With 10 games remaining, but with 2 games in hand, City found themselves 5 points adrift of leaders Barnet. Kettering had been on a great run and had moved back into contention as outsiders, but had played 3 games more than Lincoln. We had to go to Rockingham Road on 23 April, on paper the most difficult of our remaining games. However, run-ins do funny things to football teams, and there were to be many twists and turns in store before the season was out.
The Easter weekend, so often a watershed in promotion and relegation battles, began with an awkward away trip to the surreal atmosphere of Surrey Docks Stadium, home of Fisher Athletic, on Good Friday. Barnet’s away match at Boston was scheduled for the following day, so City had a chance to close the gap to two points. City had boosted their squad ahead of the match with the signing of utility player Paul Casey from Boston for £15,000, with City’s Allen Crombie going the other way on loan; cynics suggested that Murphy was simply removing the opposition’s best player ahead of the Easter Monday meeting with the Pilgrims at Sincil Bank, but Casey proved a great signing who more than played his part in the run-in. The game attracted a record league attendance for Fisher of 1,705; this really was non-league football at its most interesting. City took the lead through a neat Bob Cumming overhead kick but suffered a serious onslaught as Fisher raised their game and dominated. The inevitable equaliser arrived from the boot of midfielder Neil Norman, and only bad misses from Ken Charlery and Leroy Ambrose earned City a point. Valuable ground had been lost, but Boston did City a real favour the following day by beating Barnet 2-1 in front of 2,703 at York Street with a goal from…Allen Crombie. The gap was down to 4 points, and we still had our 2 games in hand.
A Conference record crowd of 7,542, some 1,500 more than watched the First Division game that day between Charlton and Watford, flocked to Sincil Bank on Easter Monday and saw City make a bold statement of intent with a 5-1 demolition of Boston United. An early close-range volley from Trevor Matthewson, a David Vaughan own goal and a terrific finish by Jack McGinley set City on their way, putting them out of sight by half time despite a lone reply for Boston from Paul Wilson. The outstanding Mark Sertori rounded things off with two second half goals as City swept their neighbours aside. Barnet beat Maidstone 2-0 at Underhill in front of 3,510, while Kettering kept pace with us on 71 points with a 1-0 win at Northwich. The gap was still 4 points with 2 games in hand.
The roadshow moved on to Cheltenham the following Saturday. The goalscorers against Boston – McGinley, Matthewson and Sertori – all scored again but some shaky defending allowed the home side a point against the run of play. Perhaps the nerves were beginning to show after 16 games and 4 months unbeaten. Fortunately, Barnet were held at home by lowly Wycombe Wanderers, with Keith Alexander grabbing a late equaliser. The gap was still 4 points with 2 games in hand. Kettering did not play as one of City’s 3 games in hand over them was used up.
The nerves came home to roost on Tuesday 12 April as City faced a rampant Macclesfield Town side under the fairy lights at Moss Rose. Missing Steve Buckley and the influential Bob Cumming, and playing on a surface more akin to the surface of the moon than a football pitch, the dangerous Steve Burr and John Askey gave City’s defence a torrid time, and the 2-0 defeat flattered us. So the unbeaten run was over. Meanwhile, injury-hit Barnet were beaten again, this time 2-0 by Weymouth. We had lost nothing but were starting to run out of games.
The best antidote to any frayed nerves came on Saturday 16th April with the visit of relegation-bound Wealdstone. Bizarrely, due to celebrations for the centenary of the Football League that resulted in a blank day on the League calendar, national attention was focused on Lincoln City; journalists from national broadsheets filled the press box in the St Andrews stand as City raced into a 3-0 half-time lead in a stormy first half that saw the Stones’ Sampson Olaleye sent off following a fight with the returning Steve Buckley. The crowd of 4,159 showed that the City faithful were undaunted by the midweek defeat at Macclesfield as two brilliantly-taken goals from Phil Brown and a thumping McGinley penalty gave us the points. Incredibly Barnet were beaten again, 2-1 at lowly Northwich Victoria. The wheels were coming off their promotion bid once again as City closed the gap to just a solitary point with the 2 games in hand. Colin Murphy was interviewed by the Sunday Express: “We have travelled a long and difficult road this season and we must not fail now.”
City travelled to 3rd from bottom (and managerless) Bath City on Tuesday 19th April; a win would put us top of the table for the first time. It didn’t happen. A shock 2-1 defeat threw the championship race wide open once more as we wasted the first of our two games in hand on Barnet. More to the point, we had used up all 3 of our games in hand on Kettering Town, who were back in the race; and we were up next at Rockingham Road.
So with 4 games to go, there were just 4 teams left with a mathematical chance of taking the title, and we still had to play 2 of them:
An all-ticket crowd of 4,135 at Rockingham Road saw Kettering draw level on points with a 2-0 win over the Imps with goals from Paul Richardson and Andy Tilson, the first time since the opening week of the season that we had lost two successive games. Chris Scott made his City debut in an injury-hit side, but the truth was that we were well-beaten again. Fortunately, Barnet were held 1-1 at Kidderminster but extended their lead to 2 points. However, all 3 of our remaining games were at home and we still had a game in hand, which was at home to Maidstone on Wednesday evening.
But first, Kettering would go top with a win on Tuesday 26th April with a win at home to Runcorn. That didn’t happen either. Nerves struck again as The Linnets walked away with a 3-0 win. Kettering had been on a great run but so had Runcorn; Barry Fry should have taken note…..
