The visit to Swindon for the second leg of the League Cup tie now took place with the home side still rooted to the foot of their division with zero points. With Colin Boulton facing the rest of the season out of action due to his broken leg young reserve Kevin Fox came into the side having played in the last four games of the previous season. Colin Murphy, however, made it clear the club would be looking to bring in a replacement for Boulton, “I have spent 18 months working to get us to the top of the Fourth Division, and I don’t intend to let it fall by not having a reliable goalkeeper”.
With David Hughes suspended following his sending-off at Crewe there was a possibility of Phil Neale making a rapid return to the side from playing cricket, but with no guarantee that Worcestershire’s current game would finish in time for him to get to Swindon he had to cry off. With Tony Cunningham still out of action the good news was that Derek Bell was fit to play. He went straight into the starting line-up alongside Gordon Hobson up front with Mick Harford continuing behind them and Gerard Creane on the bench. Swindon, who included 16-year-old England Schoolboys international striker Paul Rideout on their bench, were the more aggressive side in the first half and scrambled the ball in from a corner not long after the break. In an attempt to change things round midway through the second half Colin Murphy switched David Carr into midfield in place of Steve Thompson but City were unable to manage a goal, and in the dying minutes Alan Mayes scored his second goal of the game to put City out of the cup by 3-1 on aggregate. As a reward, Swindon were paired with Liverpool in ther next round.
Murphy now wasted no time in bringing in a new goalkeeper, and although it was reported that Derby County had offered out-of-favour David McKellar on loan the new man turned out to be 20-year-old Welsh youth international David Felgate. Although only six months older than Kevin Fox, Felgate had made a total of over 60 appearances in spells with Rochdale (twice) and Crewe over the last two seasons on loan from parent club Bolton Wanderers. He arrived initially on loan for a month but with an agreement for him to later join City in a permanent transfer.
Other news on the goalkeeping front was that 17-year-old youth team keeper Stuart Naylor had been called into the England Under-18 squad for matches in a knockout competition taking place in Yugoslavia. He was to appear in one of the four matches played by England, a 1-0 defeat by Austria.
Awards for City at the end of the previous month had seen a first Manager of the Month award for Colin Murphy with a record of five wins and two draws in league and cup games, and Mick Harford being named Fourth Division Player of the Month by the magazine ’Match Weekly’.
City’s early-season success had not been going unnoticed, and there were reports that several clubs including Chelsea, Leeds United and Middlesbrough were checking on Gordon Hobson, while Third Division Chesterfield were said to be interested in Colin Murphy as their new manager to replace Arthur Cox who had joined Newcastle. Murphy himself said that as far as he was aware it was nothing more than speculation and no official approach had been made.
City had lost the leadership of the division to Southend who had won on the Friday night but they regained it with a comfortable 3-0 victory over visitors Halifax Town. Apart from the debut of David Felgate the team was that which had started at Crewe, with the return of David Hughes to midfield following his one-match suspension and Mick Harford once again switched up front as Derek Bell was left on the bench. After a dour first half City came alive after the break with the goals coming in the space of 11 minutes, the first two for Gordon Hobson to make it five goals in four games for him. The third goal saw Steve Thompson open his scoring account for the club, sending a 30-yard shot into the roof of the net.
Cricket matches had been staged at Sincil Bank in the past, but what was probably the first such game to be played under lights at the ground then took place with floodlit cricket starting to become popular. Starting at 7.30pm on the Tuesday with admission price of 50p, a game of 16 eight-ball overs was played between sides representing Lincoln and Scunthorpe with players chosen from the Lincolnshire League. The game was played on a matting wicket with a white ball and batsmen wearing black pads.
For the visit to a Stockport County side who had drawn four of their five matches to date City kept an unchanged line-up despite the return to fitness of Tony Cunningham and the availability of Phil Neale who had now returned from Worcestershire and scored the winning goal for the reserves in midweek.
