After a five-season spell in the Third Division in the 1980s Lincoln City had then plunged straight down to a year in non-league football before bouncing back as Conference champions.
The initial optimism of rising back to the third tier had worn off with a series of finishes ranging between 18th and 8th place over a seven-year period. The season prior to the current one had seen a succession of three men in charge of the team with Sam Ellis being sacked at the beginning of September after five defeats in seven games, followed by Steve Wicks (classed as Head Coach) departing eight games later with the Imps four points adrift at the bottom of what was by now re-titled as Division 3 and looking well-set for a dreaded return to the Conference. This was averted by the appointment of the controversial John Beck who immediately set about rebuilding the team by bringing in a total of eight new players in a period of two months. The adoption of his simple but often effective long ball tactics plus off-the-field gamesmanship saw a slow but steady rise up the table to a final placing of 18th well clear of the relegation spot.
The final game of the previous season had seen a 5-0 win at Sincil Bank, albeit against bottom club Torquay United, which had helped towards an air of optimism at the start of the current season. Only a moderate start had been made, however, with the first home league win of the season not coming until the fourth attempt with a 1-0 win over Barnet the previous Saturday to put the Imps in 15th place. A home win had come in the League Cup first round though, with fellow fourth-tier side Hartlepool beaten 3-2 to add to a 2-2 draw in the first leg to give the Imps a plum draw against a Manchester City side recently relegated from the Premier League.
Still rated as a big club, Manchester City had last won the League Championship almost thirty years before, but since a couple of top four placings in the late 1970s and a losing FA Cup Final appearance in 1981 had rather yo-yoed between the top two divisions in the remainder of the 1980s. Two fifth-place finishes in the top flight had then seen a steady decline finishing with relegation on goal difference being confirmed on the last day of the previous season.
Managed by Alan Ball who had been in charge the previous season one win and two defeats from the start of the season had seen the England World Cup winner quickly sacked, with his assistant, former Scottish International midfielder Asa Hartford taking over on a caretaker basis. His four games in charge so far had seen two wins and two defeats to put the Light Blues in 13th place in what was currently titled Division 1
The teams were:
- Barry Richardson
- Steve Holmes
- Jon Whitney
- Mark Hone
- Grant Brown
- Kevin Austin
- Gareth Ainsworth
- Terry Fleming
- Gijsbert Bos
- Jae Martin
- Worrell Sterling
- Steve Brown
- Colin Alcide (for Sterling)
- Jason Minett
- Andy Dibble
- Michael Brown
- Rae Ingram
- Steve Lomas
- Kit Symons
- Darren Wassall
- Nick Summerbee
- Jeff Whitley
- Paul Dickov
- Nigel Clough
- Uwe Rosler
- Michael Frontseck
- Martyn Margetson
- Lee Crooks
Imps goalkeeper Barry Richardson had become John Beck’s first permanent signing within days of him taking charge the previous October. Joining from the manager’s previous club Preston North End for a fee which eventually rose to £20,000 the now 27-year-old had first gained Football League experience with Scarborough before playing over one hundred games for Northampton and around two dozen in just over a season with Preston. He had been ever-present in goal for City until losing his place for a handful of games earlier in the season to summer signing John Vaughan.
Steve Holmes at right back had joined at the same time as Richardson, also from Preston but initially on loan. The 25-year-old had been with City as a YTS player making the bench as an unused substitute in a few league matches, with his only first team appearance being in a GMVC Shield match eight years before. He had then dropped into non-league football with Guisborough Town before John Beck had signed him for Preston. He had made around a dozen or so appearances for them along with a loan spell at Hartlepool and returned to Preston after his loan spell with City was up before returning permanently in March for a fee of £30,000. At left back was another early Beck signing in the tough-tackling Jon Whitney. Also 25, he had cost £20,000 from Huddersfield Town for whom he had played around a dozen or so times along with a similar number of games on loan to Wigan Athletic.
City’s two centre backs were a mixture of old and new in terms of the lengths of time they had been with the club. Grant Brown had been signed by Colin Murphy from Leicester City for a record fee of £63,000 and was now serving under his seventh manager at the club. The only player in the starting line-up who had been at the club when John Beck arrived, he was more or less half way through his thirteen years with the Imps which would see him break the club’s appearance record. Alongside Brown was the 23-year-old Kevin Austin who had joined in the summer for a fee of £30,000 from Leyton Orient. He had played over 100 games for the O’s mostly at left back but had so far appeared in the centre for Lincoln.