And so to Wednesday night and Maidstone United; City would go top with a win. A crowd of 4,892 witnessed a tight match with the classy Steve Butler and the nippy Mark Gall leading a dangerous Maidstone forward line. Only a scrambled goal from John McGinley following a blatant Trevor Matthewson handball snatched a point for City as the tension grew to almost unbearable levels. We had missed our chance again. Barry Fry was jubilant, stating boldly in The Times: “I’ve always felt we were in the best position because we have had the points in the bag rather than games in hand. I’ve watched Welling and Runcorn (Barnet’s two remaining games) in the last week and I know we have the pace and skill to beat both of them …..if we can take our opportunities we will win the title.”
And he appeared on BBC Football Focus with North London crony Bob Wilson on the Saturday morning and endeared himself to Lincoln fans for ever more: “You can put your house on us, Bob. We’re going to win the title.”
Colin Murphy, not for the first time, remained cool. “The season is over 42 games….we could still have every chance.”
So, going into the final two games of the season, there were just 3 teams left:
City had a tough game at Sincil Bank against a Stafford Rangers side that had kept up an outside challenge for the title for most of the season. They had one of the best away records in the division, having scored more goals away than any other side except Maidstone, who had left Sincil Bank with a point a few days earlier. The crowd of 4,402 was lower than expected; perhaps City’s fatalistic support had fallen victim to Fry’s exuberance and stayed away, accepting that the championship had escaped us. In another tense game, the sides came out for the second half tied at 1-1, a Phil Brown goal having been cancelled out by the clever Phil Derbyshire. The news came through from Underhill: Barnet were one down to Runcorn. Then a Clive Evans strike out of the blue gave us the points as we held on desperately for the win. And Barnet had been beaten 2-1 by Runcorn in front of their record Conference attendance of 5,143. Barry Fry should have looked at the form table: Runcorn had risen from the bottom half to the top six in the space of two months and had just won 3-0 at Kettering; perhaps he simply didn’t notice.
As for Kettering Town, they had surprisingly been beaten 2-0 at Enfield and were out of the race.
Unbelievably we were top of the table for the first time, with just struggling Wycombe Wanderers standing between us and a return to the League:
Just two days later we returned to Sincil Bank for our Bank Holiday Monday date with destiny. A win over 17th-placed Wycombe would give us the title; a draw would be enough provided Barnet failed to beat Welling United. Wycombe’s away record was poor, with just 3 wins all season, but remember we had just lost to Bath City who had been relegated a few days earlier. It seemed the entire City turned out that day. The programmes were sold out by midday, snapped up by eager programme collectors with no interest in the match. There were fans crammed into the ground on all sides, with more taking up any vantage point they could find; they were on the remains of the railway embankment, they were climbing up the floodlight pylons. The official attendance was announced as 9,432, which very conveniently was just 18 short of the permitted safety limit of 9,450. Some years later, a club official admitted to this writer that the true attendance was around the 13,000 mark; one glance at the match video or the photographs taken that day leaves us in no doubt about that.
The game was played out in strangled silence. Without doubt, the City fans were too scared to cheer for fear of tempting fate. Wycombe were poor, and it was obvious from the earliest stages that they were there simply to make up the numbers before their summer holidays. But would nerves get to the players again? Three defeats in the last six matches must have been on their minds. And matters were not helped on 20 minutes as Jack McGinley pulled a hamstring and was out of the game; in truth it was a serious injury and Jack was not to return until the turn of the year. But substitute Mark Sertori, a real unsung hero that season, immediately put City ahead with a back header from a David Clarke corner. So we went in at half time with a slender 1-0 lead. Barnet were drawing 0-0 at Welling, so we were in a good position; not that anyone dared to dream….
The second half continued in similar fashion to the first, very cagey, all a bit edgy. Then on 62 minutes came the goal that put the game beyond Wycombe. Attacking the Railway End as was the custom, City had camped on the edge of the Wycombe penalty area. Finally a cross from the right by Paul Casey found Phil Brown unmarked in the box; Brown calmly picked his spot before volleying the ball expertly beyond Gary Lester and into the top corner.
The rest of the game was unremarkable except for the near silence that surrounded it. Then, with a couple of minutes to go, an extraordinary thing happened. All of a sudden everyone in the ground realised Wycombe were finished, and the noise was incredible. The final whistle was almost inaudible, the crowd rushed onto the pitch in huge numbers, the players were engulfed, and the championship was ours. Barnet had won 2-0 at Welling with a Dave Sansom penalty and a Ray Burgess own goal, but it was too little too late for them. A terrible run of just 9 points from their last 9 games had undoubtedly cost them the title.
Some minutes later the players appeared in the St Andrews Stand to celebrate with the crowd, none of whom had left the ground. Unfortunately the Vauxhall Conference, in a fit of extreme crassness, had taken the championship trophy to Welling, still expecting Mr Fry to win it, but the reception the players were given was truly memorable. Nigel Batch poured a bottle of champagne over his own head to the delight of the crowd, but the biggest cheer was reserved for the appearance of the man who had worked the miracle: manager Murphy.
We’re raising money for the Bradford Burns Unit this month and our target is £500.00. There are many ways you can help us reach this target. One of those ways is to have a go at our quizzes because they generate page views. Once you have had a go, share your results on Social Media, increasing the reach and page views!
Conference Championship 1987-88 Part 5:
— Vital Lincoln City (@VitalLincoln) April 30, 2020