Weakest Lincs

Ian Plenderleith looks back to the late 1970s, when Lincolnshire buzzed with football enthusiasm – for Nottingham Forest

Where is Lincolnshire? It’s the second biggest county in England after Yorkshire, but you’d be sur­prised how few people know the answer. Even some of the people who actually live there. A similar sense of bafflement can be seen etched on the face of anyone who might be asked the following: name three pro­fessional football clubs in Lin­coln­shire? And what have they ever won?

If the north east really is football’s passionate hotbed, then Lincolnshire is its cold and muddy potato field. Just as you would be unlikely to send a tourist to the county to travel its barren, clod-filled landscape, whose anonymity is interrupted solely by the odd decorative village and a couple of 1956 Massey Ferguson tractors, so you would not recommend its stadia as forums of flowing football and high-octane, fan-led fervour. Its quiet out there, and that, apparently, is how most people would like it to stay.

Lincoln (founded by Romans, with a cathedral that actually does attract tourists), Grimsby (founded on fish, though now more into “food processing”) and Scunthorpe (founded on steel – still the town’s largest employer) all host teams with modest grounds, realistic ambitions and min­­imal core sup­ports. They have histories like everyone else but, to be frank, if you’re not a fan you’re not ex­actly going to be captivated by a long list of legends or prolific yarns of baggy-shorted glory, aside perhaps from Grimsby’s two Cup semi-finals and brief 1930s sojourn in the First Division.

There has been a steady smattering of lower level ups and downs and Fourth Division championships among the troika, and Grimsby have unspectacularly held their own at a higher stan­dard than the other two for most of the past 20 years, not to mention win­ning a Wembley final. Lincoln are best known for being the first club to be relegated automatically from the Football League, but they were back a year later to embark upon a decade of unbroken med­iocrity. Both Lincoln and Scunthorpe have popped up to visit the (new) Second Division recently, but they came over all funny at the unfamiliarity and quickly resumed their rightful places in the bottom clutch.

Growing up in Market Rasen, roughly in the middle of this triangle of footballing inferiors, made for a singular education in the game’s mores. Lincoln were the first team I saw, at the age of six, and so I thought it right to stay with them, but we would regularly spend Saturday afternoons at Blundell Park or the Old Showground if Lincoln were away and my mum fancied seeing the inside of a different branch of Binns.

At school you didn’t much talk about having gone to games. It was a weekend thing and even at that time most peo­ple carried bags and scarves with bigger names, including me (forgive me please my sins for simultaneously owning a Man Utd holdall and a Glasgow Rangers scarf). Or at least that was how things were until Lincoln suddenly began to do well under Graham Taylor. As they swept to the Fourth Div­ision title in 1975-76, Impish insignia raged through the school. Remarkably, I beg­an bump­ing into class-mates, teachers and Methodist min­isters at Sincil Bank, all of whom would unblushingly greet me with the confident victory smiles of a regular.

These same scarves were either efficiently recol­oured or replaced by black and white by the end of the decade, when Grimsby leaped from the Fourth to the Second in two seasons, while Lin­coln passed the other way. Gates at Lin­coln sank while Grimsby’s soared and it wasn’t difficult to draw the conclusion that my fickle townsfolk, and many others in the catchment area, had found a new love. To support Lincoln was suddenly to invite open mockery. If anyone was rooting for Scunthorpe they didn’t admit it, while, as far as Lincolnshire was concerned, Hull might as well have been in Scotland.

On the other hand, many proved far-sighted en­ough to develop a passion for a side 50 miles to the west. Kids were now rushing out of the school gates to be picked up by parents driving them straight off to watch European ties at the City Ground. Floodlit glory on a Wednesday, promotion high jinks at Blundell Park on a Saturday. All of a sudden, every farmer and his son was reaping the metaphorical fat crop of suc­cess. (Typically, when my mum went to Binns of Nottingham, it was Notts County we got to see.)

That Scunthorpe survived at all in their roomy, ramshackle but actually quite beautiful Old Show­ground is testament to the staying power of professional football in England. Lincoln suffered from the success of Grimsby and Forest by attracting paltry crowds of 3,000-4,000 in one of their most successful seasons ever, when they missed out on promotion to the Second Division by one point in 1981-82. The attendance figures left you asking: does this city really want success? Next season they nearly went bust, a recurring threat ever since.

It would be pointless to anger the current generation of Lincolnshire supporters by asserting that there is no sense of competition worth speaking of between the three teams. Fanzines dutifully insult their rivals and for all I know there is genuine intensity at local derbies these days. But I cannot recall a tradition of rivalry in the county, perhaps because each club senses that they are all in more or less the same boat, and that the rural fan-base is very much a floating one.

I remember a Fourth Division Boxing Day fixture in 1986 at Scunthorpe when, up in the old cantilever stand, fighting broke out between a few home fans and some visiting Lincolnites. The police couldn’t get into the stand to break it up quickly, but they needn’t have worried. After a minute or two the brawl stopped of its own accord and everyone went to sit back down. In the rest of the crowd there was neither jeering nor encouragement for the tran­sient thugs. The lightning scuffle seemed to perfectly sum up the state of the game in Lincolnshire. Limited commitment followed by the onset of apathy before largely silent spectators. 

From WSC 169 March 2001. What was happening this month