Richard Sutcliffe: History and Lincoln prove that Minstermen not safe just yet

Lee ButlerLee Butler
Lee Butler
YORK CITY fans of a nervous disposition should perhaps look away now.

Tomorrow promises to be a dramatic day in the basement division of the Football League as no less than seven teams battle to avoid relegation to the Conference.

Only Aldershot – three points adrift of safety and with a vastly inferior goal difference – look doomed. As for the rest, any of the half dozen teams currently separated by just two points can realistically make the drop.

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York are among those under threat in 20th place. A draw at Dagenham & Redbridge, one place and one point behind Nigel Worthington’s men, will be enough. Lose, however, and the Minstermen will be reliant on AFC Wimbledon failing to beat Fleetwood Town at home or Barnet losing at Northampton Town.

It is a worrying scenario, though admittedly one where the footballing Gods would have to firmly turn their backs on York.

The bad news, therefore, is that there is a precedent with Lincoln City having become the very first team to be relegated under the new set-up in 1987.

Just as York are now, the Imps went into the final round of games sitting three places and two points above the relegation drop zone.

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By the time the music stopped, however, Lincoln were down after a truly bizarre afternoon that involved freakish results, a police dog being hailed a hero for biting a player and the Imps sinking to the bottom of Division Four for the first time in the entire campaign 15 minutes after their own season had ended.

Lee Butler, now Doncaster Rovers’ goalkeeping coach, was in the Lincoln City side that lost 2-0 at Swansea City on that fateful final day.

“It was my first season as a professional,” says the 46-year-old, who is involved in his own crunch game on the final day at Griffin Park tomorrow.

“Things were going all right until early in the New Year and then we just gradually slipped down the division. We became involved in the relegation fight but, even then, we thought we’d be okay. What we didn’t know was just how things were going to conspire against us on that final day.”

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The events that led to Lincoln’s relegation began early on that final weekend. Back then, there was no stipulation from the League that everyone had to kick-off at the same time on the final day.

As a result, Tranmere, who had gone into the final round of matches sitting second bottom, played on the Friday night and clinched safety courtesy of a 1-0 win over Rochdale.

Suddenly, four had become three in the fight for survival. Burnley, just 14 years after being relegated from the top flight, were bottom with 46 points, one behind Torquay with Lincoln a further point clear in 22nd.

Turf Moor was suddenly the place to be as 15,781 – including a young Sutcliffe – poured through the turnstiles. It was a marked rise on the 1,692 that had watched a 2-1 win over Colchester the previous November and, crucially in terms of how the final day drama unfolded, sufficiently large to lead to the police delaying kick-off.

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So, as Lincoln’s defeat at Vetch Field was confirmed, the Clarets still had 15 minutes to play. They led 2-1 but with Torquay, whose 
own match against Crewe at Plainmoor had also been held up after a police Alsatian had bitten United midfielder Jim McNichol in the groin, losing 2-1 at home, Lincoln were still safe.

That was, however, until Paul Dobson equalised for Torquay deep into a stoppage time period that had been a direct result of McNichol being attacked. The final whistle blew moments later so, when Burnley subsequently held on to claim a precious victory, Lincoln, seventh as recently as New Year’s Day, were down.

Butler, the Imps goalkeeper that afternoon, said: “It wasn’t like it is now, where everyone has mobile phones and knows exactly what is happening.

“Then, you relied on the radio and people hearing snippets of news. We got in the dressing room at the Vetch and were safe. But then news came through that Torquay had scored and, suddenly, we were in trouble.

“A bit later, Burnley won and that was that. The coach trip home was the longest of my life. An awful, awful time.”