The Imps have a habit of attracting interesting friendly opponents – I remember Seattle Storm coming very early on in my life as an Imp, and then Ferencvaros back in 2009.
However, is anything more interesting than a friendly on a Tuesday night in October, just days after a league win? Far from being behind closed doors, the gates were open for the visit of Tulsa Roughnecks, in a game that would be odd now, but perhaps even more so back in 1979. Just 18 months or so after their inception, they were touring the UK, and whilst people in Lincoln will have thought them an oddity, they had some pedigree. They routinely attracted 11,000 supporters to their North American Soccer League matches, peaking at 19,000 in 1980. In August 1979, just months before coming to the Bank, 76,000 watched them narrowly lose to New York Cosmos in a playoff game, with World Cup finalists Johan Neeskens, Franz Beckenbauer and Carlos Alberto in the opposition lineup.
Tulsa were on the Imps’ fixture list just days after Tony Cunningham gave us a 1-0 win against Stockpot in the league. It was expected we’d field a young Imps team, with Maurice Burton writing that several youngsters were set for their debut, including Wayne Biggins, who went on to play in the top flight during a decent career. Tulsa should have offered a solid threat – they were narrowly beaten 4-3 by Walsall a couple of nights before, and they had Iranian World Cup hero Iraj Danaeifard in their squad – the player who scored against Scotland to help eliminated them from the 1978 World Cup.
They also had David Nish in their side, a player who had appeared five times for England earlier in the seventies. He’d played under Colin Murphy at Derby County, and ahead of the game, there was much talk about him coming back to play for Lincoln. Indeed, many national newspapers ran story of a potential £25,000 transfer. It wasn’t the only time Tulsa and Nish made the news in 1979 – Nish’s £10,000 move to Tulsa had fallen under suspicion leading to manager Tommy Doherty being interviewed by police, sparking a front page spread in the Daily Mirror.
The game wasn’t a huge pull – just 879 turned up to watch an apparently youthful Imps side take to the field. We lined up Kevin Rose, David Carr, Phil Neale, Phil Hubbard, Mick Smith, Phil Turner, Gordon Hobson, Glenn Cockerill, Craig Ramsay, Tony Cunningham and Gary Ball. Stephen Ward, David Burrows, Stuart Hibberd and Wayne Biggins made up the bench.
Despite this being a so-called young side, Tulsa were always going to have their work cut out. However, they had experience of a cold Tuesday in the UK in their squad. As well as Nish, they had former Fulham man Steve Earle, Alan Woodward who had ten years in the top flight with Sheffield United and former Club Brugge and Leicester City striker Roger Davies. It wasn’t a team of clueless amateurs by any stretch, and up until a few months before the game, they’d been managed by Alan Hinton, a former England international himself.
Maurice Burton clearly expected more, because although a (with hindsight) strong and impressive Imps side blew them away, he was utterly scathing. “City fielded an experimental side, with youngsters making their debuts and in the end turning out a side which might have struggled to stay alive in the Northern Midlands League,” was his assessment. Hubbard, Ball, Ramsay, Turner, Smith and Rose were all appearing for the first time in the season, but they still chalked up a victory that could have been double figures.
“On this showing, Tulsa were a disgrace to the profession which has given many of them a good living over the years,” raged Burton, who is a man I really wish I could have met because he never pulled his punches. “Even Crewe, Scunthorpe and Stockport had the professional courage to fight to the end,” he added of the Imps’ previous three games (3-0, 4-0 and 1-0). “Tulsa, unfortunately, didn’t even make a start.”
The Imps ran riot with three first-half goals, the first from Cunningham after Ball had put in a delicious cross. Ball, who Malcolm wrote about previously, was classed as one of the revelations of the night, alongside Gibralatan Ramsay and a young Phil Turner. Ramsay tested the keeper next, crashing a shot against the bar, whilst Turner saw one come back off the post. On 26 minutes, the Imps made it 2-0; Hobson’s cross was nodded down by Mick Smith for Cunningham to poke home.
Three minutes later, Ball got a goal, the only one he’d score at the Bank. Ramsay started the move, finding Cunningham, who squared for Ball to slide home. Tulsa had offered nothing, but that changed after the break as they ventured forward, to their defence’s detriment.
On 47 minutes Glenn Cockerill netted from close range before Cunningham was brought down in the box a minute later, dusting himself off to add a fifth. The fans in attendance saw a goal-fest, and Tulsa finally joined the party on 54 minutes as Alan Woodward jinxed his way through the defence to make it 5-1. It mattered not – Cunningham went up the other end three minutes later and added his fourth, City’s sixth, rattling home a firm shot.
Steve Earle hoped to add some respectability on 63 minutes, poking home Woodward’s cross, making it five goals in just 18 frantic minutes. Tulsa even looked, briefly, like rallying further as they kept the Imps pegged back, with a Rose save at the feet of Danaeifard their best chance of a third. Burton described him as the only Tulsa player who looked the part, but that he would likely be out of City’s price range. After all, he was the only visitor proving he could do it on a cold Tuesday night in Lincoln, despite many of the squad having played in similar conditions throughout their career!
Hobson got in on the act on 86 minutes, putting the Imps 7-2 up, and then with just two minutes remaining, the assembled Imps got what would turn out to be a collector’s item. Wayne Biggins played in the top flight with Norwich, once scored 28 in a season with Stoke and even wore Celtic’s famous green and white. However, he only scored one goal at Sincil Bank before being released and joining Matlock, and that was the eighth and final one of this game. It was ‘the best goal of the game’ according to Burton, a blistering shot from 20 yards, hit on the run after taking it in his stride. With hindsight, you have to wonder what might have been had Biggins not had Harford, Cunningham, Bell, Cockerill, Hobson and the like to dislodge from the first team.
Tulsa were sent packing, but their heavy defeat didn’t deter them. Within a year they were attracting 19,000 supporters to Skelly Field, and in 1983 they won Soccer Bowl ’83 (honestly, that was what it was called), beating Toronto Blizzard in the final. Interestingly, they did so not only with Danaifard in the side, but also courtesy of a late second goal from Ron Futcher, uncle of future Imp Ben. To date, that is the only major trophy a sports team from Tulsa has ever won.
We didn’t sign Nish – he moved to Seattle Sounders before returning to the UK to play non-league football. We did sign a player who had been contracted to Tulsa – Colin Boulton spent the 1978/79 camping with them but wasn’t part of the squad at the Bank. He joined us a couple of years later.
It would be nine years before another US team played on the hallowed turf; Seattle Sounders (minus Nish) arrived in 1988 and earned a 2-2 draw. By then, Wayne Biggins had signed for Manchester City, Tony Cunningham had played for City and Newcastle, Glenn Cockerill and Gordon Hobson were in the top flight with Southampton, and Phil Turner was on a trajectory that would take him into the top flight with Notts County.
Perhaps our 8-2 win wasn’t down to Tulsa being all that bad after all!