Although unable to get to midweek home games at Sincil Bank I continued to make an effort in travelling to away matches, making a first-ever visit to Hereford United. The City squad was unchanged again as Colin Murphy continued to opt for Phil Turner’s greater mobility in midfield over the strength of Steve Thompson. On a poor pitch City found it hard going against a defensively minded Hereford side who were rooted to the bottom of the league, but in the last quarter hour of the match Phil Neale popped up to score his third and fourth goals in the last four matches to secure the points for the Imps. With Southend having won the night before there were no changes to the league placings with Hartlepool now having risen to fifth place after a thumping 6-2 win over Crewe.
An unexpected setback came the following Tuesday night with defeat at Spotland against a mid-table Rochdale side who had just been thrashed 4-1 at home by Mansfield. But a determined home side kept the once-again unchanged Imps at bay until the second half when they took advantage of a defensive mix-up to snatch the only goal of the game. Another win for Southend now put them three points ahead of Lincoln, while Hartlepool, in something of a purple patch beat Scunthorpe to reduce the cushion to fifth place to just four points.
City now had a chance to cut Southend’s lead with what Colin Murphy described as the biggest match since he had joined the club as the Shrimpers were the next visitors to Sincil Bank.
Southend were managed by Dave Smith who had taken an outstanding Mansfield Town side to the Fourth Division championship six years previously in the season which saw City finish fifth on goal average. He had then moved to Southend, taking them to promotion in 1978 and despite relegation after two seasons in the third tier had remained in charge and was now looking on course to emulate his Mansfield championship season with a side that featured, in Colin Murphy’s opinion, several players with “Second Division abilities”. These included current Northern Ireland international striker Derek Spence who had cost Southend £175,000 the previous season, former Watford striker Keith Mercer, ex-Sheffield Wednesday defender David Cusack and former West Ham midfielder Anton Otulakowski.
Once again there were no changes to the City line-up as over 7,200 supporters, the largest Sincil Bank crowd for over 18 months turned up to see a match that for once lived up to the billing as ‘the match of the season’. An early goal from Phil Neale, heading in a long clearance from goalkeeper David Felgate set City on the way with Gordon Hobson’s 14th goal of the season ten minutes into the second half setting them on the way to victory, although Southend pulled a goal back after an error by Felgate allowed Derek Spence to head into an empty net. However, City kept the visitors at bay with Hobson close to a second goal to cut Southend’s lead at the top to one point. With Mansfield held at home by Torquay a little gap of four points now opened up to third place with three clubs only separated by goal difference.
Southend then made it two defeats in a row on the following Monday night, losing 1-0 at lowly Port Vale to give the chance for City to overtake them at the top with the visit of Torquay to Sincil Bank two nights later. I couldn’t be there, and many others chose not to be as the attendance was two thousand down on the Southend game. They/we missed a treat though with City’s second 5-0 win of the season as the usual line-up inflicted an ignominious defeat on a Gulls side including veteran former Scottish international midfielder Bruce Rioch. In a performance which Maurice Burton rated “as near perfection as anyone is likely to get in Fourth Division football”, City held only a 1-0 half time lead before Phil Neale notched his sixth goal in six games followed by a strike from George Shipley. Two headed goals from Mick Harford to add to the one which had given City the lead completed the scoring and gave him his second hat-trick of the season. After the Imps had gone 5-0 up with ten minutes remaining David Hughes had been substituted and Colin Murphy later paid tribute to the qualities of the energetic midfielder: “You wind him up at the start, and he doesn’t stop until the end. The way he plays, he could be dead by the time he’s 30, and it’s up to me to get him as much rest as I can”, commenting that any disappointment the player may have felt at coming off should be tempered by the thought that both he and the club would benefit in the long run.
The gap to fifth placed Aldershot who had slipped to a 4-0 defeat at Wimbledon had now opened up to six points but City’s return to the top of the table was not to last beyond the weekend following a visit to sixth-placed Peterborough. An unchanged line-up had been fielded for the last five games but an enforced change now had to be made due to Mick Harford having incurred a suspension due to accumulated penalty points following his booking at Hereford. The player attended a disciplinary hearing in Manchester accompanied by Colin Murphy and director Gilbert Blades (by profession a solicitor) to plead mitigating circumstances but the three-match ban stood.
