Lincoln’s first game of the 1980s saw a visit to second-placed and eventual champions Huddersfield Town. Graham Watson returned in midfield and followed David Sunley in making his last appearance for the Imps despite giving a good performance as City lost by the odd goal in five for their seventh away defeat in a row. The Imps owed it to a penalty save by Eric McManus to keep the home side to only a 1-0 lead at half time before Mick Harford headed an equaliser from a Bell corner. But Huddersfield went back in front with their second penalty of the match only for City to gain a deserved second equaliser through Tony Cunningham before the home side snatched a scarcely-deserved winner two minutes from the end.
Looking back, my choice of games to attend in the season so far seems rather eccentric for some reason as I didn’t make the trip to Huddersfield despite having been there before, but instead managed to get as far as Barnsley for their Division Three match with Swindon Town, probably hoping to see Glenn Cockerill in action for his new club. However, he wasn’t in their side, which did include present-day TV personality(?) Chris Kamara.
Almost immediately after the game at Huddersfield the club’s record transfer fee was broken for the second time in two months as the money received for Glenn Cockerill disappeared fast. What later emerged as the sum of £45,000 was agreed with Southampton for the transfer of George Shipley, who after a couple of days training with City met with Colin Murphy on the Saturday night and was impressed enough to overcome his previous reservations about joining a Fourth Division club. The player said it meant first team football which was “always better than playing in the reserves”, and prophetically, “It looks to me as if we can make a real bid for the top next season”. Two days later, the transfer of Scunthorpe United’s experienced midfield player Nolan Keeley was finalised for an initial fee of £7,000, rising to a possible £10,000 based on appearances. The 28-year-old had around 300 appearances behind him for the Iron, his only league club, scoring over 40 goals. Murphy himself left all the final touches to Keeley’s transfer to his assistant John Sheridan as he departed for a five-day holiday in Majorca – but not before signing a new three-year contract to stay with City.
If there was any doubt about Colin Murphy rushing back from his holiday in time for the following Saturday’s game with Bradford City, he need not have worried as once again the weather intervened and the match was frozen off.
A player outgoing was reserve goalkeeper Kevin Fox who joined Boston United on loan.
With the help of straw being used to cover the pitch to guard against frost the game at Sincil Bank a week later against Torquay United was able to go ahead, and we were treated to a new-look City midfield of the two recent signings George Shipley and Nolan Keeley to the exclusion of Graham Watson and David Carr with the latter playing alongside Trevor Peake in the centre of the back four with John Saunders left out. Whether Colin Murphy had decided Saunders’s mentoring of Trevor Peake had run its course or whether he had intended Carr all along for a defensive position is unclear. With Trevor Thompson suspended a new-look defence was completed by 19-year-old youth product Stephen Ward at right back, significantly getting the nod over Brendan Guest who had been first choice in that position until the beginning of December.
Not surprisingly, given that only three games had possible since the beginning of December, and these had produced only one point, the Imps had slid down the league table to 17th place although with four games in hand on most of the clubs around them. Torquay, outside the top four only on goal difference, seemed a tough proposition, but with the visitors seemingly only interested in time-wasting their way to a goalless draw, City, once their new midfielders had settled down won the game with goals from Tony Cunningham and Gordon Hobson at the beginning and end of the second half. The first win in nine matches moved City up three places in the league table and there was a further rise to eleventh after the following Wednesday night’s win at Sincil Bank against Bradford City. Apart from the return of Trevor Thompson at right back the team for this game was unchanged and although Bradford had just taken over Torquay’s fifth place slot they went the same way as the Devon side, although by only 1-0 – the goal deflected into his own net by ex-Imp Terry Cooper.
Whatever my reasons for missing several of the recent away matches I had no excuse not to go to Doncaster on the first Saturday of the month – although there may have been some concern about the match being called off, as it took place on a snow-covered pitch. An unchanged team put an end to the run of seven away defeats thanks to a second-half equaliser from Mick Harford with his eleventh goal of the season in a game which the Imps perhaps should have won but for missed chances.
Another rearranged game was then fitted in the following Wednesday night with the visit of Hereford United after straw was again used to cover the pitch to ensure the game went ahead. The freezing weather then turned to rain which perhaps accounted for the attendance dipping below three thousand for the first time in the season, but a slogging performance in the mud produced a third home win in a row. A first goal for the club from Nolan Keeley with a 35-yard drive in the first half and Tony Cunningham’s eighth of the season in the second produced the 2-0 score-line which moved City up three places to 10th.
Off the field it was announced that work would soon be starting on a new gymnasium to be built on part of the car park on the St Andrews side of the ground. The total cost of £60,000 would partly be met by a grant from the Sports Council and it was also intended for community use.
