Feb 19

Lincoln City: The managers' tale

Posted by SoccerHistory

Lincoln City’s unprecedented success in reaching the FA Cup quarter-finals as a non-league team this season has prompted this article on the club’s managers over time. I will consider the careers of three most successful managers in the club’s history: David Calderhead, Bill Anderson and Graham Taylor, followed by a brief resume of the current management team of Danny and Nicky Cowley and where they might fit into this history. Two other managers, Colin Murphy and Keith Alexander, deserve an honourable mention on this context, although neither quite achieved the heights reached by Calderhead, Anderson and Taylor.

David Calderhead had been one of the best centre halves in the game in the 1890s, at a time when the centre half played as central midfield role rather than the defensive ‘stopper’ that developed post-1926. A product of Queen of the South Wanderers, he moved south to join Notts County in 1889 and went on to captain the Magpies team that won the FA Cup in 1894. He also won representative honours for Scotland and the Football League and served on the Management Committee of the Players’ Union. 

Calderhead was appointed as secretary-manager of Lincoln City in September 1900 and held the position for seven years. He was a manager at a time when the position had yet to fully evolve. He did not select the team (which was a task for the directors) and was unlikely to have been involved in training and tactics (the trainer and players were generally responsible for these tasks). His role was to manage the financial affairs of the club, to organise travel and, most importantly, to build a successful team.

It was as a team builder that Calderhead was so successful. His great achievement was to lead the club to the most successful season in their history. In 1901-02 the Imps reached the last 16 of the FA Cup and also finished fifth in the Second Division table. They had a minimal squad: only 17 players were used and three of these totalled only four appearances between them. Sincil Bank was something of a fortress and the team were unbeaten in home league games, conceding just four goals. The core of the team was made up of Scots: McMillan, Gibson, Fraser, Crawford, Proudfoot, Hartley and McInnes. Not all were Calderhead’s recruits but his ability to blend experience and youth was a key factor in building a successful team, while his ability to recruit players cheaply and sell them on for a profit helped ensure the finances were relatively stable.

In August 1907 Calderhead moved to Chelsea where he spent 26 years as manager, leading the Blues to the 1915 FA Cup final and two semi-finals. The greater finances available enabled him to become one of the early big spending managers and amongst his many recruits were Willie Gallacher and Andy Wilson.

Moving on some 50 years, the next manager we shall consider is Bill Anderson. Unlike Calderhead, Anderson had not been a star player, although he had played before the war for Sheffield United and Barnsley before injury ended his career. He came to Lincoln as the club trainer after the war and after being appointed as manager in January 1947 he stayed in post until 1965: a period of 18 years.  The role of the Lincoln manager had moved on somewhat from the early 1900s but the manager still did not have full authority over team selections, with proposed line-ups being submitted to the board for approval at their weekly meetings. Anderson, however, did play a role in training and was, of course, heavily involved in recruitment of players.

In many ways he was the first of the modern ‘personality’ managers at Sincil Bank. He was not averse to publicity stunts, notably when signing Yorkshire fast bowler Freddie Trueman; the publicity generated attracted around 7,500 to watch Trueman play a reserve game at Sincil Bank, but soon afterwards hewas advised to end his fledgling soccer career to focus on cricket. It was, however, as a great wheeler-dealer in the transfer market that Anderson was best known, particularly in the 1950s. In a series of rather sensationalised articles that appeared in the Sunday People early in 1961 he was labelled as ‘Soccer’s Mr. Magic’. He claimed to have earned the club £100,000 profit in the transfer market since the war, including £30,000 in deals involving star centre forward Andy Graver. His philosophy of “Find ‘em, buy ‘em, sell ‘em” was successful in keeping the Imps in the old Division Two for nine seasons from 1952.

Anderson was the first manager to win two promotions for the Imps. His 1947-48 team was built around the veteran Tom Johnson, a former colleague from his Bramall Lane days, but his teams of the 1950s were generally built around players signed from the North of England. The Imps were essentially a Northern team throughout the ‘50s and rarely recruited players born in London and the South of England. Anderson and his backroom staff all hailed from the North East. Many of the stars of this era were signed from Newcastle United, where the manager was able to exploit his close personal links with director Stan Seymour to pick up many of his bargains. Players such as Andy Graver, John Thompson, Jerry Lowery, Fred Middleton, Bob Gibson and George Hannah all arrived directly from St James’ Park.

City were only relegated from Division Two at the end of the 1960-61 season, coinciding with the ending of the maximum wage. The club had benefitted considerably from this equalising factor as other ‘perks’ came into play when players decided where they wanted to move. Lincoln were able to offer a city with a pleasant environment, good schools for children and new housing with modern domestic appliances. There was also a race course but no dog track (a factor that led to at least one player’s refusal to sign).

