The summer of ’88 was a good one for Lincoln City. We’d stood firm in the face of potentially life-threatening relegation to the GMVC and fought our way back bravely.
It wasn’t always easy, and it wasn’t ever pretty, but we did it. Like coming back in 2017/18, it wasn’t immediately straightforward, we opened with a home defeat against Hartlepool, but few were too disappointed. Our first points didn’t come until mid-September, winning at home to Hereford and away at Cambridge.
We had managed to get past the first round of the League Cup, back then a two-legged affair. Crewe were our opponents, with Willie Gamble’s goal at the Bank the odd one in five that earned us a win. That meant a big boy in the next round. Back then, all the small teams were in one side of the draw and all the bigger ones on the other side to ensure a decent game for the smaller clubs. We drew Southampton with Le Tissier, Danny Wallace, Jimmy Case and Paul Rideout all in the squad.
It was a big draw, there’s no doubt about that at all. Le Tiss was only a youngster, but Danny Wallace would be a Manchester United player within a year, and Rideout had just returned from a spell with Bari in Serie A. It was seen as a tough test but also a lovely fixture to truly welcome back league football.
It was also the second night match I ever went to, although asking me to recall specifics would be pointless as I’d been at school all day, and it was more than 30 years ago.
The Imps’ side was a hybrid of the GMVC winners and new faces Colin Murphy hoped would take us up the division. Ironically, we’d only just done business with the Saints, bringing Gordon Hobson back to the Bank. He had scored in both wins prior to the cup tie and was looking to be a wise acquisition. Other stalwarts of that side included Trevor Matthewson, Dave Clarke, Bobby Cumming and Graham Bressington, although GMVC favourite Paul Smith missed out through injury. Hobson was joined up front by Mark Sertori, now part of the Manchester City backroom staff.
5404 turned up to watch, a huge improvement on the disappointing opening day crowd of 3361. Having had 9432 in the ground for the Wycombe game on May 2nd, to then attract a third for our league return was poor. Still, the Division One side’s visit brought our second-highest crowd of the season, with only a Boxing Day clash with Grimsby attracting more.
They could well have seen a City slaughter, such was the strength of the opposition who were fourth in the top flight. Future Imp John Burridge was in goal, Liverpool hard-man Jimmy Case was playing alongside Russell Osman, two Wallace brothers prowled the flanks with Rideout up front. A young Le Tiss didn’t get a game, but Francis Benali was on the bench. Former Imp Glenn Cockerill missed the game through injury, as he did the second leg at the Dell, although he went on to play 33 times for them during the season.
The visitors got things underway within ten minutes, a well-worked set piece involving Case, Rod Wallace and Colin Clarke ended with Rideout slotting home to give them the lead. You can imagine the fear as the top-flight side celebrated,
Rideout, who had left Villa for Serie A and would later win the FA Cup with Everton, was a real handful, and he almost made it 2-0 not long after. Danny Wallace was the provider, his tempting cross was slammed against the underside of the bar as City floundered. Mark Wallington, the new face in goals for the Imps, was in for a long night. He made several important saves as Shane Nicholson, and Clive Evans struggled with the Wallace brothers.
There was some respite for the Imps. Jimmy Case was his typical self, picking up a booking for a foul on Willie Gamble. In those days, a booking wasn’t easy to accrue, and so it must have been a heavy challenge, but the resulting free-kick almost led to a leveller, Shane Nicholson’s effort palmed over by Budgie.
The rain set in, and I do recall running for the cover of the Railway End, trying not to look like a drowned rat in my parka coat. As it did, Wallington produced yet another save, this time from Kevin Moore. Southampton were showing their class, but just before half time, it could have been the Imps bagging; Willie Gamble seized on a Russell Osman mistake but was thwarted by the veteran keeper.
The rain didn’t ease up into the second period, and it seemed only a matter of time before Southampton were extending their lead. Whatever Colin Murphy had to say at half time did the trick because when the Imps emerged for the second half, it was hard to tell which side were in Division One.
Dave Clarke came on for Willie Gamble. Doubtless, the youngster still feeling the effects of Case’s challenge and the left back added a verve to the Imps wide play. He was also a dab hand at free kicks, and fewer than five minutes after the break, he’d had two go close. One just missed to the side of the goal, and the second came back from the underside of the bar. The home fans were roused, and that spurned the red and white shirts forward.
