Our cup clash on Saturday won’t be the first time we’ve played Brighton, but it will be only the second time in our history we find ourselves hosting an FA Cup 4th round match.
Brighton first visited Sincil Bank in 1958, and the two teams had only met once before in the 1915 FA Cup. On the first occasion Brighton ran out 2-1 winners, the Imps scoring through William Egerton. Egerton scored 25 times for City in 76 games, but he also featured on many occasions during the great war, scoring 30 in 32 whilst the conflict was going on.
In 1958 it was City who ran out victorious. In November the Imps were 4-2 winners, and those two points ended up being the difference between us and relegation from Division Two. Andy Graver had only been back at the club for one game, and he made his third home debut, registering not only a goal but also an assist as Roy Chapman netted our second goal. Just months earlier fans had tried to storm the directors box after George Hannah was sold to Manchester City after just 38 games and four goals, but the return of Graver and the form of John McClelland (who arrived as part of the Hannah deal) appeased the baying crowd. Later in the season we lost 2-1 at the Goldstone Ground, but finished 19th and safe from the drop. Brighton finished in 12th.
Ironically it was against Brighton in 1961 that Andy Graver made his last appearance in a City shirt. He didn’t score that day as we went down 1-0, and went down to the Third Division, losing the second tier status that we have never regained.
After several meetings in the sixties and seventies our paths crossed again in the late 1990’s. In 1996/97 we won twice, 2-1 at home and 3-1 away. Gareth Ainsworth scored in both those games in a season that saw Brighton escape the drop just 12 years after appearing in an FA Cup final. They were on a downward trajectory at the time, and the Imps were resurgent.
The following season Brighton were struggling again, and our match at Sincil Bank was as crucial as they came. City had already qualified for the Third Division play offs, but a win over Brighton coupled with defeat for Torquay at Leyton Orient would see us promoted automatically. Mr Ainsworth had moved on earlier in the season, but two goals in three minutes from Terry Fleming and Lee Thorpe ensured we got a taste of third tier football for the first time since the mid 1980’s. Even a late scare couldn’t derail our promotion party.
It was November again, this time 2003, when we last saw the Seagulls at the Bank. By that time we’d been to administration and back ourselves, but Brighton were top of League One. They had former Chelsea striker Leon Knight up front, and we expected to be turned over with relative ease. Keith’s teams never produced the expected though, and after an hour of football we’d raced into a 3-0 lead. A Paul Mayo penalty gave us an early lead, and further goals by Matt Bloomer and Simon Yeo gave us an unassailable advantage. A late Chris McPhee goal was scant consolation, although Brighton ended the season as play-off winners and regained Championship status.
Just a couple of days after that match Keith Alexander collapsed and began his fight against ill-health. From jubilation of a big cup win came the tragic news our manager was fighting something far more important than any football game. Unsurprisingly we lost our second round game, 3-0 away at Southend just a few months after we’d beaten them 2-0 in the league at Roots Hall. Just a few days before Brighton won their promotion, we went down over two legs to Huddersfield to fall at the last hurdle.
Since then we’ve taken very different paths. Brighton have established themselves as potential Premier League participants, and this season represents a great chance to finally achieve top flight status after a thirty year absence. As for City, well as we know we’ve struggled miserably against first relegation, and latterly non-league obscurity.
What Brighton do demonstrate is the potential to climb the leagues, with the right belnd of management, players and fans. They were galvanised as a club as they were evicted from the Goldstone Ground, and the spell at the Withdean only cemented their morale. In 1998 it was us that appeared to be on the up, but five years later we’d let the advantage slip by.
This season, more than any before, has demonstrated the potential size of this football club if we were to continue playing good football and winning games. They have gone from bottom of the fourth tier, to top of the second tier within twenty years, they’ve gone from the brink of oblivion to become a financially sound and successful football club.
Could Lincoln City achieve the same thing? Can the current wave of good feeling be ridden all the way through the leagues? We may think it could never happen to us, but it does happen to teams that get things right, and we have got things spot on this season.