When Bob Dorrian stepped down from his roles as chairman and director on 4 June, it ended a roller coaster eight-year tenure that no one could have anticipated. It is unlikely that any club chairman will ever encounter such highs and lows in so short a period.
Bob joined the board on 25 July 2006 when the club was enjoying a period of relative success. Four unsuccessful bids at the League Two play-offs had raised supporter expectations after the club almost disappeared completely in 2002. A fifth unsuccessful play-off challenge in 2007 ended that period of success and the club slipped into mid-table mediocrity. John Schofield and Peter Jackson came and went without any real progress before the pivotal appointment of Chris Sutton changed the Sincil Bank landscape.
Contrary to popular mythology, Bob was not chairman at the time of Sutton’s appointment (September 2009), although it certainly suits some people to believe so. In any case, it looked an intelligent appointment at the time. The club had been searching for a young innovative coach in preference to the usual failed journeyman, and the 36-year-old ex-England international seemed to fit that bill. He had contacts in the game and carried a certain media focus with him that could only be positive for the image of the club. The board backed Sutton in the transfer market with substantial budgets, although a disappointing season followed with City finishing twentieth. A run to the third round of the FA Cup was the sole bright light in a season of struggle.
At the end of that season, Steff Wright stood down and a brave new era began as Bob Dorrian took the chair on 3 June 2010 with Chris Travers as vice-chairman. Bob looked forward to leading City to success: ” “Steff is a very hard act to follow but with the help of Chris Travers I’m confident we can take the club forward.”
What happened next was far from taking the club forward, and was something no one could have envisaged. Despite having rebuilt the squad with some significant signings, Sutton surprisingly resigned after the match against Burton Albion on 28 September. That was a setback that the new chairman hardly deserved, but he found himself looking for a new manager less than four months into his tenure and only nine games into the new season. It is impossible to say what would have happened had Sutton stayed. It is hard to see relegation ahead, but City had started the season poorly with only four goals and eight points from the first nine league games. Some supporters felt that a new man was not such a bad option if the promotion dream were to be revived.
The man appointed on 15 October 2010 was met with almost universal approval. Steve Tilson had taken Southend to two successive promotions on a shoestring and, despite being unable to keep them in the Championship, had mounted two further challenges at the top of League One. In addition, Southend had also reached two Football League Trophy finals and reached the quarter-finals of the League Cup, beating Manchester United along the way. Far from being something that Bob Dorrian should be blamed for, the Tilson appointment looked a fine one on paper.
There was to be no new manager bounce immediately, although a run of five successive wins in January and February carried the side comfortably into mid-table. A 2-1 win over Tilson’s former club Southend on 12 March left City closer to the playoffs than to relegation; with many fans wondering whether the top seven was a realistic possibility, there would not have been many who were still looking at the bottom two. But rumours of dressing room disharmony coincided with a terrible run that produced just two points from the final eleven games and relegation from the Football League.
As Bob himself wrote in Six Years In Purgatory: The Story Of Lincoln City In The Conference 2011-17, ”I couldn’t believe that a team that had been in with a chance of the playoffs with twelve games to go – and that out of those twelve games probably needed another four or five points to avoid relegation – had been relegated.”
There were many reasons why City went down, of course, and it is very difficult to hold Bob Dorrian responsible for any of them. By the time a few successive defeats became four or five, it was too late for the board to consider sacking Tilson. No chairman in his right mind would sack a manager with six games remaining and two or three points needed for safety. For his part, Tilson had begun making strange decisions including alienating captain Scott Kerr and bringing in teenage goalkeeper Elliot Parish in preference to playing the more experienced Joe Anyon. Bringing Drewe ‘Jonah’ Broughton back from a loan at Wimbledon for the final few games was never going to change anything. And yet, Tilson had been struck by bad luck. He lost captain and key player Delroy Facey for the season at Macclesfield and conceded a last-minute equaliser in that same game. Stephen Hunt and Gavin Hoyte picked up injuries at the same time, and Sunderland reneged on the Trevor Carson loan deal, causing City a transfer deadline day scramble to find a replacement. The net result was a terminal tailspin that dumped a very surprised club into the Conference again.
Meetings were held with Tilson during the immediate aftermath, and a decision was taken to retain him. If Bob Dorrian can be held responsible for anything, that is the hardest decision to justify. By his own admission, Bob has himself identified this decision as an error of judgement. City really needed a manager with experience of the Conference, and Tilson quickly showed he had none. Despite signing some good players, most of the budget was wasted on some questionable characters. More criticism was levelled at the beleaguered chairman when he said it may take City two or three years to regain their League place, but he was simply being realistic. The world had changed immeasurably since City had been relegated to the Conference in 1987, with the majority of clubs being essentially professional. Former manager Peter Jackson claimed it would take the club five or six years to recover League status, and he was proved correct.
