From a goal by Ralph Gubbins that was technically historic, to a result for Colin Appleton that was technically unique, we bring you five examples of City slumming it at the very start of football’s least respected competition. Please note: it only briefly alludes to any actual victories…
1: Start as you mean to go on
It’s not as if City’s hate-hate relationship with the League Cup is a new thing. The competition was inaugurated for the 1960/1 season, to allow more evening fixtures and exploit the installation of floodlights by most clubs, and the Tigers’ first ever match was at home to Bolton Wanderers, a declining force in the top division after the retirement of Nat Lofthouse, who had nonetheless won the FA Cup three seasons before.
A healthy crowd just 20 short of 12,000 turned up to see an uninspiring 0-0 draw, with Bolton crushing Bob Brocklebank’s men 5-1 in the replay, so setting a rough standard for the lion’s share of League Cup openers the club would endure over the coming decades. The early years of the competition were also notable for the biggest guns not choosing to take it seriously – they were already playing midweek European ties, and the final wasn’t to be held at Wembley, so they excused themselves. One by one they came in, however, especially when Wembley was promised for the 1967 final, though the authorities waited a whole decade before making participation compulsory.
All of this was of little use to City, who made the third round the following season but never troubled anyone of note through the 60s. Still, Ralph Gubbins, a Bolton player the year before, had something permanently next to his name after that exit to his old club as he scored the Tigers’ first ever League Cup goal, though he was on his way to Tranmere before the season was out. Bolton went out in the fourth round to Rotherham United, who had a certain Ken Houghton in their ranks and who eventually lost the two-legged final to Aston Villa.
2: An impish hoodoo
Lincoln City were and remain City’s unquestionable bogey team in the League Cup. In 1966/7, a full-strength City, with all their firepower intact up front, inexplicably lost 1-0 at Sincil Bank to the team that would eventually finish bottom of the whole pyramid, exactly 20 years before an identical placing would drop them into the Conference. But the 1980s was when they really got stuck into City. In four of five seasons, the two were paired with each other in the first round (even allowing for regional draws, this was ridiculous) and the aggregate scores were as follows: 0-7, 1-4, 1-3, 6-1. So only the last of these was in favour of the Tigers, when in 1984/5, a team on its way to promotion to the Second Division under Brian Horton gave their divisional rivals a long overdue good hiding in what was, by then, the Milk Cup.
The 7-0 was during the competition’s last unsponsored season of 1980/1 and for City fans was especially symbolic, as it featured in one of the most unwatchable and horrific City seasons of all, as Lincoln, a division below but heading the opposite way, scored five at Sincil Bank and then added a brace more at Boothferry Park, with Mike Smith putting out largely the same team. Losing by seven without reply in a League Cup first round tie gave the City fans every indication they feared that the bottom tier, for the first time ever, was looming. They were right to hold that fear.
It’s not as if Lincoln were especially inspired by their hold on City; only once did they progress even further after beating the Tigers, and even then it was over by round three. Upon finally getting rid of them in 1985, City lost over two legs to Southampton in the second round. Lincoln haven’t haunted City since in the League Cup, and plenty of City fans of appropriate vintage are probably grateful for that.
3: Silk, no steel
If Lincoln had been a bogey side for City in the 1980s, then the era of more modern times points dominantly (if not exclusively; hello Burnley, see you on Boxing Day) to Macclesfield for the side that unexpectedly copped us an unfortunate one way too often. It started so well – League Cup success in August 1997 set us up for the famous tie against Crystal Palace that guaranteed Steve Wilson something to be remembered by in his ten years with the club.
But as far as the league itself went, we just couldn’t get any hold on them. In a dozen games to date, City have won just two. Victories of 4-0 in the FA Cup in 1999/2000 and 2004/05 were tempered by a 3-0 loss in the same competition exactly in between. Then came the collective groan of inevitability when City, under Nigel Pearson, were drawn at home to the Silkmen in the first round of what was now the Carling Cup in 2011/12.
You just knew. City were two divisions higher and in a notable recovery period after the Premier League excesses had forced considerable acts of cloth-cutting, while Macclesfield were not just in their usual place at the bottom of everything, but in serious peril of returning to the non-league game after 15 seasons in the sunshine.
So it all pointed to one result, though the way Macclesfield executed it was still something to begrudgingly admire, and Emile Sinclair scored a brace of goals that would act as his big parting gift to the Macclesfield fans, as he was off to Peterborough before the end of the month. His exit proved bittersweet, as without him Macclesfield sank without trace and went down, meaning City had lost to a side not good enough for the league any more (and not good enough to this day to come back). As if to prove his point even further, meanwhile, Sinclair scored a hat-trick the next season when Peterborough came to the Circle in the Championship and won 3-1.
4: Back to reality
City didn’t play in the first round between 1969 and 1977, thanks to the introduction of (inconsistent) rules giving the top two divisions a bye to the second round, something which only applies now depending on the teams in Europe, the presence of an ‘R’ in the month and the direction of the wind, or something. Upon a hurtful relegation from Division Two in 1978, however, it was back to life for the Tigers, with the wound-licking including the re-introduction of an earlier summertime tie.
The game against Peterborough actually occurred before the league season started, with an unusual Saturday kick-off for the first leg at Boothferry Park (for reasons to do with power shortages – City lost 1-0) followed by a quick dart to London Road for the return three days later. Back then, the two-legged first round ties gave short shrift to extra time (introduced in the 80s) and away goals (more recent, and as flawed in their practice as any rule in the knockout game) so when goals from Bruce Bannister and Paul Haigh gave City a 2-1 win in the second leg, a coin was tossed and City won the right to host the replay as a one-off game. Which, of course, they lost 1-0.
The same starting XI was used for all three games, yet only in 90 minutes on unfamiliar ground could the Tigers get a foothold; the 180 minutes in front of their own (with more than 800 extras turning up second time round) was entirely blank. Welcome back to the bottom half, lads.
5: Cod wars
In the league, the last time City played Grimsby Town, still regarded by many (with justification) as our biggest rivals, was in the 1986/7 Division Two season, when the Mariners were relegated and, despite both teams having flirtations with all three of the unsexy divisions thereafter, paths never crossed again before Grimsby were relegated into the Conference. So we were reliant on the various cup competitions to renew hostilities, and in 1989/90, the first draw for what was then the Littlewoods Cup obliged.
City scored early through Andy Payton in the home leg, with only slightly more than 5,000 attending, but couldn’t finish the tie off and by the end of 90 minutes in the second leg at Blundell Park a week later, Grimsby were level through Keith Alexander and forcing extra time.
They duly finished the job off over the next 30 minutes, with a goal from Gary Childs that rookie City keeper Gavin Kelly should have saved, and for Colin Appleton, in his second spell as manager, the most minute of consolations came for him after his sacking three months later, as the home leg was his only victory in charge. And even that wasn’t a victory, really.
On top of that, there was the usual tastiness between the two sets of supporters – Grimsby had a genuinely fearsome contingent of toerags in the 1980s – with a pitch invasion at the end and one or two scraps afterwards
Grimsby threw away a 3-1 first leg lead to go out to eventual semi-finalists Coventry in the next round, and City have only played them once since – an Auto-Windscreens Shield second round tie in January 1998. Which, of course, they lost 1-0. Seeing a pattern…?
Thanks to Ian Thomson, Martin Batchelor and John Tondeur.