37 years ago, Lincoln City suffered relegation from what was then the Third Division. It’s a season few remember fondly, one that started with former England striker Bob Latchford up top, but ended with us dropping into the Fourth Division for the first time since 1981.
The events of May 1985 at Bradford City, were still tragically etched into the club’s memory, but they cannot be cited as a reason for our collapse. That could maybe be attributed to the events of three years previous, with Gilbert Blades stepping down and the club not being able to secure the all-important promotion to the Second Division. Instead, we stagnated, and it sparked a chain reaction that led to this week. Chain Reaction, by the way, was number one in the UK, whilst Commando was shown at cinemas across the country.
The Imps felt like they were engaged in jungle warfare, as relegation from the Third Division seemed likely. Up to Saturday March 8th, we had one win in 21 matches in the league – dire times indeed. We were 23rd in the table with 26 points, six points from safety. Relegation looked almost certain.
But then this week happened.
Monday 10th March
George Kerr had a damning assessment of his side’s efforts in their game against Newport County on the Monday following the opening game of three in a week. “Our performance was rubbish,” he said in the Echo. “What a brilliant result”. Newport started Saturday 8th nine points clear of the Imps, but having played two matches more, but the Imps claimed a 2-1 win.
The game wasn’t a classic. City lined up Swinburne, Mitchell, Hodson, Strodder, West, Redfearn, Turner, McInnes, Mair, Kilmore and Gamble, with Richard Cooper on the bench. Neither side were able to break the deadlock, and a draw wasn’t ideal for either. However, a strong finish and two quality goals set the Imps up for what would be a major week.
Gordon Mair broke the deadlock on 78 minutes. He is described as heading down the wing hoping to deliver ‘a better cross than he had been able to find all game’. He didn’t – instead, he cut back inside and fired a shot into the back of the net. City were elated, but Newport were quickly level in bizarre circumstances. Trevor Swinburne was penalised for timewasting, and referee Ron Groves gave a free-kick inside the box. Simeon Hodson was booked for his protests, and veteran Leighton James lobbed over the wall and into the back of the net. Swinburne had denied Steve Mardenborough a couple of times, but his performance was described as being like a ‘performing seal’ by Kerr.
Kerr was even more critical of his match-winner, Kevin Kilmore. “Kilmore was rubbish for 89 minutes, which I have said about him before,” he blasted. “There’s no excuse for an unprofessional performance like that.” The striker still got the winner, smashing a 20-yard volley home with 60 seconds left on the clock.
One player who did not get criticised by Kerr was Gary Strodder. The young defender was described as ‘dynamic’ by his manager, and Kerr had even rung England Under 21 boss Dave Sexton to come and look at the player. “He is developing into one of the best young centre backs in Britain,” said Kerr.
The final bit of news was the potential return of Bob Latchford. He’s been farmed out on loan to Newport, but after City’s win, their manager resigned, and it meant a possible return to the Bank. Nobody really wanted that.
Tuesday 11th March
It seems hard to believe now, but the club’s future was threatened once again this week in 1986. It wasn’t player’s wages that were the problem – much of the ground was condemned to closure by a Government safety committee. The old St Andrew’s stand was to close, and both the Railway End and South Park were also under threat. it meant the club needed to find £400,000 to spend on a new stand, the one that now looks so out of place on the east side of the ground. Still, Sean Custis made no bones about how serious the situation was. “Lincoln City could be out of business before the start of next season,” he wrote. That was backed up by John Reames, the club chairman. “The supporters have to convince us that they really want a football club in the town before we go ahead and build a new stand,” he said. “There is no kidology involved here. If people don’t rally round Lincoln will go under and that’s no idle threat.”
It was described as the biggest crisis in the club’s 103-year history, exasperated by having no football for nine weeks after a harsh winter. The club’s running costs are reported as £8000 per week, and with no home game since January 11th, that meant £72,000 expenditure with no income. Stuart Naylor’s sale for £110,000 was thought to have helped, but the fee came in stages, meaning further cashflow problems.
Wednesday 12th March
Wednesday’s edition was focused on football once again because, let’s face it, if you’re struggling for cash, a few wins will put bums on seats. With one away win in 12 months, City didn’t really fancy their next big test – away at Reading, who topped the table by 12 points and had three games in hand of their nearest rivals. Skipper Peter Daniel was ruled out, full-back Bobby Mitchell was rated as doubtful and the shadow cast by the off-field struggles still seemed to dominate the headlines.
Elsewhere, Bob Lathford’s spell with Newport was extended by another month, whilst Warren Ward, also out on loan, saw his spell extended. On a busy news day, the club opened a new bank account purely for the stand fund, with supporter Nick Coulson reportedly interrupting the board meeting the previous day to pledge the first £10.
Thursday 13th March
“It was the type of team performance I’ve been working towards since I came here,” said Kerr of his side’s magnificent 2-0 win at Elm Park the following day. Never one to shirk the limelight, the larger-than-life boss added “Reading are a class side but we just didn’t allow them to play and for a club in our position, the result was a miracle.” To be fair to him, it was a shock. It was only their sixth defeat in 32 games, and they’d still recover and win the league with a 94-point total.
City were down to the bare bones. Trevor Swinburne shrugged off the criticism from the previous match and had a great game, making several important saves. Mitchell and Daniel did miss out, meaning the ten outfield players consisted of Hodson, Cooper, Redfearn, West, Strodder, McInnes, Turner, Gamble, Kilmore and Mair. To make matters worse, Hodson was injured on 23 minutes and Gary Richards came on in his place.