Harford’s place in the team was taken by Tony Cunningham, slotting in for his first start for almost a month with Steve Thompson returning to the squad on the bench.
Around 2,000 Imps supporters made the short trip to Peterborough, boosting their crowd to a best of season so far of 5,800 and we saw City start well on a muddy pitch but appear to be on the wrong end of three penalty decisions by referee Alan Seville. After two shouts for handball by the home side were turned down the Posh were then awarded a penalty when Tony Cunningham, looking a little rusty on his return to the side, was adjudged to have pushed a player over. However, David Felgate, facing his first penalty as a City player pushed Billy Kellock’s spot kick past the post. To an extent Felgate was then the villain of the piece when he was penalised for carrying the ball outside the area and it was Kellock again who fired the free kick into the net for the only goal of the match. With Southend, playing on a Saturday for a change, having beaten Bury at home the result put City down to second place again, a position in fact they were to hold for the rest of the season. Hartlepool also to won to cut the gap to third place to three points. The gap to fifth place, now occupied by Peterborough, remained at six points however as a consequence of defeat for Mansfield who slipped out of the top four.
A player leaving the club on a free transfer was young reserve Ian Travis who after working his way through the youth ranks had signed professional terms about a year ago but had not made a first team appearance. There was also news of former Imp Brendan Guest who after a spell on the books of Swindon Town after being released in the summer had played a handful of games in the current season for Alliance Premier League club Bath City. It was reported that after refusing to play for Bath’s reserve side he was considering an offer from Hellenic League club Forest Green Rovers.
Attention now turned to the FA Cup with City having been originally due to receive a first round visit from Marine. However, the Liverpool-based club were then disqualified for fielding an ineligible player against fellow Northern Premier League club Gateshead in the fourth qualifying round. It was therefore the north eastern side who were the visitors to Sincil Bank for the first home FA Cup game since the visit of Burnley in January 1977.
Gateshead were currently bottom of the Northern Premier League without a league win and had recently been beaten 3-1 at Gainsborough Trinity. On their books was a locally-born winger named John McGinley who was later to have a successful spell with the Imps. However, the recent signing from neighbours Ashington was not in the squad for the game which proved more difficult for City than most people were expecting. There was a late enforced team change when David Hughes reported unfit with a knee injury which had been aggravated in training and which was to lead to a stay in hospital. His place in midfield was taken by Steve Thompson making his first start for a month, with Derek Bell returning from his hamstring injury on the bench after scoring four goals in two reserve games. Gateshead frustrated the Imps with a battling performance, and it was the introduction of Bell for Steve Thompson midway through the second half to give more attacking impetus which led to Phil Turner scoring the only goal of the match to send City through.
Attention now turned to off the field matters, with rumblings over the last few months about the club’s financial situation now made plain with the publication of the balance sheet for the year ending the previous June. This showed a loss of over £82,000 and with a loss the previous year of around £91,000 the total accumulated deficit was now £226,000. Income from gate receipts over the previous season had increased to £94,000 but that was set against a total expenditure of £300,000. A net profit of around £22,000 had been made from player transfers, but there had been a big increase in to the wage bill, and £25,000 had already been outlaid during the current season on the purchase of goalkeeper David Felgate.
An added factor, pointed out by Maurice Burton was that bonuses were having to be paid to the players for the current high placing in the league table. However desirable this was from a footballing point of view it clearly didn’t help the financial situation – although it could be argued that the high placing meant increased attendances. At any rate, chairman Heneage Dove, writing in the club programme, made it fairly clear that one of the hot properties in the current playing squad would have to be sold to ease the financial pressure.
Snow in the north east then put paid to the scheduled fixture at Darlington the following Saturday. Deprived of a visit to the Feethams I made the shorter trip to another ground of the past – Filbert Street – to see a bottom of the First Division Leicester City side, including later Imps goalkeeper Mark Walllington take on Norwich City. A crowd of fewer than 14,000 saw the Canaries triumph 2-1 thanks to goals from their twin strikers, the experienced Joe Royle, and a teenaged Justin Fashanu then beginning to make a name for himself.
