Memory Match: Imps 3-3 Plymouth Argyle

I don’t always do a memory match for an upcoming opponent, but for Plymouth, I’ve been waiting.

For those who don’t know, I do feel my support of Lincoln City was fated, it was in the stars. It’s mad, I don’t believe in that sort of thing, but on November 18th, 1978, something remarkable happened. The Imps played Plymouth at Sincil Bank in Colin Murphy’s first game in charge. It was the start of a new era, a changing of the times after the disastrous spells of George Kerr and Willie Bell. Meanwhile, in Lincoln County Hospital, a young lady called Shirley Hutchinson was busy pushing out a little ginger baby. Me.

Ok, so that’s not unusual, we were almost all born within days of a Lincoln City game, and to be fair, I didn’t creep out until November 19th. However, the referee on that November 18th afternoon was a Mr David Hutchinson. Coincidence? Sure, maybe. How about this then – his home village was Bourn (not Bourne), a little hamlet near Papworth Everard in Cambridgeshire that would later become the sprawling new build town of Cambourne. The same Cambourne my wife-to-be lived in when we met, and the only place outside of Lincolnshire I’ve ever lived.

It was a sign. Like the North Star at Christmas. There was never a choice. My Granddad was an Imp. My Dad was an Imp. The cosmic world sent a strong message that afternoon that I too would be an Imp. The only thing that is missing were three wise men visiting because I’ve gone through the list of male relatives who would have made the trip and I’m pretty sure only one of them could be described as wise, at a push.

Literally, next to the match report was the announcement of my birth. Even in 1978, Lincoln City and my name were appearing together in print. If I’d actually been any good at football, it might have been a real sign! Anyway, why have I told you that? Because it means I’ve always had a fascination with this game, and now the British Newspaper Library has included 1978 in its online collection, I can finally write about it in detail. So, after a wasted 400 words of self-indulgence, here is today’s memory match.

The early part of 1978 wasn’t a good time to be a City fan. Graham Taylor had taken the team into Division Three in 1976, but a year later departed for Watford, a club that could match his ambition. Even back then, media celebrities were backing relatively small clubs – at the time the Hornets had experienced a couple of seasons in the Second Division, but far fewer than us. Taylor went, and got them into the First Division in six years, whilst we were left with George Kerr, who looked to be getting us relegated in a single campaign. He was sacked, Willie Bell came in and steadied the ship, before also tanking in his second season. By November 18th, Lincoln City were 24th in Division Three, and even with Murphy coming in, we wouldn’t rise any higher than 23rd all season.

Yep, it was that bad.

As the first day of a new dawn, there was surely an air of expectation. Murph was warmly welcomed, but came with little experience, having been briefly manager of Derby County and stepping out of the assistant role at Notts County to take our hot seat.

The Imps lineup was a mixture of old favourites and future legends, with a peppering of others for good measure. One name on the teamsheet which might not have meant much to Plymouth supporters at the time was Tommy Tynan. He was the Imps’ record signing at £33,000, around £160,000 today accounting for inflation. He had bagged 31 goals in 91 outings for Sheffield Wednesday, and featured on the inside of the programme. “He says he is very happy at Lincoln,” said the notes. “His ambition is to be successful and (he) looks forward to many goals and a revival in the club’s fortunes”.  Six games later, he’d be gone.

The line-up on that afternoon was Ian Turner, Brendan Guest, Dennis Leigh, John Fleming, Mick Smith, Terry Cooper, Gordon Hobson, John Ward, Tommy Tynan, Graham Watson, Alan Harding, and Phil Neale as the only sub. In the Plymouth side were future Imps assistant George Foster, future Imps midfielder Gary Megson and Barry Silkman who would later play for Manchester City and be named as one of the most influential football agents of the 2000s.

With one win in 17 matches, that coming on the first day of the season, it wasn’t as if anyone really expected much. We had six points, with the team second from bottom having 12. Plymouth, in the heady heights of eighth, had 19. We were awful, but this was a new dawn. Could the Imps, with nine goals scored and 33 conceded, actually come up on the right side of the result? 3444 supporters certainly felt they could.

An early goal quickly suggested not. Loan keeper Ian Turner, an FA Cup winner with Southampton just two years early, couldn’t get near a 20-yard Keith Fear effort, and the Imps trailed with barely ten minutes on the clock. Maurice Burton describes the visitors as looking ‘a cut above’ as they moved the ball about nicely. The Imps, without a home goal since September 29th, looked at sea under their new manager, and perhaps fans would have feared the worst. Fear, feared? No? I’ll carry on.

