Looking Back At: 1980/81 (Part 5)

Part One: pre-season and August

Part Two: September and October

Part Three – November and December

Part Four – January and February


The Tuesday night brought a visit to Tranmere to play a side just outside the bottom four and after being able to field the same side for the last five games a change was now necessary with Steve Thompson stepping in to replace David Carr who was suffering from a thigh injury. In a stubborn defensive performance on a heavy pitch City came away with a point in another-goal-less draw to take them on to 50 for the season with 34 games played. With Southend suffering a rare defeat their lead was reduced to three points with 36 played. The gap to Doncaster was now stretched to eight points – and the Rovers were due at Sincil Bank the following Saturday.

In fact, there were two top-of-table clashes set for the weekend, with as well as Lincoln in second playing third-placed Doncaster there was fourth v first with Mansfield hosting Southend. For City, David Carr was fit to return so Steve Thompson dropped out of the match squad again.

In front of a season’s best crowd of 8,832 – many of them from Doncaster – the Imps made a good start to the match with an 18-yard volley from Tony Cunningham giving them an 11th minute lead but things changed when left back Nolan Keeley had to go off after half an hour with a severe ankle injury which would cause him to miss the rest of the season. With striker Derek Bell on as a substitute City’s usual balance was disrupted and they had their backs to the wall in the face of a Doncaster side giving everything they had. But just as it looked as though City would get away with a win Doncaster forced an 89th-minute equaliser to share the points.

Southend made up for their midweek defeat with a win at Mansfield meaning their lead at the top was now back to four points although City still had two games in hand, while Bournemouth’s draw the night before and Aldershot’s win over Hartlepool in another ‘four-pointer’ put the Shots into fifth place still eleven points behind City.

On the following day the fledgling Radio Lincolnshire broadcast a programme ‘Behind the Imps’ with Chris Mills looking at “the team behind the team” at Sincil Bank (the link takes you to the show at the Red Imps Community Trust Museum). There were interviews with secretary John Sorby, his assistant Phil Hough (“hopefully one day I might become secretary of a league club”), assistant manager John Sheridan, coach Lennie Lawrence and physio Bert Loxley finding out what their jobs involved. Also featured were apprentice David Gilbert describing his average day, the laundry lady in charge of the playing kit, the person in charge of the turnstile operators, Red Imps Association’s Chris Ashton, and groundsman Barry Clements. Chairman Dennis Houlston outlined how he was able to divide his time between the club and his own business interests

The following Tuesday night brought a visit to Darlington for the game postponed from the end of November due to a frozen pitch. There was some doubt whether the game would be played due to heavy rain in the area but it went ahead on a very muddy pitch. Along with Nolan Keeley now being out of the picture it had seemed as if the Imps might also have to do without David Hughes for this game as he had suffered a knock on the head against Doncaster and according to Colin Murphy, “didn’t know where he was in the last half hour of the match.”

In the event, the midfielder was passed fit to play so the only change was the inclusion of Steve Thompson, who, his midfield days now behind him, occupied the central defensive position that he would make his own for the remainder of his City career. This was due to David Carr moving to full back, a position he had played a few times before, as although Phil Neale might have seemed the obvious choice at left back it was possibly decided that with nine goals to his name so far he was too important to City’s cause playing on the right of midfield.

The game itself, apart from a few chances for either side at each end of the game turned into a slog in the Feethams mud with both sides seeming happy with the 0-0 draw which was City’s third in the last four games and their fifth draw in a row overall. The result put them a point nearer Southend but still three behind and now with only one game in hand.

With Nolan Keeley out of action the question was raised as to whether City would need to strengthen their squad before that week’s transfer deadline, but in the event Colin Murphy decided to go with his existing players, no doubt in the knowledge that one or two promising youngsters were on the verge of breaking into the first team. He denied as “absolute rubbish” a report that Blackburn’s experienced left back Roger De Vries would be joining City, and the only activity on the transfer front was the departure of goalkeeper Kevin Fox on loan to Hull City for the rest of the season. With the emergence of the 18-year-old Stuart Naylor who was now playing regularly for the reserves Fox had rather been pushed into the background and was described as “the unlucky player on my staff” by Colin Murphy.

City now had a player named in the PFA Divisional Team of the Year awards for the first time since 1976 as Trevor Peake was named as one of the two best central defenders in the division along with Southend’s Dave Cusack, the Shrimpers in fact having a total of four players in the nominated side.

Another team change was necessary for the visit to a struggling York City side the following Saturday as Phil Neale had suffered a bad cut to his leg at Darlington and was not passed fit. This brought perennial substitute Derek Bell into the side for his first start since the beginning of September with 19-year-old midfielder Stuart Hibberd on the bench. The best that could be said about City’s display against a side that had lost their last six matches was that they would have barely deserved a draw instead of the defeat they actually suffered, due to a goal early in the second half when York’s player coach David Pugh headed in a near post corner. City later sent on Hibberd for his debut in place of David Hughes, but it was up front where City’s deficiencies lay. Bell, despite fading after a good start, looking the best attacker. Unhappy with the performance Colin Murphy locked the players and management team in the dressing room for over an hour after the match with even the directors turned away. One way or another the air must have been cleared as the players were then given two days off!


