I’ve found time to put together a quick memory match, but before I start, I wanted to clarify why all the games I choose are before the turn of the century.
I’m getting much of my information from the British Newspaper Archive, and it only covers the Echo up to 1999. If I got my arse into gear and got into the library a little more regularly, I could perhaps do other matches, but right now, I only find out I’ve got time to write about five minutes before I get to write. Therefore, I work with what I have!
In March 1978, the Imps were not quite clear of relegation trouble under Willie Bell, but they were looking much more comfortable after a horrible start. George Kerr’s sacking, with the club looking over their shoulder, came at the right time. Bell started with six draws, all good points, one would imagine, before a 3-0 thumping of Port Vale. Indeed, the former Birmingham manager had only lost two matches going into the Oxford game, and the team were sitting 16th in the table, five points clear of the bottom four, but under the two points for a win system.
Bell was eager to bolster his squad, and the build-up to the game was heavily focused on that. It was a midweek tie, and on the day of the game, the Echo carried a story about Bell pulling out of a £30,000 for Terry Austin and walking away from a deal for Fred Binney. Austin moved to Walsall on the day of the game, scored 19 goals in 47 matches, and then to Mansfield, where he bagged 31 in 84. Binney, who was on the periphery of the Plymouth side, turned it around the following season, getting 28 goals and the club’s Player of the Year award.
Good work, Willie.
It was against that backdrop that the Imps faced off against Oxford United, one place and one point above them in the table. Dave Smith returned to the side after a spell out and made what would be his final appearance at Sincil Bank. Smith would only play once more for the club, the weekend’s 3-0 defeat at the hands of Exeter City, before being released by Bell. It meant the Imps lined up with a team that had a portion of the 1976 title-winning side present, which makes it surprising that they’d struggled early doors. Peter Grotier was in goal, Brendan Guest, Dennis Leigh, Phil Neale, Clive Wigginton, Terry Cooper, Alan Jones, Dave Smith, Mick Harford, Phil Hubbard and Alan Harding made up the outfield players, with Peter Graham on the bench.
3,888 supporters turned up to watch the Imps as they sought two vital points that many felt would steer them towards safety. Those assembled for a chilly March evening weren’t disappointed, with Oxford’s best chances coming as a result of errant backpasses towards Grotier. It’s widely remembered that Willie Bell was a disaster for the club, but at this stage of his tenure, hopes were high, and his side certainly had the best of the early exchanges. Alan Jones earned particular praise from Maurice Burton, with Hubbard also giving the visitors problems after being switched from his usual defensive midfield role.
Several good tackles were needed as Smith and Jones made inroads into the Oxford defence, and on 22 minutes, their combination paid dividends. Smith played a ‘splendid’ pass out to Jones, who switched from his right foot to his left and delivered a pinpoint cross for Hubbard to nod home. At 1-0, and with results elsewhere going for them (not that they knew that), City began to purr as a cat having its belly stroked. Maurice Burton described the football as ‘some of the best played for weeks’ in a dominant first half. Hubbard thought he’d made it 2-0 with another header, only for referee Mr M Lowe to rule it out for a push.
Oxford were resorting to dirty tactics to stifle the Imps, with Gary Briggs and Colin Duncan both booked for hefty challenges. One of those challenges had Dave Smith struggling with a chest injury (tells you all you need to know about the challenge), and Alan Harding also struggling with a knee injury. He was eventually replaced by our one sub, Peter Graham.
The first half had been all Lincoln, but the second went the way of the visitors. Honestly, I didn’t pick this game for any reason, but six draws in a row, dominant in the first half, but backs to the wall in the second? Not a lot has changed, apart from twice as many fans, I guess. Anyway….
Gone was the rhythm from The Imps’ play, and more importantly, the ‘spirit of endeavour and adventure’. “The match showed up Lincoln’s real weakness'” wrote Burton. “An accomplished goalscorer who can be relied upon to put the ball in the net.” At 1-0, a second goal would have killed the game off, but Oxford came on strong. Without Binney or Austin on the team, the Imps looked blunt going forward. Grotier made a stunning save from Billy Jeffrey’s effort to keep things at 1-0, whilst Guest hacked clear as Les Taylor tried to steer the rebound goalward. Colin Duncan could have snatched a point for Oxford, rounding Grotier with six minutes to go, but running too wide and hitting the byline before he could steer the ball into an empty net.
That was the last meaningful action of the game, although the last meaningful action from the Imps had been before the break. Still, it was two vital points that Burton said ‘could well have ensured Third Division football again at Lincoln next season’. He wasn’t far wrong; it moved the Imps above Oxford and onto 31 points, with Port Vale relegatied in May with 36 points, fourth from bottom. Essentially, it left the Imps needing just five points (two wins and a draw) to ensure safety.
Now, in a real twist of irony, if we were to win against Oxford this weekend, it would put us onto 44 points. Two wins and a draw would be 51 points, the Holy Grail and probably enough to stay up. Is history repeating itself, to a degree? Two teams, Oxford and Lincoln, neither going up or down. Oxford did finish below us and did seem to be falling back in 1978, but they finished the campaign four points (two wins) clear of the drop. Hmmm.
Anyway, that’s not the end of the story. This game took place on transfer deadline day, and whilst the paper didn’t get the scoop on Wednesday, by the time Thursday’s edition went into print, Willie Bell had got his man. It wasn’t either of the Plymouth players (47 goals the following season between them); instead, Leicester City reserve Alan Hoult joined the club. Hoult, signed instead of £25,000 Terry Austin, played just four times, scoring once before moving on. Unlike the missed targets, he didn’t thrive, and within eighteen months, he was playing for Nuneaton Borough.
Given that Bell missed out on two proven scorers in favour of Hoult and released Dave Smith at the end of the 1977/78 season, it’s fair to say he probably didn’t have the keen eye for a player that we needed back then. He also struggled to recruit over the summer, failing to tempt Paul Reaney, Allan Clake and Malcolm Page to the club. When Graham Taylor’s Watford came to visit early the next season, the home fans ended up cheering the visitors, and the writing was on the wall.
Within seven months of beating Oxford United 1-0, Bell resigned, and Lincoln were on a collision course with relegation.