Looking Back At: 1979/80 (Part Three)

Part One

Part Two

 

November

 

Throughout the first 16 games of the league season there had only been two changes made to the starting line-up, firstly when the returning Phil Neale had replaced loanee Nigel Crouch at left back, and secondly when David Sunley had come into the side instead of Tony Cunningham. Of the two big signings from non-league football Trevor Peake had been a model of consistency in defence but Cunningham less so up front, with Echo reporter Maurice Burton of the opinion that for a big man he should put himself about a bit more. Team changes now began to be a more frequent occurrence, perhaps prompted by City’s more disappointing recent performances, although initially a change was forced by Brendan Guest having suffered an ankle injury against Stockport. In a sign of things to come in the future, and having played in that position in the friendly against Tulsa, David Carr moved into the right back position with Phil Hubbard taking his place in midfield for his first game since returning from America. In fact, the visit to Peterborough turned out to be the last appearance in a City shirt by the veteran of the pre-Ron Gray era.

 

The game at London Road saw City deservedly beaten as once again they failed to make the most of any scoring opportunities and two goals down at half time, conceded a third through a mistake by Phil Neale. John Saunders, scoring what was to be his only goal for the club with 20-yard volley was barely a consolation coming as it did with almost the last kick of the match.

Earlier in the year Colin Murphy had turned down the chance of a coaching position abroad and now it was another league club that it emerged had made him ‘a substantial offer’ for his services which would have potentially doubled his salary. Despite persistent approaches to him Murphy turned down the offer, stating that he wished to show loyalty to his coaching staff and players who he had brought to the club and felt he should see out his three-year contract with City. “We have started to do something here, and although it is a long job, I think at the present time we are on the right track”, he said, adding “I think the future at Sincil Bank is very bright.”

The defeat at Peterborough saw City remain in seventh place, one of six clubs, including Peterborough, just outside the promotion places and separated by a single point, but a gradual slide down the table now began. Partly this was initially due to City falling a game behind other teams due to the scheduled Wednesday night visit of Aldershot being called off due to a waterlogged pitch at Sincil Bank, but they were in eighth place and further adrift of the promotion places following a home draw with mid-table Bournemouth. Although Brendan Guest had returned to fitness he was only on the bench as David Carr continued at right back. Phil Hubbard was left out with Glenn Cockerill moving into the centre of midfield as a first team debut was given to recent signing Gary Ball. While the new man did well on the left wing, City only rescued a point with a last-minute goal from Tony Cunningham as after taking an early lead Bournemouth proceeded to employ spoiling tactics which enraged Colin Murphy: “They indulged in blatant time-wasting and this sort of attitude is going to get the game of football done away with in this country if it persists.”

Another friendly match then took place the following Monday night with a visit to Ledbury Town as part of the deal which saw the signing of goalkeeper Kevin Rose. The game had been arranged to mark the switching on of the West Midlands League club’s new floodlights, which had largely been paid for out of the sum they received from City for Rose. 2-1 up at half time through Gordon Hobson and Tony Cunningham, Rose himself took over in goal from Peter Grotier for the second half but had little to do as goals from Glenn Cockerill and Mick Harford rounded off a useful workout for the Imps prior to the rigours of a further visit to the army training camp in Dorset.

If the events of the week were intended to set the Imps up for a tough visit to second in the table Portsmouth they failed as an unchanged side were unable to cope with the home side’s sharpness in attack, and although two of the goals came in the last five minutes the 4-0 score-line was a fair reflection of the game.

Although I’d been to Fratton Park before, for some reason lost in the mists of time I didn’t make the journey to Portsmouth and so missed my first Saturday game of the season, although – never spending Saturday afternoons at home in those days – did go instead to see Rotherham United take on Brentford in the Third Division.

Before a tough away tie in the first round of the FA Cup with Sheffield Wednesday there was news of a big financial loss made by the club on the year ended in June. The figure of £91,000 was almost ten times that of the previous year and although reduced attendances during the relegation season contributed to this, the main factor was a big increase in costs, including an over 30% rise in payments to players and an almost 50% net increase in transfer fees paid out. Club chairman Heneage Dove made one public comment on the figures to the effect that they did not take into account the current value of the club’s players in the transfer market, meaning that the sale of one or more of these could easily have turned the loss into a profit.

