The matchday twelve was again unchanged for the visit to Sincil Bank of Huddersfield Town, a top-flight club as recently as 1972 but now in their fifth season in the basement division. As with the match at York the Imps owed much to the aerial dominance up front of Mick Harford and Tony Cunningham, but it was a fine team performance with two goals from Harford which brought a third 2-0 win in a row to move City above the visitors into the fourth promotion place.
A player leaving the club was midfielder Phil Lyons who returned to Sutton Town. Colin Murphy explained that it was known the player had an injury condition when signed in the close season, and he had only joined on a trial basis for that reason.
Another top of the table clash came the following Saturday with a visit to second-placed Bradford City who had a record of four wins from four games so far. Once again it was an unchanged line-up for the Imps although John Fleming did return on the bench in place of David Sunley as an unused substitute. A battling performance with a first goal of the season for Glenn Cockerill earned the Imps a 1-1 draw but it was not enough to prevent a slip of two places in the league table to sixth.
For the fourth game in a row City then faced a side from Yorkshire with the visit of Doncaster Rovers to Sincil Bank. The by now usual unchanged side, however, found themselves still sixth in the table after the match as they failed to build on a first half goal by Gordon Hobson and let in a late equaliser from the visitors set up by veteran former Imps player Jack Lewis.
A first away defeat in the league then came the following Tuesday night against a Walsall side relegated along with the Imps at the end of the last season. With 28-year-old player-manager Alan Buckley in charge they were currently unbeaten, and occupying fourth place in the table with two points more than the Imps. City’s starting eleven was unchanged for the seventh game in a row but Phil Neale, now back from the cricket, was considered match fit enough for a place on the bench, coming on to replace Graham Watson in midfield during the second half. However, an unconvincing performance by the Imps saw them trailing at half time and two more goals for the home side in the last nine minutes saw them worthy winners. Colin Murphy was not best pleased with his side’s performance, saying almost half of the team ”did not compete as well as they should have done”. In addition, he fined Gordon Hobson for “bringing football into disrepute” in an incident when he was pushed by Walsall left back Kenny Mower and threw himself to the ground.
After falling to eighth in the table following the defeat at Walsall the Imps moved back up to fifth, overtaking visitors to Sincil Bank Tranmere Rovers, another of the clubs to have accompanied them down to Division Four at the end of the previous season. A first team change of the season in the league games revolved around the left back position as Phil Neale came into the side for his first start following the expiry of Nigel Crouch’s loan period. The youngster returned to Ipswich, and although Colin Murphy mentioned the possibility of signing him permanently nothing came of it. Also leaving was Keith Laybourne, who had seemingly done well towards the end of the previous season but who was clearly not part of Murphy’s plans. He became part of the exodus to Runcorn, joining Billy Wright and fellow ex-Lambton Street Boys’ Club member Alan Eden to play for Jim McCalliog.
A comfortable 3-0 win over Tranmere owed a lot to two penalties, although the half time lead they gave to City reflected the balance of play. Colin Murphy maintained that his action in fining Gordon Hobson for the midweek incident at Walsall had a positive effect on the winger as he was brought down for the first penalty, put away by Tony Cunningham, and scored his third goal of the season in added time. In between, Cunningham himself was brought down in the area, and for that reason Colin Murphy ordered the spot kick taken by a different player, resulting in a rare goal from Brendan Guest.
Meanwhile, there was news of a man who had first played for the Imps all the way back in February 1966 returning to the club. Graham Taylor had signed Phil Hubbard for a second spell with the club in the summer of 1976 and he had been a regular member of the side until Colin Murphy allowed him to go off and play in America towards the end of the previous April. This was despite it not being really in the best interests of the team as the 30-year-old had been playing a key role in City’s defensive formation that had raised faint hopes of avoiding relegation. However, as Murphy pointed out, if he had not taken this action the player might well have left the club altogether and he did not want that as he was part of his plans for the new season.
