What follows here is not an analysis of the game, nor a discussion about how we’ve achieved what we have. What follows here is a traditional blog as such, simply one man’s story of a day that will be remembered for the rest of his life.
Supporting Lincoln City isn’t a single-player game. Whenever you go to watch them, whoever you are you’ll be guaranteed to meet up with someone. If you go alone maybe you’ll sit in the same place and speak to the people around you. Maybe you’ll meet in one of the High Street pubs, or perhaps you travel to games with your family. For the final home game of the 2016/17 season I encountered just about everybody.
My day started at 7am when I left my house in the Wolds to head to my Dad. I travelled into Lincoln from Wragby with him, Mo (my step mum) and Dave, Mo’s brother. Dave is from Cleethorpes but has been following City his entire life, which is pretty much the same as Dad and me. As for Mo, well she loves whatever Dad loves and over the past decade she’s taken in as much Lincoln City as most.
Spoons for nine was the plan, the reality was quarter too which was a bit of a downer because they hadn’t started serving the amber nectar just yet. We ordered breakfast and (just) found a seat to discuss the days events. By the time breakfast actually arrived they’d been serving the good stuff for half an hour, but I suppose they don’t usually have to cater for so many Imps fans. There was a muted atmosphere in the pub, perhaps a little tentative. Before the Arsenal game there had been songs and chanting, but I don’t think any fans wanted to count their chickens.
Peter Hayward was doing the rounds interviewing fans for Siren FM, and despite doing at least one podcast with me he didn’t know who I was. Fancy that, not knowing me! I did an interview and wished him all the best in his role as Commercial Manager at Lincoln United. Peter is an acquired taste but he has been an integral part of the press conferences this season.
My first ‘wow’ moment of the day was when Jordan McClaren came over to say hi. Jordan is the Imps fan that travelled to the game from Perth in Oz without a ticket. We’d exchanged emails once and he bought a copy of my book, and his kind words about the blog made me smile. It’s nice to think I’m an internationally acclaimed writer! Joking aside fair play to him, it takes some dedication to come all that way without a ticket, so it was nice to find out today he got to see the game.
From there the rest of our match day party took shape. My mate Dave Adams joined us in the pub. I’ve known Dave since we were nine or ten, and up until December we’ve probably seen each other three times in ten years. Lincoln City has brought us back together though, and after buying our final strEight tickets together we’ve vowed to get season tickets together as well. That’s the power of football, it unites people and aside from all of the obvious good things this season has delivered, bringing Dave and I back together is one of the best.
We had to mooch up to the train station to meet another mate, Pete. Pete and I went to secondary school together in Horncastle, he’s the Man United season ticket holder I’ve often spoke about. We watched most of the 1999/00 season together in the St Andrews Stand and he gets along whenever he can. He was there laughing when I broke my wrist celebrating Adam Marriott’s winner against Tranmere earlier in the year, and again I was delighted he could make it yesterday as well.
The final day party was completed by the arrival of my uncle, Keith Muxlow and his boy Dan. Keith and Dan travelled up from Exeter to watch City, but Keith is proper old-school Lincoln. Before he was relocated to Exeter at the beginning of the eighties he went everywhere with Lincoln, he still sports an Imps tattoo to this day. As a kid my programme collection was started off by him giving me a small bag full. I daren’t tell my missus Keith is to blame.
Dan is a hard core Exeter fan even at the tender age of 14. He’s one of the new breed of fans similar to our 617 that follows his team home and away and isn’t adverse to a bit of pyro and a bit of atmosphere. Keith thought it was important that Dan should come and see Lincoln where it all began, and their trip was booked months ago. I think Dan was eager to witness his Dad’s first love as well, and I had a great chat with him about how the sanitised product from the Premier League bore no resemblance to the game we follow and love. With good fortune and several wins on the spin it just so happened that his first taste of Lincoln City was to be the day we wrapped up promotion.
Walking down the High Street towards the ground gave us a sense of the growing atmosphere. The funniest moment was as we passed the Anchor, I heard some shouting to ‘the bloke in the cap’ which I took to mean me (as I was the only bloke in a cap). When I turned around there was Connor Casement and a selection of the 617, most definitely in our area. He banged and gesticulated at the window in a ‘come on let’s have it’ kind of fashion. I gave him a ‘effing come on’ gesture back. We’re all Imps.
