With the side unchanged a third away draw in a row came from a midweek visit to Hereford thanks to another hardworking midfield display in a goal-less match. City, although still seventh, were now only four points off a promotion place and an Easter Saturday win at Sincil Bank against bottom of the table Rochdale would have kept them there, but another goal-less draw was just what they didn’t want and widened the gap to six points.
I had passed through Lincoln on the day before the Rochdale game on my way to Grimsby and was part of a 15,000 Good Friday crowd at Blundell Park to see the Mariners, on their way to the Third Division title beat Carlisle United 2-0. In addition to a 19-year-old attacking player called Peter Beardsley in the Carlisle team the game also featured no less than eight past and future Lincoln City players – Clive Wigginton, Dean Crombie, Nigel Batch, Bob Cumming, Kevin Kilmore and Bobby Mitchell for Grimsby plus Trevor Swinburne and Keith Houghton for Carlisle.
After the 0-0 draw with Rochdale which saw the Imps, despite enjoying the majority of possession throughout the game rarely look like scoring, the Easter Monday visit to Northampton produced more of the same as City played out a scoreless game for the third time in a row with in fact Phil Turner’s winner against Portsmouth being the only goal scored by either side in the last five matches. Aidan McKenzie had returned to the starting line-up in place of Gordon Hobson but was later substituted by Brendan Guest returning from the wilderness with a place on the bench and it turned out to be the last appearances by both players in an Imps shirt.
Persistently in seventh place, the two draws in the Easter games meant City were now back to eight points behind the top four with only four games to play, and as Colin Murphy was forced to admit “It’s beginning to look as if we have missed promotion.”
With the ending of any real chance of a top four finish it was perhaps not too important that goalkeeper Eric McManus was recalled from his loan by Stoke City. With a record of conceding only 13 goals in 21 games for City it was not surprising that Colin Murphy expressed a wish to sign him on a permanent deal in the future, saying that McManus was ‘the Peter Shilton of the Fourth Division’. Although he felt everything possible should be done to bring the player back to the club, he expressed doubts about whether he could be fitted into the club’s financial structure.
For the visit of bottom-four side Darlington the following Saturday the attendance fell below three thousand again. Those of us who did go saw the league debut in goal of 19-year-old youth product Kevin Fox fresh from his two months loan with Boston United. The only other change saw the return of Gordon Hobson to the starting line-up with young Craig Ramsay on the bench. Colin Murphy paid tribute to Phil Neale for continuing to make himself available to play at left back despite Worcestershire being in the throes of preparation for the new County Cricket season. Neale’s presence was still required due to young reserve Stephen Ward being unavailable through injury.
The Imps scored their first goal in four matches in a 2-1 win which in the end flattered the visitors despite Darlington taking the lead after just three minutes. But City equalised with Tony Cunningham’s twelfth goal of the season not long afterwards and hit the winner 14 minutes from time when substitute Ramsay nipped in to put a loose ball into the net for his second goal in just three appearances.
Further news was that City’s interest in signing Boston United’s big defender Steve Thompson had now turned into an agreement to buy him for a fee of £15,000 once the Pilgrims’ interest in the FA Trophy had finished – either at the shortly to be played semi-final stage or after the Final. With two Northern Premier League championships with Boston under his belt, Thompson, currently employed as a sales representative in Sheffield, said he considered this could be his last chance to get into the Football League and had been impressed by Colin Murphy’s ambition for Lincoln City. Murphy himself said he thought supporters would soon regard the player as another Trevor Peake or Tony Cunningham both of whom had been signed from non-league clubs. He also indicated that Thompson had been earmarked to (literally) strengthen City’s midfield. Despite this, and knowing he played as a central defender for Boston, the fear immediately arose in the supporters that he had been lined up as a replacement for Trevor Peake whose sale for a big fee would have surprised no-one given the ability he had displayed throughout the season.
A well-earned testimonial match for physio Bert Loxley then took place the following Wednesday night, and a respectable crowd of around five and a half thousand turned out to see the Imps take on current European Cup holders Nottingham Forest and pay tribute to a man who had served City for almost fifteen years as trainer/physio, player and manager. Forest fielded a strong side including such players as Viv Anderson, Larry Lloyd, Stan Bowles, Trevor Francis and John Robertson, but it was veteran striker John O’Hare who gave them the lead before Derek Bell and Gordon Hobson won the game for City.