Stockport included former Imp David Sunley whose three goals in nine games so far included two against top-flight club Sunderland who County had beaten over two legs in the League Cup including a win at Roker Park. Sunley, however, was kept quiet as was the old campaigner Les Bradd as a first half header by Mick Harford which hit the post was the nearest either side came to a goal, both seeming to settle for a point long before the end. City held on to top place in the table although having played a game more than Southend who were also involved in a goal-less draw. The positions were reversed though on the Monday night when the Shrimpers beat Peterborough leaving City faced with a tough game against third-placed Aldershot two days later to regain top spot.
The recent successes boosted the attendance at Sincil Bank to over four thousand for the first time since the visit of Peterborough but I was unable to be part of it due to the continued lack of a train in the Nottingham direction any later than 8.30pm. Changes were made to the line-up with Steve Thompson suffering from a groin strain so that meant Mick Harford was once again back in his deeper role as the fit-again Tony Cunningham got the nod up front ahead of Derek Bell, although this was not a popular selection among some supporters. Usually at this stage of the season people were eagerly awaiting the return at left back of Phil Neale from his cricketing duties, but for once, his stand-in, in this case Nolan Keeley had been doing such a good job that the former Scunthorpe midfielder continued in that role, with Neale taking Phil Turner’s place on the right of midfield.
Unfortunately, City chose the occasion to put on what Colin Murphy described as “an inept display” in the first half culminating in the Shots’ Colin Garwood intercepting a Keeley back pass to give the visitors the lead. Despite City’s best efforts, prompted by an energetic display in the last 20 minutes by sub’ Derek Bell they were unable to force an equaliser and ended an unbeaten run of 21 league games as well as suffering a first home defeat since the opening day of the previous season.
Pushed down into third place by Aldershot the Imps (and me) paid a first ever visit to Plough Lane to meet a Wimbledon side in their fourth season in the league, the two clubs having been in different divisions in the previous three. With Steve Thompson still unfit an unchanged line-up took the field against a Dons side managed by Colin Murphy’s former assistant at Derby County Dario Gradi and including former Imps, defender Mick Smith and centre forward Alan Cork who was two behind Mick Harford with six goals in the season so far. In the event, it was Gordon Hobson who equalled Cork’s tally, a rare left-foot volley from him being the only goal of the game in a competent Imps performance which saw a move back up to second place above Southend who had been beaten at Doncaster the previous night.
In his report Maurice Burton commented on the improvement over the Aldershot defeat being due to a change in mental outlook. Or as Colin Murphy put it, “The players came back from a tremendous verbal belting from the manager.”
Wimbledon’s match programme advertised the availability from the club of a video recording of the match which was likely the first time a City game was featured in this way. No price was given, but one wonders if any copy of it has survived.
In midweek Southend missed the chance to return to the top of the table when they lost their rearranged game at Northampton but they were overnight leaders going into the following Saturday’s games after thumping Hartlepool 4-0 on the Friday night. City however, missed the chance to go back above them when they were held at home by Scunthorpe and were down to third again.
Now with a fully-fit squad to choose from Steve Thompson returned to the midfield with Mick Harford moved up front once again as Tony Cunningham took Derek Bell’s place on the bench. Another four thousand-plus crowd saw Mick Harford’s ninth goal of the season give City an early lead before Scunthorpe equalised against the run of play just before half time. David Hughes volleyed City ahead again two minutes into the second half but not long afterwards Nolan Keeley diverted the ball into his own net to bring his old club level again and that was how the scores remained.
A tough game was then in prospect with a Tuesday night visit to league leaders Aldershot who had won four out of four at home so far without conceding a goal. However, City’s away record was pretty good with three wins and a draw, and they extended that unbeaten record with a goal-less draw as an unchanged line-up gave a competent performance. As Southend were beaten 5-2 at Peterborough the following night City were now back up to second place, two points behind Aldershot.
Southend, showing no ill effects from their heavy defeat nor from playing two games in three days were as usual at home on the Friday night and beat Mansfield to go above City again. To attempt to respond to that the Imps were faced with another visit to a top side making the short journey to a Doncaster side below them only on goal difference. Before that, however, there was news that terms had been agreed for the permanent signing of David Felgate for a sum of £25,000 when his loan period from Bolton ended the following week.
