Memory Match: The Imps’ First Trip To Plough Lane

For today’s match, we’re going back to 1980, and reliving Lincoln’s first trip to Plough Lane, Wimbledon.

We’ve crossed paths with Wimbledon a few times – they were promoted when we were relegated in 1979, then we were relegated when they were promoted in 2011, and history repeated itself in 2017 as they were promoted from League Two as we earned promotion from the National League. With so much swapping, it’s a surprise we’ve met them much at all, but we have. Their former incarnation, Wimbledon FC, we played six times. We won two, drew two and lost two. The even split continued as we won, drew and lost at home, and away. Unbelievably, we have also won two, drawn two and lost two against AFC Wimbledon as well.

The first of those meetings came in 1980 when we made our maiden visit to Plough Lane. Both teams were doing relatively well – we were second in the table, and they were eleventh, but just three points separated us. There was an element of familiarity – Dario Grady was Wimbledon boss, and he’d previously been Colin Murphy’s assistant at Derby, whilst Alan Cork had spent time on loan with the Imps, but now lined up for the hosts. To make it a trio, Wimbledon’s Mick Smith was a former Imp.

Wally Downes, playing for the Dons, would eventually be part of the Imps backroom staff, whilst Mick Harford, playing for the Imps, would later play for them. The game also gave the Imps the distinction of being one of the few 92 clubs to have played on all of the Football League grounds at the time.

Despite the financial trouble only being on the distant horizon for the Imps, there was no exuberant spending – the team coach travelled down on the day, creating what Maurice Burton called a ‘self-imposed handicap’. It meant an early start for the Imps players, who had been toppled from the summit by Aldershot just a couple of days before. Despite that defeat, a game in which Nolan Keeley and George Shipley had ‘nightmares’, Colin Murphy remained unchanged.

That meant an Imps line-up of David Felgate, Trevor Thompson, Nolan Keeley, David Hughes, Trevor Peake, David Carr, Phil Neale, Mick Harford, Gordon Hobson, Tony Cunningham and George Shipley. Derek Bell was the substitute. Felgate, who went on to be a stalwart of the Imps’ team, was only in the side as a loan from Bolton after Colin Boulton’s broken leg. Steve Thompson, missing against Aldershot through injury, was out again.

Unusually, Harford started in midfield, and City focused their attacks on Smith, whom they knew well. He had signed for the Imps alongside Harford from Lambton Boys Club and had Hobson and Cunningham to deal with, as well as his former teammate. “Not every team can put so many guns into their attack as Lincoln can,” purred Burton, whilst also praising Smith’s development. The centre half would make more than 200 appearances for the Dons, playing in all four divisions for them.

For the Dons, as well as Smith, Downes and Cork, keeper Dave Beasant went on to become famous for also playing a major part in their rise. However, he didn’t manage to keep a clean sheet on this September afternoon.

City, on route to promotion, were excellent at the back and going forward. Trevor Thompson was signed out for praise by Burton; his performance ‘stamped him clearly as the man of the match’, with him ‘never playing better since he joined Lincoln’. Of course, others were praised too – Tony Cunningham is described as cheerful and a cause for anxiety, with Hobson pacy. It was Hobson who got the opening goal on 33 minutes, but the much-lauded Thomspon was involved.

He started a break down the right, passing to Hughes, who delivered a cross into the middle for Cunningham to flick on. He did so with accuracy, and the ball dropped to Hobson, who struck a powerful left-footed drive at goal. Beasant, an FA Cup winner in 1988, got a hand to the ball, but it was too powerful to be stopped, dropping just over the line. The goal came after an even 30 minutes, but it gave the Imps the impetus (sorry) to press on.

Neale headed a cross from Harford wide (yep, that’s in the right order), whilst Thompson hit a piledriver which Beasant tipped over the bar. Harford slipped one through for Hobson, who raced clear with Neale free at his side. He went it alone, but fired over the bar. For the hosts, Alan Cork was the only real troublemaker, described as ‘often getting into good positions’ only to find the Imps defence equal to the task of keeping him out.

In the final minutes, Hobson got free and sought out Shipley with a ball, only for the Dons to collect and break up the other end. Sub Roy Davies had a close-range shot saved by Felgate, who then saved for a second time at the feet of Cork. It was one of the last actions of the game, Ron Challis, the referee, awarded a goal kick instead of the expected corner, bringing down the curtain on two valuable points for the Imps.

Interestingly, Challis earned three praise of Maurice Burton. he was “in command of the game throughout and won the respect of the players and the management”. He’d had the 1979 FA Cup Final between Arsenal and Man Utd but was in his final Football League season. “He may be in his last season,” wrote Burton, “but men of his calibre are not easily replaced, and football will be the losers for him going.” A nice touch of class from an esteemed writer to an esteemed referee.

As we know, the Imps were promoted in 1981 after a fine season. Wimbledon certainly toughened up as well – they finished fourth and were promoted with us. It was just another game in the exciting period that was Murph’s first spell in charge of the club, and history-making in that we’d now played on all 92 Football League grounds. The reverse fixture, in February 1981, turned out to be a 0-0 draw, with the Imps thrashing the visitors 5-1 in the Sincil Bank fixture a year later. However, this turned out to be the first and only win City got at the old Plough Lane.