The following Saturday saw a visit to Tranmere Rovers, and in contrast to the number of apparently easier away trips I had foregone earlier in the season I made the complicated cross-country journey to Birkenhead and Prenton Park for the first, and thanks to Covid, so far only time. With Gordon Hobson suffering from a back strain Trevor Thompson was moved forward to play on the right of midfield with young Stephen Ward again deputising at full back. He did well enough to see out the game as when reserve right winger Aiden McKenzie was brought on for his debut with 12 minutes to go it was Thompson who was the player who made way for him. On another mudheap of a pitch the Imps fell behind to an early goal from Tranmere defender John Bramhall and despite not playing particularly well owed the 1-0 defeat to an inability to put the ball in the net with all front three players guilty of missed chances. I’m not one of those who persistently criticise referees but this game was an exception, and the reason it has stuck in my mind is that a free kick seemed to be awarded to Tranmere every time a City player even made a tackle. Maurice Burton in his Echo match report confined himself to saying: “There were some bewildering inconsistencies in the referee’s handling of the game”. Colin Murphy ‘declined to comment’.
Despite the defeat at Tranmere the Imps remained in tenth place and they were still there after a 0-0 draw with Northampton Town in a rearranged match at Sincil Bank the following Wednesday night. With another home match the following Saturday there was once again a combined issue of the programme for both games ‘for reasons of economy’. After the failure to score at Tranmere Colin Murphy had said he would be working hard on trying to restore the confidence of the front men, but despite the return of Gordon Hobson, with young Ward dropping to the bench, it was another catalogue of missed chances as the Imps were unable to break down a massed defence. The manager said he had no excuses for City’s failure to get past an eight-man defence but for the second time in the season complained about a visiting team’s tactics and told Northampton’s manager Clive Walker that he was ‘ruining football for teams who want to play and the spectators.’
Meanwhile, despite goalkeeper Peter Grotier having played just five times for Cardiff City in his two-month loan spell the Welsh club evidently had seen enough to make the transfer permanent for a fee of £25,000 – approximately 50% more than City had paid for him to West Ham in 1974. One of the mainstays of the Graham Taylor era he therefore left after making around 260 appearances for City in all competitions saying at the age of 29, he was still ambitious for higher grade football.
More off the field news was that a new groundsman had taken over from the long-serving Ned Pinkston. This was John Goddard from Metheringham, previously employed at the Ruston Sports Ground. He was tasked with improving the state of the Sincil Bank pitch which had drawn some criticism following recent postponements.
Writing in the Sports Echo, Colin Murphy looked back on not exactly his first twelve months as manager, but as he put it ’twelve footballing months setting aside the summer close season’. According to his figures, 17 players had left the club in that time and 11 had joined, with a net transfer profit of around £32,000. He pointed out that he had inherited an ageing team which, as he rather bluntly put it, ‘I considered to a certain extent to be almost worthless’, but these had been replaced by a new team, with many of the players under the age of 22.
Three days after the draw with Northampton the Imps were at home again with the visit of fourth-placed Newport County. Recently given a professional contract along with fellow youth team product Gerard Creane was Phil Turner, and he was again on the bench as an unused substitute. Another young player given a chance was diminutive 17-year-old apprentice Craig Ramsay with Tony Cunningham left out of the squad. Although born in Scotland the youngster had been playing for the Lincoln Red Imps side in Gibraltar and had been recommended to the club by former director Reg Brealey. It was a dream debut for Ramsay as he continued his goalscoring form for the reserve and youth sides by turning a deflected shot by George Shipley into the net to score the winning goal in the 85th minute. In addition to this, he had provided what nowadays would be called an assist in the first half playing in Derek Bell to be tripped inside the area for a penalty put away by Bell himself. Although Newport quickly equalised that goal, they had then paid the price for appearing to settle for a draw.
The win over Newport had moved City up one place to ninth, but they remained there as the poor away form continued with a 1-0 defeat to struggling Scunthorpe at the Old Show Ground. Ramsay retained his place in the starting line-up, but Tony Cunningham was back on the bench after scoring two goals in a reserve match and replaced the youngster at half time. A goal down at the break, City dominated possession for most of the match but were unable to translate this into even a single goal. Something of a surprise at the match was star England cricketer Ian Botham who was introduced to the crowd after presenting awards to two of the Scunthorpe players. I remember being puzzled at how and why they had managed to get hold of him to do this – not realising at the time that he was actually on Scunthorpe’s books as a non-contract player (and would make his first team debut for them later in the season).
