In their first season back in Division Four after three years in the third tier Lincoln City in manager Colin Murphy’s first full season as manager had never quite been able to sustain a promotion challenge, finishing the 1979/80 season in seventh place, writes Malcolm Johnson.
Part of this was probably due to the continued rebuilding of the team carried out by the manager with several changes of personnel during mid-season. This included twice breaking the club’s transfer fee record with the purchase of striker Derek Bell and then midfielder George Shipley with both funded by the record sale of Glenn Cockerill to Swindon Town.
With other arrivals and departures during the season and the departure early in the summer of full back Brendan Guest and young centre half Tony Loxley there were now only four players left from before Murphy’s arrival at the club in November 1978. Consequently, there was very little activity on the transfer front during the close season of 1980. Initially, along with Guest, the only other departure was 21-year-old right winger Aiden McKenzie who after joining from Galway Rovers in December had made just a handful of appearances and now returned across the Irish Sea to sign for Finn Harps.
The only position in the squad that needed strengthening was in goal with the departure of Peter Grotier in December having the left the Imps without a senior keeper. This had been remedied by the three and a half months loan signing of Eric McManus from Stoke City, but he had been recalled by the Potteries club in mid-April with 19-year-old reserve Kevin Fox playing in the last four games of the season. With seemingly little prospect of signing McManus permanently and Fox seen as not yet ready for regular first team football Colin Murphy looked to a player he had worked with in his days at Derby County. This was the vastly experienced Colin Boulton who had played almost 350 games for the Rams along with twice winning the Football League Championship with them. Now aged 34, he had spent the last couple of years playing in America and arrived at Lincoln from Los Angeles Aztecs. In contrast to other goalkeepers, Murphy had enquired about Boulton’s signing had the advantage that he would not cost City a transfer fee. The player had been close to signing for Second Division side Charlton Athletic but decided instead to join a club nearer his home in the Derby area. With the persuasive powers of Colin Murphy also a factor, Boulton arrived saying he had come to Lincoln to win promotion.
After opening their pre-season training the year before with a visit to an army camp this time it was the turn of the air force as four days were spent at RAF Church Fenton. During their stay the Imps played a game against the airmen, winning 7-0 with goals from Mick Harford(3), David Carr, Gordon Hobson, Derek Bell and George Shipley. While there, they also played a friendly against newly-promoted top division side Sunderland who fielded most of their star players, including recent £160,000 signing from Bolton Wanderers, centre half Sam Allardyce. With Gordon Hobson unfit Tony Cunningham partnered Derek Bell up front as City started the game with Mick Harford partnering end-of-season signing Steve Thompson in midfield before the big defender had to move back to centre half after Trevor Peake had to go off with a strain. After going a goal down, the Imps came back when Cunningham won and converted a penalty then laid on the winner for Bell.
The first public friendly match saw Scottish second tier side Raith Rovers visit Sincil Bank towards the end of July. With Trevor Peake joining Gordon Hobson on the injured list John Saunders came in at centre half with David Hughes replacing Steve Thompson who dropped to the bench. Just 651 spectators turned up to see left back Nolan Keeley head the Imps into an early lead only for the Scottish part-timers to equalise before half time. The second half was rather disrupted by substitutions from both sides, which included Steve Thompson making his Sincil Bank debut in defence and making what were described as “one or two crunching tackles”.
The attendance for the Raith Rovers friendly was more or less doubled three days later for the visit of Grimsby Town in a Lincolnshire Cup group match switched to Sincil Bank due to ground safety work taking place at Blundell Park. For the game against the previous season’s Third Division champions Steve Thompson started in defence in place of Saunders while Gordon Hobson came in for his first pre-season game with Derek Bell on the bench. Against a side packed with past and future Lincoln players and managed by ex-boss George Kerr the Imps turned in a dominant performance to win thanks to a first half goal from Tony Cunningham.
The annual visit to Sleaford Town in the Sleaford Invitation Cup then took place with the fielding of a largely reserve side apart from the presence of Derek Bell and John Saunders. Sleaford took an early lead before the youthful City side took control and ran out 8-1 winners with a goal from David Gilbert, a hat-trick for Craig Ramsay, and two each for Stuart Hibberd and Bell.
Scunthorpe United were then the visitors in the Lincolnshire Cup, with the return of Trevor Peake in place of Steve Thompson the only change from the Grimsby game. A crowd of around 1,100 saw City lead 2-0 at the break through a header from Mick Harford and a Tony Cunningham penalty before a ragged second half display allowed the visitors to pull a goal back through later Imps player Steve Cammack. However, the eventual 2-1 win saw the Imps through to the final where they would face Grantham.
