Looking Back At: 1982/83

This is a mammoth one from Malcolm Johnson, so strap in as we take you on a ride through a turbulent season for the Imps, with no fewer than SEVEN parts.

It’s the closest you’ll ever get to the season without having actually lived it.



After promotion to the Third Division at the end of the 1980/81 season Lincoln City had narrowly failed to go straight through to the Second, finishing a single point outside the three promotion places. The season had been a rather mixed one with a no better than average first half being followed by a surge up the table following a change of tactics by manager Colin Murphy to play with three men up front. This had proved highly effective, and there was every hope that the current form could be continued to see the Imps go one better in the new season. A shadow over the situation, however, was the financial situation of the club with mounting losses causing increasing concern.

As had become the pattern over the last two or three years there was little movement of players in or out over the summer, in fact the only movement at all was of players leaving as there was little or no money available for new signings. The three players who had joined on a short-term basis to strengthen the squad prior to the transfer deadline were all released. John Ward had already left to take up coaching duties with Watford, while centre half David Rodgers joined Southern League lower division side Forest Green Rovers and midfielder David Hughes dropped two divisions to join Worcester City of the Alliance Premier League.

Also released were the two regular full backs of City’s promotion-winning side of two years before. Nolan Keeley had not featured in the first team since appearing in the Football League Group Cup matches played the previous August, while Trevor Thompson had not been in the first team picture since the end of October. The 31-year-old Keeley was another player to drop into non-league, after a trial with Southern League Corby Town, joining Northern Premier League King’s Lynn before moving further round the coast to Great Yarmouth Town of the Eastern Counties League. Thompson also moved into the Northern Premier League but closer to home, joining Gainsborough Trinity. Moving considerably further away than these two was 20-year-old defender or striker Gerard Creane who had made a handful of appearances in the season just ended. He went on loan to Finnish side Yaro where he joined his former Imps team mate Craig Ramsay.

The big surprise was the free transfer given to teenager David Gilbert who had played almost 40 games in the season, becoming a fans favourite, and creating such a good impression with his left wing play that Echo reporter Maurice Burton had even likened him to club legend Dave Smith. It was true there had seemed to be no place for him in the side once Colin Murphy switched to a 4-3-3 formation as he was deemed too lightweight to play as one of the midfield three and was by no means a striker. However, he had played an important role as the regular substitute in the second half of the season, often being brought on to change the game. Although initially another player to go non-league he went on to have a lengthy and successful career with Northampton Town and in the top two divisions with Grimsby and West Bromwich. As with Wayne Biggins a year before, this was certainly a case of ‘the one that got away,’ and his release must surely have been as an economy measure.

There seemed a possibility that Phil Turner might be leaving the club, although doubtless a decent-sized fee would have been received, when soon after the end of the season he went on tour to Germany and the Netherlands with newly-promoted First Division side Luton Town’s youth team as an overage player. Colin Murphy said Luton had wanted an opportunity to look at Turner but there had been no talk of a transfer, and indeed nothing further came of it.

With no new players joining in the summer this left a squad of 14 players including two goalkeepers, backed up by a small handful of youth players barely on the fringes of the first team. As it was, the youth team had already been withdrawn from the Northern Intermediate League to save money, and the reason for economies having to be made was soon made clear. Financial figures given at the club’s AGM in January for the year ended the previous June had shown the club to be £186,000 in the red, and although a small profit had been made in the promotion season it was anticipated that the latest accounts would show a loss for the season of ‘approaching’ £200,000. So, with liabilities now of almost £400,000 (well over £1.5m in 2024 values) the club was in its worst financial state since the dark days of 1963 when they had been close to following the old Accrington Stanley out of business. “We shall explore every avenue in our efforts to maintain League football at Sincil Bank,” said Gilbert Blades, confronted with this situation immediately after his first board meeting as chairman.

Meanwhile there was news of two former Imps players taking up managerial posts. Mainstay of the Graham Taylor era, former centre half Sam Ellis left his post as assistant to Taylor at Watford to take over at Fourth Division Blackpool, while lower down the scale his former team mate Phil Hubbard left Boston United to become player-manager of Skegness Town in the newly-formed Northern Counties East League.

Back to financial matters, and in attempt to find a solution to the club’s difficulties Gilbert Blades and financial director Heneage Dove entered into negotiations with the City Council. The chairman reported a good response from the authority and felt optimistic of receiving some kind of assistance from them following examination of the club’s accounts by the council’s Chief Executive.