The Imps went ahead on 62 minutes, Mair leaving Gary Peters and Terry Hurlock confused as he skinned them and crossed for Kilmore. His effort rebounded off a defender and into the path of Redfearn, who fired home. Reading pushed for a leveller, getting the ball into the net from Trevor Senior, only for it to be ruled out for a push on Swinburne. Finally, the game was put to bed in the last minute, Willie Gamble seizing on a backpass to get the Imps’ second goal, and give us six points from two matches.
There’s an amusing note (amusing in a dark way) about a booking for Mair, for ‘stamping on an opponent’. Maybe the game was a bit tougher back then!
Kerr appealed to supporters to ensure they got down to the Bank for the following Sunday against Swansea. Everton and Chelsea were on the box, back when a televised game was rare, but Kerr hoped for a big crowd against a side one point above the Imps – “come and watch us against Swansea in the fresh air,” he demanded. “It will do you good”.
It might not have been the same message they were sending out for the upcoming game against Derby – the win dominated the back page, but the front page explained how Rams fans would have the entire Sincil Bank terrace and part of the Railway End. 7,000 were expected, meaning there were only 4,000 tickets available for Imps supporters. “I greatly regret having to take these measures,” said John Reames. “I know it will upset loyal supporters who have stood in those parts of the ground for years on end.”
Friday 14th March
We love a good pun right? On Friday 14th March, the Imps didn’t have a Saturday game to look forward to, but there was a campaign to raise some money. There was a downpayment of £275 you could make for your season ticket, and get your name on a seat. That would then entitle you to a 50% reduction in the season ticket price for the next four years. Did it work? I don’t know, but I don’t see names on seats in the SRP Stand now. The plea was followed by Reames asking fans to turn up for the game on Sunday. With so much at stake, it seemed a fair request.
Saturday 15th March
If the Imps supporters needed an excuse to get to Sincil Bank, here it was. Gary Strodder, rumoured to be on the verge of England Under 21 honours, penned a new deal with the club. He signed a two-year deal, despite rumoured interest from Arsenal. Strodder came through at the Bank as an apprentice and would later move to West Ham, but for now, he was all about the Imps. “I am totally committed to Lincoln City,” he said. “My priorities lie entirely with Lincoln’s fight to stay in the Third Division.”
That fight would take a new light if the Imps could beat Swansea City on Sunday. “Despite the problems we have here there is a new attitude about the club,” said Kerr, who was chasing a third win in eight days. “People are smiling and talking to each other again.” There was a real belief we could stay up, and Swansea’s plight was worse than ours. With just a single point separating us, a win would be huge. They were also in the process of being wound up (spoiler, didn’t happen), with a court date for later that month. Both teams were battling for survival on, and off the field.
Sunday 16th March
It really was a super Sunday, long before Sky Sports coined the phrase, and the crowd was up by 600 from the last home game to a bumper 2800. City moved up the table, above Cardiff and Swansea, level on points with Newport and having two games in hand. This looked like it, survival! Three wins, each more convincing than the last – a first home win since early October, and on the back of winning 2-0 at the league leaders. Confidence must have been sky-high, especially as Swansea were blown away.
The ball is described as pinging from one City player to another as if it were a pinball machine, not a game of football. City led on 18 minutes, a Gamble cross flicked on by McInnes for Phil Turner to half-volley home. On 51 minutes, it was 2-0, a McInnes corner flicked on by West this time, for Gamble to stab home. The youngster was on fire in terms of goal contributions, and missed a chance for a third from 12 yards out not long after.
Swinburne pulled off some good saves before being beaten with a header after a Gary Emmanuel corner – he was a player City had been linked with pre-season. At 2-1, the scoreline looked dangerous, but the Imps went up and bagged another. Mair broke down the flank and crossed for Gamble who slammed home a second. “If Willie thinks that was a good performance, he can think again'” blasted Kerr, who might have needed lessons in man management. “He is a player who will always score goals but he missed two easy chances and I’m not satisfied with that.” The motivational tactics didn’t work – Gamble wouldn’t score again until the final game of the season. City would though – Mair got one on 81 minutes, playing in McInnes and then getting into the box to finish the move.
“We are definitely looking a lot more confident,” said Peter Daniel, the skipper returning from injury. “There’s some light at the end of the tunnel now.”
Was there light? Sadly, no. Mick Waitt, later to help us to promotion from the GMVC, helped us towards relegation with a brace in the next home game as we were beaten 2-0 by Notts County. Still, by April 1st we climbed out of the bottom four, but it was a false dawn – defeats against Derby (1-0) and Plymouth (1-0) sent us back into the relegation spots, and that is where we stayed. However, our fate was in our hands, but just two points from the final four games did for us. Draws against Wigan and Bristol Rovers were huge dropped points, and the schedule brought on by the postponed fixtures didn’t help.
In the end, we needed four points from two matches in three days against relegated Wolves and Cardiff – we lost both.
The new stand did get built, but not on the back of the Derby attendance – there were just over 6,000 there. The good news is the club didn’t fold, despite the dire situation we found ourselves in again (and again in 1998) and within ten months Mr Motivator Kerr was sacked.
That was the week that was March 1986.