It’s funny the things you remember. I speak to some people who cannot recall their first game.
I remember mine – Hartlepool on October 5th, 1986. What may surprise you is that I remember my second game (Swansea) and my third (Cardiff). I even knew the game that was played the week before my first game! It featured on the cover of the programme from that day, a piece of memorabilia that feels almost sacred to me and has been read more times than any other book or magazine I own. The picture was of Gary Lund, taken as we beat Orient 2-0 at the Bank.
Until today, I haven’t read much about that game. However, as I have half an hour before I need to be ready for tonight’s game, I thought I’d look into it now.
City were falling into a rut in late 1986, and whilst this game was followed by a decent run that saw us touted as promotion candidates, perhaps savvy supporters knew better. The Imps had gone down to Southend ten days earlier, losing 3-1. That came on the back of a 4-0 defeat at Aldershot and a couple of uninspiring draws. Remember, we were back in the Fourth Division for the first time since 1981, and many felt that we were favourites for an immediate return.
2,542 saw us lose against Southend, but ten days later, just 1,443 were on hand to watch the Orient game. In fairness, we did have another fixture coming up at the weekend (my first game), and it was a foggy night in September, but it didn’t stop George Kerr from having a pop at the stay-away supporters.
“How can thousands of people leave the club that easily if they are really serious about supporting this club and helping to put things right?” asked the former Grimsby manager.
I can answer that. Not only were we in a slump, with a manager happy to have a pop at players, but he also fielded players who didn’t even want to be at the club – Peter Daniel wanted a move away, whilst Kevin Kilmore was on the bench. Those early signs were there.
Orient, meanwhile, were high up in the table, coming into the game on the back of 10 points from 12. It was a big ask for City, who lined up Lee Butler (making his home debut), Simeon Hodson, Steve Buckley, Gary West, Gary Strodder, Peter Daniel, Richard Cooper, Kevin Kilmore, Gary Lund, Tont Simmons and Gary Crosbty, with Bobby Mitchell on the bench.
Nick Purkiss in the Echo wrote that the supporters who ‘bothered’ to turn up witnessed even more dramatic events than Michelle jilting Lofty – that’ll get some of you thinking back. Both sides played controlled, attacking football, with Lund at the centre of everything good for the Imps. Daniel is described as ‘controlling’ the midfield, and he hit the post in the 12th minute to underline his impact.
Alan Comfort had an effort flashed across the front of Butler’s goal before Steve John hauled Lund down when the striker was through, only to get a yellow, not a red. However, an even first half was decided by a goal that stopper Pete Wells should reportedly have held. Daniel made it, feeding Simmons on the edge of the area. He turned and let a weak shot off, which the keeper got both hands on, only for it to squirm away and in off the post.
City were happy with that as it gave us something to defend in the second period, and defend it we did. Orient are described as coming forward in ‘wave after wave’, with a young Ian Juryeff impressing. His late header was clawed away by Butler, looking solid on his debut. The rebound fell to Kevin Godfrey, who could only rattle the crossbar from close range.
City blocked shots, put bodies on the line and fought for the points, and in the dying embers, we gave the score some gloss. The Imps took a free kick quickly, releasing Kilmore down the left flank. He beat two defenders and shot across Wells’ goal to make it 2-0 to the Imps.
“I have handled good keepers like Nigel Batch, Stuart Naylor and Bobby Mimms,” purred Kerr after the game. “For me, at this stage, this lad (Butler) is the best of the lot.” He would go on to prove Kerr right – in August 1987, he moved to Aston Villa under Graham Taylor before spending the bulk of his career with Barnsley.
It was about all Kerr did get right – despite his belligerent interview, he was sacked in 1987 at the Imps tumbled down the table, making him the only manager in City’s history to be dismissed twice. He didn’t sell Daniel either – the midfielder stuck around long enough to take over and see us relegated.