This wasn’t a long ball Fourth Division side either, City zipped it around the turf looking for openings. Just ten minutes after the break, we scored, only for it to be ruled out. Trevor Matthewson nodded the ball to Gordon Hobson who put it into the net, only for the flag to go up on the far side. It was still 1-0, but Goliath was rocking.
Southampton weren’t dormant in the Imps resurgence, they were still a First Division side with real quality. The pulsating cup tie was one they wanted to win, Danny Wallace almost making it 2-0, only for Mark Wallington to produce a superb save. Gordon Hobson, fresh from his disappointment in front of the goal, got back to clear one off the line also. It was end-to-end stuff, two excellent teams stood toe to toe.
City were playing the ball around on the floor and with 20 minutes to go a typically slick move saw Phil Brown and Gordon Hobson team up to provide a great cross for Mark Sertori. He was a dead cert to score, but the ball was just taken off his toe at the final minute. The crowd could sense there was a goal left in the game and so it proved.
Bobby Cumming, so influential in the GMVC title win four months earlier, had one of his trademark pops at goal, only for the ball to take a deflection. It could have dropped anywhere, into the keeper’s arms, out for a corner or to the feet of a Southampton defender. Instead, it dropped at the feet of Dave Clarke, who slammed the ball home to level the tie.
Southampton looked set to implode when just moments later, Jimmy Case was sent off. Gordon Hobson had given him and Osman a torrid time, and Case felt the need for some revenge, cruelly stamping on his former teammate. Referee Mr Baily of Cambridge consulted his linesman before showing the red card.
The game couldn’t be won on the night, there was still a trip to the Dell to see out, but City wanted the win. Southampton retreated deeper and deeper, leaving the Fourth Division side to attack at will. A Dave Clarke cross was smashed against the post by Phil Brown, only for the flag to go up for offside. Moments later, another cross from the impressive Clarke caused problems for the visitors, but they poked it clear for a corner with Brown and Hobson lurking for the winner.
In the dying embers, Graham Bressington broke free, bearing down on John Burridge, but Derek Statham got back with a crucial tackle. When the final whistle blew, it was the visitors breathing a sigh of relief and the Imps wishing there was just five more minutes.
The replay was no less thrilling for a disappointing crowd of 6401, albeit certainly better from the Saints’ point of view. It could have gone very badly for Chris Nicholl’s side, spurning an excellent chance to take a third-minute lead. Mark Sertori found himself in space and unmarked but pulled his effort wide of the post.
That was quickly punished as Rodney Wallace gave the home side the advantage sixty seconds later. His thunderous drive beat Wallington in the top left corner and was a worthy opener. However, City were not overawed, and a Dave Clarke free-kick found its way past John Burridge after ten minutes. The goal has been credited to Gordon Hobson in some places, but Donald Nannestad gives it to Clarke, and that’s good enough for me.
City held firm for the rest of the half but weren’t causing the same problems they’d managed to create at the Bank. The back four soaked up the pressure and didn’t look in danger of conceding but were limited to attacks on the break.
The second half, like at Sincil Bank, belonged to the home side. They began to stretch and probe, with the Imps’ resilience looking increasingly fragile. Graham Baker gave his side the lead with a close-range header, and although yet another Dave Clarke free kick needed a dramatic save from Burridge, the chances became fewer and farther between. The Wallace brothers were pulling our full backs apart, and the home side added a third, again through Baker, thanks to a close-range tap-in. The Saints could have extended their lead, but Man of the Match Darren Davis and young Shane Nicholson both made goal-line clearances to keep the score respectable.
A spirited City were eliminated from the competition by a side that eventually finished 13th in the First Division and went out of the Littlewoods Cup to eventual beaten finalists Luton Town. Colin Murphy took his side to 10th in Division Four, thanks in no small part to the 15 goals scored by Gordon Hobson.
In the end, the Imps were so near and yet so far from not only a giant killing, but also a successive promotion. Southampton would be back at the Bank within eight years, and obviously now feature on our fixture list again in 2022.