John Beck’s favoured style of play called for only two central midfielders and these were currently Mark Hone and Terry Fleming. The 28-year-old Hone had made a small number of appearances for Crystal Palace before dropping into non-league football with Welling United for a number of seasons. He returned to the Football League when Southend United paid £50,000 for him and after playing around 60 games for the Essex club joined the Imps on a free transfer in the summer. Mainly a defender with his previous clubs, he had been deployed in midfield by John Beck for his chasing and harrying capabilities – although he was also well able to pick a pass. Equally combative, but also with some skill, was Terry Fleming whose ability to take a long throw was an important part of City’s game. Fleming had started his career playing a small number of games for Coventry City in the Premier League before spells with Northampton and Preston from whom he had joined City the previous December as another of Beck’s early signings.
Wide on the right was City legend Gareth Ainsworth who again had been an early Beck signing with the then 22-year-old being another player to follow the manager from Preston for an initial fee of £25,000. This was the third time he had been signed by Beck who had brought him to his previous club Cambridge United after a brief earlier spell with Preston. That valuable asset, a goalscoring winger with pace, he had finished as top scorer in the previous season as well being voted Player of the Season and would repeat both these feats in the current one as well as earning a place in the PFA Divisional Team of the Year awards. He was the Imps leading scorer in the season so far with four goals. On the other flank was the 31-year-old Worrell Sterling, a player who it’s fair to say had his best days behind him. These had started when he broke through into the first team at Watford under Graham Taylor, playing around 100 games for them in the top flight before a total of around 350 games for Peterborough United and Bristol Rovers. He had been signed on a free transfer from the latter club in the summer to give “extra options” as John Beck put it, but was to be mostly a fringe player in the squad.
The two main strikers included a typical Beck player in 6ft 4in Dutchman Gijsbert Bos. The 25-year-old had been spotted playing for top amateur side IJsselmeervogels in his home country and had joined in mid-March, scoring five goals in 11 games in the remainder of the season. He had not been so prolific in the current season with just one goal so far. Fellow striker Jae Martin had joined on a two-months loan just after the start of the season from Birmingham City for whom he had made a handful of appearances after previous brief experience with Southend and Leyton Orient. The 20-year-old had been a regular member of the squad since his arrival but had scored just twice including the winning goal against Barnet the previous Saturday. At the end of his loan spell the board yielded to popular pressure – although there were some supporters who feared his arrival would be to allow the sale of Gareth Ainsworth – and allowed the expenditure of £30,000 on his permanent signing, partly to be funded by an increase in admission prices.
Two of the three substitutes were the only other players who had been at the club when John Beck arrived. Striker Steve Brown had been signed by Steve Wicks from Gillingham where he had played only a few games after previous experience across the Thames Estuary with Colchester and Southend. Although top scoring in one of his seasons at Layer Road he had always found goals hard to come by, but despite only scoring three in the previous season he had found favour with John Beck because of his hard-working attitude and non-stop running. Jason Minett was actually City’s second-longest serving player and after playing a small number of games for Norwich had made almost 100 appearances for Exeter City before being signed for Lincoln by Sam Ellis in the summer of 1995. Previously a right back he had featured in midfield under John Beck, and like Steve Brown had played his part in City’s fight against relegation although both players were now usually out of the starting line-up. Third sub’ was big Colin Alcide who had entered League Football at the age of 22 when he became another of John Beck’s early signings arriving from Yorkshire club Emley in the previous December. Sometimes played as a striker he was usually deployed wide on the left to win flick-ons – or long throws – as part of Beck’s long ball to the flanks tactics. In eight appearances in the season so far, his two goals had come in each leg of the first round League Cup defeat of Hartlepool
In goal for Manchester City was 30-year-old former Welsh International Andy Dibble who had started his career with Cardiff City before joining Luton Town where he had starred for them in the 1988 League Cup final, saving a penalty as the Hatters beat Arsenal 3-2. He had joined Manchester City later that year for £240,000 and was almost ever-present for his first two seasons. However, in more recent years he had found himself third choice until the departure of Tony Coton in January but had recently reclaimed the first team spot from veteran German international Eike Immel. Dibble is perhaps best remembered for the much-televised incident when former Imp Gary Crosby headed the ball off his outstretched hand before putting it into the net to score for Nottingham Forest.