The defeat put an end to a 14-match unbeaten run in the league and with Southend thrashing Halifax 5-1 the night before they were now five points ahead of City. However, third placed Doncaster were held to a draw at home so were still eight points behind although Aldershot cut the gap to fifth by two points with a win at Rochdale.

Visitors to Sincil Bank the following Saturday were Hartlepool United who had been well in the promotion chase until a recent run of five consecutive defeats had seen them slip down to ninth place. However, a midweek win at Mansfield, with the winning goal scored by ex-Imp Alan Harding had rekindled their hopes.

City’s last five games had seen only one goal scored and as only two had been conceded it was clear where the problem lay. Gordon Hobson’s goals seemed to have dried up, having failed to find the net in any of those five games, while strike partner Tony Cunningham had only scored one goal in the last seven. Phil Neale was now fit to return for City on the right of midfield, and with Derek Bell resuming his place on the substitute’s bench it was Cunningham who was left out of the side altogether. Taking his place was another of City’s promising youngsters, like fellow-19-year-old Stuart Hibberd, Wayne Biggins, known as ‘Bert’ stepped up to make his first team debut, clearly on form after scoring a total of five goals in his last two youth and reserve games. With a total of 24 goals at those levels in the season so far, Colin Murphy commented that the teenager was strong and good in the air but while warning that although very skilful Biggins sometimes lacked application and effort went on to say he was confident the player would acquit himself well.

The attendance for the game was just short of four thousand and Colin Murphy had already expressed some disappointment that instead of getting right behind the team people were even prophesying they could still miss out on promotion because of the recent faltering form, although he did allow that perhaps expectations had been raised too high by the good first half to the season.

Among the crowd were Southend manager Dave Smith and his first team squad who, no doubt with an eye on their scheduled meeting with the Imps in a few weeks’ time took the opportunity to see them play ahead of their own match at Scunthorpe the following day. On a pitch which had been covered by tarpaulins overnight as a precaution against heavy rain the Southend contingent would probably not have been too worried over a poor first half performance from City, struggling against the effects of a gale-force wind and who were booed off the pitch at half time. After the break, finding it easier to face the elements and keeping the ball on the deck, they took the lead just before the hour mark when Wayne Biggins justified his selection by scoring on his debut when he put a loose ball into the net after Gordon Hobson hit the post. George Shipley sealed the win with his eighth goal of the season with ten minutes to go and the winning margin could have been greater but for late missed chances by Phil Turner and Hobson.


Whether their players witnessing City’s performance had any bearing on it is unclear but Southend lost their game at the Old Showground on the Sunday afternoon to reduce their lead at the top to three points with the Imps still with a game in hand. In fact, Southend only needed four more points from seven games to ensure promotion. City themselves still needed seven points from a game more. Doncaster were still in third place, eight points behind City, and ahead of Mansfield and Aldershot whose win in another Sunday game kept then ten points behind.

David Felgate was then on international duty again, travelling to Turkey for a World Cup qualifying game but was not included in the match squad.

The following Saturday saw a trip to Northampton with a change necessary due to Trevor Thompson serving a one-match suspension for accumulated disciplinary points. His replacement was Stuart Hibberd, making his first start for the Imps, who slotted into midfield, with Phil Neale back in his old familiar role of left back to give a first sight of what would later become a regular partnership with David Carr on the right. Returning to the bench, perhaps with a heavy pitch expected, was Tony Cunningham instead of Derek Bell. The game ended in another draw for the Imps – the sixth in the last eight games – but this could be considered satisfactory as Gordon Hobson’s equaliser was the first goal scored by City at the County Ground in seven visits dating back to 1972. The goal was Hobson’s 20th of the season and put an end to his lean spell of six games without scoring.

With Southend, as usual, having won the night before City now fell four points behind them still with a game in hand. With Doncaster also in action on the Friday their win over Scunthorpe cut City’s lead over them to seven points but Mansfield’s defeat in a ‘four-pointer’ by Peterborough extended the gap to fifth place to eleven points. In fact, Aldershot’s defeat by Torquay the following day meant Southend were now assured of promotion with six games to go, while due to other teams having to play each other City themselves now needed just three points from their remaining seven games.

Meanwhile, Tony Cunningham had the distinction of taking part in a testimonial match for Bradford City full back Ces Podd which has come to be seen as something of a ground-breaking event in that Podd, after ten years’ service with the Valley Parade club was the first-ever black player to be granted a testimonial match by the FA. Podd himself selected a side made up entirely of black players from Football League clubs called the ‘Black All-Stars’ which took on a Bradford City XI, as Cunningham found himself in the company of top flight and international players such as Justin Fashanu, George Berry, Cyrille Regis, Luther Blissett, Vince Hilaire, Brendan Batson, Garth Crooks and others.