Dove’s point was soon to be realised, but first, and despite the recently announced loss, the club paid out what was reported at the time as a transfer fee of £36,000 and therefore a record to sign Barnsley striker Derek Bell. Recently turned 23, the Lincolnshire-born player was described by Colin Murphy as ‘a runner and a proven goalscorer’. Scorer of a total of 19 goals the previous season as Barnsley were promoted from the Fourth Division, he had just three to his name in the season so far and had seemingly lost his place to Barnsley’s new signing from Chelsea Trevor Aylott.

Replaced by Bell on the wage bill was Phil Hubbard. Colin Murphy had previously seemed anxious to retain the services of the 30-year-old utility man, allowing him to leave well before the end of the previous season in order to play in America. But following his recent return Hubbard had played just one game, appearing in the defeat at Peterborough, and either on the evidence of this game or perhaps taking a longer-term view Murphy now allowed him to leave, as he took what might almost be described as the usual route for ex-City players to Boston United.

With Bell cup-tied for the visit to Sheffield Wednesday the only change from the 4-0 defeat at Portsmouth was a recall for Brendan Guest at right back with David Carr reverting to midfield with young Gary Ball left out. Falling behind to a sixth-minute penalty the Imps were unable to make the most of their few scoring opportunities against a side challenging for promotion from the Third Division. A second Wednesday goal early in the second half ended the game as a contest with a third coming ten minutes later. For some reason again, as with the match at Portsmouth – and even more inexplicably – I didn’t make the journey to Hillsborough but went instead to Leicester to see a second-tier clash with Wrexham. An attraction would have been to see former Imps striker Dixie McNeil playing for the Welsh side, while Leicester included later Imps goalkeeper Mark Wallington along with an 18-year-old local-born winger named Gary Lineker.

A game I had no choice but to miss due to it being on a Friday night was the visit of Hartlepool United to Sincil Bank, but before then the recent ability of the club to pay out a record transfer fee was explained with the sale of Glenn Cockerill to third tier side Swindon Town for £110,000 – another record, this time for the sale of a player.

Following the defeat at Portsmouth the Imps had slipped a place to ninth in the table and they remained there after a 3-3 draw with the north easterners who included former Imps favourite Alan Harding in their side. The departed Cockerill’s place was taken by David Sunley coming in up front with a change of tactics seeing Gordon Hobson playing on the right of three in midfield, while Tony Cunningham dropped to the bench to make way for new signing Bell. In difficult playing conditions it was a disappointing performance by the Imps, falling behind to an early goal from the visitors. Goals by Bell on his debut and Mick Harford with his ninth of the season either side of the interval then gave City the lead. However, in the space of six minutes they fell behind again until Gordon Hobson rescued a point with 15 minutes to go.

 

 

 December

 

Although the Imps had begun the season well, they had since started to fall away towards mid-table, and either because he was growing dissatisfied with the performance of the current squad or because it was what he had in mind all along Colin Murphy followed on from the recent arrivals and departures with some more mid-season rebuilding.

Leaving was central defender Mick Smith whose departure left Mick Harford as the only remaining member of the ‘Lambton Street Boys’ Club Four’ signed at almost the same time as Graham Taylor’s departure in 1977. In and out of the first team during the previous season Smith had been suffering from cartilage trouble at the start of the present one and since regaining fitness had not been part of the first team picture. With Colin Murphy clearly favouring the slightly older Trevor Peake when it came to promising young centre halves Smith’s departure came as no real surprise. He joined Wimbledon, holding down a regular Third Division place with them for the remainder of the season and later going on to be part of the south London club’s rise through the divisions to the top flight.

The £12,500 fee received for Mick Smith did not long remain in the club’s coffers with £10,000 of it paid out immediately for defender Trevor Thompson from Newport County. The 24-year-old had started his league career with West Bromwich Albion, making a number of First Division appearances before joining Newport for the start of the previous season. Colin Murphy described him as “a utility defender who will give us steel at the back which has been missing in recent weeks”. This may have been a veiled reference to Brendan Guest who despite being recalled to the side for the previous two games had not done himself any favours with a poor display against Hartlepool. Murphy had said of Guest earlier in the season that he was underperforming – “He can do a lot better. I think he is of Division Two standard…but it seems to me that he has been at the ‘promising’ stage for the last two years”. It now seemed the manager had finally lost patience with the 20-year-old and Thompson took Guest’s place at right back for the following Saturday’s visit to Halifax.

The club’s AGM now took place, and no doubt because of the improvement in the financial situation due to the £110,000 brought in by the sale of Glenn Cockerill the directors were given a fairly easy ride by the shareholders.

