteran centre half Graham Cross. Signed as a stop-gap measure from Southern League Enderby Town Cross returned to the Leicestershire club. Contracts for another two years were given to promising youngsters Glenn Cockerill, Mick Harford and Brendan Guest, to which could be added the similarly-aged striker Tony Cunningham, signed from Southern League Stourbridge Town for £15,000 after the transfer deadline.
With club chairman Heneage Dove declaring it was the intention to assemble a team good enough to get back into the Third Division and that “the balance of the books will have to come later”, the first signing of the summer was 22-year-old left-sided midfielder Phil Lyons from Midland League side Sutton Town for ‘an undisclosed fee’.
With the centre of the defence badly in need of strengthening, a welcome arrival was that of John Saunders, aged 28, on a free transfer from Barnsley with whom he had just won promotion from the Fourth Division. In his last two seasons with the Yorkshire club Saunders had played alongside the young Mick McCarthy, with his experience bringing along a player who would go on to play at the highest level. It seems clear that Colin Murphy had in mind for Saunders to do the same with the other new central defender brought to Sincil Bank shortly afterwards. Described by Colin Murphy as the best centre half in non-league football, this was the 22-year-old Trevor Peake who arrived from Southern League Premier Division side Nuneaton Borough for a fee of £15,000. Reportedly much sought after, Peake had delayed joining a league club in order to play in a recent tournament for the England Non-League team and stated that he had joined Lincoln after being impressed by Colin Murphy and what he wanted for the club.
A notable signing of the summer was another 22-year-old. Defender or midfield player David Carr arrived from Luton Town for the substantial fee of £20,000 after making over 40 appearances for the Second Division club, including 15 in the season just ended. Something of a utility player, it appeared he was earmarked for a midfield role with City.
It was now time for the ‘clear-out’ of players that Colin Murphy had mentioned, and this saw two of the stalwarts from the Graham Taylor era leave – in fact City’s two longest-serving players. Much of the transfer money recently paid out was recouped with the sales of defender Terry Cooper – last year’s Player of the Season – to fellow Fourth Division side Bradford City for £10,000, and John Ward who joined old colleagues Sam Ellis and Dennis Booth at Graham Taylor’s Watford for a fee of £15,000 after turning down interest from Chester and Chesterfield.
Released on a free transfer was 20-year-old midfielder Alan Eden who had spent the last few months of the previous season on loan at Boston United. He had made only a handful of first team appearances since arriving at Sincil Bank at the very end of Graham Taylor’s reign from the Lambton Street Boys’ Club in Sunderland along with fellow teenagers Mick Harford, Keith Laybourne and Mick Smith. He was later to join Northern Premier League side Runcorn managed by former Imps player-coach Jim McCalliog.
Arriving at the club in time for the pre-season was 41-year-old John Sheridan who became club coach alongside Lennie Lawrence, appointed the previous. February. Sheridan, best known for his time as a midfielder with Notts County and Hartlepool, had most recently been coaching in Qatar after previously working with Brian Clough at Derby County and Nottingham Forest.
The pre-season training started in earnest with a four-day visit to an army camp in Dorset. Hosted by the 17th/21st Lancers (known as the ‘Death or Glory Boys’), the Imps had been invited by the officer in charge of the regimental football team as Lincolnshire was part of their recruiting area. In order to build team spirit, especially in view of the number of new members of the squad, the players were put through the rigours of the assault course along with a game against the regimental side which they won 8-0. During the stay a game was also played against local non-league side Dorchester Town, the Imps winning that 2-1. More restfully, the team were also given a tour of the camp’s tank museum.
Returned from the hospitality of the Army it was time for the first group game in the Lincolnshire Senior Cup with a visit to fellow Fourth Division side Scunthorpe United. In the absence of the injured Brendan Guest and Phil Neale who was of course still on cricketing duty with Worcestershire, the full back pairing of David Hughes and Keith Laybourne was that which had finished the previous season. Of the new players, Trevor Peake, Tony Cunningham, Phil Lyons and David Carr were all included in the side, with the last-named in defence due to the absence of John Saunders because of illness. A penalty, calmly slotted home by Cunningham gave City an early lead, but mistakes by Hughes and goalkeeper Peter Grotier allowed the home side to take a 2-1 lead which they held onto with little trouble for the last half hour of the match.