Eric McManus had been able to play at Scunthorpe as his two-month loan period from Stoke had been extended until the middle of March, and it seemed that he might be a good fit for a permanent transfer. However, Colin Murphy was cautious about this, pointing out the large transfer fee that would likely be involved for a player who had just been called up to the Northern Ireland squad, but saying “I would never rule anything out in football.”
The flurry of new players joining the club over the previous two or three months was now balanced out with the announcement that midfielder Graham Watson, striker David Sunley and full back Brendan Guest, all now out of the first team picture were to be made available for transfer. To these could be added John Fleming who had been on the transfer list since the start of the season but who had been missing through injury for some time. Fleming was now approaching fitness as was Willie Bell signing David Hughes, also injured for some time, and both were included in a friendly match against a combined team from local RAF stations played at Cranwell. The City team also included some young trialists including a 17-year-old goalkeeper from the Leeds area named Stuart Naylor who ‘looked particularly useful’.
Improvements had been made to the floodlights at Sincil Bank at a cost of £4,500 which involved the installation of four additional lights on each pylon. This was expected to bring the lights up to Second Division standards as Colin Murphy categorised the existing set – no more than three years old – as “just about adequate…except when one or two of the lights go out.” However, although otherwise fully installed the added lights were not able to be used for City’s next game due to the lack of a special kind of switch. Annoyingly for me, this was another Friday night fixture and was on that rarest of dates, February 29th – the first Leap Year-day fixture since 1964. Tony Cunningham took the number 12 shirt again, with Craig Ramsay dropping out to be replaced by another 17-year-old. Phil Turner had been knocking on the door of the first team for some time and was now given his chance in midfield with Gordon Hobson moving forward to the right of the front three. And while the floodlights may not have been any brighter the football was compared to recent games as City equalled their best win of the season with a 4-0 score-line against a mid-table Wigan Athletic. Turner was instrumental in City’s control of the midfield as they outplayed their visitors. Two goals from Mick Harford midway through the first half were added to when he completed a first hat-trick for the club – and the first by any player for over three years – midway through the second. The three goals took Harford’s tally for the season to 14, and in a clear man of the match performance he then created the chance for Derek Bell to score his fourth in thirteen games since joining the club.
A Tuesday night visit to Darlington saw an enforced change for City with Trevor Peake having to miss his first game of the season due to an eye injury sustained against Wigan. John Saunders slotted back into the side as Peake’s replacement, and it took a battling performance – with young Phil Turner prominent – against a side fifth from bottom to come away with a draw in such murky conditions that led Colin Murphy to say he would be complaining to the Football League about substandard floodlights at the Feethams ground.
The point gained was thanks to a headed equaliser from Nolan Keeley soon after the Quakers had taken a second half lead and was enough to finally move City up from ninth place and raise them to seventh although they were eight points off the top four promotion places with only one game in hand.
A visit to a Stockport side in the lower half of the table then followed, and although Trevor Peake was fit to return at centre half it was a blow to any faint hopes of promotion to have lost leading scorer Mick Harford to the necessity of a cartilage operation on his right knee. Tony Cunningham slotted into ‘Big Mick’s’ place and although he scored to pull a goal back for City a mixture of bad luck and not for the first time, bad finishing, saw the points slip away in a 2-1 defeat.
Just prior to the game, the first of the recently transfer listed players to depart the club was David Sunley who joined Stockport themselves. Quickly following him ‘out of the door’ was fellow Willie Bell signing Graham Watson who returned to Cambridge United, the club City had signed him from. The 30-year-old Watson, like Sunley had never really looked good enough for third tier football, and although a regular in the first half of the current season had dropped out of the first team reckoning since the arrival of Nolan Keeley.
News off the field was that following their AGM, what was still known as the Lincoln & District Football Supporters’ Club handed over a cheque for £20,000 to the football club, £4,500 of which was earmarked to pay the cost of the floodlight improvements. It was also announced that former City director, Vic Withers who was retiring as chairman of the L&DFSC had been appointed as a Life President of Lincoln City.
The Imps had dropped a place to eighth following the defeat at Stockport but a 1-1 draw at bottom of the table Rochdale saw them back up to seventh again and still eight points off the top four. Colin Murphy had said that sooner or later some team would ‘get an absolute battering’ from his side away from home but it didn’t happen in front of a Spotland crowd of just over eleven hundred against a side with only one win in their last eleven games. With Phil Turner missing with a foot injury David Carr switched back to midfield with John Saunders starting in defence for what was to be his last City game. In a lacklustre performance by City, they fell behind to Rochdale’s first goal in six matches late in the second half before rescuing a point with Nolan Keeley’s second goal in three games in the 83rd minute. They might even have gone on to gain an undeserved win but for a splendid save seconds from the end by later Imps goalkeeper David Felgate playing for his second loan club of the season. Colin Murphy, while accepting that the players had ‘battled superbly’ on a heavy pitch in what he described as a depressing place said the team had given a ragged display and despite coming away with a point all they had actually deserved was their half-time cup of tea.