I didn’t make the trip to Halifax, probably deciding it was too complicated to get there (although I managed it the following season) so missed a fourth game in a row. Another team change saw David Sunley left out to be replaced by left winger Gary Ball in what turned out to be the last of his three appearances in the first team. City extended their run of away defeats to five, going down 1-0 and reserving their best attacking moments for the last five minutes of the game when they were unable to force an equaliser. Whether or not it was due to the inclusion of new full back Thompson the conceding of only one goal was at least an improvement after letting in 14 in their previous five games. The Imps remained in ninth place despite the defeat but were now nearer the bottom four than the top four in terms of points.

Colin Murphy had promised there would be a new midfielder at the club in time for the next match and it seemed likely this was going to be 30-year-old former Swindon Town man Ray Bunkell currently out of the first team picture at Third Division Colchester. However, although a fee of less than £8,000 was understood to have been agreed, after the player trained with the Imps the deal was not proceeded with.

A player who did join the club was 20-year-old Irishman Aidan McKenzie, signed from League of Ireland side Galway Rovers as cover for Gordon Hobson on the right wing.

Another midfield target then emerged as Portsmouth’s Leigh Barnard. This time a fee of £25,000 was being quoted for the 21-year-old left sided player who had done well as a goalscoring midfielder for the Fourth Division club the previous season, but as with Bunkell was currently out of favour with his club.

Out of the FA Cup, a friendly match with Chesterfield had been arranged for the following Friday night and 419 hardy souls turned out at Sincil Bank in torrential rain which saw the match abandoned early in the second half. The team fielded for the match saw the inclusion of reserve Kevin Fox in goal following the surprise news that Peter Grotier, one of the few remaining players from the Graham Taylor years had been allowed to join Second Division Cardiff City on a two month’s loan with an agreement for a permanent transfer at the end of that time. Colin Murphy acted quickly to bring in a replacement for Grotier with the arrival on loan from Stoke City of Northern Irishman Eric McManus. With over 200 Second Division games behind him for Notts County the 29-year-old had moved to Stoke for a substantial fee in October but had yet to appear in the first team.

With interest in Portsmouth’s Leigh Barnard not being pursued after all it was announced that terms had instead been agreed for the signing of another promising midfield player, this time from Pompey’s neighbouring club Southampton. This was 20-year-old George Shipley, with the amount of the fee payable for him not yet announced, but thought unlikely to be as much as Southampton’s original valuation of £50,000. With three First Division appearances in the current season for the Saints he had played on loan for Reading in their last eleven games of the previous season as they won the Fourth Division championship. Although not the tallest of players, he was described as being courageous and tenacious, with a lot of skill on the ball. There was however, some doubt as to whether the player wished to drop down into the Fourth Division.

Meanwhile, Shipley, even if he did decide to join the Imps was unlikely to be signed in time for the visit of Hereford United which would see Eric McManus make his debut. Annoyingly for me this was another Friday night match – but it didn’t matter as it was called off 25 minutes before the kick-off due to a frozen pitch. However, while it may not have made any difference to me that wasn’t the case with just about everyone else, especially the supporters that had been allowed into the ground. The referee was blamed for acting hastily, but stated that with the South Park end goalmouth in a worse state than the rest of the pitch and the temperature dropping he decided not to risk starting the game then having to abandon it.

The weather then intervened again, with the Boxing Day visit to Rochdale called off, once more due to a frozen pitch. However, despite some heavy rain in the days leading up to the match the home game with York City was then able to be played. This produced a programme ‘first’ as a combined edition had been produced for the three fixtures scheduled over the Christmas and New Year period. This was said to be to ‘help our printers get a well-earned rest and to save supporters the cost of buying three programmes in an already expensive period’. In the event, as it turned out, the York game was the only one able to be played hence my crossings-out on the front cover of my programme:

 

The game saw Eric McManus make his debut in goal, while with Graham Watson absent David Sunley returned to the side in midfield for what turned out to be his last appearance in a City shirt. However, with Sunley suffering a knee injury early on City struggled somewhat in midfield with the substitute, 17-year-old Phil Turner appearing on the team sheet for the first time, not being risked. Derek Bell did give the Imps a first half lead with his second goal in his first three games, but York, who included 33-year-old former Leeds United star Peter  ‘HotShot’ Lorimer in their line-up gained a deserved equaliser midway through the second half. Three days later the scheduled New Year’s Day visit of Northampton was frozen off as was the away game at Darlington the following Saturday

Young Phil Turner now earned a call-up into the England youth squad with three days training at Lilleshall, with Colin Murphy saying that but for the weather he would almost certainly have made his Imps debut by now.