Early in June the club went on a six-day trip to Neustadt, Lincoln’s twin town in West Germany for a game to celebrate the 75th anniversary of local club VFL 1907 Neustadt, one of the country’s top amateur sides. Colin Murphy was not able to go on the trip himself due to being invited by the FA to take part in a three-week advanced coaching course at Lilleshall, so the party was in the charge of his assistant John Pickering. Glenn Cockerill, Gordon Hobson and George Shipley also missed the trip mainly due to domestic reasons so it was not a full-strength squad with Pickering himself making up the numbers in a side which defeated Neustadt 2-1 with goals from Phil Turner and young defender Paul Brown

Before the trip to Germany Colin Murphy had said, presciently or otherwise, that by “waving the flag on behalf of the City” it could help consolidate the club’s relationship with the City Council: “You never know when you might have to help each other out”. Whatever bearing this ‘flag waving’ may or may not have had on the situation the negotiations with the council for financial help turned out to be rather lengthy as the club’s proposals, “based on sound commercial principles” as Gilbert Blades put it, were considered at length.

At this juncture something which it had been hoped would boost the club’s finances had the opposite effect. This was the two-day country music festival staged at Sincil Bank on the 18th and 19th of June, a Friday and Saturday, starting at 12pm and running until 10.30pm and which turned out to be an outright fiasco. Complete with sideshows and stalls, although it was not exactly Glastonbury Festival, even I, as a non-country music fan had heard of top of the bill performer Billie Jo Spears and even Skeeter Davis plus of course Don Everley (at the time performing separately from his brother). Although the bill included Tammy Cline rather than Patsy and 1960s veterans Miki & Griff there were a large number of mainly British supporting acts including the likes of the Hillsiders and the intention was that fans would be drawn from all over the UK.

As it turned out bad weather was blamed for less than 300 people turning up for the Friday event with special car parks which had been set up standing almost empty. In fact, the rain was so bad that the start had to be delayed for three hours due to the stage having partially collapsed which meant some of the support acts had to be cancelled. The Saturday saw the audience size doubled, with some fans traveling from as far afield as the USA and the Netherlands but that still meant a total of less than a thousand people turning up for the two days against an expected six thousand. Billie Jo Spears also blamed the weather for the low turnout but said that as long as she could make a few people happy she was happy.

While it was certainly bad luck with the weather, especially on the first day (although of course covered seating was available in the two stands) which may have reduced the number of people turning up on the day, my own feeling has always been the failure was due to a lack of national publicity for the event. Although not paying much (any) attention to the country music scene myself I did at the time read one daily and two Sunday newspapers and never came across any adverts or publicity for it in the entertainments pages. If it really was only advertised locally (and I could be wrong) it was hardly surprising large numbers didn’t turn up.

Originally costed at £20,000 to stage the event ended up having £46,000 spent on it, and with takings of just £6,000 a loss of £40,000 was made, a sum the club could ill afford to lose in its present financial plight. The consequence was the suspension from his duties of commercial manager David Mitchell whose initiative it was, on the grounds that he had committed the club to twice the original estimated expenditure without the board’s approval. Mr Mitchell’s wife said he deserved better having worked very hard for the club, and after taking legal advice he began to pursue a claim for unfair dismissal. Several months later, on the eve of his case being heard by an industrial tribunal the matter was settled out of court with a payment to him of £4,000.

Meanwhile, it emerged that the board’s plan to ease the financial situation was to sell the ground to the council and lease it back. One difficulty with this was the board’s valuation of Sincil Bank at near to £500,000 – which was a hefty sum to ask of the city’s ratepayers (this was long before Council Tax had been invented) – compared to council valuers who put it at no more than £150,000.

There were mixed views coming from the council over whether a deal could be done, but with the admission that unless some solution could be found there might no longer be a football club. It appeared a deal was on the table, but it was rejected by the club with Gilbert Blades saying the ground could not be sold for ‘such a paltry sum’ as had been offered. It appeared instead a loan was being sought from the council, but meanwhile there were rumours of a consortium of businessmen preparing to make a takeover bid for the club. Blades denied any knowledge of this and so did former director and Welbourn-based millionaire Reg Brealey, currently chairman of Sheffield United – “I am quite sure the club will resolve their difficulties. It’s just a hiccup.”

