By David Binder @davidpaulbinder
The day was 24 May, 2003, the venue was Cardiff’s Millennium Stadium and the occasion was the Division Three play-off final between AFC Bournemouth and my team, Lincoln City. The match itself ended in disappointment with Lincoln City (or the Imps as they’re affectionately known) losing 5-2, but it was the beginning of an allegiance which lasts to this day, and what a journey it’s been.
Allow me to explain.
The collapse of ITV Digital in 2002 left many lower League clubs in financial difficulty (owing to the evidently unaffordable deal the doomed company had signed with the Football League) with Lincoln City being particularly badly hit, going into administration the same year. However, from considerable adversity came hope, with the club effectively saved from extinction thanks to invaluable financial backing from supporters. As far as I can tell, this helped foster a fierce loyalty to the men in red and white both home and away and with a pretty low budget, manager Keith Alexander with his formidable non-League knowledge put together a squad for the 2003-04 campaign that many tipped for relegation. Oh how wrong they were.
No, rather than floundering around the relegation places like a drunk Whale, City would go on to finish in the play-offs five years in a row, from 2002-03 to 2006-07, four times under the late Keith Alexander and once under John Schofield. The memories of what to me are ‘the glory years’ remain: the 4-1 away win at Rushden and Diamonds, the 1-0 cold Friday night victory at fancied Oxford United in 2005-06 and the 5-0 thrashing of Barnet a year later (plus the comical fan exchanges during the game, Barnet: ‘We pay your benefits’, Lincoln: ‘We pay your school fees’, or something).
Understandably, rather like an Irish property magnate during the boom years used to the opulence of caviar and champagne every night, the Lincoln faithful had now come to expect regular play-off and promotion contention, despite seemingly never having a top seven budget. Sadly, like property prices in Ireland, things took a decidedly downward turn.
The 2007-08 season under Schofield and Deehan started badly. I had the misfortune of witnessing their last game in charge away at MK ‘plastic’ Dons. Tepid, rudderless and hopeless would all be appropriate words to use for that particular abomination and soon after Schofield and Deehan were given their marching orders. Who would be next tasked with steering ‘HMS Promotion’ toward the shores of League One? Enter one Peter Jackson.
Things started well enough for Jacko insofar as he succeeded in ‘steadying the ship’, with many of those involved with the club willing to settle for what was then seen as a lacklustre 15th place finish. I well remember the following pre-season with Jackson ringing the changes and signing his infamous ‘magnificent seven’. One of those, Stefan Oakes being described by Jackson with regard to his free kick taking abilities as being capable of ‘peeling carrots with his feet.’ Alas, when such carrots were left unpeeled, and the magnificent seven weren’t perhaps so magnificent, Jackson was sacked. Out of the blue, it was ex-Chelsea striking sensation Chris Sutton who was thrust into the spotlight in what was his first ever managerial appointment. Despite his links with Aston Villa, which brought in players such as Eric Lichaj and Chris Herd (both would go onto make Premier League appearances for the Villains) Cool Chris went a similar way to PJ, only this time mysteriously resigning from the managerial hotseat.
This was but the beginning of the birth pains.
With the club languishing near the bottom of the table, Steve Tilson was the next man to face the gauntlet. With great success with Southend United on his CV, many (including myself) welcomed him with open arms. His tenure began pretty decently, at one point of the 2010-11 season, the mighty Imps were as high as 11th place. Incredibly, and not in the good sense of the word, Lincoln then went on to lose nine and drew one of their final ten games and needing to get a better result than Barnet in their season finale against Aldershot, Lincoln, in front of about 8,000 fans at Sincil Bank lost 3-0 whilst the Bees secured a 1-0 win against Port Vale. The unthinkable had happened, the dog had died, the horse had bolted, the wasp had stung the pensioner and Lincoln were relegated from the Football League.
The Conference Years
I can remember enduring feelings of disbelief at hearing the news of Lincoln’s ejection and I imagine I wasn’t alone. How did a side, so recently consistent play-off contenders, nosedive so quickly? Whilst that debate will doubtless go on for many years yet (Tilson’s ‘leftfield’ team selections, fan expectations, questionable managerial appointments) the reality was what it was, Lincoln were now going to have to get used to non-League football, and one thing the club and fans would learn very quickly is that once a team falls into the Conference Premier it’s extremely difficult to get out, as many ‘established League clubs’ who have escaped will testify. People can scoff at non-League football until the cows come home, but the fact is that compared to 15 to 20 years ago it is a very different animal. Only one team advances to the Football League automatically, with one more doing so via the play-off route. Couple that with the fact that many of the sides are full time ex-Football League outfits, whilst those who aren’t more than holding their own against so called ‘bigger sides’, and you’ve got a recipe which to this day keeps Lincoln in this division, with the prospect of promotion appearing a very tough ask.