The blip of only one point from two home games was put right with the second 1-0 away win in a row. With David Hughes having recovered from a knock at Aldershot it was once again an unchanged twelve for the Imps as almost 10,000 turned out for the near top of the table clash at the old Belle Vue stadium. Although there was no change in personnel for the match a tactical switch for the Imps saw George Shipley moved to the right with Phil Neale on the left to use his defensive capabilities in order to counter a perceived threat by Doncaster’s speedy young right winger Daral Pugh and full back Billy Russell. After containing the home side for the first hour of the match City then went on the attack and were full value for the win gained through a Gordon Hobson goal seven minutes from the end.
With Aldershot being beaten at Hartlepool the Imps were back on top of the table on goal difference. They now embarked on a run of four home games out of six which Colin Murphy saw as a chance to put the club in “an unassailable position” in relation to remaining in the top four promotion places. First up was a visit from Rochdale, and while I couldn’t be there, it being on a Wednesday night, it seemed many others were put off by the rainswept conditions as the attendance was the lowest since the visit of Hull City. After Southend’s win and Aldershot’s draw the night before had pushed City down to third place they were back on top again and a point clear after a confident win against the Dale. It also opened up a four-point lead over fifth placed Hartlepool as City looked to increase the gap Colin Murphy was aiming for. The by now usual line-up swept into a 3-0 half time lead with another goal for Hobson and a first of the season for both Phil Neale and Trevor Peake and that remained the final score due to what Maurice Burton described as a combination of over-eagerness and complacency in the second half.
Immediately after the match the signing of David Felgate was completed with Colin Murphy thanking chairman Heneage Dove for the financial outlay in bringing the player to the club. In return he promised that he and his training staff would not rest until Felgate had played for Wales in international football.
Visitors the following Saturday were a York City side just outside the bottom four and who were on a run of four away defeats. Slightly disappointing was the attendance which although showing an increase on the Rochdale game was still only just above four thousand. Unchanged for the fifth match in a row, City took an early lead with Gordon Hobson’s ninth goal of the season which saw him draw level in the scoring stakes with Mick Harford. But it all went wrong midway through the second half when Harford was shown two yellow cards in the space of two minutes for elbowing York defender Derek Craig. Colin Murphy, although making the point that Harford had been on the end of some verbal and physical provocation, had no complaints about the dismissal saying he could not condone the player’s actions. In truth City had not been at their best even with eleven men on the field and it was no surprise that with a man down they could not prevent a York equaliser near the end. The point gained was enough to keep them above Aldershot who were also held at home but a 5-1 win for Southend at Halifax saw them go top again on goal difference.
Although Mick Harford’s suspension for the sending-off was for one league match it also meant he was unable to play in the final of the Lincolnshire Senior Cup against Grantham at Sincil Bank in midweek. Tony Cunningham took his place up front while for fitness reasons young reserves Stephen Ward and Gerard Creane were included in defence in place of Trevor Thompson and David Carr with Phil Turner in midfield in place of the other Thompson. In front of a crowd of just 734 the Imps ran out comfortable 3-0 winners with goals from Trevor Peake, Gordon Hobson and a George Shipley penalty. Rather outclassed, the nearest the Northern Premier League Gingerbreads came to a goal was a shot about a yard wide from striker Dennis Jenas, father of later Premier League footballer and TV presenter Jermaine Jenas.
The missing players were all fit again for the following Saturday’s visit to Hartlepool and with Tony Cunningham again in place of Mick Harford up front Derek Bell, who had replaced Gordon Hobson for most of the second half against Grantham was back in the squad as substitute.
I was doing pretty well for away matches having seen all the Saturday ones so far, and made a first ever trip to Hartlepool. Used to matches at Darlington, which seemed far enough, getting to Hartlepool seemed like travelling to the back of beyond. Unfortunately, it was a disappointing trip as City never got to grips with a determined Hartlepool side, falling a goal behind just before the break and then despite the introduction of Derek Bell in place of the injured David Hughes, being unable to respond to a second strike from the home side. The defeat was the first away from home in the league and put an end to a 12-match unbeaten run stretching back to the previous March.