Two players leaving the club were centre half John Saunders who had done a good job alongside Trevor Peake in the earlier part of the previous season but who had really been surplus to requirements since the signing of Steve Thompson. He joined Doncaster Rovers on a free transfer, while also leaving was young goalkeeper Kevin Rose who had been signed with high hopes from non-league Ledbury Town. Not really having made the grade with City, and with the 17-year-old Stuart Naylor having signed professional forms during the summer, Rose was also seen as surplus to requirements and returned to the West Midlands club for a fee said to be less than City had paid for him a year ago.
The final pre-season match saw a visit to Boston FC the following Monday night with a line-up unchanged from the Scunthorpe game. With City rather coasting through the first half and the part-timers raising their game Boston took the lead early in the second half only for City to equalise a minute later through Tony Cunningham. Still not finding it easy against a tough-tackling side, and with Gordon Hobson having to limp off with an ankle injury the Imps however won the game with another goal from Cunningham after he intercepted a back pass.
Off the field (or strictly speaking, not) there was news of the appointment of a new groundsman at Sincil Bank. This was 41-year-old Barry Clements, a long-standing supporter of the Imps who had previously been carrying out various jobs at the ground on a voluntary basis.
With the start of the season now at hand, Maurice Burton in the Echo expressed the opinion that the Imps squad looked well equipped for a promotion challenge, pointing out that if the close season had been a quiet one on the transfer front it was because Colin Murphy had brought in the players he wanted during the course of the previous season. Nationally speaking, the Imps were also being tipped to have a good season with two out of Football Magazine’s three experts predicting promotion, including the ubiquitous football writer Tony Pullein, who forecast they would finish in the top spot with his belief that the partnership of Tony Cunningham and Mick Harford could prove to be “something of a sensation” in the Fourth Division.
Before the league season got underway however, there were as usual the two legs of the League Cup first round tie to be played. Opponents Hull City had narrowly avoided relegation from Division Three the previous season after several years as a second-tier side, while added interest in the tie came from the presence in their side of former Imps favourite Dennis Booth who had joined them from Watford in the summer. Players making their debut for the Imps in the game at Sincil Bank were goalkeeper Colin Boulton and Steve Thompson, with the latter appearing in midfield as Colin Murphy opted not to disturb the established centre back pairing of Trevor Peake and David Carr. Trevor Thompson at right back was partnered by Nolan Keeley who although normally a midfielder had slotted in well on the left to for once give no need to sign a left back on loan to cover for the absence of Phil Neale on cricketing duties. Alongside Steve Thompson were George Shipley and the 18-year-old Phil Turner while further forward was Mick Harford playing behind the front two. With Gordon Hobson missing due to the injury sustained at Boston Derek Bell partnered Tony Cunningham with young striker Craig Ramsay on the bench.
The match programme for the new season followed the now usual two-year cycle of a reduction in the number of pages being a consequence of the price remaining at 20p.
After an even first half the Imps ran riot after the break with a sensational performance, and after scoring five goals in the last game of the previous season, repeated the feat against Hull this time without reply. Big Mick Harford was in unstoppable form with a hat-trick, with further goals from Derek Bell and George Shipley. A disconsolate Dennis Booth left the field in the second half, substituted by later Imps loanee and future England manager Steve McClaren making just his second first team appearance.
The attendance at Sincil Bank had been a slightly disappointing 3,538 but fewer than three thousand bothered to turn out for the second leg at Boothferry Park – a record low for the ground. Not surprisingly, City fielded an unchanged side other than midfielder David Hughes replacing Craig Ramsay on the subs’ bench. In contrast, Hull made two changes in defence and one up front as manager Mike Smith apologised to supporters for their first leg display. However, it made little difference as a hard-working City performance saw then come out on top again. With Derek Bell having to be replaced at half time due to an ankle injury Mick Harford was moved up front and helped himself to two more goals. City in fact could have rubbed it in with a third goal but Tony Cunningham saw his last-minute penalty saved by Hull keeper Tony Norman
The following Saturday saw the start of the Football League season with the visit of Peterborough United to Sincil Bank. In his programme notes Colin Murphy commented that there was “a great deal of enthusiasm and optimism in the club in this present time” and whimsically suggested this may have had something to do with the recent births of children to club secretary John Sorby and left back Nolan Keeley.