For Tilson and assistant Paul Brush, things in the Conference started where they’d left off in League Two and any early expectations of a swift return to the Football League were quickly extinguished. I recall the away trip to self-proclaimed ‘pub team from Essex’ Braintree Town in 2011-12. Looking back, that match epitomised the state of affairs at Lincoln at the time, the fans hurling rude things insults at the players, with at least one player shouting rude things back, and when the final whistle sounded (Lincoln lost 1-0) things turned a bit nasty, with the fans not hesitating to let the players and management know exactly how they felt about things. I was stood a few metres away when club captain Josh Gowling approached the fans in a well-intentioned (if naïve) attempt to empathise, it did little to calm matters.
Predictably then, Tilson and Brush were booted out in October with the side just one point above the relegation zone, and with no parachute payment the following season combined with a distinct lack of sugardaddy a la Forest Green Rovers, the Imps were facing a tough new financial reality. The task of managing in these tough conditions fell to David Holdsworth, and at the risk of offending Mr Holdsworth (shades of Harry Redknapp’s ‘I’m not an effing wheeler dealer I’m a football manager!’) I shall resist from calling Big Dave the ‘Derek Trotter of the Football Conference’. Needless to say though that a fair few players passed through the doors of Sincil Bank during his tenure, including one Luke Medley (on loan from Kidderminster Harriers) who Holdsworth described as being ‘like a gazelle galloping through the Umbrian Hills.’ Personally, I quite liked David, whilst results weren’t brilliant, he did at least in a tough financial climate help prevent a further relegation. Saying that, City’s worst result during my time as a supporter did come during the Holdsworth era. It was an FA Trophy replay in mid-January against Isthmian League side Carshalton Athletic. Despite themselves, Lincoln were expected to triumph. They didn’t triumph. They lost 3-1.
In summary, Lincoln’s initial years in the Conference have been accompanied by a shift in fan expectations. Where once there had been hope and expectation of promotion to League One, there was now genuine relief that their team wouldn’t be playing in the Conference North.
Green shoots of recovery?
Somewhat unexpectedly, Holdsworth and Lincoln parted ‘by mutual consent’ mid-way into the 2012-13 season and in a funny way things kind of went full circle when Gary Simpson, assistant to Keith Alexander during the glory years returned to the club to try and inject some much needed positivity into the club.
Despite again working with a tight budget, Simpson steadied the ship, some even believing that the promising start to the 2013-14 season was a signal of Lincoln acclimatising to the higher reaches of the table. Unfortunately, this proved to be a false dawn with Lincoln doing what Lincoln do so well and going on a ‘Lincolnshire dip’. Simpson remained in charge however, and the men in red and white went on an impressive run toward the end of the season and ended up finishing 14th, their highest finish since being relegated. Could this be the sign of better times?
Like the previous season, the current campaign started brightly for Lincoln. For one thing, there seems to be genuine optimism regarding the squad with the likes of Sean Newton (left back), Tom Miller (right back), Ben Tomlinson (Forward), Hamza Bencherif (an Algerian cut price Arturo Vidal) Nick Townsend (Goalkeeper on loan from Birmingham City), plus others all signed up. In watching the team this term, I’ve been struck by the general improvement in all round skill and quality, typified by the fact that we went to table topping Barnet and secured a 2-1 victory. Even more impressively, we recently overcame our great rivals Grimsby Town 3-2 at the Bank!
Could this be our year? Do we dare dream? With Lincoln City, it’s anyone guess, although having lost six games in eight, I shan’t hold my breath. On the other hand, one of the two victories did come against Macclesfield Town today, so who knows.
Taking everything I’ve said into account, why do I actually bother with Lincoln City? A team once knocking at the door of League One now seems trapped in the Conference Premier abyss with no sign of escape any time soon. And herein lies the rub, there’s no real logic as to why I support Lincoln compared to any other team. Really when it comes down to it, I suppose I keep supporting them because they’re my team. Sure, I have some loose family connections to the area, but that doesn’t really tell half the story. I suppose that day in 2003 in Wales must have planted in me a seed of enthusiasm for the side that lasts to this day. That’s as well as I can explain it.
So to Futcher, Stallard, Marriot, Bailey, Butcher, McCombe, McCauley, Yeo, Asamoah, Forrester, Patulea, Newton, Tomlinson, Miller plus others, thanks for the memories, and here’s to more to come.