When the Football League announced a series of structural reforms in the game during April 1986, one particular innovation appeared to be long overdue. Out went the antiquated re-election system that would decide whether a club remained in Division Four, the days of the "old boys network" thankfully at an end. In came automatic promotion and relegation between the Fourth Division and the GM Vauxhall Conference, with the champions of the latter replacing the team finishing rock bottom in the Football League.
If the new system had been introduced to create excitement, then in this respect the Football League should be commended, especially in relation to the drama enveloping the first ever relegation scrap at the end of the 1986/87 season. With just a week to go in the season, five teams stood on the edge of the precipice, staring down at the prospect of non-league football. Wins for Rochdale and Tranmere before the final Saturday reduced the equation to one from three; the consequences of the drop for one of those clubs, a founder member of the Football League, were terrifying.
Burnley's fall from grace had been alarming. Just thirteen years before, the club had finished sixth in the top flight, as well as reaching the FA Cup semi-finals, but after suffering relegation in the 1975/76 season, the club would then continue to plummet, reaching Division Three in 1980. Brian Miller, a member of the 1959/60 title winning team, led the club back to Division Two, but he would be sacked as the club came straight back down, and just two seasons later the ultimate embarrassment of Fourth Division football would be a reality.
Miller was back in charge at the start of the 1986/87 campaign, but the body blows just kept on coming. A humiliating 3-0 defeat in the FA Cup at Telford in November triggered a run of just two wins in their next 16 League matches, as the once proud club got sucked into a fight to avoid the drop, with many speculating that The Clarets would cease to exist if they were relegated to the Conference.
A 1-0 defeat at Crewe in their penultimate game of the season - Burnley chairman Frank Teasdale lodged an appeal that was rejected by the Football League that the match should be replayed after the second half had allegedly been cut short by three minutes - saw Burnley looking up at the rest of the division.
A club that had been used to filling the 92nd spot in the League ladder was Torquay United. In the previous two seasons Torquay had finished bottom, but had been saved by the re-election system that saw Bath City and Enfield miss out on a possible promotion. There would be no such safety net in 1986/87, however, and the club, managed by Stuart Morgan, were a permanent fixture in the bottom four of the table from October until the end of the season. The final day would see the club escape once more by the skin of their teeth, although how they stayed up owed something to the canines of a canine.
For another of the clubs involved, the thought of being in the final day survival scrap looked a distant nightmare at the turn of the New Year. In fact, there seemed more chance of Lincoln City taking advantage of the new play-off system, rather than suffer the indignity of a relegation fight. Sitting in seventh position in mid-January, the team appeared to have recovered from their relegation during the previous season. Yet what followed was a calamitous plunge down the table that would cost manager George Kerr his job, and lead to Lincoln paying the ultimate price.
Once the slide started, the unwanted momentum downwards just could not be slowed. From play-off candidates in January, the team would take just 14 points from the next 66 available - W3 D5 L14 - with Kerr sacked in March, and caretaker manager Peter Daniel unable to bring about a change in fortunes.
Even so, going into the final match of the season, in terms of relegation, Lincoln were still the outsider of the three clubs. A win at Swansea would keep The Imps up, and a draw would probably be good enough, unless Burnley beat play-off hopefuls Orient by four clear goals. A defeat would leave Lincoln vulnerable, although even in this situation, Burnley would need to win and Torquay avoid defeat to see Lincoln suffer back to back relegations.
Sadly for Lincoln, the nightmare scenario began to play out in front of them. A lacklustre 2-0 defeat at Swansea in front of just 2,544 fans opened up the possibilities of relegation, although there were two hopes that they could remain in Division Four. With the match involving Burnley delayed due to crowd congestion, and Torquay's match running into five minutes of stoppage time (for reasons that will be explained later), the wait to find out the fate of Lincoln must have been agonising.
First to Burnley. Such was the interest surrounding the demise of the club that a bumper crowd turned up for what might have been their final act, the official gate of 15,781 on the day dwarfing the average attendance of 3,257. Programmes quickly sold out, as supporters entered the ground with radios/Walkmans at the ready, to try and catch news of events at Swansea and Torquay.