There had been shouts toward Kevin Fox from a few of the Sincil Bank supporters to “Get back to Boston” after he let in the early goal from Darlington, but there could have been few complaints about the clean sheet he kept in the following Saturday’s match at Hartlepool as City battled to yet another 0-0 draw – in fact the fourth in a row away from home, and in a remarkable run, the fourth in the last five games and fifth in the last seven. Phil Neale was forced to miss the match due to an injury sustained in the Nottingham Forest match and had therefore finally been released to resume his cricketing activities. The left-footed Nolan Keeley’s timely return from injury saw him slot in at left back in Neale’s place, while other good news was the return of Mick Harford, coming off the bench for the last ten minutes of the game. The win against Darlington the previous week had finally moved City up from seventh place to sixth, but the solitary point gained at Hartlepool saw them back down to eighth.
A friendly match the following Monday night saw a goodwill visit to Hinckley Athletic. As well as helping to raise funds for the West Midlands League club in what was billed as their Centenary match it was also arranged to give Mick Harford a game on his return from his cartilage operation. The former Lambton Street Boys’ Club player had come to City as a midfield player and it was interesting that he was deployed in that position in this match, perhaps with an eye to a deeper role in the future.
Annoyingly, the final home match of the season was yet another Friday night game but I was not the only one absent as the attendance only just reached the two thousand mark with nothing left to play for. Those that did turn up were treated to a 4-0 win over visitors Halifax Town as City finished unbeaten at home since losing on the first day of the season. Mick Harford marked his return to the starting line-up in place of Derek Bell with a last-minute goal after George Shipley had given the Imps an early lead with his first goal for the club. After Tony Cunningham had extended the lead Shipley then made it a brace for him as City ran out easy winners.
The day after the Halifax game, still keen in those days to go to lots of other matches I made the journey to London to see already-relegated Fulham take on a mid-table Cambridge United side in the Second Division. A couple of Imps connections were 25-year-old midfielder John Beck in the Fulham side while later loanee Lindsay Smith was at left back for Cambridge. I was on my travels again on the last day of the season the following Saturday with a trip to Crewe – a place I always liked visiting due to the ground being so handy for the station. There was some later Imps interest here too, with Derek Hood at right back for visitors York City, while Crewe featured a player who was to make just two appearances for Lincoln at the end of his career. This was a 22-year-old South African-born goalkeeper named Bruce Grobbelaar who had joined Crewe midway through the season on loan from Canadian side Vancouver Whitecaps. Apparently very popular with team-mates and fans, in the closing stages of the game with Crewe 1-0 up and nothing at stake from the result he was allowed to take a penalty and scored the only goal of his career. In his programme notes Crewe manager Tony Waddington paid tribute to Grobbelaar’s efforts for the club and looked forward to his return from Canada. When he did so of course, it was to play for Liverpool and the rest is history.
The reason I was at Crewe was that City’s last game of the season was at Torquay in distant Devon. City fielded an unchanged side, as although Steve Thompson had finally arrived from Boston after their semi-final elimination from the FA Trophy and would have been eligible to play in a game with nothing resting on the outcome, he was omitted from the side possibly due to injury.
Prior to the defeat at Stockport in early March Colin Murphy had said “Sooner or later someone away from home will get an absolute battering from this side”, and this was finally what happened. A sign of things to come was the new formation adopted by City which saw Mick Harford in a deeper role which included scoring his 16th goal of the season. Partnering Tony Cunningham up front (who put away a penalty for his 14th) was Gordon Hobson who notched his first hat-trick for the club. The points from the 5-2 win saw City remain in the seventh place they had regained by beating Halifax and close the season with a twelve-match unbeaten run to finish seven points short of a promotion place.
Not long after the end of the season there were announcements of longer contracts for players Mick Harford, Gordon Hobson and David Carr while Colin Murphy saw his own contract extended until July 1983. The manager also sought to allay fears that Trevor Peake would be leaving the club, saying it was pure speculation despite supporters ‘in the know’ claiming the player had already been transferred to Leeds United.
Showing the regard in which Peake was held by the supporters he had been the clear winner of the vote for the Player of the Year award ahead of David Carr. Young Player of the Year was Phil Turner.
While it was disappointing to some extent that promotion straight back to Division Three had remained just out of reach, after two miserable seasons some pride and prestige had been restored to the club under the management of Colin Murphy. In hindsight, the good first third of the season which had seen the Imps’ closest challenge for a promotion spot was perhaps a bonus, as the manager’s mid-season rebuilding of the squad may have been what he had in mind all along rather than come as a response to the gradual slip down the table. After the new players had bedded in and the number of postponed games had been caught up with there was a rise back up the table but never to a place more than on the fringe of the promotion fight due mainly to too many points being dropped in away games. In fact, seventeen games had gone by without an away win prior to the 5-2 victory at Torquay on the last day of the season. Just four away wins had been recorded all season in contrast to the record at Sincil Bank where the solitary defeat had come on the opening day of the season.