A friendly match then took place at a sports complex at Oakham School against a Birmingham City side managed by ex-Imp Jim Smith, relegated from the top flight at the end of the previous season. For this game David Carr moved forward into midfield in place of Lyons, while Billy Wright who had spent most of the second half of the previous season on loan at Nuneaton came into the middle of defence alongside Trevor Peake. This proved to be Wright’s last involvement with the first team, as having already been given a free transfer he followed Alan Eden to Jim McCalliog’s Runcorn. The game saw an improved performance from the Imps against a strong Birmingham line-up with Gordon Hobson’s second half equaliser producing a creditable 1-1 draw.
Another friendly match saw a visit to Leicestershire Senior League club Shepshed Charterhouse with the Lincoln side mostly made up of youth team players, apart from the inclusion of the fit again Brendan Guest and new signing John Saunders for their first taste of pre-season action. Against a similarly young Shepshed side the Imps ran up a 7-0 win with Saunders scoring from the penalty spot, along with goals from Wayne Biggins, David Gilbert, Gerard Creane, David Burrows and a brace from Phil Turner.
A sterner test came the following Monday night in the Lincolnshire Senior Cup with the visit to Sincil Bank of Grimsby Town. Newly promoted to the Third Division the Mariners fielded a side containing no fewer than five past and future Imps players under the guidance of ex-City boss George Kerr who was shortly to be promoted from coach to manager. Changes from the Scunthorpe game saw Brendan Guest in an unfamiliar left back position instead of Keith Laybourne, while John Saunders came into the side alongside Trevor Peake as David Carr took the place of Phil Lyons in midfield. A good performance by goalkeeper Peter Grotier along with missed chances by the visitors saw the game end 0-0 meaning an exit from the competition at the group stage. In a low-key performance by the Imps the combination up front of Mick Harford and Tony Cunningham had been particularly disappointing,
The season proper then started the following Saturday, and as was by now normal saw the two legs of the League Cup First Round tie played before the commencement of the league programme. Opposition was provided by Barnsley, which meant that in successive matches City faced teams in the charge of future Imps managers (both future and past in the case of George Kerr) as the Tykes had won promotion from Division Four the previous season under the guidance of Allan Clarke in his first season in management. As for City’s present manager, it was announced that he had accepted an extension to his contract of two years, up to May 1982. Colin Murphy said he had done this so the young players he had signed for the club would know he would not be walking out on them at a critical stage of their careers.
Supporters found that despite relegation to a lower division there was an increase in admission prices for the new season at Sincil Bank. This was blamed by the club on an increase in the rate of VAT as the cost of standing on the terraces rose by 10% to £1.10. Season tickets were available for £19, or £30 for a seat in either of the stands.
The match programme also cost more to buy for the new season following what had become a pattern of a price increase every two years. The 33% rise to 20p did at least bring some improved content with four extra pages.
The game saw four players making their debuts for the Imps, including three quarters of the back four. In the absence of Phil Neale, still on cricketing duty with Worcestershire it seemed a little surprising that Keith Laybourne who had looked useful in the latter part of the previous season was not included at left back. Instead, that position was filled by new signing David Carr with Brendan Guest at right back in place of the injured David Hughes with Trevor Peake and John Saunders occupying the central defensive places. With Carr having to play full back it was also something of a surprise to see John Fleming coming into midfield as it had been thought he would be one of the players on his way out of the club as a result of Colin Murphy’s shake-up of the squad.
Although the 33-year-old Allan Clarke was not in the Barnsley side the Tykes could boast another former Leeds United and England veteran in Norman Hunter. Now aged 35, he had joined Barnsley in the summer and partnered Mick McCarthy in defence with later Imps striker Derek Bell in attack
The fourth City player making his debut was striker Tony Cunningham and he immediately got the fans on his side with his first involvement in the game. Setting off on a buccaneering run at the Barnsley defence, he took the ball round the keeper only to see his shot cleared off the line by Hunter. Unfortunately, City had already gone a goal down with barely a minute played through Glyn Riley. However, some solid defending was rewarded with a debut goal by Trevor Peake to equalise on the stroke of half time. Cunningham then got his own debut goal 15 minutes from the end, sweeping a Gordon Hobson centre into the net in front of a very healthy crowd of well over 6,000, although almost half of these were from Barnsley.