The transfer deadline was imminent and it was reported that City had expressed an interest in signing Boston United’s 24-year-old central defender Steve Thompson. However, it seemed unlikely the Pilgrims, currently doing well in the first season of the Alliance Premier League, would part with a key defender when about to play in the quarter-finals of the FA Trophy with a chance of a Wembley final. Returning from Boston was young goalkeeper Kevin Fox whose loan period at York Street had ended, while Stoke City had allowed current City first team keeper Eric McManus to stay at Sincil Bank for a further period although with a 48-hour recall notice.
Leaving the club just before the deadline was another of the transfer-listed players, midfielder John Fleming who was now fit again after a long spell on the side-lines. A mainstay of Graham Taylor’s 1975/76 championship side his departure left Phil Neale as the only player still with the club to have played any part in that record-breaking season. He joined Port Vale and was straight into the side for their visit to Sincil Bank that Saturday. When Fleming was announced as wearing the number nine shirt for Vale some City supporters in the Railway End were taken aback at the thought he would be playing centre forward, but of course he was in a midfield position as usual. As for the Imps, the fit-again Phil Turner returned to the side with David Carr reverting to defence to the exclusion of John Saunders, while young Irish winger Aidan McKenzie was given a first start to show what he could do on the right wing as Gordon Hobson dropped to the bench.
The Imps took the points to ensure they stayed in seventh place with a slightly flattering 3-0 score-line. All the goals came in the last 20 minutes, the first from a penalty put away by Tony Cunningham who later added the third goal to make it eleven for the season so far, sandwiching one from Derek Bell.
The attendance for the Port Vale match had dropped to just below three thousand for the second time in the season and despite the good win it was down by another five hundred for the following Wednesday night’s visit of Aldershot although this was likely due to a cold night of sleet and snow. The game finally saw the augmented floodlights in use for a first team match, and an unchanged City side took the lead early in the second half when man of the match Trevor Peake headed in a corner. However, an equaliser scored by the Shots in injury time meant the Imps had to settle for a single point to remain in seventh place, and although the gap to the top four was cut by that point to seven it did nothing for their outside chance of promotion.
Nolan Keeley suffered a knee injury against Aldershot which kept him out of the following Saturday’s visit to Bournemouth and something of a surprise replacement for him in midfield was David Hughes making his first appearance since pre-season. The last remaining player on the books to have been brought to the club by Willie Bell, it might have been expected that he would be among the players recently transfer listed. But, like John Fleming, he had missed several months of the season through injury, and although like the other Bell signings, looking a bit limited when it came to Third Division football, he had come into the side for the last few games of the previous season playing at full back. Colin Murphy, evidently respecting his qualities as a strong, hard-working player, had retained him, and now he got his chance back in the first team. A player who was leaving the club was young left winger Gary Ball whose brief spell with the club had not really worked out, making just three appearances.
A goal-less draw at Dean Court was enough for City to hold their place in the table as the team defended well in depth but not for the first time were unable to take their chances at the other end. The following Saturday brought a visit from third-placed Portsmouth and they brought an estimated thousand supporters with them swelling the attendance to 4,839 – the highest at Sincil Bank since the visit of Scunthorpe in mid-October. Unfortunately, despite a higher than usual number of police on duty for the match several of those visiting supporters were out to cause trouble, especially after seeing their side lose 1-0. As well as aiming assorted missiles at police officers during the match, several houses on Queen Street afterwards had windows broken and two cars were damaged. “We were expecting trouble and we got it” said Superintendent Cary of Lincoln police, adding that the Portsmouth fans behaved “just like a bunch of savages”. In all, there were nineteen arrests, including some from Lincoln. Prior to the kick-off, thousands of small pieces of paper were thrown into the air by the visiting supporters as the teams came out, something that had been popularised at the World Cup finals in Argentina two years previously but not seen at Sincil Bank before.
As for the match itself, Gordon Hobson returned to the side in place of Aidan McKenzie while David Hughes continued in midfield with Nolan Keeley still absent. As well as a sound display by the defence the win owed much to a tireless performance by City’s midfield three of Hughes, Turner and Shipley, and it was young Phil Turner who scored his first Imps goal with a 12-yard shot in the 75th minute. The win simply consolidated City’s position in seventh place but did take them to within five points of Portsmouth and also fourth-placed Newport, but with only seven games remaining few points could afford to be dropped if they were to scrape into a promotion place.