Although City still needed three more points to be mathematically certain of promotion it was possible if other results went their way that two would be enough, and the visit of bottom club Hereford United seemed to give them every chance of obtaining them. Despite this possibility the Sincil Bank attendance was a couple of hundred down on the previous game as Colin Murphy ruefully commented “It would appear performances have not been what the supporters would have wanted, but League tables cannot lie.”

Trevor Thompson was back from his suspension but against the bottom club David Hughes was rested by Colin Murphy with an eye to his being fresh for the two upcoming top-of-the-table clashes at Southend and Mansfield. This meant a move into midfield for the ever-versatile David Carr.

City were not at their best for much of the game and things only began to go their way after the hour mark when Tony Cunningham replaced Stuart Hibberd for a change to a more attacking formation. Then, with 16 minutes to go Wayne Biggins set up Gordon Hobson to score the only goal of the match and his 21st of the season.


When the results eventually came through, defeat for Doncaster and draws for Peterborough, Aldershot and Mansfield meant that realistically promotion had been achieved. Although they could still be caught on points, a goal difference of +40, well over twice as good as any other team meant City were back in Division Three after two years. As for the championship, that was firmly back in City’s sights as for once Southend had been beaten the previous night, going down to a surprise 1-0 defeat at fifth-from-bottom Stockport. Now just two points behind the Shrimpers, with only a three-goal worse goal difference and still with a game in hand things were set up nicely for the visit to Southend the following Saturday.

Considering it had been said that David Hughes had been rested for the Hereford game with an eye to playing against Southend it was something of a surprise that he was part of a strong reserve side in midweek. In the event, he was left out of the squad at Roots Hall altogether as was midfielder Stuart Hibberd as Colin Murphy sprung a surprise on Southend (“I like to keep a trick or two up my sleeve”). This saw the inclusion of Tony Cunningham alongside Gordon Hobson with Wayne Biggins in the deep-lying role behind the front two occupied by Mick Harford early in the season. The fact that the game was taking place on a Saturday instead of Southend’s usual Friday night was due to Colin Murphy’s insistence (‘small margins’?).


With the Shrimpers being the top scoring team in the division and the Imps having the best defensive record, home manager Dave Smith summed it up in his programme notes: “To me the clash is very much a case of the immovable object meeting the irresistible force.”

As things turned out the former came out on top.

Southend’s biggest attendance of the season of 11,955 included an estimated 2.500 from Lincoln. Some of the visiting Imps were not best pleased by Southend’s cashing in on the importance of the match by doubling the cost of stand tickets to £4 for those paying on the day, this being made worse by them not telling City of it in advance. Although it seemed Southend were within their rights to do this, City chairman Dennis Houlston said he would be contacting the Football League to register a protest.

I wasn’t personally affected by the price increase, as visiting Roots Hall for the first time I stood on the open terracing behind the goal with the bulk of the visiting support. We saw the Imps restrict Southend to very few goalscoring chances while always looking dangerous on the break but in general it was the midfielders and defenders on both sides who were on top for the most of the game and City were well satisfied with a goal-less draw.


City’s performance had assistant manager John Sheridan enthusing “I always knew we were better than Southend. This afternoon we proved it. They were playing flat out, but we have not yet reached our peak.”

The point gained ensured promotion was now a mathematical certainty for the Imps and the championship was still a possibility provided there were no slip-ups. Unfortunately, that was just what happened at Mansfield the following week.

But first, on the subject of price rises City announced theirs for the prospect of watching Third Division football the following season. These saw increases of 20p for ground admission to £1.60 and the price of a stand seat going up by the same amount to £2.20. The cost of a ground season ticket was to be increased to £27.50 and to £38.00 for the stands.

Mansfield had been well in the running for promotion for most of the season until a run of one win in ten games had put paid to their chances and seen them down in seventh place ahead of the game with City.


An unchanged City line-up paid the price for missed chances when the Stags took the lead with just under an hour gone and after continuing to fail to put the ball in the net the Imps paid the price again when David Carr sliced into his own net. With Southend winning twice in two days the result effectively ended hopes of the championship as the Shrimpers were now six points in front meaning City, although now with two games in hand, needed them to slip up in their last two games.

As Southend didn’t have a game on Easter Monday City were able to cut their lead at the top to four points with a win over visiting Port Vale which ensured at least the runners-up spot. Despite the defeat at Mansfield there were no changes to the line-up and despite a largely dominant performance against an in-form Port Vale side the only goal of the match didn’t come until the 82nd minute when Tony Cunningham headed in a George Shipley corner.

A change was necessary to the usual line-up for the following Saturday’s visit to mid-table Bournemouth as Derek Bell had a leg in plaster following an injury playing for the reserves on the Tuesday night. His place on the bench was taken by David Hughes as City kept their faint hopes of the championship alive with a similar performance to that against Port Vale, as another dominant display produced only a single goal win, this time scored by George Shipley.