That’s a headline I feared I might never get to write. When I imagined the story of our season I always thought it would be promotion via the play-offs. As a Lincoln City fan you are born with an understanding that there is always one team better than you in a league, if not three or four. Even during the Keith Alexander years our success was based on being the sixth or seventh best side in the competition.
Now, with just four games to play, we are in serious danger of ending the season top of the league. I never like to count my money whilst I’m still sat at the poker table, but it would take an extremely unfortunately string of results for us to not win the National League. It could be wrapped up as early as Easter Monday, and no matter what the so-called Super White Army do we could be crowned champions at Sincil Bank next Saturday against Macclesfield. There are still a few steps to take, but it is looking more-than favourable.
That wasn’t the case with ten minutes this afternoon though. I thought we looked nervous in front of the biggest National League crowd of the season. One or two of the lads didn’t turn up, and those that did were playing stray passes and taking up odd positions. It wasn’t that we were especially bad, we just looked off the pace.
The first ten minutes there were no signs of anything being amiss. I thought Torquay looked awful in the opening exchanges, and I fancied us to be two or three up by half time. Instead as the game wore on we seemed to become more edgy, and that coincided with Torquay beginning to find their feet. They’ve got a good record against clubs at the top of the table, perhaps they can raise their game for the matches that feel decidedly ‘Football League’ and struggle when they’re playing on National League North grounds. That doesn’t bode well for them next season.
Jack Muldoon put his heart and soul into his rare start, and of all our players he looked the most direct and dangerous in the opening 45 minutes. He’s been unlucky since the Arsenal game, and some even speculated whether or not we’d see him again. He has only had a walk-on part to play for the most of the season, but one thing about Jack is his never-say-die attitude. If we were going to score, you felt that was where the goal might come from. He was denied on at least one occasion by a superb save.
Torquay certainly had the better of Rheady for much of the game. That isn’t a slur on Matt, but they doubled up effectively and he didn’t get much change out of an inconsistent referee. Some officials are sympathetic when the big man gets the shirt pulled tight across his back, others seem to think he deserves it because he is robust and combative. A foul is a foul whether you weigh ten stone or fifteen stone, and Rheady was fouled a few times today and got very little. I’m not saying he didn’t give a bit back though, the Gulls defenders knew they’d been in a battle.
I thought Torquay zipped the ball about really well for most of the first half and again for most of the second. They had a few decent efforts at goal, and although we didn’t look out of the game we didn’t really look like scoring a goal. They needed points badly, and they didn’t seem happy to come and take just a draw. Credit to Torquay and to their travelling fans, they were more vocal than most of the visitors this season, and their players had a real go at winning the game too. I liked Jamie Reid on the flank, he’s on-loan from Exeter City and he did look as if he has Football League quality.
The momentum they had changed somewhat with the introduction of fans favourite Adam Marriott, and he almost opened the scoring with 15 minutes to go. He had a decent header that just clipped the post, and it roused the crowd once again. The players and crowd often seem in sync, and moments later Matt Rhead tried a spectacular overhead kick which just missed. It felt as if we were on the cusp of breaking the deadlock.
Torquay weren’t to be outdone though, and they soon did their best to silence the Imps fans. Sean Long got tied up in knots by Reid out wide, and his cross ended up being bundled home. I know it’s a squad game and I’m sure Brad will be back in on Monday, but today we missed him. I believe he would have dealt with the danger better, and the looping cross which Ruari Keating turned in perhaps wouldn’t have made it across the goal. 1-0 down with ten minutes to go, but the Imps fans were not to be silenced. We were never going to lose ground in the title race without a proper fight.
At that point I confess I was looking at the Tranmere game and doing the maths in my head. I hadn’t given up, but the pessimist in me thought it best to work out the permutations, just in case. If they only drew and we lost we still had a good advantage. Maybe we could nick an equaliser, but in truth aside from those two efforts we hadn’t looked dangerous in the second half. It seemed maybe the run of games had finally got the better of the players, or maybe it was the pressure of such a big occasion. I shouldn’t have doubted the players, I’ve learned that you should never, ever doubt Danny Cowley’s team.