The imbalance between the home and away records showed what needed to be corrected if a promotion challenge was to be mounted, and that mainly rested on more goals being scored away from home. In the eleven away games played since the beginning of February although only nine goals had been conceded, only nine had been scored – including the five in one game at Torquay. But the signs were promising for the future and a foretaste of what was to come lay in the overall record of 42 goals being conceded, which, apart from the 1975/76 championship side, was the lowest total ever for a 46-game season.
For the third season in a row no-one bettered Mick Harford’s total of goals scored as he achieved his best return so far with 16. Also in double figures were Tony Cunningham with 14 and Gordon Hobson with 10, while expensive signing Derek Bell’s return of five goals from 25 games could be seen as disappointing, although his all-round contribution to the team put him far from being in the Tommy Tynan class!
The average league attendance of 3,713 was around 500 up on the previous season and was fairly typical of the season with the majority of the Sincil Bank crowds being in the three-thousands.
Elsewhere in football, Nottingham Forest retained the European Cup, winning 1-0 in Madrid against a Hamburger SV side that included a former Scunthorpe United player. Forest finished fifth in the league which was won by Liverpool for the second year in a row and failed to win the Football League Cup for a third year in a row as they were beaten by a Wolves side featuring later Imps player Peter Daniel. West Ham United, who finished seventh in Division Two, became the last team to date from outside the top flight to win the FA Cup, beating Arsenal 1-0. The Gunners also finished as runners-up in the European Cup Winners’ Cup Final, losing on penalties to Valencia.
Runners-up to Liverpool were Manchester United with Ipswich Town in third place. Relegated were Bristol City after three seasons in the top division, and Bolton Wanderers after two. Accompanying them down were Derby County who had been in a steady decline since their league championship of five years before. Replacing them were Second Division champions Leicester City, back up after two seasons, Sunderland back after three, and Birmingham City who finished ahead of Chelsea on goal difference to bounce straight back after one season.
Well adrift at the bottom of the Second Division were Charlton Athletic, and accompanying them down into the third tier were Burnley and Fulham. All former First Division clubs, they were replaced by three other former top flight clubs, although in Grimsby’s case this dated back to the 1940s. Under George Kerr the Mariners had won the Third Division championship to rise straight through from Fourth to Second Divisions in successive years. Promoted with them were Blackburn Rovers who bounced back after relegation the previous year and ‘sleeping giants’ Sheffield Wednesday, glad to be back up after five seasons in the doldrums of the third tier.
Going down from the Third Division were Wimbledon after one season, Southend after two, Mansfield Town, two seasons after reaching the Second for the first time in their history, and Bury. The two outstanding sides in the Fourth Division had been Huddersfield Town and Walsall. The Yorkshire side won the championship and emulated Lincoln four years earlier in scoring 100 league goals, Runners-up Walsall recorded only five defeats all season in 29-year-old player-manager Alan Buckley’s first season in charge as they bounced straight back after relegation. Also promoted were Newport County after 18 years of mainly struggle in the basement division, while Portsmouth returned to the Third Division after finishing ahead of Bradford City on goal difference in fourth place and put an end to any fears the residents of Lincoln might have had about another visit from their supporters.
At the foot of the Fourth Division Port Vale finished level on points and goal difference with Hereford United but avoided having to make a re-election plea due to scoring considerably more goals than the side still thought of as league newcomers. In fact, after reaching the Second Division after four seasons of league football Hereford had crashed straight back down to the Fourth again. Applying for re-election after only eight seasons of league football might have seemed a little like pushing their luck, but they were comfortably returned as were those perennial strugglers Darlington (fifth application in eleven seasons, second year in a row) and Crewe (fifth in nine, also second year in a row). But for Rochdale the retention of their Football League status was a very close-run thing and possibly came down to sheer luck. Eight points adrift at the bottom of the table, unlike the two clubs above them they had not had to apply the year before but it was still their second application in three years. Under new agreements, this was the first season in which only one non-league club was to be put forward for election to the league and this was to be the champions of the Alliance Premier League which had just completed its first season. Winners of what is now known as the National League were Altrincham who had applied the year before but then finished well short of being elected. This time they received just one fewer vote than Rochdale but controversially two clubs who had promised to vote for them failed to do so – in fact they failed to vote at all, due to the Grimsby Town representative inadvertently sitting in the wrong part of the meeting room and the Luton Town chairman getting the time wrong and arriving after the voting was over.
For the Imps, the end of season unbeaten run was a pointer to what could be achieved with the present squad, and if the number of away draws could be turned into wins there was every reason to hope for a proper promotion challenge next time around with Colin Murphy saying he now had the players he wanted to work with which had not previously been the case.