February 1986 was not a great time to be a Lincoln City supporter.
Colin Murphy had left the season before, and the club were still reeling from the after-effects of the Bradford Fire Disaster. The St Andrews Stand was closed, crowds at the Bank were in their low 2000s and the club had won just once since October 2nd. That run included a 7-0 thrashing at Derby County and humbling home defeats against Blackpool (0-3) and Cardiff (0-4) who would finish below us in the league; the Imps hadn’t been out of the bottom four since November 24th. Relegation loomed large, and to make matters worse, Fourth Division Scunthorpe had knocked us out of the Freight Rover Trophy.
That doesn’t sound bad, but they’d also already beaten Halifax Town, another Fourth Division side, so that meant our game against the Shaymen was a dead rubber that still had to be played. Orignally, it had been scheduled for Tuesday 28th January, but was called off due to ‘overnight frost’. My good friend Malcolm Johnson assures me new signing Bobby Mitchell had been going to make his debut in that game; Instead, he started in the 1-1 draw with Doncaster on February 1st, Stuart Naylor’s final league game for the Imps.
The scheduled visit of Plymouth to Sincil Bank the following Tuesday night was called off at 5.15pm as the snow fell all day, and the next game, at Reading, was also called off due to snow and frost. The Halifax game, reportedly scheduled for Monday evening (10th February), was called off again. The league demanded the game be played before the weekend, and to avoid even worse conditions, it was agreed that it would go ahead on Tuesday afternoon, Pancake Day. One would imagine there was little tossing of pancakes in the stands, but words to that affect might have been muttered about the FA.
That guaranteed the lowest crowd for a Halifax Town game and (I believe) a record low for an Imps away game. Four fans made the journey, two of which were Gary Parle and Marcus Clayson. They get a mention in the Halifax local newspaper, which called for the farcical competition to end. It seems some things never change in football. The game was reportedly played on five inches of snow, and predictably it wasn’t a great spectacle. With the Imps short of confidence and quality, Phil Brown (yes, that Phil Brown) lofted a free kick into the area for Adrian Shaw to give the home side the lead early on.
The game was so poorly received in Lincoln that the Echo barely covered it, with just a short report commenting on how the Imps drew level through Ian McInnes not long after. Phil Turner’s ball dropped to him at the back post and he fought through the white stuff to volley home. I like to imagine it was a Van Basten-esque volley that lit up a dismally cold afternoon. Somehow, I doubt it was.
Reporter Shaun Custis claims the game was played in ‘near impossible’ conditions, but Phil Turner’s volley was smartly saved on the half-hour mark, whilst Kevin Kilmore almost got a winner for the Imps. Keeper Hunt dropped a backpass, which Kilmore stabbed at goal, only for Brown to slide and clear off the line.
After the game, manager George Kerr said: “If it had been a league game, it never would have been played, but at least it gave us a competitive match.” It wasn’t even the biggest news of the day; Birmingham’s interest in Stuart Naylor dominated the headlines, and he was playing in his final match for the Imps. The Blues couldn’t sell David Seaman quickly enough to fund the move though (he signed for QPR in August 1986), and West Brom came in for the England Under-21 international.
Elsewhere, Warren Ward’s move to Exeter City on loan was confirmed. Ward had scored five goals in 14 matches for City, but hadn’t started since the 7-0 humbling at Derby, and dropped out of favour after John Pickering left the Imps. Mark McCarrick was another out of favour with Kerr; he was on his way to Rochdale on trial, although he instead wound up at Crewe after failing to feature under Kerr. Interestingly, Kerr said of the move in his next programme notes, “we saw McCarrick off to Hong Kong, but he took a wrong turn and ended up at Crewe”.
The result marked something of a turnaround; a February 25th defeat against Blackpool (the third time we’d lost to nil against them in five months) saw us draw 2-2 with Bournmeouth, before wins against Newport away (2-1), Reading away (2-0) and Swansea at home (4-1). That saw us climb to 21st, and despite a home defeat by Notts County, a draw with Bolton on Mar 25 resulted in a leap to 20th, and safety. Better was to come; a win against Chesterfield on March 31 (our eighth league game that month) and a draw the week after at bristol City saw us in 19th. Safety beckoned.
If only. The Imps won one and drew two of their final eight matches, finishing three points from safety. Ward returned from Exeter and hit three goals in five matches, including the winner against Brentford and one as we drew 2-2 with Bristol Rovers. Sadly, playing two teams in the bottom four in our last two games didn’t bring the results we needed; Wolves beat us 3-2 on the final day when a win (by about 20-0) could have seen us safe.
Relegation to Division Four followed, then the GMVC a year later. During that season, we went to place like Runcorn, South Liverpool and Wealdstone and still never saw a crowd as low as that cold afternoon at The Shay. (I imagine, I was at school, probably eating glue).