With City not playing the clubs below them failed to make up any appreciable ground with Hartlepool and Aldershot both losing allowing Mansfield to move into fourth place with a win at Crewe.
League action resumed with the visit of Bury, third from bottom in the league table, and bad news on the striking front for City with Mick Harford still suspended as Derek Bell was now out of action again with knee ligament trouble sustained in a midweek reserve match when he was the victim of what Colin Murphy described as “a terrible tackle.” Having only recently returned to fitness it appeared that Bell would now be out for several more weeks. With David Hughes still in hospital Steve Thompson continued in midfield with young Craig Ramsay called up to the bench. Colin Murphy warned that Bury were a better side than their league position indicated, pointing out they were the fifth-highest scoring team in the division. In the event Bury rarely looked like scoring, leaving it to Imps defender David Carr to do the job for them early on when he passed the ball into his own net instead of back to David Felgate. However, Phil Turner soon headed the Imps level and Phil Neale slid in for his eighth goal of the season to complete the scoring before half time. Bury kept the score down largely thanks to 22-year-old future Welsh international goalkeeper Neville Southall a summer signing from non-league football.
There was no change at the top with Southend having won at Rochdale but with Hartlepool only drawing the gap to third place, now occupied by Mansfield had opened up to four points although Aldershot were keeping up the pressure in fifth place a point behind.
It was now time for the FA Cup again, and as frequently seems to happen it meant two games in succession against the same club with Bury played again, this time at their Gigg Lane ground. Following his suspension Mick Harford was now eligible to play again fresh from having been named ‘Matchman of the Month’ for a second time in the season. by the magazine ’Match Weekly’. His return saw Tony Cunningham drop to the bench as the only change to the line-up, but after a month without a game Harford’s rustiness contributed to one of City’s worst performances of the season as they exited the Cup to a goal in each half.
It was barely possible that a lucrative run in the FA Cup might have negated the need to ease the financial situation by selling a player, but with that no longer possible the only question was which out of the most saleable assets – generally accepted to be Trevor Peake, Mick Harford and possibly Gordon Hobson – would be the player to leave. It was reported that Newcastle United’s chief scout Joe Harvey had been at the Bury match with Harford the likeliest target as the Magpies had just sold centre forward Billy Rafferty to Portsmouth. However, Colin Murphy said no bid had been received for the player, in contrast to an un-named club having offered £70,000 for Trevor Peake. This was turned down as not matching up to City’s valuation of the player, so the squad was still intact for the visit of Bournemouth to Sincil Bank for what was the fourth home game out of the last five in the league.
First, though, came the club’s AGM which passed off fairly amicably, although the big news was the stepping down as chairman of Heneage Dove after a five-year spell which had seen the rise of the club under Graham Taylor and its decline again. As for the reason for his relinquishing the post he pointed out that when he had formed his board of directors, he had asked for their backing for a term of five years and that was now up, indicating that it was time the club had a new image in terms of chairman. On the financial situation he pointed out that the expected wage bill for the current season would be around £250,000 compared to expected gate money of about £130,000.
New chairman was Yorkshireman Dennis Houlston a businessman whose interests included an extensive farm at the nearby village of Eagle. On the proposed selling of players, he gave the angle that with the club’s youth policy now producing players who were pushing for a first team place it was necessary to part with existing players in order to make room for them. He also stated that the club’s policy had to be that of reaching the Second Division “in the very near future.”
The Imps duly made it seven home wins in a row, six in the league, with an unchanged line-up as an early goal from Gordon Hobson and an equally late successful penalty from George Shipley saw off a tough-tackling Bournemouth side who also had a player sent off for arguing over the penalty award.