The sale of the ground to the council was then back on again with a figure now of £225,000 being quoted for the purchase of the ground and its buildings. This was then passed in an hour-long meeting by the Conservative-controlled council by the narrow margin of 16 votes to 14. This did not run on party lines as although the majority of those in favour were Labour those against were evenly split between the two parties. The deal required the renting of Sincil Bank for a figure of £11,250 a year for the first three years with an option to buy it back at the end of that time. There were conditions attached to it though. Firstly, that the club make a public appeal for cash, with the figure of £200,000 being mentioned as a target, and secondly – and significantly as things were to turn out – there would have to be staff cuts including players. Gilbert Blades was jubilant over the deal which he said would ensure the survival of league football in Lincoln. He was confident the club could buy the ground back in three years’ time, and said that despite needing to have a smaller playing staff of around 14 or 15 players, together with a reduced support staff, he was hoping a good team could be kept together.

The deal did not meet with approval from all within the city, especial some local traders. Gunsmith Joseph Wheater asked why ratepayers should give money to the football club. “What do they do for the city?” he asked, and complained that he had to spend money to protect his shop from “soccer hooligans.” He maintained that councillors had not been given sufficient financial details at the meeting and called for the District Auditor to step in, as did the owner of the Duke William Hotel whose opinion was that the council had “bought a bankrupt business with ratepayers’ money. As a commercial business, I think they should be allowed to go to the wall.” These comments were evidently not typical of the majority however, as the Lincoln Chamber of Commerce came out in favour, with its president pointing out that the funds to buy the ground would not be coming out of the revenue from ratepayers but from capital funds. He said he was glad to see a capital asset being acquired and that if the club did go out of business, he would rather see a large block of property owned by the city than bought by a developer.

The number of letters received by the Lincolnshire Echo can only be judged by those printed, but if they were a representative sample then a huge majority were unfavourable towards both the football club and the council.

It has to be remembered that this was a time of financial hardship and cutbacks with three million unemployed, the highest figure since the 1930s, and inflation at 9%.

One opinion was that it was ’a gross misuse of public funds,’ with league football now ‘a financial non-starter’ in the country at large, let alone in Lincoln, with people no longer prepared to support it in enough numbers to make it pay. The general tone of the letters was that the money could have been better spent on such as schools funding or new community centres. There was also questioning whether the club would be able to meet its financial obligations in the future in view of the ‘obviously inflated wages being paid to staff and players.’ A rare contrary opinion pointed out that preservation of league football was important to a city which had already lost its racecourse, five out of its six cinemas and the Boultham swimming baths.

Some of the required saving on staff costs – to the tune of £10,000 a year – was made when David Mitchell was dismissed following his suspension over the Country music festival. To add to the losses made on the event itself further costs were incurred due to the pitch having been damaged by a heavy lorry driving onto it to collect the scaffolding used to support the concert stage. Gilbert Blades, in typical solicitor fashion, said he was looking into making a claim against the contractor.

As seemed to happen regularly whenever there was any financial criticism to be made over the running of the club the name Dennis Bocock now came to the fore. The club president and former chairman, although no longer a director still controlled a third of the club’s shares and amid speculation that he might be seeking to take over the club – apparently following talks he had had with ‘interested parties’ – said he would not be selling any shares but had two questions to put to the board. He wanted to know if the directors would guarantee that the total of all the loans they had made to the club would remain at £100,000 and that the ground would be bought back within three years. He also felt that all the shareholders should have been consulted before the freehold of the land had been sold, mentioning that he for one had not been despite his large holdings. He implied criticism of the way the club had been run since ‘the Graham Taylor era’ and harked back to his scheme of nine years ago for the development of a new stand with associated facilities which he said would have produced an income sufficient to avoid the present financial crisis.

Mr Joseph Wheater would not let things rest and challenged the councillors who had voted for the deal to personally underwrite the cost of it. He also claimed that he had offered publicly to contribute £3,000 to start a fund to buy the ground but ‘not one solitary person’ had come forward to support it despite claims from the council and club that ‘hundreds and thousands of people’ were interested in the club. He had now arranged to deposit the money for a period of 14 days to allow 99 other persons to come up with the same amount – including Mr Blades himself. His sole interest, he said, was not in helping the club financially (“I would not put a penny into it. I have not met anyone who would.”) but in saving ratepayers’ money, saying that ‘hundreds’ of people had phoned him to express their disgust at “public money being put into a club which has not got a chance of surviving.” In response, the council’s chief executive, John Thomas (no relation) dismissed Mr Wheater’s claims of a financial burden falling on the ratepayers as ‘completely false’ and ‘fantasy,’ and suggested he obtain the facts before passing any comment on the situation.