Michael Brown, normally a midfield player was at right back due to the absence through injury of regular Ian Brightwell. The 19-year-old had come through the youth ranks and won the previous season’s Young Player of the Year award. He had made almost 40 first team appearances so far and would go on to have a notable career, with a move to Sheffield United for £400,000 followed by a half million-pound move to Tottenham. After experience with a string of other top flight clubs he finished his direct involvement in football with a spell as manager of Port Vale before becoming a TV pundit and summariser. At left back was another youth product in Rae Ingram, the 21-year-old having played just a handful of games since making his first team debut a year ago. Released in 1998 he went on to play around a hundred games for Macclesfield Town. Centre half was 25-year-old current Welsh International Kit Symons who had been ever-present the previous season after joining at the start of it in a player-exchange deal from Portsmouth. Basingstoke-born with a Welsh father he had started his career with Pompey, playing around 160 games for them in the second tier. Alongside him was Darren Wassall, currently on loan from Derby County for whom he had played around 100 games. Now 28, he had come through the youth ranks at Nottingham Forest, playing for them in the 1992 League Cup Final. With otherwise limited opportunities at the City Ground he had moved to Derby later that year in a £600,000 deal.
On the right of midfield was Nicky Summerbee, the 25-year-old son of Manchester City legend Mike Summerbee. He had followed his father in starting his career with Swindon Town, helping them win promotion to the Premier League before Manchester City paid £1.3m for him in 1994. He was to move on to Sunderland in the autumn of 1997 before his career rather petered out and he became something of a radio pundit. Steve Lomas was a product of Manchester City’s youth setup and had made the first of what would eventually total 45 appearances for Northern Ireland six months after making his club debut at the age of 19 in 1993. After playing over 100 games for Manchester City he would move on to West Ham the following April for a fee of £2.5m and play around 200 games for them. Also in midfield was 17-year-old Jeff Whitley, another youth product, who was playing just his fourth game in the first team. He would win the first of 20 Northern Irish caps the following February and go on to play over 100 games for Manchester City, occasionally alongside his older brother Jim, before appearing for a string of other clubs, most notably Sunderland.
The side could boast an all-international strike force, although 23-year-old Paul Dickov would not win the first of his 10 Scottish caps until three years later. Coming through the youth ranks at Arsenal he had made around two dozen appearances for the Gunners before joining Manchester City in August for a fee of £1m and had scored one goal in five games so far. He would remain with City during their ups and downs over the next several seasons making almost 200 appearances for them before moving to clubs such as Leicester City (twice), Blackburn and others including a second spell with Manchester City.
At the age of 30 with the last of his 14 England caps three years in the past Nigel Clough’s best days were behind him. He had cost £1.5m when joining Manchester City from Liverpool the previous January scoring two goals in 15 games in the remainder of the season and had one in six games in the current one. He had come through the ranks managed by his father Brian at Nottingham Forest, playing over 400 games for them, and scoring 131 goals. After Clough senior’s retirement and Forest’s relegation from the Premier League in 1993 he had moved to Liverpool for a fee of £2.25m but in two and a half seasons played less than 50 games, scoring 9 goals as he struggled to hold down a first team place following the emergence of the young Robbie Fowler to play alongside Ian Rush. He would enter management in a couple of years’ time beginning as player-manager of Southern League Burton Albion, spending several years in charge of the Brewers in two spells as well as time in charge of Derby, Sheffield United and eventually Mansfield.
Manchester City’s top scorer the previous season with 13 goals and leading the way so far in the current one with three from seven games was 6ft 1in striker Uwe Rosler. With five caps for East Germany in the days before reunification, the 27-year-old had joined in the summer of 1994 for something of a bargain £375,000 from FC Nurnberg after three months on loan. Like Clough he was later to enter management, with spells in charge of several clubs abroad and in the UK, including Brentford, Wigan, Leeds and Fleetwood, guiding the latter to the League One play-offs.
Substitutes were 32-year-old full back Michael Frontseck, teenage defender or midfielder Lee Crooks and goalkeeper Martyn Margetson. Frontseck had appeared a total of 19 times for both West Germany and the unified German national side and had joined City in January from Borussia Mönchengladbach for a fee of £350,000. Crooks had come through the youth ranks and made his first team debut off the subs’ bench at Port Vale a week previously. The 25-year-old Margetson had made just six first team appearances since emerging from the youth ranks in 1990 but was to double that total in the current season, later having spells with Southend, Huddersfield and Cardiff and winning one Welsh international cap at the age of 32.
When the draw had been made John Beck had said it would be “brilliant for everybody connected with the club” and apart from mentioning the much-needed money that could be made from the tie said that although City would probably get beaten, it was a real challenge, and “everyone can be sure – we are going to give it one hell of a go.” In his programme notes the manager was slightly more cautious, commenting that as underdogs City had nothing to lose which gave them the opportunity to play with freedom and enjoy the experience, and “with that attitude we can cause an upset and give ourselves some kind of result to take with us to Maine Road next week.”
