Yep. 24 years ago this week, the Imps faced Grimsby in a friendly, losing 2-0. A couple of days later, we saw seven goals fly in. Not only that, but we had a trialist playing and perhaps, ominously, we signed him.
Every so often, I like to look back at what was happening on this date a certain amount of time ago, and the spell around July 26th, 1999, did seem quite interesting. We’d just been relegated out of the third tier and were managed by John Reames. Firstly, we played Grimsby in a friendly, losing 2-0. In a real quirk of fate, the Echo report suggests the visitors were booed off at half time! That was harsh, but in this instance, they were the side placed higher in the pyramid – they were a Championship side, and we were in the fourth tier.
It was a game featuring two trialists for City, Dave Barnett and a young keeper by the name of Alan Marriott. The Grimsby side had Adam Buckley and Kinglset Black in it, as well as Danny Butterfield, Daryl Clare, Matt Bloomer, Paul Groves and Jack Lester. They bagged twice late on, 73 minutes and 75 minutes, to win the game, but the reports were good. That set us up for a visit from Premier League side Leicester City.
Mazza’s outing certainly caught the eye of John Reames. “The young boy Marriott did very well in goal,” he said. “I can see a future for him at Lincoln City.” Not long afterwards, he did join the club, despite a bizarre moment against Grimsby where he headed the ball, chested it down and then did a bicycle kick to clear it.”
Reames was also discussing preparation for the Leicester fixture, and his words echoed Mark Kennedy’s before last night’s game. “Obviously, we are looking forward to the game because it is alwas good to play any side from the Premiership. But we have got to remember what this is about, which is getting the players fit and prepared for August 7th.” Okay, he didn’t mention load and minutes, but the inference is definitely there.
24 years ago, Premier League sides did not always send a second string to play lower league teams. Leicester featured Robbie Savage, Gerry Taggart, Matty Elliott, Muzzy Izzett, Neil Lennon and Emile Heskey. Despite that, it was not a big draw – only 1,908 turned up to watch. They’ll be glad they missed it, not least because Dave Barnett, signed before the game, was already ruled out injured!
Six minutes in – Izzett tees up Heskey for the opener. Then Izzett scored after a pass from Stuart Campbell, stripping trialist Alex Allen to make it two. City rallied, Gavin Gordon having a shot fly wide and a young Peter Gain also putting one off target with Peggy Arphexad stranded. The Imps paid the price, going 3-0 down on 30 minutes, Heskey providing the goals for Campbell, to leave them and Izzett on one goal and one assist each. Before the break, Heskey added a fourth and City looked desolate. Still, no reports of booing.
The Imps brought on trialist David Poppleton for the ‘ineffective’ David Phillips, and he briefly lifted the Imps before Izzett added a fifth. Ian Marshall, something of a veteran at this stage, replaced Heskley and added a sixth, whilst Savage pulled a ball back for Izzett to complete his hat trick on 75 minutes. 7-0, City were shell-shocked and, even worse, had few bodies on the bench thanks to an injury crisis. In pre-season.
Then came the rally, although at 7-0 down with 15 minutes left, it might have been too late. Gain bagged with a cross that evaded everyone, including Leicester’s French stopper, to make it 7-1. Gavin Gordon missed another chance after that before flicking on Peacock’s cross for Paul Smith to net a second for the Imps.
John Reames wasn’t happy. “We were too soft,” he raged. “For some reason, we tried to out-football them, and that’s why we came unstuck. The players just didn’t stick to the game plan, which was to harry and hassle and make them work to keep the ball.”
The manager and chairman was also a little disappointed with the crowd. “We are talking about a Premiership team who made it known they would be fielding a full-strength side, but we can’t get more than 2,000 people down here,” Reames said. “People ask me why we don’t spend money on players, but if they don’t come and support us for a game like this, where do they think the money is going to come from?”
It turned out to be a challenging season for City. We won the opening game against Rotherham, 2-1, but then went nine matches without a win. Trialists Barnett, Marriott and Poppleton all signed, with varying degrees of success, although Alex Allen did not, instead ending up at Wisbech Town. We did bag another defender, Steve Welsh, but between him and Barnett, the backline lacked pace, if not experience.
In the end, City finished the first season back in the bottom tier 15th, the highest we’d finish until Keith Alexander took over for the 2002/03 season. Leicester won the League Cup, finished 8th in the top flight and qualified for Europe.