We all remember the relegation season of 2010/11, Lincoln City were the architects of their own downfall. The same can be said for 1986/87, when a dire run of form after Christmas turned promotion hopefuls into a GM Vauxhall Conference team. However, in 1919/20, we can say we were cheated out of our league place not once, but twice in a single season.
1919 saw the resumption of football after World War One, and in Lincoln, things were a mess. There wasn’t anyone around to recruit players or conduct training, things were so bad that local journalist Herbert Green was offered the manager’s job! He turned it down, and Scottish full-back George Fraser took the role. An opening day draw at West Ham sparked hopes of a decent season, but by 18th October, there were just two points on the board. Thrashings at Tottenham (6-1), Bristol City (6-0) and Blackpool (6-0) indicated a long season of struggle.
Over in the Midlands, things weren’t great for Coventry either. They had been voted into the Football League for the first time, having previously competed in the Southern League. They’d been knocking on the door for a while; they even reached the fourth round of the FA Cup, losing 2-0 to Everton, as a non-league side. Their opening game against Spurs attracted 20,000 supporters, but they were beaten 5-0. Through to October, they too struggled, although not for crowds. City were in financial peril, Coventry attracting an average gate of 17,000 fans. They didn’t win their first point until October as they drew 0-0 with Fulham; their first win came on Christmas Day as they beat Stoke 3-2.
At the turn of the year, the race to avoid the drop was between three sides, ourselves, Coventry, and Grimsby Town. Whilst our rivals enjoyed decent crowds, we struggled against the spectre of the financial meltdown. We were drawn at home in the FA Cup against Middlesbrough, but the club agreed to switch the tie to Ayresome Park for the princely sum of £1000. Fans were left disgruntled as the team travelled north for the fixture on Saturday 10th, January, even more so when the fixture was called off due to bad snow. The team had to stay in Redcar for four days until the rearranged game took place, eating into that £1000. After all that, we lost 4-1.
That prompted a run of four wins and three draws from eight games. A fine 4-0 victory against Wolves was followed by back-to-back victories against Stoke City, home and away. We then drew 2-2 at Blundell Park before grabbing a vital 2-0 win a week later against Grimsby at Sincil Bank. Birmingham visited Sincil Bank on March 6th, second placed and hunting promotion to Division One. A fine 2-2 draw gave us a six-point cushion over Coventry and Grimsby. Remember, this was two points for a win and equivalent to a nine-point gap now.
At Coventry, chairman David Cooke was desperate. His side was woeful; although they didn’t take heavy beatings, they couldn’t string results together. He even ordered a change of strip to see if good fortune could be found, settling on the now-familiar Sky Blue. Consecutive wins against Grimsby and Forest gave them a fighting chance, but they still had a double-header of action against City to look forward to. Our form had collapsed, but we had still kept them at arm’s length. March and April brought just a couple of points as well as a humiliating 7-0 defeat at Birmingham (the Imps are pictured before this game at the top of the page). We were now in a two-horse race to avoid finishing second from bottom. Grimsby were already gone; they had been beyond poor. It was Coventry and Lincoln in a winner takes all duel for their Football League status.
On Saturday, April 17th, Coventry visited Sincil Bank. 10,000 crammed in, much like tomorrow, and they saw their side take a giant stride toward safety. The Coventry keeper got injured early on, and City proceeded to win 4-1. The result put us onto 27 points and lifted us clear of Coventry and Wolves too. We knew that a win in the reverse fixture seven days later would see us safe. In front of nearly 20,000, Coventry won 2-0.
On April 27th Lincoln sat one point clear of Coventry having played a game more. We had one more fixture to fulfill, a daunting trip to FA Cup finalists Huddersfield Town. Coventry didn’t have easy games either, they faced Bury home and away. Bury were fifth and a virtual shoo-in to do the double over David Cooke’s side. Somehow the hapless Sky Blues secured a draw which meant they now only needed a result at home to Bury on the final day of the season. City lost 4-2 at Huddersfield, despite going 1-0 down at half time, Coventry won 2-1. City were forced to apply for re-election along with Grimsby. Both sides were voted out of the Football League in favour of Leeds United and Cardiff City.
What seemed like the first instance of us being cheated happened days later. Grimsby, ho finished two points behind us, remained a Football League club. The Third Division came into existence, and Grimsby were accepted into it after polling more votes in the re-election. Despite City finishing higher, we were dropped into the Midland League.
Very soon, the second insatnce of us being cheated began to surface: rumours circulated about the situation at Coventry. Their remarkable results against Bury were more than questionable, especially when several Bury players chose to blame the kit. They said they’d lost all their kit on the way to the game and had borrowed ill-fitting boots and clothing that hindered them. The FA smelled a rat and launched an investigation.
By the time a conclusion had been reached, Lincoln had got back into the Football league thanks to a storming Midland League win. It transpired that Coventry captain George Chaplin had travelled to Bury ahead of their fixtures with £200 of David Cooke’s money in his pocket. He solicited enough Bury players to affect the results of the games and ensure they remained in the Football League. It is reported that a Bury player later remarked, “Coventry played so badly we had trouble allowing them the result they needed.” As soon as the final whistle went on the second match, Chaplin made his way to a nearby pub and paid the remaining money to the Bury players. City had been robbed by Coventry of their Second Division status and then by so-called democracy for a place in the Third Division.
At the end of the hearings five Bury players, two directors and an official were banned. David Cooke, Coventry director Jack Marshall and captain Chaplin were also banned for life. Later, Harry Pollitt was also banned, although why it took two further years is unclear. There were calls for Coventry to be thrown out of the league. I imagine those calls were particularly loud in Lincoln; three years after the events of 1920, they had moved closer to extinction. The Midland League simply didn’t pull the crowds into Sincil Bank and money became too tight to mention. By early 1923 players couldn’t be paid; seven chose free transfers in lieu of actual wages. Whilst the Sky Blues enjoyed huge gates against the likes of Wolves, Blackpool, and Crystal Palace, City scrabbled around Southport, Barrow, and Darlington, barely attracting 4,000.
The seeds were sown for a lifetime of struggle, financial hardship, and lower-league misery. Had we retained our Second Division status on that warm afternoon in 1920, who knows what may have become of us? Maybe we would have had almost four decades of unbroken membership of the top flight. Maybe we could have won the FA Cup in 1987. Or, we might just have gone down the following season anyway.