Memory Match: Imps v Shrewsbury, 1994

When one thinks of big matches against Shrewsbury, it’s hard not to think of the Wembley win (on the positive side) or the 5-1 thumping in our relegation season (on the negative side).

I always had a soft spot for Gay Meadow and recall us winning there in consecutive seasons after the Shrews bounced back into the Football League. However, one game there on a chilly evening in March 1994 saw the birth of a player who, to this date, has to be our most successful academy graduate. That player was Darren Huckerby.

Hucks moved for fees of around £11m combined, playing for Newcastle, Coventry, Leeds, Norwich, and Manchester City. He won the Championship twice, played for England B, and spent some of his twilight years appearing in MLS. He was a livewire forward with bags of pace and confidence, and it all began in Shropshire in 1994, courtesy of Keith Alexander.

City went to Shrewsbury 18th in the table out of 22. It had been a challenging season –  a season that saw us play Everton in the Coca-Cola Cup, and host Bolton in the FA Cup, had promised much. Sadly, in the league, the form had been erratic, but Keith’s side had put in some spirited performances. The Saturday before the Shrewsbury clash, we lost 2-0 at Preston North End on their plastic pitch but deserved so much more. In the first half, two Magic Johnson chances, and a Neil Matthews effort could have given the Imps the lead. Instead, 25 seconds after the restart, a player named in the report as Gary (!) Ainsworth provided a cross for the home team to take the lead. Ainsworth provided the next assist as well, for Paul Raynor to score. City couldn’t even get the consolation the performance deserved, with Tony Loughlan smashing the ball against the bar late on.

It felt harsh on the Imps, in the grip of an injury crisis. Dean West, Matt Carbon, Nicky Platnauer, and David Puttnam were all long-term absentees, whilst striker Tony Daws (just two matches into his £50,000 move) and midfielder Loughlan missed out against Salop after picking up knocks against Preston. David Ridings was certain of a start following his arrival from Halifax and debut at Deepdale, whilst loanee David Campbell, a one-time World Cup player with Northern Ireland, would likely start on the bench as his loan spell came to an end. Lee Hirst wouldn’t feature; he returned to Coventry City, so alongside Campbell on the bench would be a young Huckerby, raising eyebrows in the youth team with his prolific eye for goal.

It was going to be no easy test. Preston had lost just two in 14 at home, but Shrewsbury were second in the table, unbeaten in 15 matches. City had recent success –  a 3-1 win against Hereford just days before the Preston game had staved off any lingering doubts about finishing bottom, and new faces Ridings, Daws, and Alan Johnson had all impressed.

The game wasn’t a classic – there were only four shots on target, two for each team. However, that is a testament to the Imps application more than anything – Shrewsbury would eventually win the title with 79 points, and their home fans expected nothing less than a victory. 4,706 turned up to roar them on, which felt like a lot more in the tightly-packed old ground. They didn’t have a lot to cheer in the first half – leading scorer Dean Spink barely had a sniff, and with veteran Wayne Clarke missing, they couldn’t trouble the Imps. Alan Johnson had been forced into the left back role through injuries, but was described as ‘no-nonsense’ and ‘growing in stature’ by Echo reporter David Garlant.

Hunting only the fourth away win of the season, the Imps kept things tight and finally got a breakthrough in the 64th minute. The goal was overshadowed by what came after, but that’s doing David Hill a huge disservice; he rifled in a crashing drive from outside the area to give the away supporters something to celebrate. Perhaps, had the chant ‘we’re not going down and we’re not going up’ been a thing back then, the handful of Imps who made the journey would have chanted it. David Ridings, a player very much maligned by supporters who remember his spell, created the goal and perhaps had one of his best performances in City colours. He had fired over in the first half, and was described as really ‘catching the eye’.

Not long after, the hosts were level. They’d pulled back a two-goal deficit on the Saturday before, and when David Walton powered home Mark Taylor’s corner to level proceedings, there seemed like there would only be one winner. Dean Spink had only just failed to get on the end of a Michael Brown cross moments earlier, as the pressure increased in Shropshire. City were on the ropes, not in a manner of ‘constant pressure’, but seeing the game slowly begin to ebb away from them.

Cometh the hour, cometh the man. Or I should say, cometh the 79th minute, cometh off David Johnson. In his place, a young Darren Huckerby, thrown into the fray to cause a bit of mischief. Mischief he caused, because, on 84 minutes, he grabbed the Imps winner as the drizzle set in.

“It was all a bit last minute at Shrewsbury,” said Huckerby in his book, Hucks. “I thought I was travelling to make teas and stuff like that, but they told me at short notice that I was in. This was before anyone had a mobile phone, too, so I couldn’t ring my Dad or Uncle Ralph and tell them to get in the car. That was a real pity because they missed my first goal. With fifteen minutes to go, and the score one all, I was thrown on, and I got the winner. It was a decent strike, too. Someone played a through ball; I took it down first touch, went past the defender on the right and smacked it into the far corner.”

The someone who played the through ball was Imps favourite Paul Smith, playing at right back. His ball dropped over Mark Williams’ head, and Huckerby had anticipated it would. The player he beat was goalscorer Walton, left for dead by the young legs of the striker. His shot rattled in off the far post to give the Imps the lead once again. Whereas Shrewsbury had an answer to the Imps opener, there was no such joy for them in the six minutes that remained and the Imps held on for a massive result, but one that perhaps few leaving the ground would believe could warrant an article of it’s own almost thirty years later.

Whilst a star was born that night, an era was not. The Imps may have toppled the Champions-elect, but it was a brief respite in a torrid season. Keith’s team picked up just two wins from the next 12, 10 points from 36, to finish 18th, a full 20 points outside the top seven.

Keith left the club, Sam Ellis came in, and as a result, Huckerby didn’t kick a ball in the first team between May 1995 and April 1995. In November 1995, Newcastle United paid us £400,000 for him, and the rest is history.