As ever, the problem was a financial one. One quick glance at the numbers reveals what a huge crisis descended upon the club that summer. Bob estimated that the club would lose between £1.5 and £1.8 million in revenue in the first two seasons. Commercial income such as sponsorship and ancillaries was set to plummet. Many people have wrongly claimed that the parachute payment should have covered the shortfall, but that amounted to a tiny £225,000 by comparison. The wage bill was sky-high, with six players accounting for a massive 30% of the total budget.
The club also suffered a blow when vice-chairman Chris Travers resigned from the board in June, leaving Bob to face the financial effects of relegation alone.
To compound matters, a group of disgruntled but very disorganised shareholders mounted a challenge to Dorrian’s position by calling an Extraordinary General Meeting with an intended vote of no confidence in the board. The bid collapsed in embarrassing disarray, but it was time and money that could and should have been directed elsewhere. Further legal action for libel brought by former associate director Michael Foley caused more problems. There is little doubt that the negative publicity surrounding these events caused delays in attracting and signing new players. It is no coincidence that the first player did not join the club until 1 July.
Once the summer shenanigans were completed, the history books show that City got off to a poor start. By the time Tilson was eventually sacked on 10 October 2011, the budget was gone and the club was facing an almighty battle for survival. Fans expected a landmark managerial appointment, but the club’s parlous financial position meant there was no money to pay for one. With the total budget for the new manager set at £50,000 including an assistant, it was inevitable that supporters would have to lower their sights. In came David ‘The Tinkerer’ Holdsworth, late of Mansfield Town, with a remit to stabilise by rebuilding the squad and possibly mount a promotion challenge. Considering the financial state, the latter was a pipe dream that was never going to happen. Holdsworth did a great job in moving the high wage earners out of the club, but what he was able to bring in could only ever produce the relegation battle that ensued. Bob admitted the club was running on empty by this stage.
As the poor season continued, the financial position became critical. With falling gates and no immediate prospect of a revival, the board realised they would run out of money by March 2012. The result was the formation of Lincoln City Holdings in January 2012, which drew more criticism from shareholders who thought their shares had been devalued. The truth was stark and very simple: had Bob Dorrian not put his hand in his pocket and drawn out half a million pounds, the club would have folded before the end of the 2011-12 season. There was no other person able or willing to put the required sum of money into the club, and many would say Dorrian was therefore perfectly entitled to protect his investment under those circumstances. The result was survival, at least for a little while, for half a million pounds does not go far in the world of football.
After a first season of financial hardship and myriad legal battles, manager Holdsworth was tasked with mounting a promotion bid in 2012-13. A quick glance at the squad assembled during the 2012 close season suggests that was never a realistic ambition. The tightness of the margin between success and failure can be illustrated by the FA Cup tie against Mansfield at Sincil Bank: City led 3-2 with seconds remaining when future City legend Matt Rhead popped up with an equaliser. City lost the replay and a lucrative home tie against Liverpool went up in smoke. Any momentum Holdsworth had been able to build was lost with it, and he was sacked in February 2013. Holdsworth had done a good job in sorting out the haemorrhage of money, but it was the right decision to move on.
His replacement Gary Simpson, by Bob’s own admission, was cheap and willing to come. Despite the club stabilising under Holdsworth, there was still no money to challenge the likes of Forest Green and Luton who were spending big in their promotion bids. Under Simpson, City entered a relatively quiet period where the financial situation was never sound, but never as critical as it had been. Whatever debt existed was capable of being managed. The club had been saved at that point, and things were looking more positive. Simpson kept City in the Conference with a good run towards the end of the season, and hopes were high for 2013-14. Simpson signed some good players that close season and helped move City further away from the Conference trapdoor and upwards towards a platform for the playoffs.
It never happened, of course, and Simpson followed Holdsworth out of the door in November 2014 after some safe but very uninspiring football. As Bob said in Six Years In Purgatory, ”We were never going to be relegated with Gary in charge…but we now needed a manager who could initiate the journey back to the Football League in earnest.” Again, it appeared to be the right decision. Holdsworth and Simpson had done a good job in saving Lincoln from relegation and re-establishing it as a solid Conference club, but they were not able to lead it on the next step of the journey.
Quite how the club expected to find a manager with very little on offer is another question. The rumour that the club could not afford to pay a manager is not true, although by Bob’s own admission they were in no position to pay top wages for a top manager. The appointment of director and former player Chris Moyses in December 2014 was very controversial, with many supporters believing Moyses bought the job through his financial support since the summer of 2011. The truth was more straightforward – City thought Moyses was worth a try and was certainly no worse than the majority of tired journeymen out there. What we must remember is that the club had seen the quality of external applicants and been able to weigh up the likelihood of securing a decent appointment for the money available. It was a bold decision in the face of the anticipated criticism, but Bob still made it. It was one that ultimately paid significant dividends.
