What a time 1996 was. I remember it well, I chucked in my A Levels and decided to go out into the world to find my fame and fortune. I left school in February 1996, and by March I still hadn’t found a job. Not that I cared very much, the Mighty Imps had been taken over by John Beck, the European Championships were just around the corner and personally I liked getting up at noon with just football and beer to worry about.
The 1995/96 season had been far from a classic though. David Puttnam and Dean West had given us an opening day win against eventual league winners Preston North End, but just a few months later manager Sam Ellis was sacked and both players (both favourites of mine) were gone. A few weeks after Ellis was sacked, his successor Steve Wicks, was also sacked. In came John Beck, the manager who had taken Cambridge up through the leagues. He made us robust, tough to beat and just a little bit ugly. We were like the modern day Barrow: nobody liked us and we didn’t care, because we started to get results. After all when you’re bottom of the league, nobody cares how you win, you just have to win.
Despite our new found resilience, we were still flawed. February 17th saw us lose 7-1 away at Bury to remain in the bottom four, but on March 2nd we completed a double over Fulham, winning 2-1. That brought us into our derby match against Scunthorpe, three games unbeaten.
Early in the season we’d drawn 2-2 with them at the Bank, courtesy of goals from Udo ‘Boom Boom Boom’ Onwere (penalty) and former Iron hero Tony Daws. Onwere was still in the side, but Daws was long gone, as were most of the side that opened with a win at Deepdale.
City were still in the mire, although Torquay were a long way adrift and heading for the only relegation spot. The Fulham win had put some space between us and those grasping to stay above The Gulls, but an away trip to mid table Scunthorpe looked tricky, and defeat could see us dragged back into the struggle.
The Imps lined up as follows: Barry Richardson, Terry Fleming, Jon Whitney, Colin Alcide, John Robertson, Grant Brown, Gareth Ainsworth, Jason Barnett, David Johnson, Udo Onwere and Matt Carbon. On the bench for City was Phil Daley, Steve Brown and Alan Johnson
City fans had been used to seeing inconsistent football, and Scunthorpe fans hadn’t had it much better. There was just 2411 in the ground to witness the Lincolnshire derby, but they were treated to a real spectacle.
City dominated the first half, taking a deserved lead after Gareth Ainsworth seized on a weak back pass and beat Iron keeper Mark Samways. From there City threatened to add more goals to their tally, and keep the unbeaten streak going. Jason Barnett hit the post after good work from Magic Johnson. The 7-1 defeat at Layer Road seemed years away as the direct football brought us chance after chance. At half time City were still 1-0 up and Scunthorpe were lucky to have nil.
Less than 20 minutes into the second half the Iron had turned it around. John Eyres scored a smart volley just six minutes after the teams came out, and 13 minutes later Phil Clarkson thundered a 20 yard drive past a despairing Richardson. 2-1 down, The Imps needed a response.
On 78 minutes John Beck went made a change. He hauled off Udo Onwere, and brought on forward Steve Brown. Brown had three goals to his name, and wasn’t a renowned game changer, but City had to do something. Brown was a ‘tryer’ if you like, a man that would run through brick walls, but occasionally would just bounce off them. Like an enthusiastic puppy he’d just get back up and charge at the wall again. Everyone likes a tryer.
Steve Brown’s first touch led to a City equaliser. He’d been on the pitch a matter of seconds when he delivered a teasing cross into the box. Samways faltered and the clinical boot of Gareth Ainsworth lifted the ball into the air, over the marooned keeper and into the back of the net. City had (at least) rescued a point.
Beck then sent on the target man Daley at the expense of winger David Johnson. Daley wasn’t a complicated player, he’d had a good spell in the early part of 1994/95, but had been a bit part player in the current campaign. Injury and poor form had restricted him to a handful of appearances, and it appeared as if he were heading for the door in May.
That may have been the case, but he intended to write his name in the history books, and with just four minutes on the clock he did just that. A trademark long throw from Jason Barnett was met first time by the head of Daley, and it crept past the keeper to give City a 3-2 lead, a lead they defended resolutely until the final whistle. I can’t remember the final few minutes of the game, my floppy 90’s curtains dangled in my eyes as I desperately celebrated as if we’d won the cup. Even today I struggle to remember anything if we’re hanging on to a lead. as it was we did hang on. Within weeks The Prodigy hit number one with Firestarter, and the floppy curtains were gone. By the time they hit the top of the charts with Breathe, Phil Daley was gone too.
He only played one more game for City before being given a free transfer at the end of the season, along with David Johnson. The arrival of a big Dutchman called Gijsbert Bos pretty much put paid to Phil Daley’s hopes of remaining at the club.
City stumbled their way to safety, eventually finishing 18th on 53 points, 24 points clear of the relegation spots. John Beck began a remodelling campaign that ultimately led to our 1998 promotion. As for Scunthorpe, they finished just seven points ahead of us and our battle resumed the following season, where without Phil Daley to perform last-minute heroics they gained revenge at Glumford, beating us 2-0.
As for me, I found a job in June of 1996 and enjoyed the halcyon summer drinking, working and watching England ultimately lose at football. Britpop was in full flow and my football team were gaining some pride, even if the style didn’t really give us the dignity to match. Every new number one seemed to bring a new style or haircut as I lived out the dream of youth.
That wonderful summer promised so much, if only I’d known what I had to look forward to as I was on the way back from Glumford Park that night. If I had, I wouldn’t have been sick out of my bedroom window after we lost to Germany, and I most certainly would not have tried to blame it on the dog.