Whilst there is no substitute for a good old 3pm kick off, midweek matches have a certain atmosphere about them. It’s lucky because we’re going to see almost as many Tuesday nights as Saturday afternoons over the next three months.
Granted a wet and windy Tuesday night away at Torquay isn’t quite as special as most, but for every long journey and miserable trip home, there’s the electricity of a cup win against Oldham, or a victorious trip to York City.
I remember my first night match well, and it was certainly one of those nights you had to witness to appreciate. I was just shy of my ninth birthday, not yet an Imp for a year. Very few children get to go to Sincil Bank on a school night, and those that do probably didn’t get the baptism of fire that I did.
The date was October 28th, 1987. The opposition were Barry Fry’s Barnet side, a team with whom we’d built up a quick rivalry. Having not crossed paths before you could be forgiven for thinking this wasn’t a big deal. It was.
Our relegation from the Football League the year before had not only stripped our dignity, but also given us the label of the ‘team to beat’ in the GMVC. The jewel in the non-league crown were North London side Barnet, runners up the year prior to us joining the league. They’d been second by a significant margin of 13 points, and it was perhaps a little too contrived that we played them away in the first match of the season. Goals by Bob Cumming and Mick Waitt couldn’t save us for a deserved 4-2 defeat.
Barnet were the early pacesetters, and by October they were second, seven points ahead of us in fifth with a game in hand. Fry had stoked the fire by announcing if his side deprived us of an immediate return to Division Four, they’d be the most popular conference champions in history.
I don’t know how I was ever allowed to go to the clash between the two that Tuesday night. It attracted a season best (at that point) of 4624 fans, it was a must win game if Lincoln were to stand any chance of clinching the title. It was cold, a bit damp and incredibly tense.
I had badgered my Dad to take me to watch City and Kettering a few weeks before. He generously (!) brought me a programme back and promised I could go with him next time. Maybe he didn’t realise it would be such a volatile game.
It was also the one and only game I ever watched stood on the old Sincil Bank terrace. We stood about half way up which means the only thing I can saw for 89 minutes of the game was the back of my Granddad’s coat. I could see straight up into the floodlights as well, back then towering over all four corners of the ground.
The one thing I did get to see on the pitch was a mass brawl, my Dad decided he was going to lift me up to get a good view of that. Geoff Davey and John Reames were even involved as the grudge match boiled over into absolute bedlam. My one vivid memory is of Barry Fry being escorted from the field in his blue and red coat as the brawl was broken up.
Trevor Matthewson had put City one up, he deflected a John McGinley free kick past the keeper to give us a 1-0 half time lead. I’m sure I was handed a particularly nasty Bovril or Tea to warm me up at half time, doubtless most of it end up on my Granddad’s coat.
John McGinley netted a penalty early in the second half to put the Imps 2-0 up. Barnet’s Noel Ashford responded by punching Bob Cumming to get himself sent off. Herbie Smith came on for Barnet, and within seconds was sent off for a shocking challenge on full back Clive Evans.
In 2010 Trevor Matthewson spoke of the game in the Imps match day programme.
“This was one of many hard games we had, but we always played fairly and played to win. I did have a bit of a short fuse back then, and that’s probably why Barry Fry brought on big Herbie Smith shortly after the free for all to try and get me sent off. Full credit to the referee though for the way he handled the situation.
The referee did such a good job of managing a volatile situation that night that he was promoted to the Football League the year after. Trevor West went on to have a good career officiating in the top flight.
There was a goal for nine-man Barnet, and they suddenly began to dominate the match. It was my first real experience of that tension when you’re 2-1 up and hanging on for dear life. I could have cut the atmosphere with a knife, if I’d been able to see what was going on, or I’d had a knife. I was eight years old and I might have struggled to cut the tension with a match day programme and a bag of crushed crisps.
The Imps hung on to run out 2-1 winners, a result that gave refreshed hope to our title challenge. Having lost four games since August, we went on to lose just four more all season to clinch the title on the final day.
I wasn’t allowed to another night match until the end of the season, a fact I suppose I would have been pretty hacked off about had I not been eight years old and easily bought with sweets. I was one of the 4402 that turned out to watch us play Stafford Rangers just a couple of days before the final match against Wycombe. My whole family went, even my Nan! After we clinched that game 2-1 to go top for the first time all season, my nan kicked off with people climbing over me to invade the pitch. At least we were back in the Railway End, and I got to see the game.
Night matches always seem to have a habit of making or breaking a season. It was after night matches we got rid of Peter Jackson, and Chris Sutton resigned. It was a night match when we beat Exeter 2-1 to give ourselves hope of automatic promotion in 1998. We’ve won two historic FA Cup matches this season after sun down. I can’t help but think it will be a night match when we make or break the league campaign as well, especially with so many of our remaining games scheduled to be played under floodlights.
If it is I dare bet I won’t be treated to anything quite as oddly satisfying as seeing Barry Fry led ashen-faced from the field of play like a naughty schoolboy. Nothing will ever beat that.