I never thought I’d have to write those words in a blog or article, certainly not when talking about Lincoln City.
Let’s not beat about the bush, we are famous for being a bad FA Cup side. Apart from the odd year our history is littered with defeat against teams such as Altrincham, Southend and Stockport. Whenever we did progress to the third round we always seemed to get the bum-draw that meant we were never anymore than a footnote in the newspapers, we always got the weaker top flight sides, or someone languishing in the Championship. Teams like Crystal Palace and Bolton never really got pulses racing, not like one of the big five could.
It seems we were saving up all our luck for one special season, and finally we get to reap the rewards. We’re not just going to Arsenal as a one off reward for winning two early rounds, we’ve already beaten Burnley, Ipswich and Brighton (as well as Oldham, Altrincham and Guiseley). It’s our seventh game which I imagine will be one more than the eventual winners play. Whoever lifts the FA Cup this season, it is Lincoln City that should be remembered as the biggest winners.
Anything other than a resounding defeat on Saturday will be a good result. Could we go one further though? Could we spring a surprise and snatch a full-time draw? Could we sneak it on penalties? Probably not. It’s far more likely that we’ll go down in 90 minutes, valiant losers and gallant underdogs. That said, it was also more likely we’d lose at Portman Road, or even in the well-earned replay. Defeat against high-flying Brighton was almost assured, and a win over Burnley was just the stuff of dreams. This is the dream that keeps on giving though, ever since that win over Oldham we’ve been riding the crest of an FA Cup wave that seems to have galvanised the team and made us better.
We haven’t tired due to the high number of games and our players haven’t lost sight of the real prize, the Football League. Since the Oldham win we’ve lost just two and drawn three. Prior to it we’d drawn five and lost four. We’ve got better as the season has progressed and after every big FA Cup game since the beginning of December we’ve gone on to win our next league game. We’ve essentially banished the notion that a big cup run adversely affects your league season, certainly in the FA Cup. Each round the task has got tougher, each round I’ve predicted a heavy defeat and each round I’ve been left smiling with egg on my face as we up the ante even further. The size of each task has grown since the second round, and each time Lincoln City have grown with it.
On paper a trip to the Emirates would be nothing more than a day out. We know our place, we’ve been put in it enough times over the last five seasons. We are a non-league club, we did have to qualify to even get into the first round and in footballing terms Arsenal are Goliath to our David. They’re actually more than that, they’re Goliath but strapped with sub-machine guns, body armour and a piece of four by two with rusty nails stuck in it. We’re David, but without the snooker ball in a sock (or whatever it was he had). We’re armed with nothing more than organisation, preparation and the sort of team spirit Arsene Wenger would give up a kidney for.
Is that enough? On its own it might not be, but consider the week Goliath has just had. He might be big, tough and armed to the teeth with expensive toys, but he just had his ass kicked by his German counterpart in his own back yard. A week ago any lingering interest he had in having a late title challenge was roundly killed off by the troublesome Liverpool. Those expensive toys aren’t all they’re cracked up to be either. Sanchez has a face like a slapped bum sat on the bench, and the other good players in the squad are rumoured to be unhappy. Theo Walcott will probably lead the line, but is he really ‘world class’? Is he even top six quality? No. As for Welbeck I’d imagine he’d only need to run into Matt Rhead’s arm to go down like he’d been shot by a sniper, but unlike Joey Barton he’d actually be injured. Goliath is currently sat in his back yard waiting for the little old David to come around and slap him right in the face.
It’s well-known teams can easily bully Arsenal, and these days you can easily outplay them as well. Bayern showed them how football should be played, but Lincoln will try the smart approach, physicality. How many challenges do you think Rob Holding will go in for with Matt Rhead before he decides he doesn’t fancy it? One? If he’s watched any footage of the big man he probably decided he’s not really up for it whilst eating his dinner yesterday.
Arsenal are in wretched form as well. In the last seven games they’ve won two (non-league Sutton and Hull) and lost five. Okay that does include two matches against Bayern, but form is form no matter who you play. Arsenal have forgotten how to win football matches, and that is a bad habit to get into. Let me put it another way: Arsenal have lost as many games in six weeks as Lincoln have in seven months.
When you strip away all the glitz and glamour of the Emirates, when you ignore the sideshow of the media speculation and the anti-Wenger furore, what you have is eleven men against eleven. One set of eleven men are standing tall, winning games and full of confidence. The others are lacking in togetherness, they face an uncertain future and they can’t buy a win. Sure, one or two of the Arsenal side are almost from another planet in terms of what they can do with a football, but they need time on the ball and the inclination to make things happen. I said immediately after they beat Sutton if they field the same team we have a chance. If they play youngsters across the back and if they look to play with a bank of four just inside our half then they won’t get the same welcome they did against Sutton. Our players won’t give them time on the ball, they’ll press and harass and Arsenal will be forced to make decisions. Under pressure players will be attacked on their own ground, and that could go one of two ways. They could crumble under the atmosphere, not that there is much at the Emirates. They could start playing loose balls, making bad decisions and shying away from the physical challenges Lincoln pose. The crowd might make them tense, and if that happens we have the tools to make them pay. We have to be at our best, and I mean our very best. One loose pass, one missed tackle and the ball could be in the net, game over. This isn’t Ipswich, there won’t be route back into the game once it’s gone.
Of course they could respond in another way, by rising to the challenge and giving us a sound thrashing. Arsene Wenger might even fancy a big score to try to put a small shine on his god-awful week’s work. He might play a full first team knowing he has to win the match or risk not choosing his own time to go. I’m sure part of our belief is based on them putting out a weakened side, if we took to the field against Ozil, Giroud, Sanchez and Mertesacker we might get a cruel surprise. Well, maybe not Mertesacker. Matt Rhead could outrun him.
Whatever happens it is our day in the sun (not the paper). This match means so much and very little at the same time. On one side it is an amazing experience, arguably the biggest single stage we’ve ever got to play on. It’ll be a sold out stadium, one of the worlds finest and we’ll be playing some of the best footballer in the country. Arsene Wenger is a world renowned manager, despite his problems, he’s an innovator who reinvented the modern game in England. It is a once in a lifetime opportunity for the players, the fans, the staff and of course the city of Lincoln. It is history.
On the other hand it is a game in a competition we probably won’t win, a game we’re not expected to get anything from at all, and a game that counts for diddly-squat come the end of April when we’re adding up our points total. If we lose heavily, it’s expected. Anything else and we come away with our heads held high. It’s the first truly ‘no-lose’ game we’ve had since, well Burnley. Before that of course we’ve possibly never had a match that meant so much but also meant so very little. The pay-day is assured, the money is in the bank. We have nothing to lose, and that should concern the Gunners, who have everything to lose.
Whatever the outcome on Saturday the names of Paul Farman, Bradley Wood, Sam Habergham, Luke Waterfall, Sean Raggett, Alex Woodyard, Alan Power, Nathan Arnold, Terry Hawkridge, Matt Rhead, Danny Cowley, Nicky Cowley and the rest of the squad will forever be etched into the memories of Lincoln fans. They’ve achieved something this season that no other set of players ever have in the modern game. They’ve taken a non-league side to within one match of a Wembley FA Cup appearance, and with a little bit of luck and an incredibly amount of hard work, they might just spring the biggest footballing upset of all-time on Saturday.
Up The Imps