The fact that Moyses chose to do the job for nothing is frequently overlooked by critics. The fact that he was able to sign players of the calibre of Luke Waterfall, Liam Hearn, Bradley Wood, Matt Rhead, Jack Muldoon and Lee Beevers during the 2015 close season is due in no small part to his own waiving of a wage. It cannot be ignored either that his signings formed the spine of Danny Cowley’s outstanding team a year later. The supporters were back on board with over £19,000 raised through a Crowdfunder appeal, and Moyses was backed with a good budget accordingly.
Before the season could begin, however, City faced another legal challenge in the form of a quantum meruit wage claim from former coach Gary Charles. The consequences would have been very serious had the club lost, with Bob Dorrian estimating it would have cost £100,000. Fortunately City won, but it represented another close shave with oblivion.
At the same time, City were trying to deal with the move by the Co-op Bank to call in their overdraft and loan of £380,000, and to end their business relationship thereafter. From the perspective of 2018, it is easy to forget that the amount of the debt was sufficient to threaten the very existence of the club once more. This was another stroke of ill-luck for Dorrian, who had managed the club’s debt well since restructuring in December 2011. Various initiatives including another Crowdfunder scheme and a share issue raised sufficient money to enable a deal to be struck with the bank in December 2015, but it was a significant setback. Dorrian himself called the deal ‘financially damaging’. Fortunately, there were investors on the horizon prepared to put money into the club, although no details were given at that time.
Back on the field of play, the record books show Lincoln City in fourth place at the midway stage of the 2015-16 season, which was a substantial achievement against the backdrop of the off-field problems. Whatever the truth about how he had got the job, the appointment of Chris Moyses appeared to be a great decision. Then, out of the blue, bad luck struck again. It is very hard to estimate the damage done by Liam Hearn when he demanded a loan move to Barrow, which seemed a crazy move at the best of times. It immediately unsettled squad unity and the promotion drive dissolved into thin air. It may be true that the inexperienced Moyses did not know how to recover from the incident, and one wonders how that season may have evolved had it not happened. With hindsight, it may have been a blessing in disguise. Off-field, things were moving forward and about to change Lincoln City history.
The search for investment had led to contact from a hedge fund manager from Johannesburg who was interested in investing in the club. Several months of discussions resulted in Clive Nates joining the board of directors on 4 February 2016 with the promised investment of £1m over five years through his investment vehicle Sportvest Capital LLP. The deal certainly secured the immediate future of the club after the apparently damaging deal with the Co-op Bank, although the impact Nates would make would go far beyond the purely financial. Dorrian’s attention to detail had ensured the investment and investors were right for the club.
The first evidence of that came with the announcement that Chris Moyses would step down in May 2016. The search for a new manager was on, but this time there was a very substantial difference in City’s approach. The club had a clear vision of what kind of manager was needed, and homework had been done on suitable candidates. Nates’ business acumen was immediately evident throughout the process, and it was later confirmed that he had played a central role in identifying Danny Cowley and attracting him to the club. Cowley’s appointment – and that of his brother as assistant manager – came just 99 days after Nates had joined the board. Without his investment, there would certainly have been no Danny Cowley.
What happened in 2016-17 is genuinely the stuff of legend, and does not need to be repeated here. Top non-league players arrived in droves as City re-wrote the record books. But it was more than just from a football perspective. The way the club operated began a rapid evolution, apparently driven by Nates. Everything became more professional, the club’s traditionally poor public relations improved dramatically in the face of a breathtaking upturn in support. He stood on the terraces with the fans and contributed to social media. He was heavily involved in sourcing a new ticketing system to drag the club into the twentieth century and was successful in drawing more investment from his homeland in the guise of Greg Levine and Sean Melnick. Other additions were made to the board offering top-level business skills and contacts both inside and outside the game. Within two years of Clive Nates’ arrival, Lincoln City had been reborn in every way.
City’s promotion was met with great delight of course, but there was also a sense that Bob Dorrian had got his reward for overcoming some extremely hard times. He appeared to take a lesser role throughout 2017-18, and it became more inevitable that he would step down sooner, rather than later. That announcement came on 4 June 2018, and Dorrian was no longer a director. At the age of almost 70, he has certainly earned his retirement.