Straight after their goal Torquay looked to manage the game with a couple of well-timed injury breaks. It took a little momentum out of the game, but good teams get a 1-0 lead and hold on to it. Relegation haunted teams do not, and sadly (for Torquay) they simply didn’t manage it efficiently enough. During one of the injury breaks Danny got his players around him for a quick ten second pep-talk. I don’t know what he said, but as usual he had the right words.
Adam Marriott continued to make a difference, and he was also instrumental in the turnaround. First off he picked up a Matt Rhead flick on and drove a wicked shot at goal. The keeper parried it, and there was Harry Anderson to bag his second crucial goal in five days. Danny always says if you get men in the area you’ll score, and Harry got himself into the right place at the right time. As soon as we scored one, you sensed we’d get another.
It had been said in the first half if we scored once their heads would drop and we’d go on to win five nil. That’s the difference between top and bottom: if you go behind at the bottom that dangerous habit of losing games creeps in. Your shoulders drop, your heads drop and the impetus is lost. If you’re top and you go 1-0 down you’re still full of confidence and belief because winning is something you are used to. Our heads didn’t drop at 1-0 down, if anything it picked us up. As soon as we scored our first there was only ever going to be one winner.
I think the gap between the goals was around a minute and a half. Marriott picked up the ball on the edge of the area, and as he did he was tripped over to win a dangerous free-kick. Torquay had spurned seven or eight in good positions around the area, but all we needed was one in the right position. Sam Habergham has already bagged two from similar areas, and he made absolutely no mistake this time either. I’ve been fortunate to see all three of his free-kicks this season, and this was the pick of the bunch. He caught it sweeter than I’ve seen a Lincoln player strike a ball in years, and it rifled into the back of the net with an air of inevitability. 1-0 down with four minutes to go, 2-1 up before the ninety is done.
I know this is a phrase that gets mentioned time and time again around Lincoln City, but to keep believing and keep pushing forward after going 1-0 down late on takes an immense amount of character and togetherness. As the passes went astray in the second half our players didn’t get at each other, they got their heads down and went again. After Torquay scored the players didn’t shrink in the face of an embarrassing defeat in front of 9,000 fans, they dusted themselves down and kept on doing what they had been doing all game. They believed, the fans believed but I suspect over at Prenton Park they didn’t want to believe. As they dropped two more points against Aldershot (as expected) the news broke that we’d turned things around. From being within two points of us, they were suddenly five points behind with only nine to play for.
The final whistle brought the scenes of jubilation we’re getting used to at Sincil Bank. The adopted anthem ‘Sweet Caroline’ rang out loud as the players all congratulated each other on a job done. This match wasn’t pretty, it wasn’t one for the neutral and at times it wasn’t one that could be described as enjoyable. Those last six minutes though, they were what football is all about. It had the joy and relief for us, and the out and out desolation for the travelling Torquay fans. As they shook hands the two sides appear to have remarkably contrasting futures ahead of them. We look set for trips to Coventry and Notts County next season, they look destined to play Concord Rangers and Poole.
If the game had taken place in February you’d think ‘they’ll be alright’, but playing well in mid-April is no good to anyone unless you win the match. Sadly I think defeat all-but relegates them to the National League South, and I take no pleasure at all in that, despite them relegating us in 1987. Once again though our fates are entwined, and on this occasion it is them who have come out worse. I wish them and their fans all the best for the next few games, but I fear it will be a few years before our paths cross again.
As for us, we push on towards what seems like our destiny. I don’t want to call it even now (I’m not Alan Agar after all), nothing is won until we hit the 96 point mark, or until Tranmere drop more points. Until that happens I’ll still remain a little bit edgy and a little bit nervous. I can’t help but feel that in eight days we’ll be filling up Sincil Bank one last time this season, and fittingly when the referee blows the final whistle we will be back where we belong in the Football League. I daren’t take it for granted, I prefer my eggs with bacon and bread rather than on my face, but it is looking more likely by the day that Lincoln City really are on the way back. We can win pretty, we can win ugly and from here we can surely win the National League.