As we welcome Port Vale to the Bank this weekend, I thought I’d do another memory match, this time from 1984.
There are periods in the Imps history that exist as a staging post for what was to come, or what went before. We talk plenty about the early eighties, the Colin Murphy and Gilbert Blades saga, Fulham away and all that. We talk about Keith’s era, we talk about John Beck, and we talk about 1976. However, there are then non-seasons that barely warrant a mention – 1999/00, 1977/78, 2007/08. For every big headline season, there’s just a run of 46 games where fans got bored, where little happened, and which often gets overlooked in the annals of history.
1983/84, to coin a phrase from The Mary Whitehouse Experience, that’s you, that is.
By the time Saturday, May 12th 1984 came around, City’s season was done and had been for some time. We went into the game in 14th, 58 points from 45 matches, and as there were no play-offs, we were 22 points behind the final promotion spot. Relegation had been a slight fear, but by the time Port Vale rolled into town, we sat 13 points clear of the final spot, occupied by Scunthorpe United. Port Vale, sadly, did not – they were second from bottom with 40 points and consigned to Fourth Division football the following season.
Going into the game, David Felgate was given the Player of the Season award, and when a keeper gets Player of the Year, it probably tells you all you need to know. This wasn’t a massively strong Third Division – Oxford, Wimbledon and Sheffield United went up, the latter having paid us £120,000 for Glenn Cockerill in March. Cockerill had been the subject of a similar bid from Everton earlier in the season, this just before the Toffeemen hit the peak of their powers. In fairness, Oxford and Wimbledon would continue their trajectory into the top flight, but as we’d been promotion contenders the two seasons prior, this was a backward step, not progress.
With just one win in 11, City were not in form. The leading scorers were Ross Jack on 10 from 34 starts, and John Thomas on 11 from just 18 starts, albeit with thirty appearances in total. Home wins had been at a premium, just two since February 2nd, which led to a low home crowd of 1,372, the poorest of the season. It’s fair to say, despite having a few decent players, this was not a great time to be an Imp. Boy, if they thought this was bad, they should try 1985, 1986 and 1987.
Anyway, City lined up David Felgate, Alan Webb, Gordon Simmonite, Marshall Burke, Alan Walker, Gary Strodder, Neil Redfearn, Chris Moyses, Gordon Hobson, John Thomas and George Shipley, with Phil Turner on the bench. It was Chris Moyses’ first Sincil Bank start, and on-loan West Brom man Alan Webb would sign for Port Vale in the summer, winning their Player of the Year in 1985 and helping them to promotion in 1986.
City started brightly, with Thomas missing an open goal in the first minute. The former Everton man then opened the scoring for City when a shot cannoned back off a Vale defender, presenting him with a chance to rifle past keeper Barry Siddall for 1-0. He didn’t miss this time.
Vale, already doomed to the drop remember, fought back and were level within four minutes. Martin Henderson, a Scot who was winding down his career and finished at Bourne Town, crossed for a young Mark Bright to score. Bright, a Stoke native who came through the Port Vale youth ranks, would go on to make his name with Crystal Palace, before playing regularly for Sheffield Wednesday in the Premier League.
Despite being a dead rubber for both teams, there was plenty of action, and it was Port Vale who struck next. Just six minutes after the break, Henderson again created problems with a neat flick after Bright’s ball, which set Terry Armstrong free. Armstrong, later jailed for offences that included painting offensive graffiti on a motorway bridge, broke through and scored to give the Valiants hope for their second away win of the season.
It was not to be. City did still have some quality left over from Murphy’s promotion chasers, and George Shipley got us moving again. His stinging drive brought a save from Siddall as City knocked at the door. Moments after, a deep free-kick caused panic in the area, and Thomas poked home his second of the game to make it 2-2. It took his tally to an unlucky 13, but only for a short while.
Five minutes after the leveller, Russell Bromage shoved over Burke in the area, and referee George Courtney, in his final game of the season before heading off to the Euros, pointed to the spot. Courtney was a big-name official, as England’s representative at the 1984 European Championships, he refereed the Semi Final between Denmark and Spain, and he got the 1986 World Cup third-place play-off. John Thomas, who did not go to a World Cup, netted to complete his hat trick.
The game finished 3-2, pushing Thomas onto 14 goals, a total that has only been matched in the third tier by Tyler Walker since. It might not have been the case – Felgate earned his Player of the Year accolade with saves from Steve Fox, Phil Sproson and Kevin Young before the game was up.
Sincil Bank wasn’t finished – the very next day, a game took place against Sheffield United, eagerly waiting on confirmation of their own promotion. Only 552 turned up for the encounter, in aid of the British Olympic Appeal, and they saw an adaptation of US soccer rules where a line crossed the pitch after which players could not be offside. Phil Turner scored twice, with Thomas adding a third in a 3-3 draw. Gary Strodder sliced a lat own goal to level for the Blades, with Glenn Cockerill appearing for his new club. Fans must have found that frustrating, as in four games against the Blades (FA Cup, FA Cup replay and league), we had failed to score a single goal.
They went up, Port Vale went down, and for a season at least, we went nowhere. However, the Murphy dynasty was breaking up. Within a year, hat trick hero Thomas was off to Preston North End (and not happily either) whilst Murphy would be gone, Shipley, Thompson and Hobson as well, and the Imps would have a date with the GMVC heading their way.