My first encounter with Braintree

We travel to Essex tonight for a crucial match against Braintree, now perhaps forever remembered as the team we got the Cowleys from.

On September 3rd 2011 we played away at Braintree in our inaugural Blue Square Premier season. Now I’m writing this from memory a little, but I sure the game was on TV. I know it was an evening kick off, and I was at my Dad’s to listen to / watch the game. My memory isn’t always great, I may have an uncanny recollection of players and matches, but September 2011 wasn’t a memorable month.

We’d started the season badly. Despite having a decent squad, any hopes of a swift return to the Football League had been dashed five games in. We’d won at Telford and drawn with Southport, but defeats from Wrexham, Kidderminster and Darlington had demonstrated we were out of the league for the long haul. By the time we visited Braintree we languished 18th miles away from eventual winner Fleetwood.

The Braintree game was a turning point in my expectations. Up until that point we’d played ‘real’ teams, as my then-arrogant mind imagined it. All bar Telford had played league football at some point, and even Telford had that impressive 1985 FA Cup run to boast as history. Seeing Braintree on the fixture list seemed a bonus, surely we’d bag three points? After all, who were Braintree anyway? They sounded like another Billingham Synthonia or Fisher Athletic: the sort of tie that practically gave you a bye if played in the FA Cup first round.

I’d recently met my good lady (a month before, it was a Friday evening and we lost at Wrexham after we shared our first date in Stamford), and this was the first time she’d been to my Dad’s house for a bite to eat. It was a pretty big thing, arranged cleverly to coincide with a game of football on the TV. An evening out watching Lincoln for a second or third date? I don’t know how she’s still here.

We had a less-than competitive side out that night, the line up read: Anyon (decent), Nutter (decent), Gowling (decent), Nelson (garbage), Power (legend), Christophe (garbage), Russell (a tryer…), Fuseini (garbage), Perry (garbage) Barraclough (garbage), McCallum (decent when he bothered). On the bench for City was Jamie Taylor, Danny Hone, Sam Smith, Nicky Nicolau and Adam Watts.

I thought in amongst this line-up was the guile and ability to get us at least into the play-offs. By rights there should have been, but a chain is only as strong as its weakest link, and that starting eleven had Kyle Perry, Ali Fuseini and John-F Christophe in it. I’m afraid that’s one weak link too many, and I haven’t counted Mitchell Nelson in that. I wasn’t aware of that though, I thought we would go to Braintree and give a statement of intent.

We did that alright, in abundance. We showed that our intention was to hang around in the BSP far longer than we felt we should do. Little old Braintree, the so-called pub team from somewhere down south, the cannon fodder to our league return, they sprung a little surprise. I suppose it was only a surprise to us, the arrogant League Two fans who thought we were better than we were.

Braintree were a half decent side before Danny and Nicky fired them into the top three. Alan Devonshire had got them promoted the season before, and he had assembled a slick footballing side that were simply too organised and grounded for us. Whilst we thought we were their cup final, their ‘big game’, in truth we were just a failed league club with fans who were still refusing to believe we should be competing against the likes of Braintree.

Matt Paine, Jai Reason and Sean Marks all went close  for Braintree as my Dad’s living room fell silent. We weren’t just being outplayed, we weren’t even competing. It truly was men against boys but the men were part-time and clearly a far better side than we could hope to be. After half an hour of being mauled like a dying mouse, Braintree finally decided to go for the kill. Andy Yiadom fired a shot in from 25 yards. The score read Braintree 1 Lincoln 0, and the jokes about playing down the local park immediately subsided. It’s a horrible moment when you realise that you’ve been oblivious to how bad you’ve become, but the following 60 minutes gave me a nightmare insight.

John Nutter did almost pull us level in the second half, but by the time the food had all been consumed at our table, we’d lost 1-0. We sank to 21st of 24, into the relegation zone. Any discussion of 1988 and rising from bottom to top was immediately dispelled. I was angry and upset at what I’d witnessed, and so was my Dad.

When we get angry and upset about football we tend to fall out, and that night was the last time I remember having a crossed word with my Old Man. We were both incandescent with rage at what we’d seen, and the more we talked about it the angrier we got. The issue was we got angry with each other, and eventually we had a blazing row and I dragged Fe out to the car to leave. I haven’t argued with my Dad like that since, nor had I really before. I can’t remember what it was even about, but I know it was brought on by our first visit to Cressing Road.

Of our team that evening, only two have really gone on to have anything like moderate success, Gowling and of course Alan Power. If you glance down the Braintree side though, there was a real backbone of players who have consistently featured in good National League teams. The goal scorer Andy Yiadon went on to play for Barnet and most recently Barnsley. Aswad Thomas has had a good career with Grimsby and latterly Dover, whilst Matt Paine was amongst the players to take Braintree 3rd last season. They were organised and well managed and they simply put us to shame.

My Dad and I had made up by the time Kettering beat us 2-0 at home the following week, and we both raised a glass almost a month later when the hapless Steve Tilson was dismissed. It’s taken a while for us to return to being a team fans can be proud of, and it took me a while to lose that arrogant assumption that we were better than some of the teams around us in the league. Being knocked out of the FA Cup in the qualifying rounds certainly gave me some perspective, if you lose to sides like Bath City, Tamworth and Carshalton it’s not long before you realise your place.

My hope is that three points this evening will continue to rebuild that pride that we began to lose way back in September 2001.