The final day of the Football League season inevitably brings shredded nerves, and yesterday brought an unfolding drama with a hint of familiarity to it at the bottom of League Two, with Lincoln City and Barnet playing to avoid relegation into the Football Conference. Lincoln started the day two points ahead of Barnet, but with an inferior goal difference. In short, they needed a win from their match against Aldershot Town to guarantee their survival for another season. If they failed to win, they would still keep their heads above water if Barnet failed to beat Port Vale in their match at Underhill. Two hours later, we had our answer. Barnet, who survived relegation on the last day of last season, beat Port Vale thanks to a single penalty, while Lincoln City lost three-nil at home to Aldershot Town and, therefore, fell out of the Football League.
Lincoln’s slide down the table had been one of the most alarming seen in any division this season. They had looked comfortable a couple of months ago, but failed to win any of their final eleven matches while, over the same period of time, Barnet picked up seventeen points. While the survival instinct kicked in at Barnet, Lincoln’s rudderless end to the season saw them sleepwalk out of the Football League. The irony in all of this is striking, as Lincoln City and Barnet’s paths have crossed before, most notably when Lincoln had a season in non-league football almost a quarter of a century ago, and this story is one that might even cause the club’s supporters to grasp at the sole silver lining that has been attached to the cloud hanging over the end of their season.
The Football League and the Football Conference agreed automatic promotion and relegation in 1986 between Division Four and the GM Vauxhall Conference from the end of the 1986/87 season, ending the closed shop at the bottom of the League which saw clubs only sporadically – and occasionally without justifiable cause – voted out via the archaic re-election system. The story of Lincoln City’s fall from the Football League, however, arguably began a year on the eleventh of May 1985, when they were the opposition at Valley Parade on the last day of the 1984/85 season. Fire ripped through the main stand of their opposition that day, Bradford City, killing fifty-six people,and two of their supporters, Bill Stacey and Jim West, were killed in the blaze. The club had only just avoided relegation that season, finishing two places above the relegation positions. At the distance of twenty-five years, it is difficult to precisely ascertain what the exact psychological damage done to the club by their involvement in that day might have been, but what we know for certain is that they were relegated from Division Three at the end of the following season and that worse was to follow a year later.
Scarborough became the first team to win automatic promotion into the Football League at the end of the 1986/87 season, but all eyes at the end of the season were on the bottom of Division Four, in part because of the novelty of the introduction of of relegation from the Football League and in part because one of the teams concerned, Burnley, had been the champions of England just twenty-seven years earlier. Shot through with financial troubles, Burnley had slipped from the First Division to the Fourth Division in just nine years between 1976 and 1985, and it was they that went into the final day of the 1986/87 season in bottom place in the Football League and needing a win to stay up. They beat Orient 2-1 in their final game, meaning that attention turned elsewhere, most notably to Plainmoor, where Torquay United were playing Crewe Alexandra.
Crewe had raced into a two-goal lead, which Torquay had to claw back to save themselves out of trouble again – a draw would mean that Lincoln City (who had won just one of their previous sixteen matches) would need a result from their match away to Swansea City in order to stay up. Torquay pulled one goal back, but play was then held up after a police dog called Bryn, introduced to the proceedings after a spot of crowd trouble at the ground, got onto the pitch and, in the heat of the moment, bit Torquay’s Jim McNichol. McNichol had to receive treatment for his injury that lasted for five minutes and it was in the stoppage time allowed for this that Paul Dobson scored the goal that saved them. The news from the Vetch Field was, for Torquay United and Burnley, good. Swansea City had beaten Lincoln City 2-0, and Lincoln, who had started the day third from bottom in the table, were down.
With this relegation, however, came a rebirth. Colin Murphy, who had managed the club to one of its most successful periods earlier in the decade but had resigned his managership ten days before the Bradford fire, returned to the club at the end of the season. In addition to this, the GM Vauxhall Conference was a considerably different place to now. There was only one promotion place and the majority of clubs were still part-time. In fact, only four of the clubs competing in it that season – Kettering Town, Kidderminster Harriers, Altrincham and Bath City – competed in it this season (and none of them have had uninterrupted membership in the intervening years), whilst five of its member clubs – Maidstone United, Enfield, Telford United, Fisher Athletic and Runcorn – have since folded and been re-formed. It was still, however, a leap into the unknown for Lincoln and they were given something of a rude awakening on the opening day of the season, when they lost 4-2 to Barnet at Underhill, and they lost their next match as well, 3-0 at Weymouth.
Indeed, although their fortunes improved after this slow start, for much of the season it didn’t look as if Lincoln were going to win promotion straight back into the Football League. Barnet had spent heavily during the summer – amongst the names arriving at the club were those of the former Luton Town defender Kirk Stephens, Graham Westley (now the manager of Stevenage) and Noel Ashford, who had already won this competition several years earlier with Enfield and cost Barnet a hefty £12,500 from Wycombe Wanderers. Barnet led the table for much of the season, but a sudden blip that saw them pick up just two points from four matches during the run-in allowed Lincoln back into the race. Barnet needed to win their last two league matches to win the title, but their penultimate match – and last home match – of the season saw a crowd over 5,000 turn out at Underhill, and Barnet were beaten by Runcorn. The league title race, then, would come down to the last day of the season, but Lincoln were in pole position for the first time. While Barnet won their last match of the season at Welling United, a crowd of 9,432 people saw Lincoln beat Wycombe Wanderers 2-0 to lead lift the trophy. They had been top of the league for just three days throughout the whole season. It would take Barnet until 1991 to win promotion into the Football League.
History, then, tells us that automatic promotion back into the Football League is possible, but Lincoln City will find the Blue Square Premier of 2011/12 to be quite different to the GM Vauxhall Conference of 1987/88. There are two promotion places now, of course, and the play-offs mean that fifth place is enough to extend a club’s season beyond the end of the standard forty-six matches. In recent years, however, former Football League clubs have frequently found that their previous reputation counts for nothing in the fifth division. The vast majority of clubs in the Blue Square Premier now are fully professional and, although some clubs, such as Oxford United, Carlisle United and Shrewsbury Town, have managed to get back up, there are many others, such as York City, Cambridge United and Mansfield Town, that have found their new environment to be more like their “natural level” than many of their supporters would, perhaps, like to admit. Lincoln City will need to rebuild and regroup after their shattered season, and they will need to avoid the temptation to overspend in a panic in the pursuit of a quick return. As we have noted on this site before, the Blue Square Premier seems to be a considerably easier league to get into that it is to get out of.
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