One of my favourite sites on Facebook is Lincoln City Memories, where the indomitable Linda Hodson posts a variety of fascinating material from the club’s past as well as birthday reminders of Imps past and present, writes Richard Godson.
This Sunday morning she put up a set of Fourth Division results from Saturday 4 February 1989. On that day the Imps beat Cambridge United 3 – 0 with a brace from Malcolm Dunkley and the other from the ever-reliable boot of Gordon Hobson, then in his second spell at the club. Whilst I, like many I’m sure, have vivid memories of Hobson, I must confess the name Dunkley rang no bells whatsoever and I had to look him up. A comment from Steve Hircoe suggests either he has a better memory or studies these things more closely than I, or alternatively was at the game, which I sadly wasn’t.
My article was and still is going to be about what has changed between then and now, but it is worth dwelling for a moment on our two scorers on that February afternoon 34 years ago. For a start, it was Malcolm Dunkley’s Imps debut and his goals came at each end of the second half with Hobson netting a couple of minutes before Dunkley’s second from the evidence of Linda’s post. His opener was a 20-yard screamer past future Imps keeper John Vaughan. Gary was there that day and wrote about it five years ago.
If like me, you have little recollection of Dunkley’s City career, I think you can be forgiven. It was all too brief, consisting of fewer than a dozen games in that season before he returned to Finland from where he had been lured to Lincoln. After scoring twice more for the Imps, he returned to Rovaniemi, bagging 11 goals in 51 appearances. He progressed into coaching before succumbing to a heart attack at the tragically early age of 44 in September 2005.
Hobson needs no introduction, being a firm favourite among supporters of a certain age. He enjoyed two productive spells at Sincil Bank and was invariably amongst the goals throughout the 1980s. He also made his debut against the Us and just like Dunkley, 11 years later, got himself on the scoresheet as well as assisting in two others. Fittingly, his first goal of his second spell in the red and white of Lincoln as opposed to Southampton, was also against Cambridge. But enough of that; you can read all about Hobbo in one of Malcolm Johnson’s brilliant articles here.
No, the real point of putting pen to paper here was because I couldn’t help noticing some stark differences between the numbers attending Fourth Division games then and now. On that day, only four grounds in that division had the pleasure of welcoming over 3,000 spectators through the turnstiles. Burnley, in one of their fallow periods, still managed to pull in 6,626 as they beat Torquay by the odd goal in one. Next came our friends up the A46 in Cleethorpes where 5,058 saw Wrexham grab the points in another low scoring thriller. Leyton Orient and Lincoln City were the only others with numbers north of 3,000 that day and at least those faithful were properly entertained with Orient beating Rotherham 3 – 1 and the Imps also scoring 3 and maintaining a clean sheet to boot.
Of the other grounds with a game that day, Gresty Road, Crewe came closest to breeching 3,000 as 2,987 saw Hereford United lose 2 – 1 in spite of a ninth minute opener from Phil Stant. Three clubs failed even to attract 2,000 paying spectators with the wooden spoon going to Doncaster Rovers where a meagre 1,868 had to wait until the 87th minute before a Vince Brockie penalty broke the deadlock, only for Rochdale to level a minute later.
I admit I’m not exactly comparing like with like when I look at average attendances in League 2 this season but it is telling, is it not, that in contrast to that day 1989 only four grounds are averaging fewer than 3,000 spectators, the exact opposite of then. So what has changed? After all, we are currently in what is described by news outlets as a cost of living crisis and families are finding it hard to cope with massive hikes in prices across the board from energy to food leaving less disposable income for leisure activities be it holidays, going to the pub or supporting your local football team. And yet the game is still managing to attract more than it did back in 1989.
The late eighties were something of a nadir in English football’s fortunes although the country itself was recovering after the recession of the early part of the decade. It is worth noting however, that like now, it is the less well-off for whom spending on essentials takes up a greater proportion of their disposable income. Therefore, although the country as a whole might have been getting better off, that wealth was not distributed evenly. It never has and never will be, not even in communist run countries. Look at China and North Korea.