There was no way back following relegation and Anderson’s final years at the club were blighted by dismal performances on the field and financial crisis off it, but his feat of keeping the Imps in the second tier of English football for nine seasons on limited resources remains a remarkable achievement.

The next decade proved to be one of very limited success at Sincil Bank (the Football League Cup run of 1967-68 providing a notable exception) before the arrival of Graham Taylor in December 1972. Taylor was effectively the first man to manage the club using recognisable management techniques. Unlike Calderhead and Anderson he was not a player of the transfer market and was generally given sufficient financial resources to recruit the men he needed, providing the price was reasonable.

Taylor had enjoyed a solid but unspectacular career with Grimsby Town and then City, although as a youngster he had appeared in the FA Schools XI in two consecutive seasons. His success at the club, culminating in the record breaking achievements of the 1975-76 season, was built on sound management principles. Shortly after his appointment as manager he presented a six-page document to the board outlining his proposals to turn things round at what was then a somewhat dysfunctional club. This document covers many aspects of the club including self-discipline (of the players), the scouting system, treatment of injuries, the reserve, ‘A’ and youth teams, travelling to away matches, relations with the press and the non-playing staff. The structural changes he introduced to the club were key factors in underpinning his success.

The document also includes his ideas on man management: “It is my intention to treat the players as people first of all and players secondarily. I want to have a group of men in which Lincoln City will be not only proud of them as players but as ambassadors of the Club. In order to get this they must be treated as grown-up adults even though on occasions they may slip from these standards.” Taylor’s ability both to get the best out of his players and to produce a tremendous team spirit amongst a group of players who were not always the best of friends off the field, shows the importance of his man management techniques and how skilled he was in this field.

In 1975-76 the Imps won the Fourth Division title in record breaking style. Their points tally was an all-time Football League record under the two points for a win system (74), they established Fourth Division records for most wins and fewest defeats in a season and in scoring 111 League goals they became the first Football League team in over a decade to score a century of goals in a season.

In the summer of 1977 Taylor moved on Watford where he took the Hornets from the Fourth Division to the First and a place in the FA Cup final. Further success followed at Aston Villa before he was appointed as England manager, holding the post between July 1990 and November 1993.

We move on to the present day and the current management team of Danny Cowley and his brother Nicky, appointed to the post in the summer of 2016. Less than a year into the job they have marked their stay by achieving the club’s best-ever performance in the FA Cup by reaching the quarter-finals following the 1-0 win at Burnley in the fifth round. The Imps are the first non-league team since World War One to reach the last eight of the competition. Significantly, although a number of non-Football League teams reached this stage (or further in some cases) before 1915, in most cases these were Southern League teams at a time when this competition was almost as strong as the Football League’s Second Division, which mostly drew its membership from clubs in the North and Midlands. The ultimate prize for the Imps, however, is not the FA Cup but promotion back to the Football League.

Neither of the Cowley brothers has a background in the Football League, but both have enjoyed success in non-league football in the South of England with teams such as Hornchurch, Romford and Concord as players and in management with Concord and Braintree. More significantly in their former role of PE teachers they were crucial figures in making Fitzwimarc School in Rayleigh, Essex, one of the top state schools for sporting achievement in the country.

Although it is relatively early days in their management career, it is clear that their ability to use sports science techniques to enhance the performance of individual players has been a key feature of their time at Sincil Bank. There is a huge attention to detail in everything the management team does and a much greater flexibility both in tactics and the use of personnel than has been previously seen in the role. The focus is on the future, not the past. Thus the sudden departure of striker Theo Robinson on transfer deadline day never became the issue that it might have been. Above all, however, the progress the Imps have made this season is down to long hours and hard work from the management team. 

This brief run through of the Imps’ managers represents how the role of the manager has changed in the wider game. In many cases managers through to the 1960s were rarely great tactical innovators and those at Sincil Bank were essentially organisers and team builders beginning with the unobtrusive Calderhead and progressing to the ‘personality’ wheeler dealer Anderson. Graham Taylor represents a new type of manager, one who actually managed, while the Cowley brothers have moved this on further with their emphasis on sports science techniques.

The best managers are rarely those who enjoyed a successful playing career. Calderhead is an exception at Lincoln, but Anderson, Taylor, Colin Murphy and Keith Alexander (both just outside inclusion here) plus the Cowley brothers made little impression as players. What makes a good manager? One key attribute is hard work from the management team. City have not always trained in the afternoons, for example, but did so under Taylor, Murphy and the current regime. Some of the least successful teams seen in the Imps’ colours over the last 50 years have been managed by individuals living away from the city and with their minds on other business interests. Relative youthfulness helps too, it seems: Calderhead, Taylor and the Cowley brothers were all under 40 when appointed, suggesting energy and hard work are more important than experience in the role. The third identifiable factor is that the manager should be employing modern/current management methods rather than those which are old fashioned. Nevertheless, success never comes without hard work.