BY OLLIE McMANUS
Sincil Bank became a place engrained in the conscious of English football fans last season when Lincoln City romped their way to the FA Cup quarter-finals courtesy of wins over Brighton and Hove Albion, Oldham Athletic and Burnley before valiantly falling short against eventual winners Arsenal.
The Imps have had a sometimes turbulent, if unremarkable 133-year history since their formation in 1884.
Skipping forward some 100 years to the 1985-86 season that – just a year after they were the visiting team on the day of the Bradford City stadium fire that killed 56 spectators and 3-4 years after successive flirtations with promotion to the second tier of the English game – saw a real nip and tuck Third Division campaign go right down to the wire with eight teams battling to avoid the drop to the Fourth Division; eventually Lincoln would finish in 21st, the final relegation position.
There was no real concern for the club’s hierarchy because the squad itself was still much the same that pushed for promotion the season before – manager George Kerr kept his job – but it’s conceivable that the complacency shown contributed largely to their downfall the following year.
Widely tipped for a swift return to the Third Division, the club started well and were well positioned for a promotion push around the half-way mark. However, a shoddy run of results saw them drop from a peak of 7th all the way to last place in the space of a few months.
Kerr was replaced – significantly later than he should have been – by Peter Daniel who would serve as player-manager.
On the last day of the 86/87 season, Lincoln travelled to Swansea knowing they not only needed a result but also needed Torquay United and Burnley to suffer unfavourable score-lines in order to retain their Football League status.
At the Vetch Field, 2,544 people watched Swansea City run out 2-0 winners, and with both Torquay and Burnley victorious in their respective games, the Lincoln supporters made the trip home knowing they faced life outside of the Football League.
The club turned to a familiar face in Colin Murphy, former manager of (amongst other clubs) Derby, Stockport and Southend, who returned to the club for a second managerial stint having previously taken charge between 1978 and 1985.
Murphy has been described as ‘eccentric’ in his methods and set about causing a stir in the dressing room; an overhaul was in need and player after player came through the doors ready to make their mark at Sincil Bank.
Phil Brown (no, not that one) and John McGinley were just two of those players and they quickly struck up a partnership that would go down in local folklore; Brown, the target man, nabbed himself 16 league goals and McGinley 15 as the Imps strolled through the Division with 86 goals and 82 points; 1st place and promotion at the first attempt.
The club plateaued thereafter under a succession of managers, including a brief spell in charge by Leeds United legend Allan Clarke, so let’s skip forward to the 1997-98 season when 20 wins from 46 games brought about a surprise promotion. The Third Division (yet the 4th tier) that season was a tight one, to say the least. Aside from Notts County and Macclesfield Town, who secured 1st and 2nd place by a margin of 24 and 7 points respectively, the next six places were covered by a mere six points. Lincoln City finished above both Colchester and Torquay by a single point, despite the loss of key man Gareth Ainsworth who left the squad in the summer for £500,000. A 16-match unbeaten run secured automatic promotion by the narrowest of margins thanks to the combination of a final-day win against Brighton and Torquay at Leyton Orient.
Again, relegation dragged them back down to the fourth tier and in 2002 things began to go really wrong when ITV Digital collapsed, and with that, £150,000 of revenue just evaporated.
Lincoln went into administration in April of that year and the final home game of the season against Rochdale was widely expected to be the last in the club’s history. £12,000 was raised by the faithful that day and the “Save the Imps” campaign was born.
Numerous initiatives were launched and backed by fans; the highest earners left which freed up finances and the club’s future was secure for a minimum of two years. To replace those that had left, a variety of non-leaguers and no-hopers were given a chance to do something incredible.
Keith Alexander’s men visited reached the play-off final at the Millennium Stadium to fight it out with Bournemouth for a place in the Second Division. Despite a spirited performance the club lost 5-2 but were still rewarded with an open-bus tour of Lincoln upon their arrival home.
What would follow over the course of the next 5 years would be a series of odds-defying. Five successive play-off qualifications saw them fail to gain promotion every time.
From then, the club’s spirit seemed to have been broken, and once again they were dumped out of the Football League in 2011 having seen off Chris Sutton’s short managerial debut.
To all intents and purposes Lincoln weren’t meant to bounce straight back and, indeed, they didn’t – 17th place in the first season saw them set the tone for the next few years.
The next four campaigns followed the trend of mid-table mediocrity (mediocrity in the nicest sense of the word), with 16th, 14th, 15th and 13th place finishes representing a remarkable level of consistency – consistency that was even more exemplified in the number of goals scored each season; 66, 60, 62 and 69 just going to show their success up front.
Last season was never supposed to be anything but one of gradual progression but armed with the tactical nous of the Cowley brothers and a whole influx of young talent – including Alex Woodyard – they cobbled together a series of performances that continually defied expectation.
The turning point of the season was on the 19th November when the team came from two goals behind against title favourites Forest Green Rovers to win the game 3-2 thanks to two goals in the final few minutes of play.
Following on from that, the team was almost impregnable and concluded the season with 99 points, 30 wins, 9 draws and 83 goals to their name – an incredible season, an incredible team and an incredible story.
And that incredible teams lives on to battle out League Two and hopefully, for them, keep on climbing the league ladder. Sean Raggett was the only real star to leave Sincil Bank – he signed for Norwich City – but he returned on loan for the season; Woodyard extended his contract despite interest from Doncaster Rovers and a very generous contract offer from Aston Villa.
Despite a stumbling to start upon their return to league football, the Cowley brothers have managed to keep the team grounded throughout and now, with around a quarter of the season remaining, City are lying in a very punchy 10th place with the promotion play-offs certainly within reach.
Undoubtedly the fans and the board will be happy just to be out of non-league but trust me, they’re not going to stop here, they want to keep on pushing to go as far as they can.
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