A new club secretary was appointed with Philip Hough who had filled the post on a temporary basis following the departure of John Sorby in March now being made permanent to make him at 21 the youngest in the Football League. A departure, though, which doubtless helped towards the required savings on staff costs was that of Lennie Lawrence. Since the withdrawal of the youth team from the Northern Intermediate League, he admitted there was less work for him to do and with the job title of reserve team manager he left to take up the same post with Charlton Athletic. Before long he had been promoted to the top job with the Addicks and went on to have a notable managerial career achieving promotion to the top division with both Charlton and later Middlesbrough. Reading between the lines, Colin Murphy may not have been best pleased with losing a valuable member of his staff, noting that it was during his absence that Lawrence’s departure had been arranged with the chairman, and that the development of young players on a reduced budget would be more time-consuming and require more skill from fewer people.

Despite the departure of Lawrence, the small size of the playing staff and the financial cutbacks it was announced that City would continue to operate a reserve side, although with a number of clubs either moving to the Central League or doing away with their reserve sides altogether this would be in a much-reduced North Midlands League. In fact, there would only be five clubs in it, with the other four being Hull, Doncaster, Grimsby and York. The format would see four league games against each other club plus a fifth game in a cup competition. An advantage was that apart from York all the clubs were within an hour’s travelling time from Lincoln

An attempt was made to get City promoted to the Second Division after all due to Wolves, relegated from the top flight at the end of the season being reported as about to be liquidated and replaced by what in later years would come to be known as a ‘phoenix club’. Gilbert Blades made representations to the Football League that it would set a ‘dangerous precedent’ if such a club was to directly take the place of the old one. His view, and that of ‘a number of other clubs’, was City should be promoted to fill the vacancy in the Second Division with any new club entering in the Fourth Division. As things turned out Wolves were saved by a consortium fronted by their former centre forward Derek Dougan and took their place in the Second Division.

The chairman said if that the appeal to be promoted was successful the club would have to reconsider expenditure on new players, but otherwise this could not happen unless any were sold first. “We are going to try and manage with a maximum of 15 professional players, supplemented by four apprentices.” He said there was no reason why these shouldn’t be adequate “provided we are lucky on the injury side”, and pointed out the possibility of loan players coming in if necessary, with a maximum of five allowed per season. He went on to say that throughout football people were coming down from ‘Cloud Cuckoo Land’ and that “like most other industries today, football is over-manned.”

After all these off the field happenings some actual football was now on the horizon again and for the third year in a row the players headed for a stay at RAF Church Fenton, although now in much reduced numbers compared to previously. Colin Murphy reported that there was an air of depression over the current situation at the club but that he hoped to return the players to the right frame of mind.

After a game against the RAF personnel at Church Fenton the only actual pre-season friendly for the first team saw a visit to Northern Counties East League side Skegness Town managed by Phil Hubbard. The former Imp was unable to take part in the match however due to a broken leg suffered while kicking a ball about on Mablethorpe beach. In a close match City came out on top with goals from Stuart Hibberd and Gordon Hobson in a 2-1 win. The following day a youthful Imps side went down to a 3-0 defeat by Lincoln United at Ashby Avenue before on the Monday night the pre-season games began in earnest with a Lincolnshire Senior Cup visit to second tier side Grimsby. Apart from the inclusion of David Beavon at left back in the summer absence of Phil Neale City fielded a full-strength side with the luxury of being able to leave Derek Bell on the subs’ bench. As usual for games against Grimsby the Mariners had several past (Peter Grotier) and future (Kevin Kilmore, Bob Cumming) Imps players in their side, but in an impressive display City cruised to a 4-0 victory with goals from Trevor Peake, George Shipley, and a brace from Phil Turner.