I was a bit naughty when we got to the ground. I anticipated long queues for the bar, so instead we dipped into an off-license and bought a few cans to keep us going. That completed the pre-match ritual, our group camped outside the Travis Perkins suite drinking cans of beer from a bag like your friendly local park-bench alcoholics. The atmosphere grew and grew, a strange mix of apprehension and carnival. Casey was selling ‘Champions’ scarves. I thought perhaps a bit premature, but not wanting to miss out I bought one anyway. Turns out he was right and I was wrong.
We cut it fine getting into the ground, and as you’d imagine such a big group got split up. Dan and Keith were Bridge McFarland (as long as we can get on the pitch I don’t care where we sit was the comment), Dad and Mo were Stacey West, Dave and I were in our usual seats and the other Dave was elsewhere in the Coop. With over 10,000 in the ground for the first time since 1999 it was never going to be easy to get seated.
I can’t remember too much of the match. Thanks to a couple more nerve settling beers in the Coop stand I was lacking the usual amount of concentration that I put into analysing the game. I watched their opener go in on the TV screens as I made my way back from an enforced early toilet break, but thankfully I was back in place to see our equaliser minutes later. That’s typical City this season, never let their heads drop and never let anything faze them. Whenever we conceded goals, whenever things looked stacked against us, we come back harder and faster than before. We never ever say die, we simply refuse to lose. Refusing to lose wouldn’t be enough though, we needed to win.
I don’t think the game was a classic. City have looked a little leggy and tired at times in recent weeks, after 60+ games I don’t think it’s a surprise. I can’t tell you whether Macclesfield were a decent side or not, I assume they must have been. I do remember the double change, all around me people were convinced Terry Hawkridge was going off. After all, Danny had only spoke on Monday of how he leaves Nathan Arnold on the pitch because he always has that moment of brilliance in him. Was it foresight that it was Terry Hawkridge who was left on this time? Was it luck or was it great judgement?
Whatever convinced Danny to leave Terry on, it worked. Billy Knott was involved in the move as the ball found its way out to Terry, and his shot (or cross, I’m sure he’ll say shot) crept in to the opposite corner of the goal to light up Sincil Bank. The flame had been burning all game, but that goal meant the wick finally reached the gunpowder, and off went the promotion fireworks. Even with 15 minutes to go nobody thought there was any other result than a Lincoln win once we got in front.
With one swing of his boot Terry changed the atmosphere completely. The apprehension and nerves were dispersed (certainly in me) and it felt like we’d won the league, right there and then. The sideshow of a football match became almost secondary to the release of the incredible tension. Where previously there had been bitten nails and pursed lips, now there was jubilant chanting and bouncing around. Sure there had been signing and jumping all game, but that goal gave it meaning, it focused all that energy into joy rather than just as motivation for the team. Now the National League title was in sight. Now we could taste the champagne, and that silver trophy was close enough to touch.
I saw an unattended stairwell, and being in the Coop Upper I made my move. I had to get onto the pitch, I’d get back in the stands when we were told, but whoever won a league and didn’t invade the pitch? Unfortunately my way was blocked by a steward, namely Mez whom I have known years. He was adamant in a friendly way that I wasn’t getting past. He was wrong. The minute he turned his attention to other pitch-bound fans I leapt over a bar, across his shoulders and scurried down to the front like a naughty schoolboy. As for those two damaged discs in my back… it turns out that diclofenac, amitriptyline and tramadol are alright for pain, but beer and a league title are far better. I’ll suffer in the week I suppose.
I couldn’t see the header that almost spoiled the party. I paced up and down the front of the Coop stand, not really knowing what to do. The game was entering it’s dying embers and I was like a cat on hot coals. I was like a headless chicken, like Derek Asamoah making one of those forward runs he used to make with no purpose or product. I had no direction, all I wanted to do was hear the blast of the whistle to get my fat ginger arse onto the hallowed turf of Sincil Bank.
Then it happened. The whistle went. We won the game, and we won the league.
The next forty-five minutes can not be described by words. Something takes over, an autopilot kicks in as unbridled joy takes ever every sinew of your body. I hugged strangers and friends alike as thousands of people gathered to celebrate the achievement. There were some in tears, some were pumping their fists in the air, others were stunned into a silence. Everyone expresses emotions differently, I wandered in a daze, heading to Danny and the players one minute and looking for my Dad the next.
It was finding my Dad that became most important. This was one of these ‘I was there moments’, and he was there too and for it to be as meaningful as it could we needed to be there together. When I did find him we hugged as tightly as ever, united not only because of our relationship but also because we both knew what it meant to each other. I hugged him because I’d seen him cry in 1987 when we went, because I knew what being a Football League team means to him. He hugged me because he reads this blog every day, and he knows exactly what it meant to me. I’d wager you hugged your Dad, Mum, mate, complete stranger with similar emotions going through you.