The media interest had also grown in the build-up to the match - including a Saint and Greavsie preview - for reasons best summed up by Ian Woolridge in his match report: "We gathered like predatory undertakers and professional mourners, lured by the death throes of a stricken giant."
The large crowd led to the match being delayed by 15 minutes, an advantage in one respect as results from the other games would be in by then, but as Burnley fans would later admit, it only added to the tension once they had discovered that Lincoln had been beaten. Gaining the required victory would not be straight forward, though, especially as visitors Orient needed a win themselves to make the play-offs.
In a nip and tuck first half, Burnley would take a precious lead in stoppage time through a Neil Grewcock strike, and when the same man crossed for Ian Britton to double the lead 90 seconds into the second half, Burnley's great escape was very much on, as both Lincoln and Torquay were losing. It was never going to be that easy, though. An Alan Comfort goal, after a mistake by keeper Joe Neenan, did little to ease any nerves, and with over half an hour remaining, Burnley were still on the brink.
For a long time, it looked as if Torquay would be the team to fall through the trapdoor. Trailing 2-0 at half-time to Crewe - David Platt scoring one of the goals - there was still hope, providing Torquay could take something out of the game. Just after half-time, defender Jim McNichol scored from a free kick to bring Torquay back into the match, yet with time running out, Torquay were still not sitting very pretty in the 'As it stands' table. But then McNichol and a German shepherd called Bryn had a coming together that would alter the outcome of this nail biting day.
"There had been a little bit of hassle in one of the corners and so the police had the dogs out," McNichol states in this Guardian article. "With a couple of minutes to go I was chasing the ball up the touchline, trying to keep it in play. The handler was watching the crowd but the dog saw me running towards it and probably thought I was attacking his handler, and he went straight for me." Receiving treatment for five minutes, McNichol managed to get to his feet and hobble about (Torquay had used their one substitute). But the injury time caused by the stoppage would prove crucial.
A couple of minutes into the added on time, Paul Dobson capitalised on some woeful Crewe defending to keep Torquay up, and leave Lincoln requiring an Orient equaliser to stay in Division Four. Alas Burnley held on, and as both Turf Moor and Plainmoor witnessed joyous pitch invasions, Lincoln were sent down on goal difference, occupying the fatal position in the table for the first time all season.
"In many respects this is a new beginning for us and I think that in the coming years people will realise just how close we were to going out of business," a relieved Brian Miller said after the celebrations had died down. Very true. Still viewed as the most important match in the history of the club, the fixture on Saturday May 9 is now simply known as 'The Orient Game'.
McNichol and Bryn would be reunited later in the week for a number of local news features, and the Torquay defender would always have a reminder of the day that his injury helped the club stay up. "You don't forget a dog bite. It's been more than 20 years now but I've still got a nice scar to remind me. I had three different holes in my leg and I got 17 stitches."
Naturally there was a lot of shock surrounding Lincoln's relegation, but chairman John Reames came out fighting, vowing to carry on with the construction of the new St Andrews stand despite dropping into the Conference. "It is a time for faith and courage and we hope the new stand will be a symbol of the city's determination to regain League status," Reames declared. "Our aim must be to get back at the first attempt."
Lincoln would bounce back immediately under Colin Murphy - who had almost led the club to Division Two in his previous spell at the club - and both Torquay and Burnley enjoyed better campaigns too. Miller led Burnley to a solid 10th place in Division Four and the club also reached the final of the Sherpa Van Trophy (played in front of over 80,000 people at Wembley against Wolves). And Cyril Knowles took Torquay to the play-offs, only to be pipped by Swansea in the final.
The relegation dogfight at the end of the 1986/87 Division Four season would turn out to be an unforgettable day for all concerned, and one of varying emotions; relief for Burnley and Torquay, and despair for Lincoln. For neutral onlookers, the introduction of relegation to the Conference had been a rip roaring success, providing edge of the seat entertainment, and such excitement. I'm not sure many Lincoln supporters would have agreed with you at the time, though.