The return leg the following Tuesday night drew a crowd of almost 12,000 at Oakwell as the Barnsley supporters turned out to see their newly-promoted side. City fielded an unchanged team from the first leg, with John Fleming in what turned out to be his last Imps game again partnering Willie Bell signing Graham Watson in midfield with Gordon Hobson and Glenn Cockerill on the flanks. For Barnsley, Norman Hunter missed the game through injury but player-manager Allan Clarke brought himself back into the side up front. The home side levelled the scores on aggregate through Derek Bell before Tony Cunningham scored his second goal in two games early in the second half. City were unable to hang on to their lead though and substitute Tommy Graham scored in injury time to send the tie into extra time then penalties. Unfortunately, for the second time in three seasons the Imps exited the League Cup in a penalty shoot-out. The tally was 4-3 to the home side as Barnsley failed only when Bell’s kick was saved by Peter Grotier, while although Grotier himself, Graham Watson and Brendan Guest were successful, Tony Cunningham and Gordon Hobson saw their attempts saved by Barnsley keeper Gary Pierce.
Another friendly match then took place with the annual visit to Sleaford Town, a young City side coming away with the Invitation Cup thanks to a goal from centre half Mick Smith. It was then Smith’s former Lambton Street Boys’ Club colleague Keith Laybourne who was on the mark in a practice match which saw a City Xl win 2-1 at Yorkshire League side Hatfield Main.
There was news that Phil Neale, rated as “one of the best left backs in the Fourth Division” by Colin Murphy had signed a new contract which aimed to formalise the arrangement whereby he would devote his time to either Lincoln City or Worcestershire County Cricket Club depending on which body needed his services most during the overlap between the cricket and football seasons. Murphy mentioned past ‘squabbling’ over this matter and said the player appeared to be happier now ‘than at any time since Graham Taylor left the club.’ Meanwhile of course, Neale was still away playing cricket, and with David Carr earmarked by Murphy to play in midfield it meant the signing of what was to be the first of string of left backs arriving on loan to cover for Neale’s absence at the start of a season. This time it was 20-year-old Ipswich Town reserve Nigel Crouch, yet to make his debut for the First Division club, who had been spotted by their chief scout the former Imps manager Ron Gray.
City’s first game in Division Four for over three years came against fellow relegated side Peterborough United in front of a reasonable Sincil Bank crowd of around 4,800 which was well up on the average for the previous two seasons. Crouch made his Football League debut at left back for the Imps allowing David Carr to move into midfield in place of John Fleming as the Imps fielded an otherwise unchanged side with Willie Bell signing David Sunley continuing on the subs’ bench. Unfortunately, it was not the start everyone had been hoping for as the visitors took the lead with only five minutes gone and held on to win the match. Although the Imps battled away for an equaliser there were a few players who gave disappointing performances.
Despite the disappointing result Murphy kept faith with his players with an unchanged twelve for the midweek visit to Crewe Alexandra, a club in the middle of a low point in their history after finishing bottom of the league the previous season. It turned out to be a comfortable victory for the Imps with Mick Harford’s first goal of the season giving them a first half lead and Tony Cunningham completing the scoring with his third in four games.
The score-line was repeated with once again an unchanged team at York the following Saturday to put City in seventh place in the early league table. I made my way to Bootham Crescent for my first away game of the season to be rather bemused by the minimal (but free) match programme which consisted of a single sheet folded in three places.
After an even first 45 minutes, goals in the second half for David Carr and Gordon Hobson were the reward in a victory which owed much to the domination of City’s two big men up front.
Another new player then arrived from non-league football, with 18-year-old goalkeeper Kevin Rose joining from West Midlands League side Ledbury Town. A target for several other clubs, he was signed for a fee which was said to be worth around £5,000 and was seen as cover for Peter Grotier. Signing professional contracts were former apprentices Stuart Hibberd, Ian Travis and striker Wayne ‘Bert’ Biggins, with Colin Murphy indicating the latter was on the fringe of the first team squad.