The Worst Start to a New Season?

We’re looking forward to a new season, with the friendly fixtures kicking off this weekend.

I was tweeting a Rochdale fan earlier talking about their start to the season, and it got me thinking about 1987 and our first foray into non-league. We’ve still got a few weeks to enjoy the summer before we’re back at the Bank, but in 1987, enjoyment was far from people’s intention. City had dropped out of the league, and we were facing the unknown – life in the GMVC. If we’d had the internet, it would have been in meltdown in the LN postcode area, but we didn’t. That’s not a bad thing at all.

Only five teams had suffered a similar fate to us since the inception of the Fourth Division in 1958, namely slipping out of the Football League after a poor league performance. They were teams voted out – Gateshead (1960), Bradford Park Avenue (1970), Barrow (1972), Workington (1977) and Southport (1978). Of those teams, none remained in the top flight of non-league by 1987. Instead, a queue of teams had bunched at the top of the GMVC, including Barnet, ambitious Weymouth, Boston United, two-time winners Enfield and Runcorn waited. They all wanted a slice of the Football League pie that Scarborough had grabbed the year before. They all wanted to take down billy-big balls Lincoln City.

The fortnight before the season started did not go well. Colin Murphy had to rejig the team, and with a week to go, City were all at sea. Why? Here is a look at the two weeks around our first fixture away at Barnet.

Friendly Fire

Our pre-season didn’t go with a bang. we had no high-profile matches to compete in, no headline act at a Sincil Bank half built. Instead, we won 3-0 at Boston FC, a Central Midlands League team. A mix-up with Sheffield clubs saw us go to Hillsborough to play behind closed doors, but not before we’d announced Sheffield Utd. Third Division Chester beat us 2-1, before a safety certificate for the ground arrived in time for a 3-3 draw with Chesterfield. On August 15th, a week before the big kick-off, City were beaten 2-0 by Frickley, relegated from the GMVC that summer.

Striker Woes

The Frickley result was not well received by the Echo – City’s lack of firepower was already being highlighted. Despite reports we were paying Third Division wages, we had been unable to attract the striker the reports felt we needed. Chris Cook had been close to joining the Imps from Boston, but after a week of wrangling earlier in the summer, he decided to stay put. We also spoke to Rotherham United’s Mike Trusson, although he was erroneously reported as being a striker called Keith when he played in midfield. We had reportedly offered him a £15,000 signing-on fee, and £350 per week, eye-watering sums at the time. He chose to go to Brighton instead.

We did sign a striker before the big kick-off, but the amusing thing is. Mick Waitt, John McGinley and Phil Brown all played against Frickley – they hit 50 goals between them in all competitions. The player who arrived, Mark Sertori, netted seven. Paul Smith, also considered a striker when he signed for a club-record fee, chipped in with plenty, but it’s interesting that the general consensus was we needed firepower when we already had 50 goals in the squad.

Keeper Leaves

Just two days before the big kick-off, the Imps lost a prized asset. People might not recall, but Nigel Batch, a much-loved figure at City, was signed to put pressure on our number one, 20-year-old Lee Butler. Butler had broken through in our relegation season but had caught the eye of scouts. Graham Taylor, boss of Aston Villa, decided he liked what he saw, and on the eve of our trip to Barnet, he splashed out £85,000 on the player’s services, with more to follow if he broke through at Villa Park. He didn’t, although he was a regular for Barnsley in the early nineties.

The transfer wasn’t without controversy in a fortnight packed with problems. The player’s former club claimed George Kerr, the manager who signed Butler for City, entered into an agreement with them to pass on 5% of any sales. It wasn’t written down, and Kerr was long gone, so City didn’t stump up the cash. Not a good look two days before you kick off your own non-league campaign – we were refusing to pay them a reported £4250 but had admitted paying Third Division wages on players. Imagine doing that now – if it wasn’t Lincoln, I’d be all over it on Twitter!

Away Fans Barred

I doubt Runcorn or Dagenham would have brought enough fans to pay off Harworth Colliery, but even if they could, it wouldn’t matter. The away section of the ground was closed for the first couple of fixtures due to regulations being imposed on the club. We were the only team in the GMVC who had to segregate rivals supporters, and that originally meant spending £30,000 on a section that would hold far fewer than the 2,600 capacity it was hoped. “Once again, we’re being treated like a Third Division club, even though we’re non-league”, moaned Geoff Davey, and with good reason. Eventually, the club decided to spend £18,000 on the section and welcomed away supporters for our home fixture with Enfield on September 19th.

“Friendly crowds is one of the trademarks of the Conference,” said Davey, clearly not realising that the opposite was going to be true for much of the season. The opposition fans hated us, the big-spending, full-time league club. The GMVC hated us because they wanted to put us in our place, and most of all, other teams hated us, such as Barnet and Barry Fry.

Toughest Start Possible

Barnet had finished as runner-up to Scarborough the year before and were seen as the title-favourites, and City were handed an away trip to Underhill as a welcome on the opening day. If that wasn’t enough, big-spending Weymouth were second favourites, midtable the season before, but fresh into a new multi-million-pound ground; we’d be the first visitors in front of a bumper crowd. Welcome to the GMVC, Lincoln City.

Les Hunter was one of the summer signings, but he barely played after the first few matches. Why? His opening-day performance might have something to do with it. He inexplicably handled in the area to give Barnet their first goal from the spot and committed a foul late on with us still in the game at 3-2 to give them another penalty. In between, Batch, perhaps not expected to have been playing, and Andy Moore got in a mix-up, allowing Nicky Evans to walk the ball into the next. We weren’t exactly virtuous in terms of discipline either – Mick Waitt could have been sent off after flooring Steve Cox, and Andy Moore was booed off by home supporters after leaving John Margerrison needing a stretcher to get him off the field.

City lost 4-2, but it could only get better, right?

Nope. City were thrashed 3-0 by Weymouth, featuring a young Steve Claridge up top and a future Spurs keeper in Peter Guthrie. The ‘need’ for a striker was apparently evident as Waitt, Sertori, Brown and McGinley all missed good chances long before Weymouth scored. Centre-back Steve Buckley went off injured and was replaced by 17-year-old David Parkin, with Neil Franklin and Shane Nicholson also in the back four, both teenagers themselves and Andy Moore completing the back four. Hunter, already on thin ice, was described as being ‘out of place’ in midfield, and both Bob Cumming and Dave Clarke were left out through injury. Andy Rowland, who was later on Southampton’s books, got the first, Claridge, the second and Morgan Lewis the third.

From There…

Two games, no points, and seven goals conceded. Back-to-back relegations and now bottom of the GMVC, the first Football League club to automatically drop into that level. Wages akin to Third Division clubs for players who were losing to electricians and plumbers. A back four that contained three teenagers, no away fans in the ground, and injuries already decimating the team. Can you possibly imagine the reaction if that had been today?

What happened next? Back-to-back wins over the Bank Holiday against Dagenham (3-0) and Runcorn (1-0). David Mossman and Paul Smith, amongst others, joined and Murphy’s Mission was up and running. Nine months later, we were back where we belonged, with a squad to be proud of an memories to last a lifetime.

Still not sure about the friendly fans though, Geoff Davey!