There was also the possibility of another player arriving from America, with former England international full back David Nish who Colin Murphy had managed at Derby County expressing an interest in joining the Imps. This raised a mouth-watering prospect of him partnering Phil Neale in what could have been one of the best full back pairings in the lower divisions. But nothing came of the move, it seeming likely that Nish’s wage demands were too high, plus there was the prospect of having to pay a transfer fee of £25,000 for a player who had just turned 32 to his club Tulsa Roughnecks.
After a midweek game with the reserves Hubbard was added to the squad for the following week’s visit to Newport County with the possibility that he might come into the side at right back in place of Brendan Guest who had suffered an injury against Tranmere.
I made the long journey to Newport for the first time to see Guest, fit to play after all score a goal for the second match in a row, unfortunately at the wrong end, as he deflected a shot into the net to give the home side the lead. But once again City scored in the dying minutes of the match, this time to rescue a point thanks to a goal by Mick Harford which drew him level with Tony Cunningham as top scorer with four in the season so far.
The Newport side, as well as future Liverpool star striker John Aldridge who made his league debut off the bench in the first half, included former Imps record signing Tommy Tynan who Colin Murphy had quickly sold on the previous February. The manager had said pre-match “Tommy will be out to prove me an idiot”, but he was well controlled by City’s defensive pairing of Trevor Peake and John Saunders although the duo of Tynan and Aldridge would prove to be a fearsome partnership for Newport over the next few seasons.
The point gained at Somerton Park had not been enough to prevent City dropping two places in the league table to seventh and they remained there after the return match with a still-unbeaten Walsall. Played on a Wednesday night, this was the first home match of the season I had missed due to there still being no train later than 8.30pm that would get me back to Nottingham the same night.
The returned Phil Hubbard again missed out on a place in the squad, but a change saw David Sunley who had replaced the injured Cunningham in the Newport match take a place in the starting line-up with the ex-Stourbridge man on the bench. Roy McDonough and Don Penn had shared the goals for Walsall in their 3-0 victory over City two weeks before and did so again with the bustling McDonough giving the visitors a 16th minute lead. City came back to take the lead after the interval through David Carr and Gordon Hobson and looked certain of victory when Walsall had two men sent off with eleven minutes to go. However, Penn took advantage of some slack City marking to notch a late equaliser with his third goal against the Imps in two matches.
City made up for the dropped point against Walsall with a win at Port Vale the following Saturday to move up a place to sixth as the home side dropped into the bottom four. Having been to Vale Park by bus on previous occasions I now realised it was much simpler by rail, with Longport station being in walking distance of the ground. The returned Hubbard was again not in what was an unchanged squad as the Imps dominated the home side but were forced back after Mick Harford’s fifth goal of the season gave them a half-time lead and it took until the 85th minute before Gordon Hobson, also with his fifth of the season scored to secure the points.
Another Wednesday night fixture meant another missed home game for me as bottom club Crewe were the visitors to Sincil Bank. Colin Murphy had warned the players about complacency, but he had no reason to worry as City outplayed their visitors throughout following an early goal by David Sunley, justifying his place in the side ahead of Cunningham. Further goals came from Glenn Cockerill and Mick Harford, his sixth of the season making him leading scorer. Crewe owed a lot to the goalkeeping of later Imps player David Felgate, on loan from Bolton, to keep the score down as City moved up a further place to fifth.
It was said that several talent scouts and representatives of other clubs were at the match, with the implication that they were interested in some of City’s young players – although it was possible Felgate may have also been in their sights. Two managers were there in person, one of these being Watford’s Graham Taylor, and Maurice Burton in the Echo speculated his likely interest in Glenn Cockerill who he had signed for City as a teenager, and also that Dennis Booth, who had recently been made available for a transfer by Watford may have been on the point of a return to the Imps. More significantly in the light of what would soon transpire was the fact that Barnsley manager Allan Clarke had spent a long time in discussion with Colin Murphy.
The attendance for the Crewe game had surprisingly dipped below 4,000 for the second time in the season despite City’s high placing, but with the visit of Scunthorpe United the following Saturday it broke the five thousand barrier for the first time in over a year. No doubt some of these stayed on after the match to see the National Association of Youth Clubs Cup Final which was being staged at Sincil Bank between teams from Hull and Ipswich.