Two nights after the visit to Grimsby the Imps were at home to Fourth Division Scunthorpe United with only a draw needed to reach the final of the Lincolnshire Senior Cup. However, watched by a crowd of just under 700 a lineup which saw Derek Bell given an hour in place of Gordon Hobson gave a mediocre display going down by 3-1. Again, there were some Imps connections in the opposition side with future City player Les Hunter alongside last season’s striker Steve Cammack and the recently-released David Gilbert. It was the on-trial 19-year-old winger who put his team 2-0 up just before half time before Phil Turner was on the scoresheet again to pull a goal back only for David Beavon to put a back pass into his own net to put City out of the cup.

Following the Scunthorpe game a letter criticising several aspects of the club’s public relations appeared in the Echo from a supporter based in the Newark area. Although admitting that he was not usually one of the “faithful few” at Sincil Bank his list of complaints included the lack of the full names of the visiting team being read out, and querying whether the programme for the new season would be a “vast improvement” on the previous one (he would be disappointed in that). He also wished to know whether pre-match entertainment would continue to be “the hideous sounds of Tin Pan Alley over the tannoy” (more disappointment to come) and wondered whether the record of the Lincolnshire Poacher that used to be played as the teams came out onto the field had been mislaid (my sympathies were with him there). Rather oddly, considering this was long before the age of a new shirt design every season enabling replica sales, he complained the team seemed to be wearing the same shirts as the previous season and wondered if the club was so hard up they could not afford new ones.

The Thursday night saw a young City side beat Ruston Sports 5-0 in a friendly match including two goals from young apprentice Gary Strodder while the following Saturday saw another game against Scunthorpe in the successor to the previous season’s Football League Group Cup. Still sponsor-less, it was now re-titled the Football League Trophy. Unlike its later successor of the same name the format was unchanged from the previous season with 32 teams invited to take part, the majority from the lower two divisions plus a small number from Division Two along with Norwich City and Watford newly promoted to Division One. These were divided into eight regional groups of four with the group games once again being played before the start of the league season. The winners of each group then went forward to the knockout stage.

Changes from the game three days earlier saw Stuart Naylor given a game in goal, and with David Beavon absent due to an ankle ligament injury David Carr was moved across to the left with a 16-year-old schoolboy named Chris Moyses playing the first hour of the game at right back before being substituted by the scarcely older Paul Brown. For the Iron, David Gilbert was left out despite scoring in the previous game but Steve Cammack and Les Hunter were both again included, and it was the centre half who gave his side an early lead, heading home from a free kick. Although giving a more committed display than in midweek the Imps struggled to find a way through the Scunthorpe defence until Tony Cunningham equalised with 9 minutes to go.

The following Tuesday night saw the annual pre-season visit to Sleaford Town with a young City side apart from Derek Bell and Stuart Naylor beaten 2-0. The next game in the Football League Trophy saw recent opponents again with the visit of Grimsby Town to Sincil Bank on the Wednesday night. With Paul Brown joining David Beavon on the injured list Chris Moyses kept his place in the side with Colin Murphy saying that his priority was getting through the match without any further injury problems. He also commented that it wasn’t the ideal preparation for a new season to have to play the same players in every game, although David Felgate did return in place of Naylor. The Second Division visitors again had some ex (Dean Crombie) and later (Kevin Kilmore, Nigel Batch) Imps in their ranks but City gave a much-improved performance compared to recent games to win 2-1. An early lead came when young Moyses split the Mariners defence with a through ball for Glenn Cockerill to slot it past Batch in goal. Although Grimsby equalised midway through the second half City quickly replied when Steve Thompson headed in a Phil Turner cross.

The final Trophy game on the Saturday saw the visit of Sheffield United with all four clubs in the group still in with a chance of progressing to the knock-out stage. Stuart Naylor was rotated back into the team in place of David Felgate as the only change to a City lineup which produced a top class display of attacking football which destroyed the previous season’s Fourth Division champions. Although going behind midway through the first half to a goal from prolific striker Keith Edwards, the Imps then took control with an equaliser from Glenn Cockerill and went ahead early in the second half through Tony Cunningham. Cockerill’s second goal then sealed the win and a bonus point gained from scoring three goals in the match was enough to see the Imps top the group and progress to a quarter final tie to be played in December. Boosted by visiting supporters the attendance for the game was 2,820 and ‘soccer trouble’ reared its ugly head with a Lincoln supporter being knocked unconscious in a fight in Silver Street before the game. There was no trouble reported during the match itself but at least two pubs in the city centre decided to delay their evening opening until 6pm.

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