I once wrote about hope being at the root of all things good and bad in football. It is the hope that drives you, it is the hope that kills you. It is the hope that still sees you believing Port Vale can score against Barnet when you’re 3-0 down to Aldershot with five minutes to go.
It is the hope of a better future that often drives boards and chairman to make rash gambles (like appointing Chris Sutton). It is the hope of future success that can lead to overspending and the eventual demise of a club. As a fan it is that eternal hope that keeps pulling you back in when all is lost, it is the hope that ensures the week after you lose 1-0 at home to Chester you’re back in your seat trying to find the positives in a 2-0 defeat against Woking.
They say hope springs eternal, but at times as a Lincoln City fan it feels like any sort of success is set to evade you eternally. We haven’t had it easy, the most successful period of the modern era was based on a failure to get promoted five years in a row. I’m not criticising the Keith era, it was a wonderful time to be a fan, but ultimately we have ended up celebrating success within failure. As an adult male my happiest times supporting Lincoln came as we finished 7th, 7th, 6th, 7th, and 5th. Four of those final placings this season would be termed as complete failure.
The last time we truly had hope of a much better on the pitch future may have been 1998 when then-struggling Brighton and Hove Albion came to play at Sincil Bank. That was for an automatic promotion spots, a sort-of third grade success if you will. It was a day of elation and celebration at being the third best team in the league that season, and that in itself was enough to keep us fuelled for awhile. However, the match that was really comparable with what we are about to experience tomorrow was May 2nd, 1988.
On May 2nd 1988 I (along with many more Imps fans) witnessed the sort of triumph that makes years of unrewarded hope worthwhile. For those at the back who have joined us late, that was the day we beat Wycombe Wanderers at Sincil Bank to claim the GM Vauxhall Conference title. It was the last time Lincoln City won anything of note outright, and although this season we’ve won many friends, many new fans and many neutral admirers, none of those can be put in your trophy cabinet. An actual trophy can though, and a favourable result tomorrow will mean that space in between the GMVC title and the 1976 trophy will finally be filled with something other than a county cup or Bob’s signed picture of Bernard Matthews.
If it is the hope that keeps the fans coming back, it is the lure of some silverware that the players stay in the game for. Veterans like Peter Beagrie keep dropping down the divisions to get that buzz of receiving a winners medal, whilst youngsters coming up through the pyramid desperately want the kudos that comes with earning a place in the Football League. Paul Farman heads on the pitch tomorrow a single step from achieving the one thing he said he wants from his entire career: promotion to the Football League. Nathan Arnold likes the buzz so much he’s back for a third time at this stage. Along with all the boys they’re driven by hope as well, hope that tomorrow can give them the sort of occasion that they play to achieve.
‘Let’s make some noise for the boys’. I’ve been on the pitch when Alan has called out his now-famous catchphrase, and I’ve witnessed when three or four hundred hardy souls try to muster up an atmosphere in response. People like Alan never stopped believing when we came down, and aside from my brief exodus to Cambridge neither did I. There were a few thousand of you that believed at first, then a few hundred less, then even fewer who stuck with us as we sunk like a mob boss in concrete wellingtons. By the time I hung up the fur in 2013 I can safely say 2,000 was a good home crowd, and I think the season I left was perhaps ‘rock bottom’. Alan was still there trying to get a handful of you to make some noise though, you know, for the boys. Tomorrow I guarantee we’ll get those rabble raising words again, although you won’t hear them because 9,000 other people are already making a lot noise. Driven by the continuous and sustained efforts of the Block 7 ultras, we’ll be making more noise than you can stand without needing ear defenders. Special thanks to the 1,500 or so amongst you that were making noise for Carshalton away, for Hyde at home and for matches when that hope that drives us seemed all but lost. We’re all Imps, we all deserve this as we all have our stories and motivations, but you 1,500 or so deserve this that little tiny bit more than everyone else. You know who you are.
We haven’t won anything yet, and as of May 1st 1988 we hadn’t won anything either. If blogging was a thing back then I suspect someone like myself would be penning words to this effect, not knowing whether history was about to be written for better or for worse. I imagine 1988 Gary (had he not been ten years old and oblivious to things like pressure) would have been writing about the journey, the immeasurable passion and character shown by the players and the wonderful fans. He may have been using a typewriter and carbon paper, but the sentiment would be exactly the same. He would have been banging away at his keys like I am now, not knowing that the next 24 hours would be talked about in pubs and living rooms across the county for years to come, maybe even forever.
Should the unthinkable happen and we lose tomorrow we still have two games to go. It wouldn’t be the end of the world, for once the hope is well and truly in our own hands. Yes, it will feel like a non-occasion if we fail to secure the title tomorrow, but that hope will still be there come 3pm when Tranmere kick off, or come Tuesday evening when we play on the plastic pitch of Maidstone. For those who like their irony our rearranged fixture with the Stones is just two days shy of being exactly 30 years to the day we met them in a rearranged fixture in the GMVC season. They came to Sincil Bank days before we secured our last Championship, I hope Tuesday we visit their new stadium just days after we secure our latest.
So whether you are a new fan, returning fan or a long-suffering member of the so-called 1500 club, you’re needed tomorrow more than anything. The fans have won Lincoln City games this season, and tomorrow will be no exception. The lads have looked weary and a little battle-worn over the last few weeks, but they’ve dipped into those reserves of character they’ve been building all season to pull wins from thin air. Tomorrow will be different, adrenaline and occasion will help motivate them I’m sure. I can almost hear the Danny Cowley’s voice in my head saying ‘if you can’t get motivated and up for it when the title is on the line, you had better find another profession’, or maybe he’ll be saying of the 9,000+ crowd ‘you can’t be afraid of something you’ve created, so go out there and fight with them’. They have created something special, something where it has been said other managers failed. They’ve created this monster that fights for tickets and squabbles over who is the better fan. They’ve created that hope that we might once again be a respectable and competitive Football League club. They’ve created this unstoppable Loco of a football team that is on the brink of winning some proper silverware for only the second time in my life.
There’s been a lot of bickering and posturing on social media recently, perhaps something that has been bubbling since Oldham in the FA Cup. I am sure that will be put to one side tomorrow, however your Lincoln City journey started, wherever it has taken you and whatever it is that sees you take your seat in the stand, it really doesn’t matter. Young or old, man, woman or child it really won’t matter one little bit. Tomorrow is about the realisation of hope. Tomorrow is what being a football fan is all about, it is what we dream about and what we dare not dream about at the same time. It is what we watch others achieve year after year knowing one day, if the gods all line up and Pluto enters Uranus at the right angle, if the right blend of managers, players and luck can be brought together, if the fans get behind the club and we all push on as one, then one day it could be us.