March 1978; Willie Bell was in charge at the club, and a certain Shirley Hutchinson had likely just found out she was pregnant with her shockingly handsome first-born son. Me.
The father of said handsome son, my Dad, was also joyous. Not only had he found out he was going to be a father (he didn’t yet know I was ginger), but City had also just won at 2-1 at Plymouth Argyle. In a season of mediocrity, back-to-back wins looked like a challenge, especially on March 18th, with Sheffield Wednesday coming to town.
Now, Sheffield Wednesday are a big club. They always have been and they always will be. That season, City’s average attendance was 4,878. On that cold Saturday afternoon in 1978, that figure almost accounted for the away support. Like this weekend, when 4,000 are expected into the City (although only 2,000 have away end tickets), The Owls coming to town was big news. The attendance for the game was expected to top 8,000.
The Owls had a World Cup winner in the dugout, Jack Charlton, and a certain Tommy Tynan up top, who would later become an Imp; he wasn’t the only future Imp in the squad; a young Gordon Simmonite was also on the books at Hillsborough, but didn’t play a part.
They were confident going into the game as well; City might have played well against Plymouth, but having lost 3-0 to Exeter a couple of weeks before, they’d been described as one of the worst teams to play in Devon that season. Charlton’s Owls were below the Imps but were still thought to be a tough test backed by vocal support.
City lined up unchanged from the game before, as local journalist John Bradshaw predicted. That meant Peter Grotier in goal, with Brendan Guest, Dennis Leigh, Phil Neale, Clive Wigginton, Terry Cooper, Alan Jones, Peter Graham, Phil Hubbard, Mick Harford and Alan Harding. Peter Graham had been close to a deadline day move to Portsmouth, which fell through, but he still featured in Bell’s side.
Despite the rather dull season, and with fans having seen what Bradshaw described as ‘pretty dull encounters’ throughout the season, this game was different. It had a ‘cup-tie’ atmosphere, with the vocal 4,000 visiting fans making plenty of noise and the Imps faithful rising to the occasion as well. Within 15 minutes of kick-off, the red and white half of the ground had plenty to cheer.
Graham, one of the heroes of 1976, had created a goal for Harford, who would go on to become an England international. Typically, it was a header from the big man, and on the quarter-hour mark, he was involved again. This time, Harford was fouled in the area and Clive Wigginton made it 2-0 from 12 yards.
City’s lead lasted all of a minute, with the ball heading up the other end only for Brendan Guest to have been adjudged to have fouled Graeme Hedley. The on-loan attacker got to his feet and put the penalty away to give him his only Sheff Weds goal of a six-game spell.
Every 1978 standards, it was a tasty game that drew five yellow cards (and you had to properly tackle to get a yellow back then). One of those went to Terry Cooper in the first half, and when he tripped Ian Portfield in the second period, the Imps were reduced to 10 men. The decision led to referee Angus McDonald being branded ‘over-officious’ by local press. Had he been keen to level up the penalty situation as well? Who knows.
City now had pressure applied, to the extent where it seemed we were just desperate to hold on. Phil Hubbard slipped effortlessly into the back four and was magnificent. Clive Wigginton, given Man of the Match in the Chronicle, also drew plaudits, as did Peter Grotier, another hero of 76 in the sticks.
Just as the game was winding down, City struck again. It was a goal described by World Cup winner Jack Charlton as one that would ‘live in the memory of Lincoln fans for years to come; and it did; only this week we did a feature on Alan Jones and someone talked about his goal! Grotier’s long kick downfield fell kindly for Jones, he let it bounce once before launching a 35-yard half-volley past Bob Bolder and into the net to make it 3-1.
After the game, Charlton remarked that he could hardly believe the result; despite City winning 3-1, The Owls had plenty of the play and on another day, could have won the game. Indeed, the local press report talks of City finally getting a bit of luck, and perhaps even being better with ten men than 11. There were arrests in the ground for fighting, sadly, which was typical of the era.
Willie Bell was delighted with the result, although not the quality of the game, saying “It was a difficult one for the players and match officials. I feel that both teams could have contributed to make it more enjoyable for the spectators. Unfortunately, Sheffield Wednesday’s fight for survival affected their football and I am afraid it rubbed off onto ourselves.”
As for the entertainment, City would win three and draw two of their final five home matches, scoring 12 goals and conceding seven. What’s even crazier is a 0-0 draw came in one of those five games! Of course, the promise that a six-game unbeaten home run (imagine that….) gave crumbled the following season, and by the time we faced Sheff Weds on November 11th (a week before yours truly popped out), the Imps were already well on the way back to Division Four, with Willie Bell gone.
If you wish to read more about this season, make sure you check out Malcolm’s excellent series on the subject starting here.