City got back into the game in a bizarre fashion. John Ward was bundled over in the area by Colin Clarke (who would later manage Puerto Rico), and David Hutchinson awarded a penalty. Clive Wigginton was the usual taker, but in his absence, John Fleming stepped up. Hutchinson blew his whistle, but Plymouth stopper Trevor Burns was standing against a post. However, having been given the go-ahead, Fleming stroked the ball into the empty net, only for the ref to disallow the penalty and order a retake. It was the wrong decision, the whistle had been blown, but the goal was chalked off. The Echo report suggests this was the moment the referee lost control of the game, but by losing control, it meant we got two bookings in a clean game. Imagine, two bookings being the benchmark for a dirty encounter. Anyway, Fleming dutifully stepped up again, only this time Burns got a hand to the ball. It wasn’t enough, it still crossed the line, and City were up and running.

The goal signalled a change in the Imps’ approach and driven on by the crowd, they began to attack. I say ‘they’ when I usually say ‘we’, because not being born really doesn’t give me the right to say ‘we’, does it? I don’t know. Whether it is we or they, there was almost a second penalty not long after – Ward was pushed over in the area again, only for the referee to wave away the protests. Hobson then got on the ball, jinxing past two defenders and heading towards Burns in the net. He was stopped by a rather crude challenge by George Foster, and the Imps were awarded another spot-kick. This time, Burns didn’t get a hand on the ball, he went the wrong way and the Imps were 2-1 up. It was the first time they had led in a game since August 26th, in their (our) first meeting with Plymouth.

Leading at half time was huge for City at the time, but leading by two goals? Unheard of. However, on 57 minutes, that’s exactly what happened. A big free-kick into the area was cleared, but only as far as Guest, who tried his luck from distance. His effort cannoned off a defender and fell at the feet of a young Hobson, who slammed a ‘fierce shot’ into the roof of the net, giving Burns no chance. The Imps led 3-1, and the deficit at the bottom of the table looked like being cut to ‘just’ four points.

It stayed 3-1 to the Imps until the 80th minute, when a bouncing ball caught Terry Cooper out in the area. It hit his arm, and Hutchinson had no hesitation in pointing to the spot. Fred Binney stood facing Turner in the City net, and notched one of his 39 Plymouth goals with consummate ease to make it 3-2. Or so he thought – Hutchinson had other ideas. Again, he ordered a retake as Silkman had been standing in the box, so Sincil Bank saw the fifth penalty of the game as a result. The outcome was the same, Binney bagged. 3-2 it was.

The Imps had just ten minutes to hold on and experience the new manager bounce, but holding on wasn’t the exact intention. John Ward broke through the defence and slotted an effort beyond Burns, only for the keeper to get the merest of touches to send it wide. It was a moment the Imps were to rue, but not before 90 minutes passed. No board went up, as that wasn’t the thing in 1978. Instead, the ref was to add on an undetermined number of minutes for fans to enjoy or endure. Hutchinson added on at least three, which was a little unusual.

The ball found its way into the Imps penalty area, and instead of a big boot, we dallied. “I can’t see any defence in which George Peden, for example, was a member ever letting the ball linger that long in such a vital match,” wrote Maurice Burton. Linger it did, and that allow Clarke to smash home the late, late leveller. Within moments, Hutchinson brought the game to a close at 3-3.

“As the player trooped off and the fans left the ground, a couple of angry City supporters demonstrated bitterly in front of me in the press box,” added Burton. “This is not the first time it has happened this season, but there was a difference. Their anger was aimed at referee David Hutchinson, from Cambridge, and not the City players.” There’s something almost poetic in the fact the person I have often cited as a signal of my lifelong destiny to be a City supporter was probably given a rousing round of f*cks as he left the field, whilst just ten miles away, my Mum was gearing up to give the same level of an expletive to me as I squeezed into the world.

Despite the point, the Imps won just one of the next 15 league and cup matches, including a run of results that saw us lose 2-0 away for four matches in a row, 6-0 at Swindon, 5-1 at Chester and 4-1 at Walsall. In today’s era, Murphy would have been subjected to unimaginable levels of abuse. By March 13th were had a goal difference of -44, and were 15 points from safety. In the three points for a win era, we’d have been 19 points adrift of safety. We’d been relegation fodder since August, and in the bottom two for almost all of the miserable campaign.

That was the week I was born, a challenging game, a disappointing referee, and ultimately, a miserable season. I bet fans thought it couldn’t get any worse, but by the time I attended my first game we’d been promoted, been within touching distance of the Second Division, been relegated, and were then well on our way to being the first team relegated out of the Football League automatically. Never a dull moment.

well, I say that, but given the 0-0 draws we’ve had this season, perhaps there are a few dull moments.