As well as match reports and coverage in the local press and the occasional mention on regional TV channels you could now tune into the radio for news about City. BBC local radio had first started in the late 1960s and had finally found its way to the country’s second-largest county when Radio Lincolnshire first hit the air waves on Tuesday 11th November. Programming was very limited at first though, with the station only on air until 6pm on Saturdays after which Radio 2 was carried on the frequency. However, ‘Saturday Sport’ from 1.30 – 6pm featured score flashes and reports from the ground every 15 minutes. There was no such service for midweek games though as the station handed over to Radio 2 at 7pm on weekdays. Another early feature was the ten minute long ‘Sports Review’ which broadcast on Sunday mornings at 9.55 giving a roundup of the previous day’s matches for local sides (which in those days included Grimsby and Scunthorpe) and introduced by the long-serving Chris Parkin. Following the Bournemouth game Colin Murphy’s main take on the match in his comments to reporter Chris Mills was that City had tried to play good football in the face of some difficult tactics by the visitors and that following the defeat at Bury it had been important not to lose two games in a row.
Southend had won at home while City were being knocked out of the cup and now won again to be three points ahead of the Imps who of course now had a game in hand on them. Mansfield, however, had lost at Doncaster the night before and with Hartlepool held to a draw by sixth-placed Peterborough the gap to third place had increased to five points, and to fifth place, now occupied by the Posh, to a healthy seven points.
The game with Bury turned out to be the last appearance for the Imps by Mick Harford, as to no-one’s great surprise it was announced he would be joining Newcastle United, then placed mid-table in Division Two. The fee was said initially to be worth £200,000 and a new record for a Fourth Division player.
It was of course a new record for City, beating the £110,000 received for Glenn Cockerill a year before and allaying any fears such as Maurice Burton had that City, in the interests of raising money in the present circumstances might sell themselves short by accepting a similar fee for Harford. It later emerged that the actual fee was £180,000 with further payments depending on appearances made and a percentage of any further transfer fee if greater than that amount. There was also – as in the case of another player transferred to Newcastle some way down the line – a promise of a friendly match at Sincil Bank, but for whatever reason that never happened.
The next game was not the most local of holiday derbies with a Boxing Day visit to a struggling Port Vale side. Having been something of a fringe player for most of the season so far Tony Cunningham now had a chance to show what he could do as the replacement for Harford. Another change saw the fit-again David Hughes replace Steve Thompson who dropped to the bench. In difficult conditions of sleet and rain at Vale Park the Imps put an end to a run of three away defeats when Phil Turner slid in a cross from Gordon Hobson for the only goal of the game. With Southend going down to defeat at Bournemouth City closed their lead at the top to a single point with a game in hand, and with Hartlepool losing the gap to Mansfield who moved into third by beating Scunthorpe was now up to six points.
Two games in two days now saw a visit from Mansfield who had been relegated the previous season but were bidding to bounce straight back again. The previous home game against Bournemouth had disappointingly seen a crowd of less than three and a half thousand, the lowest of the season, with perhaps the only excuse being that it was the traditional Christmas shopping Saturday. However, with Christmas now over and with it being a top of the table clash plus a local derby eight and half thousand turned up for the highest gate of the season so far. It was an unchanged line-up for City with the exception of Derek Bell returning on the bench, but the game did not get off to a good start with the visitors presented with an own goal when a City defender, this time Trevor Thompson, passed the ball back past David Felgate into his own net. However, David Carr equalised at a good time for City heading in from a corner a minute before half time and although the game could then have gone either way a point apiece benefited both sides.
Along with now being featured on local radio another broadcasting first for the Imps came with them now being featured on ‘Match of the Day’ that night. The programme had started in the mid-1960s and would initially show highlights of only one game – i.e. one designated as literally the match of the day, before progressing to featuring a ‘main match’ and briefer highlights from a second one. For the current season a third match was now included and as one of the quota of lower division matches required to be shown under the broadcasting agreement City were literally squeezed in, with Tony Gubba required to commentate on little more than the two goals in the match. Maurice Burton was less than impressed, rating the barely two minutes coverage as “shabby treatment”.
With Southend back to winning ways there was no change at the top and the gap to fifth place, now occupied by Doncaster, remained at seven points. City ended the year with three league wins and a draw for the month of December and solidly in second place with 38 points from 26 games, and had Maurice Burton calculating that a point a match to the end of the season would see them go up.