Football is a game which, traditionally, appealed to working men. It was played on a Saturday afternoon because that was when those working in the mills, mines and factories up and down the land had an afternoon off and chose to spend it watching their local team at a ground situated close to where they both lived and worked. Sincil Bank is a prime example, situated among row upon row of terraced housing and close to the great works of Robey & Co, Ruston & Hornsby, and Clayton & Shuttleworth whose vast buildings dominated the map of downhill Lincoln up until half a century ago. Most fans walked to the ground which had little need for car parking. Grounds were within walking distance of a station too with teams often travelling by train to away games. Lincoln are far from unique in having had a railway line running directly past the ground.
Much has changed since then and although football is still widely regarded as a game for the working class, the whole class structure in this country has blurred considerably in the last half century. The great metal bashing industries and the railway infrastructure built to support them have receded. Far more people travel by car to the game; witness the streets around the ground as well as South Common on match day and I don’t doubt that just as spectators live in greater comfort than their ancestors, so they expect something more than an open terrace on which to stand or a wooden bench on which to sit.
In the wake of the Bradford and Hillsborough disasters and the Taylor Report which followed the latter, clubs were obliged to make their grounds safer for spectators both in terms of eliminating fire and crushing risk and from the hooliganism that had blighted the game for a couple of decades. They may have been compelled to take these measures but I think there was a realisation across the game that spectators were turning away from dingy grounds and finding other outlets to provide their leisure and entertainment. Those running football clubs were faced with accepting an inevitable decline in attendances, leading to a slow death of a game that was hardly beautiful amid rickety stands and sporadic violence, not to mention stinking toilets offending all but the strongest constitutions, or doing something positive to improve the spectator experience.
By this time at Sincil Bank, only the St Andrews Stand had been redeveloped with the other three sides of the ground remaining as they had for decades. The next few years would see the ground transformed into what we see today and toilets apart, no one can say it is not an improvement. Of course, you might argue that the real difference in attendances at Lincoln was caused by the sudden and sharp upturn in the standard of football being played in the latter part of the last decade and the consequent upward trend in league status. That may be true but my point in this article is that increases in attendances are not confined to Sincil Bank.
Grimsby’s average so far this season has improved a little when comparing this season with that day in 1989 and although some modernisation has taken place, parts of the ground still date from before the Second World War. This probably denigrates Blundell Park unjustifiably but whenever did that get in the way of making a point?
The biggest contrast I noticed was good old Donny whose average attendance this season is more than three times their gate that day in February 1989. I remember visiting Belle Vue in 1998 and rarely have I seen a more depressing sight. To describe the ground as dilapidated would be to confer undue praise. Another of the sites I follow on Facebook is dedicated to old and lost grounds and terraces and while many of the posts and comments are nostalgic for times past, many more are not, describing many such places as s—-holes and not without justification. Belle Vue was a prime example and I am not surprised so few ventured through its portals. Archibald Leitch is celebrated for designing many iconic grounds and stands but Belle Vue wasn’t one of them and who could possibly have mourned its closure? Its replacement may be described by those who hanker after a bygone age as a soulless bowl and I must agree that when I was there last season (it seems longer), the atmosphere was hardly inspiring, but that was as much to do with the football being played as the stadium itself. Not even the most diehard traditionalist could argue that the new ground is not a much more positive experience than the old and it seems that more than 6,000 agree with me.
It’s a pity Rovers’ opponents, Rochdale, on that day in 1989 weren’t playing at home as it would have been interesting to compare their gates. They are one of the four below the 2,000 mark and look as if they are destined for a spell in the National League. If so, I hope it won’t be a long one. Orient, one of the four better performers back then along with the Imps are still in the top four average league 2 attendances this season, having more than doubled their gates.
I didn’t set out to make this a socio-political history lesson or quite such a ramble and whether you agree with my point or not, I know where I stand, or rather sit.