Despite the setback of only gaining one point from the last two games City remained in second place ahead now of Peterborough who had moved above Aldershot, but now two points behind Southend who had beaten Scunthorpe the night before. Things were back on track the following Wednesday night with a visit to mid-table Bradford City. Mick Harford was now able to return to the side, but with Derek Bell suffering from knee ligament trouble following the Hartlepool game Tony Cunningham took his place on the bench. Also missing was Trevor Thompson with groin trouble which meant a place in the side for young Phil Turner at right back. At a rainswept Valley Parade the Imps were back on form, taking the lead late in the first half with Mick Harford’s tenth goal of the season. The points were effectively wrapped up when Phil Neale scored in the 86th minute although Bradford pulled a goal back with almost the last kick of the match in time added on because of some Imps’ time-wasting. Southend had won again on the Monday night and so retained their two-point lead at the top but with Peterborough and Aldershot both losing the Imps were now two points ahead of the Posh and three clear of fifth place.
Commenting on the fact that City were finding it easier to pick up points away from home – with five wins on their travels compared to just three at Sincil Bank, Colin Murphy put it down to the “negative or defensive football, or spoiling in midfield” employed by visiting teams. He pleaded for supporters not to get frustrated and went on to say “as a team, we shall never have a better chance to impress and please our own people than we have this week.” And he was right! – although there were once again only just over four thousand people at Sincil Bank for the Saturday visit of Northampton Town.
The Cobblers arrived on a run of four wins in a row culminating in a midweek victory over fourth-placed Aldershot, a run which had seen them rise from 23rd to 9th place in the table. With Trevor Thompson failing a fitness test Phil Turner continued at right back in an unchanged 12 for City. The Imps got off to a good start with Gordon Hobson lifting the ball over Northampton goalkeeper in the fifth-minute, and although the same player made it 2-0 just before the break repeated pressure by the visitors had given no indication of what was to follow as City proceeded to tear the heart out of Northampton with three goals in the first eight minutes of the second half. Mick Harford saw a shot deflected into the net before Hobson completed his hat-trick with a header and George Shipley put away a penalty to make the score 5-0 with only 53 minutes gone. With City now looking likely to score every time they went into attack, they did so nine minutes later through Mick Harford before Gordon Hobson intercepted a back pass to become the first City player to register four goals in a game since John Ward five years before. Northampton had to play out the last 13 minutes of the game with ten men when defender Paul Saunders had to go off injured with the Cobblers having already used their substitute. Tony Cunningham had come on for Steve Thompson, and when he was fouled in the last minute Shipley was able to complete the scoring with his second penalty of the match.
City had last managed eight goals in a game 14 years before against Luton Town, but 8-0 was the biggest winning margin since beating Blackburn by the same scoreline all the way back in 1953. Although it vastly improved their goal difference, they remained in second place as Southend had won away at lowly Darlington. The gap to Mansfield, up to third place after beating Peterborough in a ‘four-pointer’ now opened up to three points and there was a four-point cushion over the fifth-placed Posh. A chance to improve the position still further came the following Wednesday night with the visit of Tranmere, on the fringe of the promotion race. Being an evening game, I had to miss it but there were an extra six hundred present full of anticipation after the thrashing of Northampton.
After playing half of a reserve match the previous night Trevor Thompson was fit to return at full back with Phil Turner moving into midfield to partner David Hughes as Steve Thompson was left out of the squad as Colin Murphy opted to give him a rest. Employing a packed defence, the visitors kept City at bay until midway through the second half when Phil Neale prodded a loose ball home. Trevor Thompson then made sure of the points when he ran from the centre circle to finish with a ’goal of the season’ shot from 25 yards out. With Southend drawing at Crewe the Imps were now only one point behind them and although Mansfield and Aldershot both won a defeat for Peterborough opened up the gap to fifth place to six points.