Having ended the last season with an unbeaten run of 12 matches extended by the two good victories against Hull City there was an air of optimism among supporters with an attendance up by around 1600 over the week before. Unfortunately, City were not at their best, as Colin Murphy admitted after the match, and the line-up that finished the previous match against Hull traded goals in the first half with an unadventurous Peterborough side, another goal from Mick Harford cancelling out one by former Grantham striker Robbie Cooke. Even so, City might have done better when just before the hour mark Steve Thompson, charging through the Peterborough defence was pulled down by the goalkeeper for an obvious penalty. Unfortunately, an unhappy-looking Tony Cunningham saw his spot kick saved for the second game in a row.
City then made up for the loss of a home point (this was the last season of two points for a win) by making a three-day midweek trip to Torquay and after an overnight stay coming away with a 2-1 win. With Hobson and Bell both still side-lined the only change to the line-up was the presence on the subs’ bench of young defender or striker Gerard Creane. In a literally bruising battle with the Devon side City produced what Colin Murphy described as the best away performance since he became manager. Mick Harford continued his sensational start to the season, scoring both City goals to give him eight from four matches – twice as many as any other player in the whole of the Football League.
City then built on the midweek win with a victory over Wigan Athletic at Sincil Bank to move into the fourth promotion place one point behind leaders Southend who had won all their first three games. Disappointingly the gate was over a thousand down on the previous Saturday which could only partly be explained by the visitors being from further away. David Hughes was dropped to the bench with Mick Harford reverting to his deeper role as Gordon Hobson was now fit to take his place in the side. Hobson it was who set City on the way to victory with a first half goal as Tony Cunningham also opened his scoring account ten minutes from time to seal the win over an uninspiring Wigan side.
It was now time for the second round of the League Cup, and with City having reached that stage for the first time in three seasons it was their first experience of the round being played over two legs which had been introduced the previous year. The Imps had drawn another Third Division club with the visit in the first leg of Swindon Town who had reached the semi-finals of the competition in the previous season along with having actually won the League Cup eleven years before. They were currently lying bottom of their division after losing all three of their league matches so far but the Imps found them a tougher nut to crack than Hull had been. The attendance at Sincil Bank was up by a thousand on the previous Saturday’s game but anyone hoping to see former Imp Glenn Cockerill in the Robins’ side would have been disappointed as he missed the game through injury. It had been hoped Derek Bell would be fit to return to the squad for City but he was still missing so Craig Ramsay returned on the bench in place of David Hughes. The difference in status was evident in the first half with Swindon looking faster and more skilful but also not very adventurous resulting in the scores being level at the break. However, three minutes into the second half Colin Boulton failed to deal with a long throw-in and defender Andy Rollings headed Swindon in front. City were back on terms though midway through the half when a penalty was awarded for hands. After two failed attempts in the five games so far Tony Cunningham was now taken off penalty duties and George Shipley stepped up to make no mistake with his first goal of the season.
Before the second leg of the League Cup tie there was what would turn out to be an eventful match with a visit to Crewe. The Alexandra were at a very low ebb in their history and the current season was to be the only one in a run of five seasons in which they didn’t finish in the bottom two places of the Football League. They had won one of their three games so far and were currently 18th in the early league table. City were without Tony Cunningham for the game as he joined Derek Bell on the injured list after damaging knee ligaments against Swindon. Mick Harford therefore reverted once again to a striking role with David Hughes coming into the midfield. Steve Thompson set Gordon Hobson up to give City the lead midway through the first half but the Imps were up against it 13 minutes later when Colin Boulton had to be carried off with a badly broken leg which would prove to end the 34-year-old’s career. Craig Ramsay came on as substitute to play up front with Mick Harford dropping back into midfield as Steve Thompson was the man taking Boulton’s place in goal with almost an hour of the match to play.
Things were stacked even more against the Imps when David Hughes was sent off ten minutes into the second half for a second bookable offence. But the ten men ran themselves into the ground to protect their stand-in goalkeeper, and when Steve Thompson, looking “a gigantic figure in the green jersey” as Maurice Burton put it, was called into action he was “so decisive with his punching that friend and foe were in danger of being knocked cold by flying fists”. But with just over 20 minutes to go City were gifted a second goal when defender Colin Prophett managed to return a short goal kick past the keeper and into his own net. The hapless home side were then well beaten when Hobson fired the ball home eight minutes later and in fact the striker could have had his hat-trick only to be foiled when in a one-on-one with experienced Crewe goalkeeper Ken Mulhearn late on.
As leaders Southend had seen their game at Northampton the night before abandoned due to floodlight failure the win at Crewe saw the Imps go top of the table