The Imps opened their pre-season with a 1-1 draw in Spain against Stockport County on Friday and it got me thinking about friendlies.
It looked like a great occasion, with some of our supporters making the trip and having a cracking time. This pre-season, even I’m engaged a bit – I don’t normally do friendlies, but my Boston tickets are booked, and three generations of Hutchinson will be there to see the game. My brother and nephew live in Boston, but Isaac, my nephew, is going to wear the Lincoln shirt his uncle Gary bought him proudly.
My disengagement with pre-season is a new thing. I used to lap it up – Ferencvaros at the Bank, Premier League clubs such as Villa and Derby coming inside a week. It used to give me a buzz, but something changed. I know the exact game it changed – Norwich City. We played them under Danny, and I was sitting in the stand thinking, ‘what am I doing?’. It was a glorified training session, and whilst it served a great purpose, the days of the showcase friendly seemed a long way in the past.
One friendly sticks in my mind more than any other, and it happened in 1992. I wasn’t there – I was on holiday in Penryn near Falmouth. My brother and I had an attic room in my Grandad’s house, and I didn’t find out the score of the game until the day after. I remember looking down the list of results in his Sunday paper and thinking there must be a misprint. Why? Because Lincoln City thrashed a Premier League side 5-1.
The 1991/92 season had been alright for the Imps, especially towards the end. We won seven games on the spin, scoring 14 goals in the final four. We beat Blackpool 2-0 on the final day to deny them automatic promotion, having pumped five past Chesterfield at Saltergate and four past Halifax at the Shay. People had us down as title favourites, and it was a fair pick. Steve Thompson’s side had found their stride and were looking slick.
So were Lennie Lawrence’s Middlesbrough. They came second in the second tier, and reached the semi-final of the League Cup, where eventual winners Manchester United defeated them 2-1 in extra time. Promotion ensured they were among the roster for the first-ever Premier League, launching in the summer to massive fanfare. This was an illustrious friendly for the Imps, taking place on August 1st, 1992.
Our pre-season had been average – we’d beaten Kempston Rovers (4-0) and Worksop Town (1-0) as they opened their new ground. Notts County, who had dropped out of the First Division and missed the Premier League millions, had then beaten us 1-0. Rob Matthews got their goal, and the game was notable for being the first to be played at Sincil Bank under the new backpass rules.
Boro had played four matches – they’d beaten two local non-league sides, then drawn 1-1 against a strong Celtic outfit, before another draw, 2-2 with York City. With minutes in the tank and the big Premier League kick-off just two weeks away, they were hoping to bag a morale-boosting victory.
City’s lineup for the game bore a strong resemblance to the XI that finished the previous season. Tony Lormor and Paul Smith were both absent, the latter missing the first four weeks, and the former the entire season. We lined up Ian Bowling, Dean West, David Clarke, Paul Ward, Matt Carmichael, Grant Brown, John Schofield, Paul Ward, Jason Lee, Jason Kabia and David Puttnam. On the bench were Keith Alexander, Kevin Finney, Sean Dunphy, Graham Bressington and Ben Dixon. There were no new signings in the side at all.
This was in the days before Premier League clubs sent kids, so Boro lined up strongly – Ian Ironside, Gary Parkinson, Jimmy Phillips, Alan Kernagahan, Robbie Mustoe, Jon Gittens, Bernie Slaven, Mark Proctor, Paul Wilkinson, John Hendrie and Michael O’Neill who was on trial from Dundee United. Their subs included Jamie Pollock, Nicky Mohan and Willie Falconer.
The Imps opened the scoring in the 14th minute. Jason Lee, often the target of criticism during his time at City, got on the end of a cross, but instead of going for a goal, he nodded back to Kabia. The crowd sighed, as if he’d made the wrong choice, only for Kabia to smash the ball home from close to the penalty spot to give the Imps the lead.
Jimmy Phillips only scored 19 goals during a 572-appearance career, and not one of those can have been as spectacular as his leveller. The crowd must have felt the Premier League side were about to turn on the style as he rifled in from 30 yards to restore parity. The reports suggest there were a few Boro fans who made the trip, so I hope they enjoyed that moment, as there was to be no more joy. Michael O’Neill could have given the visitors the lead, but with an open goal to shoot at from a tight angle, he rattled the post. From there, City took control.
One of my favourite players of the day, David Puttnam, sent us in 2-1 at the break. His shot found its way into the net through a crowd and through the legs of Phillips, who went from hero to zero (if that’s possible in a friendly) in quickfire time.
After the break, O’Neill hit the post again, and as he didn’t sign for Boro, perhaps cost himself a stab at the Premier League. That was it for Boro – City began to push them ‘further and further back’ according to Chris Hutchings in the Echo, and just past the hour mark came the third. Kabia was the provider this time, whipping a cross into the box for Jason Lee to head home. There were no jeers this time, and, on 76 minutes, the cheers doubled.
Puttnam picked the ball up in his own half and broke upfield, outpacing Jon Gittens and netting with a low drive. Puttnam was undoubtedly one of the Imps’ flair players, and friendlies afforded him the time and lack of tough tackling he needed to really shine. In league action, players of his ilk were often targeted by hatchetmen, making it harder for him to thrive.
City added a fifth before the end. Two subs combined, Bressington delivering the corner and Dunphy getting on the end of it with a header to make it 5-1.
“I’ve never seen anything like it in my 15 years of football,” raged Boro boss Lawrence. “Lincoln totally destroyed us. They were organised and committed and got the ball into our box quickly, and we were unable to cope. There is nothing at all we can take home from that game.”
Harsh words indeed, but what did the result mean for the two sides? Nothing in terms of outcome, but was it a springboard for success?
No. We lost our final pre-season friendly away at Dagenham and then lost the first three league matches against Colchester (2-1), York (1-0) and Carlisle (2-0). That start cost us dearly – we missed out on the play-offs on goal difference to Bury, with both teams sitting on 63 points. As for Boro, they also started badly, losing their first Premier League encounter 2-1 against Coventry City. They rallied – they were sixth in the table by mid-September, but losing 14 games in 18 after Christmas saw them relegated.
So, pre-season really does mean nothing. See you at Boston!