Clive Nates was the natural successor, confirmed on 6 June. Fears that his geographical location may prove a hindrance are illogical and incorrect. The impact he has had on this club is immense already, and there is no reason to believe it will not continue to be so. With Kevin Cooke continuing to chair meetings and new vice-chairman Roger Bates on the ground in Lincoln, this could well be the regime which carries Lincoln City back to the halcyon days of the 1950s and the Second Division. The crowds are already at that level, waiting for the team to catch up.
The final words must be on Bob Dorrian. It may be many years before his contribution is fully understood, and perhaps it never will be. His reign was not perfect by a long chalk. There are some people out there who cannot look beyond relegation in 2011, and will always blame Bob for it without having the facts to explain why. Others will claim he made some poor decisions without being able to pinpoint what they were exactly. Bob’s reign will continue to be dogged by misinformation, some of it deliberate. To a certain extent, that is the fault of his own reticence. Some of the challenges to his position were the product of small minds, but he faced them all with courage and conviction, and saw them off. He defended his club and stood up for what he believed was right, which is what the chairman should do. There are even some people out there who believe the chairman’s job is simply to pump huge sums of money into his club. With that degree of misunderstanding, it is little wonder he has had his critics.
In total, Bob Dorrian appointed five managers during his eight years at the helm, and four of them unquestionably moved the club forward, one spectacularly. That is not a bad record. To have left the club in a far better position than when he found it looked a very unlikely outcome at one stage, yet that is precisely what he has done. Detractors will immediately claim he was lucky, or that it is all down to Clive Nates, or to Danny Cowley, but that is far too simplistic. Bob offered the way in to the club for all of those people and is solely responsible for there being a club for them to come to at all. Furthermore, if Bob was the beneficiary of any good luck, he experienced more than his fair share of bad luck as a counterweight.
What is often overlooked is the subject of investment. Contrary to ill-informed belief, it is not the chairman’s job to fund the club personally. The identification of the right investors is key, and Bob achieved that by salvaging the club from a very poor situation, restructuring and stabilising, and then making it an attractive proposition. At the same time, it must be pointed out that Bob deflected potential investment on a number of occasions because he felt they were not the right people for the future of the club, and he must be thanked for that. It would have been very easy to permit those investments to alleviate some critical financial problems and deflect some of the gross criticism levelled at him from familiar quarters, but he was never tempted to do so. It would also have been easy to give up after the collapse of the Peter Swann deal, but Bob took it in his stride.
It would also have been very easy to walk away at any time, but Bob never had any such thought. Lincoln is his club, supported since childhood, and he was never the type of character to escape his responsibilities. He may not have got every decision right, and there are probably some he would change himself, but those decisions were always based upon what he felt was right for the club at the time. Ultimately we should all be very grateful that we had the right man at the helm at one of the most critical junctures in its 134-year history. Without question, Bob Dorrian was good for Lincoln City, and there is one very good reason for that.
As Danny Cowley often says, having the right character is vital. When I first discussed the possibility of Six Years In Purgatory with Bob, he was initially reticent. In fact, I would say he almost winced, although that might have been a trick of the light. Having agreed to support the project, he added, “…although I may not come out of this very well.” I find that both interesting and revealing. It told me immediately that the criticism over the years had hurt, yet he was still willing to be open and honest, which he proved to be. At no time was he anything other than honest, sometimes disarmingly so.
Another trait of his character materialised during a lengthy meeting I had with him during the writing of the book. I offered him his part in the book as a platform through which to set a few records straight. There were a good many stories he told me that could not be reproduced in the book of course, and a good many more that I felt would certainly enhance his own image were the truth be known more widely. To my surprise, Bob declined the opportunity. He explained that he did not wish to appear bitter in any way, and that everything had happened for a reason. I think it goes beyond that. If there is one word I would use for Bob Dorrian, it would be ‘dignified’, and that is the reason why he chose to keep his own confidence. Someone had to maintain some dignity, and he was adamant he would not descend to the level of his detractors.
When all is said and done, and when good and bad are viewed as equal, this club was very fortunate to be led by a man who cared when it mattered most.
Achievements under Bob Dorrian:
** Survived the loss of Football League status through personal financial support
** Restructured the club and brought in the right investors
** Won the National League championship to regain Football League status
** Reached the FA Cup quarter-finals (the furthest the club has ever been)
** Reached the FA Trophy semi-finals (the furthest the club has ever been)
** Won the EFL Trophy (the furthest the club has ever been)
** Oversaw the first ever appearance at Wembley
** Reached the League Two play-offs for the first time since 2007
** Increased turnover from £1.3m to £4.6m
** Cleared historic debt and restored profitability
** Increased average crowds from 2,500 to 9,000
** Passed the club on to the next chairman in a far better state than when he arrived.
— Vital Lincoln City (@VitalLincoln) June 7, 2018