City consolidated fifth place against struggling Scunthorpe and made it an unhappy afternoon for ex-Imp Jimmy Gordon, making his debut in goal for the Iron after joining them from Reading at the start of the season. In fact, Gordon had something of a mixed game, unable to do more than parry a shot which allowed David Sunley to put City three goals in front before half time. On the other hand, he saved a last-minute penalty to keep the score down to 4-0 with his team having been torn to shreds by an outstanding performance by Gordon Hobson showing blistering pace on the right wing. After Glenn Cockerill had headed the Imps into an early lead it was Hobson who forced a Scunthorpe own goal to make it 2-0 and set up Mick Harford’s seventh of the season late on.
There was some movement on the transfer front, perhaps with an eye on possible future departures with the signing from Plymouth Argyle of diminutive left winger Gary Ball. The 19-year-old had made just one substitute appearance for the Third Division club and arrived on a free transfer with the possibility of payment being made depending on appearances.
The following Saturday brought a first ever visit to play Wigan Athletic (as opposed to Wigan Borough who the Imps had met in pre-war days before that club’s demise), in their second season in the Football League after being elected in place of fellow Lancashire club Southport. It was therefore also my own first visit to a match at Wigan, and having been that way several times by train, including on the way to games at Preston, had often noted the prominent set of floodlights fairly close to the town centre. Making my way to the ground they belonged to and wondering why everything seemed so quiet I found it was the home of the Rugby League team. Luckily there was still time before kick-off to find my way to the rather quaint Springfield Park which was less obviously situated on the opposite side of the town.
As usual City fielded an unchanged side but in a below-par performance, with danger man Gordon Hobson marked out of the game by Wigan left back Joe Hinnigan they were unable to build on a lead gifted them when Wigan midfielder Jeff Wright sliced the ball into his own net. David Sunley then spurned two chances to double the lead before two goals from Wigan’s leading scorer Peter Houghton won the match for the home side and put an end to City’s seven-match unbeaten run. Although remaining fifth, one point off a promotion place that was to be as good as it got.
A second league defeat in a row for the first time in the season so far came with a long midweek trip to Aldershot. Unchanged again, the difference between the two teams was that Aldershot were able to get the ball in the net twice while City failed to make the most of several opportunities to score.
Although City dropped two places to seventh as a result of the defeat at Aldershot, they still remained just a point shy of the fourth promotion place. However, although the following Saturday’s 1-0 win over Stockport County at Sincil Bank was enough to keep them seventh results elsewhere meant they slipped to three points off the top four. Prior to the match Colin Murphy had mentioned the possibility of changes to the team following the two defeats, but in the event made none. Goals were again hard to come by in an average display, and it was the introduction of substitute Tony Cunningham for David Sunley that turned the tide, leading to a late goal from Mick Harford to take the points with his eighth of the season.
A break from league action then came on the Monday night with a friendly match at Sincil Bank against American side Tulsa Roughnecks. They were currently on a tour playing matches in England and it was coincidental that recent possible transfer target David Nish was included in their side. The prospect of the game failed to capture the imagination of the Imps’ supporters as fewer than 900 turned up to watch it. This was despite the presence of several former First Division stars in the Tulsa line-up such as Keith Weller, Brian Alderson, Alan Woodward and Steve Earle along with Nish. For City, David Carr who had done well at right back towards the end of the recent defeat at Aldershot was given a start in that position, but the only other first team regulars included were Gordon Hobson, Tony Cunningham, Phil Neale and Glenn Cockerill. Phil Hubbard was given a game in midfield, with the rest of the squad, especially the substitutes, made up of younger players. Those who did turn up to watch saw a once-sided match against poor opposition with City running out winners by 8-2, four of the goals coming from Tony Cunningham with the rest shared by Glenn Cockerill, Gordon Hobson, newcomer Gary Ball and youngster Wayne Biggins. Tulsa’s replies coming from Woodward and Earle.