Eventually we cleared the pitch and I stood right in the corner of the Bridge McFarland and Coop Stand. It was here I shed my first and only real tears of the day. Dad turned to me and said ‘I wish my Dad could have been here to see it’, and instinctively I hugged him and said ‘I’m glad my Dad is’. There was something in that moment that finally cracked my so-very British stiff upper lip. Moments later father and slightly-tearful son witnessed the colossus Luke Waterfall lift the trophy, and with it lift us back into the Football League. I’ll never forget that moment, not as long as I live. I swear if I’m ever sat in a home when I’m in my eighties, barely able to remember what I had for breakfast or whether I put socks on in the morning, I will always be able to recall the moment we watched our thirty year wait for a trophy end.
The weather had forecast to be over cast all weekend, but for the rest of the day and indeed all of Sunday the sun shone bright. It wouldn’t have mattered if it was torrential rain, nothing could dampen yesterday. Nothing.
Once a few fans had cleared I went back onto the pitch for photos and to shake a few hands. It was nice to be recognised by Alex Woodyard and Nicky Cowley, and I had a brief chat with Clive Nates. I shook Adam Marriott’s hand a told him (again) about the broken wrist, and I thanked the softly spoken Nathan Arnold for everything he’d done. I might be 38 but I felt like a little boy again, not knowing which of his heroes to accost next. I have no idea what I said in truth, I probably babbled like an incoherent moron. I didn’t care. I still don’t.
Town was predictably bubbling with celebrations and good vibes. We all met back up in the Mailbox and sat drinking and recounting out own stories. Dan and Keith were watching for the Exeter score, but we were all making plans for next season. We’d go there, they’d come here and we’d all get together for a trip to Coventry. Every so often the pub exploded into Imps chants, and as the afternoon wore on I suspect people found their way into town via the High Street. Things got louder, celebrations got wilder and I moved from beer to vodka.
I’d occasionally pop out for a cigar and almost every time someone came over for a chat. I spoke to some readers of the blog, and please forgive me if I didn’t know your name or seem altogether ‘with it’. I do remember Becca Daubney saying hello, and I also remember two guys with Danny and Nicky masks coming over for a chat as well. Our party dispersed back to Sheffield, Exeter and the Shakespeare, until it was just me and my old man. We weren’t going to let a little thing like everyone else going stop us. He hit the gin and we decamped to the William Foster for more celebrating.
The day drew on, the vodka slipped down and I suddenly realised that was it, I was fully on my arse. I hit the wall, unable to sing anymore, unable to stand up straight and teetering dangerously on the brink of being pretty ill. I called it and got picked up, just minutes before the players descended on the bars. Bad timing perhaps, but I’d been an emotional mess when I’d met them on the pitch, I doubt I’d have made a second good impression had I continued drinking and been sick all down myself.
This morning (who am I kidding, this afternoon) I got up and the sun was still shining. Dawn had broken on our first day as a Football League club since May 2011. That particular journey is complete, and now we embark on an exciting new phase. April 22nd 2017 will never leave me, it will become an intrinsic part of who I am.
I once studied hypnosis (I am going somewhere with this), and part of the course was current life regression. The idea was you were guided back to a happy memory and we got to practice on each other. You didn’t pick the memory as such, it picked you but it was no surprise to me that I ended up back on May 2nd 1988 alongside my Dad and his Dad as we beat Wycombe 2-0. That was a great session, and when my fellow student tried to count me down I refused to come back. The course tutor had to come and take over as I was so happy to be there again. Now I have a second memory that I don’t ever want to come away from, a second day where I got a pay-off from the years of supporting the club through thick and thin. Yesterday is in me now, etched onto my subconscious forever like a mental tattoo.
You got the pay-off too, whether you were there or whether you’re reading this having not been able to make the game. You’ve just sat through nigh on 3,000 words of my experience, and you’ll have your 3,000 words tucked away somewhere in your memory bank. Maybe one day you’ll be regressed too, but if not you can always relive it in other ways. This modern age of social media and mobile phones means there is more footage and more photos of yesterday than there ever could have been in 1988.
Maybe our achievements will sink in eventually, maybe it will never quite sink in completely. We’ve come from five bottom half finishes to win the league title, we’ve won it with two games to spare and we’re back where we belong. The whole city is united in celebration and joy, and in ten days time we get to do it all over again as the open top bus rolls around the city centre.
What a time to be a Lincoln City fan. What a time to be alive.