Premier League Opposition & Wooden Stands

Much has been made of our trip to Turf Moor this week, with their top flight status drawing much interest. Imps fans are looking forward to sitting on wooden seats in the David Fishwick stand, and with us facing opposition we met regularly in the 1990’s, you’d be forgiven for thinking we’d gone back in time.

This won’t be the first time we’ve mixed Premiership opulence with less than modern facilities at our disposal. In October of 1996 we paid a visit to The Dell, Southampton. They were top flight opposition boasting the likes of Matt Le Tissier and Egil Ostenstad, but their ground was a crumbling relic to glories past.

It was in the Coca Cola Cup, after turning over Hartlepool and Man City, that we got our ‘big draw’. As fate usually does we didn’t pull out a Man Utd or and Arsenal, we pulled out a Palace, Bolton or Burnley. In this case it was a trip to the south coast that awaited us, and the intimidating atmosphere of The Dell.

Going into our big draw, we’d won just once in five matches. That was (curiously) an away trip at Brighton and Hove Albion which we won 3-1, our last trip to the old Goldstone Ground. We’d only won twice in the league since we beat Man City, and made the long journey south with a form streak that read LLLD. It’s fair to say we weren’t on a great run. Our opponents weren’t tearing the top flight up though, they had nine points from ten games and sat just one place above Forest occupying the final relegation spot.

City lined up as follows: Richardson, Barnett, Whitney, Brown (G), Austin, Hone, Fleming, Ainsworth, Martin, Alcide and Bos. It wasn’t a team built for slick passing and quick interplay, it was a team built for a battle, ready to attack directly and aggressively.

City played that night in a blue and yellow second kit, colours they had previously been unbeaten in. It had only been worn once, away at Swansea, in a match that City won 2-1 thanks to an Ainsworth brace.

Mark Hone gracefully nets our opener

City went there to win that night, and Southampton weren’t expecting it. The early exchanges saw big Colin Alcide have a close range effort scrambled clear, and  big Gijsbert Bos threaded a pass through to Sir Gareth that really big Dave Beasant did well to parry away. Lincoln looked most likely to take the lead, and on 22 minutes the breakthrough came.

A long throw from Terry Fleming was headed down by Bos, and Mark Hone was the unlikely recipient. He placed a sweet drive into the back of the net to give Third Division City a deserved lead.

Jason Dodd did hit the bar for the Saints, but City hung on until the interval. Just minutes after the kick off, one of the 90’s most iconic footballers did what he always did. Matt Le Tissier hit a worldy, a 30-yard volley that bore all the hallmarks of his perfect execution.

Nine minutes later the Saints looked to have turned the game on its head. Jason Dodd was involved in the goal, whipping a cross onto the head of Dutch defender Ulrich Van Gobbel. He (my apologies for the pun) gobbled it up, and made the score 2-1. The Premier League team looked to be cruising.

John Beck’s sides may not have played a lot of good football, but they knew how to scrap and fight for their lives. They knew how to stick to a game plan as well, and four minutes from time we earned an unlikely draw. Another long throw was this time headed down by Mark Hone, and Ainsworth breezed in to level things. Moments after the final whistle went, and 1,000 travelling Imps were rewarded for turning out.

Imps fans celebrate

The result gave City the boost we needed to begin winning games. Before the replay we faced four league matches, all of them won comfortably. Colchester (3-2), Doncaster (3-1), Darlington (2-1) and Fulham (2-0) were all put to the sword before Southampton returned for the replay. City were in great form, and an even bigger upset looked on the cards.

10523 people crammed into Sincil Bank to witness City take a deserved lead through Gareth Ainsworth. Up until a majestic dive by Ostenstad, Southampton never looked like scoring. Unfortunately they scored the resulting penalty, and that gave them the impetus they needed to push on and win the tie 3-1.

In a curious twist of fate, three days later we travelled to Turf Moor, Burnley for an FA Cup 1st Round tie, which we lost 2-1.

We didn’t win another game until January 11th, showing that a loss in any competition could knock confidence in the league campaign. Knocked out of two cups in three days, we plummeted in the league and lost embarrassingly at Colchester (7-1) whom we’d beaten just a month before.

That didn’t matter though looking back. Success of sorts followed eighteen months later, and by that time those who travelled to the Dell had just about got the last of the splinters out of their arses.