Chapter Two – Tears
Lincoln City v Plymouth Argyle, League Division Three, Saturday November 18, 1978.
Death On The Glorious Twelfth
The 1978-79 season began on the ‘glorious’ twelfth of August, Lincoln going 2-0 down at Bradford City in the first round, first leg of the League Cup, and my Uncle John falling to his death at the age of 40 from the roof of his house in nearby Leeds. During the following winter, strikes and heavy snow brought the country repeatedly to a halt, and the media-appointed Winter of Discontent signalled the end of Labour Government and the imminent rise to power of Margaret Thatcher. My grandfather set his flat on fire when drunk and died from smoke inhalation, my Dad left my Mum for a younger woman, and Lincoln finished at the bottom of division three after a miserable season. If I’d only been able to sing and play guitar I could have written a country, western and blues album and made a fortune.
My uncle and I understood each other perfectly because he was a football fan. Now, my Dad is a fan too, but not in quite the same way. My Dad is a cynical, pessimistic fan who always expects the worse, and who also manages to affect an air of detachment if his side is losing. He’ll generously acknowledge talent on the opposition team and accept defeat if it was fairly handed out (except when Scotland lose, which is always somehow unfair and always will be). But my uncle was a fan who saw each fresh game as an empty palette of sporting possibilities. Whereas my Dad would set out for Lincoln City with a stoical sigh, as if about to embark upon the hundredth battle of a grim and futile war, my uncle went to Leeds United and came back full of it – Eddie Gray’s dribbling, Peter Lorimer’s shooting, Billy Bremner’s fighting or Norman Hunter’s fouling. He loved every moment, good or bad, because it was all part of the spectacle, and once he got going on the subjects of Leeds and Scotland he would talk twice as quickly and twice as fervently as at any other time.
“When Leeds are away from home,” he once told me, “there’s no greater pleasure in life than running a hot bath on a Saturday afternoon and then listening to the second-half radio commentary and the final results.” This is possibly the wisest thing that anyone in our family has ever said, although once my cousins were born I doubt that he ever managed this on more than one or two occasions. I can still remember the way he said it, though, in a tone which implied that although he didn’t regret for a second getting married and having three kids, he would be willing to pay several hundred pounds for the chance to sit in the tub on a Saturday afternoon, undisturbed but for the bubble bath and the bubbling voices of Peter Jones and Alan Parry and forty-odd thousand screaming people in the background.
My uncle gave me all his Leeds programmes, including the ones from Jack Charlton’s and Billy Bremner’s respective testimonial games that are probably worth a bit of cash now. I recently gave them to my oldest cousin Mark, who was delighted to see that one of the programmes, Leeds v Burnley in 1975, was the first game he'd ever been to. His dad would take a milk crate along so that he could stand on it and see. The best thing my uncle ever gave me, though, were a pair of Leeds number twelve tags, the kind that players used to wear tied around the tops of their socks. He’d got these one day when he went to watch Leeds Reserves and the players had thrown their tags in to the crowd at the end of the game, presumably as some sort of compensation to the fans for their troubles. He couldn’t remember if it had been Joe Jordan or Trevor Cherry who’d been sub that day, but it didn’t matter to me. I told everyone at school they’d been worn by Joe Jordan. When I played on my own in the thistle-pocked, turd-covered cow field next to our house I’d be the hard-bitten, gap-toothed Scottish striker, coming off the bench to save the game. I’d tie the tags round the tops of my socks, even though they came half way down my calf and felt a little awkward. It didn’t matter. These were authentic football wear. They had been worn by a genuine professional, a Scottish international to boot (or perhaps an English one if it was Trevor Cherry). My leg was feeling, through a sock, what a professional footballer's leg had once felt, through a sock, while playing in an actual game. I still have them today, although I can’t see them fetching much on eBay with the following claim of authenticity – “My uncle, who died almost 40 years ago, once said they might have been worn by Joe Jordan or Trevor Cherry, although he was a bit vague about it.”
I have many fond memories of my Uncle John, but the one image that moves me more than any other is one that I never actually saw. It's just in my imagination, where I see him and a few dozen other devotees on a weekday afternoon in an almost deserted Elland Road watching Leeds United Reserves. Maybe it's half-term or the Easter holidays - he was a biology teacher, and it's just the sort of thing I can see him doing on a free afternoon. It's mainly old blokes smoking pipes and moaning about how crap the players are (why else would you go to watch the Stiffs?). There's no question of him leaving early. He's got out of the house and he's staying out of the house - he's probably the only one happy to be there, toking on a crafty ciggie. At the final whistle, he's already jostling his way to the front of the terrace, thinking about a present for his nephew in Lincolnshire as the players hand out material rewards to those fans who've lost an afternoon of their lives to 90 minutes of already forgotten football. Then he heads for home with a spring in his step because he has Joe Jordan's number 12 tags in his coat pocket. Isn't that the sort of thing that would warm the blood of any normal fan?
The Spectator’s Keith Fear Of The Penalty
A season that started with defeat and tragedy hadn’t much improved by the time Lincoln played Plymouth at home on November 18th. “From past events it does not seem that as supporters you have much to cheer about,” understated new manager Colin Murphy prior to his first home game. “This I can understand is difficult, for you the one thing that is important is to see your team win and score goals.”
No kiddin', Colin. They had won only once, and were six points adrift at the bottom of Division Three with six points from seventeen games, having hit the net only nine times. Former Leeds and Scotland player Willie Bell, who’d semi-successfully taken over during a relegation struggle the previous year, had been sacked a few weeks earlier, and Murphy – previously manager at Southern League Hastings United and then for two brief months at Derby County – was brought in to take on the thankless task of finding the way out of a darkened sewage labyrinth with neither a boat, a paddle, a torch nor a visible outlet in sight.
Reading between the lines, the programme basically acknowledges that Lincoln’s season is already over. “I hope… at the very least, you will see a hearty, spirited, hardworking performance from which we can see light at the end of the tunnel,” says Murphy in a typically tortuous conclusion to his column. Put another way, we’re up shit creek, there's no way back down shit creek, and shit creek has uncountable bends ahead. It's going to be a long time before the smell of shit subsides. And no, we don't know how long it will be before the water and the air clears - next summer, at the earliest.
“After a very good result at Hillsborough last week [0-0], let’s hope we can continue picking up those precious points to get us away from the foot of the table,” says the Supporters’ Club section with a gritted smile. The Red Imps Association is no more bullish: “Let us hope that things will start to go our way a bit more,” it offers lamely, “and we can get back to our winning ways.” Meanwhile Lincolnshire Echo writer Maurice Burton carefully posits that “the task of scoring 34 points, which should be enough, from 29 matches, is not beyond the capabilities of a Lincoln side playing to form.”
Those final three qualifying words are important. Lincoln were nowhere close to playing to form. Burton states that now would be a good time for Lincoln’s strikers “to start putting the ball into the net”. Because if they don’t, you know, they “are going to be wide open to defeat every time the opposition manages to slip one in.”
(When it comes down to it, all the football experts, pundits, analysts, fans and journalists that ever expressed an opinion about the game have been saying exactly the same thing: “The team that scores the most goals will win.” If only I knew how to get one of those jobs where you’re paid 100+ grand a year for repeating this week after week, using a different combination of words every time.)
As a thirteen year old fan who was not used to seeing Lincoln at the foot of the table, I was certainly reading these lines from an optimist’s point of view. Mathematically, we could still do it. Lincoln could still manage 34 points from 29 games, and so until they had failed, what was the point of saying they couldn’t?