Although City had not raised admission prices from the standard £10 for seats and £8 standing the club did however attempt to cash in slightly by increasing the cost of the match programme by a third to £2.00.
Although the match was not all-ticket, I took the precaution of purchasing one for my then usual place on the terraced part of the Stacey West End to be part of the attendance of 7,599. This was the highest for a competitive match at Sincil Bank since the visit of Everton in the same stage of the competition three years before,
In that night’s Echo Beck had pledged City would adopt their usual method, play to their strengths and attack as much as possible. He said there was no special game plan other than to try and keep the ball around the visitors’ penalty area as much as possible so that the likes of Georgi Kinkladze would be “forced to take possession in areas where they cannot hurt us.” In the event, star Georgian international playmaker Kinkladze had to miss the match with hamstring trouble and instead the Imps were faced with former England Under-21 player Nicky Summerbee who came into the side instead, and inexperienced teenager Jeff Whitley.
The first meeting of the two clubs since 1910 got underway in the worst possible fashion for the Imps with the expectant home crowd silenced almost immediately. With just 41 seconds on the clock a cross from Paul Dickov saw German international Uwe Rosler ghost in between City’s defenders to put a close-range header into the net at the South Park End. However, the Imps refused to cave in, with Terry Fleming and Mark Hone, although outnumbered in midfield snapping and harrying to win control. City’s efforts brought reward with half an hour gone, and I can still picture the goal which saw a Gareth Ainsworth cross from way out on the right met first time with a volley from ten yards by Fleming to score a memorable first goal for the club. A few minutes later City were forced into a substitution when Worrell Sterling had to limp off, but the substitution of Colin Alcide brought even more height and strength to the side playing wide on the left to receive the usual quota of long balls down that side.
With 39 minutes gone the Imps took the lead when Steve Holmes beat a weak leap from visiting goalkeeper Andy Dibble to get on the end of a Mark Hone free kick and head into the net from six yards. The momentum was really seized by City three minutes after the break with a classic Beck goal as Fleming hurled in a typical long throw for Gijsbert Bos to meet it at the near post and glance a header back across goal and into the net.
The Imps did have an escape in the 58th minute when Nigel Clough was unlucky to see his shot hit the post, bounce back off goalkeeper Barry Richardson and hit the post again. But with the visitors looking increasingly dejected the Imps rubbed things in with a fourth goal to seal an unbelievable win. This came eleven minutes from time and again was typical Beck as another long throw from Terry Fleming was flicked on by Colin Alcide and only half-cleared resulting in Jon Whitney firing the ball home. City could really have embarrassed the visitors with a fifth goal but Jae Martin forced a fine save from Dibble with a shot after another flick-on by Alcide.
The players received a standing ovation in what was a night to remember for the Imps, but as John Beck said after commenting his side were the better team and deserved to win, “this is only half-time – we still face a real uphill battle in the second half.” Team captain Grant Brown rated it as the best performance since he’d been at the club, saying “it was a case of everyone giving everything.”
It had been expected that Manchester City would have a new manager in charge by the time of the second leg, but they had reportedly been turned down by Dave Bassett of Crystal Palace so Asa Hartford was still in caretaker charge of what was an even more abject display. Despite fielding a stronger side including the return of Kinkladze, a tap-in goal for Gijsbert Bos saw a 5-1 win on aggregate for the Imps.
After a defeat in their next game Manchester City appointed Crystal Palace’s Director of Football former England winger Steve Coppell as their new manager but he resigned after just six games. His former assistant, ex-England and Liverpool full back Phil Neal became the club’s second caretaker of the season before the appointment of former Nottingham Forest boss Frank Clark. He took over with the club fourth from bottom of what is now known as the Championship but oversaw an improvement in results to a final placing of 14th.
Lincoln’s win brought an away tie with Premier League Southampton but after producing another tremendous performance to come away with a draw they lost out in controversial circumstances in the replay at Sincil Bank. League form gradually improved, especially following the signing of experienced striker Phil Stant who provided plenty of goals to go with those of Gareth Ainsworth. Results however remained inconsistent with a run of only one win in eight matches putting the team solidly in mid-table. But a run of four wins and a draw up to the end of April left the Imps needing to beat Rochdale at Sincil Bank on the last day of the season to have a chance of a play-off place. But it wasn’t to be with a 2-0 defeat, and promotion celebrations would be postponed for a year and would come after the departure of John Beck.