Despite having been mathematical champions for just over a week, today saw the final ball kicked in anger in the National League, and the curtain came down on Lincoln City’s triumphant 2016/17 season.
In the end perhaps two away draws with Maidstone and Southport were not the bang some thought we would go out with, but very few people will care. Whether we got to 99 points or 101 points is irrelevant because nobody else got more than 95. A draw for Southport may have been a credible result, but it was merely a case of two teams with contrasting destinations passing each other in the corridor. Whilst we are bound for such footballing palaces as Huish Park and Gresty Road next season, it is Boston United and Gainsborough Trinity that await the Sandgrounders.
There was a poetic irony in us ending our non-league spell at packed Haig Avenue given that is was there almost six years ago that we kicked off this so-called adventure. Since then we’ve got through managers, players and shed more than our fair share of disappointed tears, but today those less-than regal surroundings were the final destination of the Lincoln Loco, the final stopping place for a relentless machine of a team that simply ground out results and achieved that ultimate dream of a return to League Two.
We eventually won the league at a canter, the final two games have seen us so far out in front that we were able to turn around and gently jog over the finishing line looking backwards as we watched the rest of the teams settle in to their final positions. There was no surprise directly below us as Tranmere, Dagenham and Forest Green all bagged a play-off place. In the end Aldershot also snuck in having been on the periphery for much of the season. The Dover manager thought Ricky Miller’s goal could fire them to the play-offs, and it was an expensive gamble not to cash in on him in January. That’s backfired now, Miller is almost certain to seek football in front of more than a few hundred fans and he can walk away for free.
If I were a betting man my money would be on the winner of the Tranmere and Aldershot semi-final also claiming the win in the final. I think recently Aldershot have been great value for money, and if they could score goals on a more regular basis they’d probably have finished much closer to us. They’re organised and hard to break down and momentum is with them as they’ve come from behind to sneak into the top five. Tranmere have to be the obvious favourites, begrudgingly they have a squad rich in centre forwards and they should prove too much for either Dagenham or Forest Green.
There was real drama down at the bottom as Torquay United pulled off a splendid great escape to fight another day at this level. After losing at Sincil Bank they looked down and out, but on that day they showed a real spirit and character which I thought could see them achieve an unlikely great escape. Three wins on the spin have been crucial, and by beating fellow strugglers Braintree they virtually condemned them to the drop before severely denting Dover’s fading play-off hopes and finally ensuring North Ferriby ended the season bottom of the league. Whilst I’m delighted for Torquay, I do feel sorry for Braintree.
It was always going to be hard to replicate their third place finish from last season, especially as the side broke up and the managers came to us. It’s been a long season of struggle for Hakan Hayrettin’s side, and seven goals without reply in two games against us only highlighted the frailties that ultimately cost them their place in the National League. Dare I say they are perhaps back at a level that suits them the most, but that doesn’t stop me feeling a small amount of guilt at the manner in which we plucked their crown jewels from them like picking berries from a bush.
The final relegation spot wasn’t decided until the last whistle had been blown in the last game. With Guiseley losing at home to Solihull Moors it looked as if the team that failed to win until October were going to be relegated. Then in the final minute they popped up with an unlikely equaliser, and that pushed York City into the fourth and final relegation spot. They were drawing 2-2 at home with Forest Green, and for ninety minutes of the afternoon that would have been enough to see them survive. Football is a cruel mistress, and having looked to have hauled themselves to safety just a few weeks ago they were unable to find a winning goal meaning they are condemned to a second successive relegation.
I should feel some degree of sympathy for them, but oddly I don’t. When Torquay scored past us in their match in April their players celebrated together, and they approached the whole game professionally and with dignity. In our matches against York their players were niggly and confrontational, and when Jon Parkin scored he gestured to our fans rather than celebrate with his team mates. They put in some shocking tackles during our encounters, from Parkin barging Farman over with the ball in his arms, to Newton gesturing at City fans as they claimed their Wembley place.
I’ll apologise to my mate Rob now (a York fan), but when the final whistle went I didn’t feel an ounce of sadness for them. Sean Newton isn’t a nice human being, Jon Parkin is a bully also and the arrogance with which they celebrated their FA Trophy semi-final win has come back to haunt them. I remember leaving the ground after they’d beaten us and their fans were by the astro-turf taunting us about not getting through to the final and how they’d ruined our dreams. It wasn’t a nice moment and I suppose I expected nothing less but it did make me a little hard-nosed towards their fight for survival. Had it not been for a crap referee they wouldn’t be in the non-league showpiece cup final, and over 46 games they’ve found their level. Enjoy Wembley in May, and enjoy the Northolme in September.
As for Torquay, another fight awaits them now, but staying in the league was of the utmost importance to the Football Club. They filed out of Sincil Bank with their hopes in tatters a couple of weeks ago, and I commiserated with one of their fans at the time, asking how they were in the relegation battle as they seemed a decent side. He said they were inconsistent and staying in the league was only one battle in an ongoing war. Well that battle has been won, now go and keep fighting for your football club. Good things happen to good people, and their survival proves that.
I also want to give a little shout out to Gainsborough Trinity who were hammered 5-1 by FC United of Manchester this afternoon, but stayed in the National League North by virtue of Worcester being thrashed by AFC Fylde. I’m currently working in Gainsborough and I know how much the club means to the town, and although the result wasn’t the best today the outcome of the season is enough to keep them smiling. Dave Frecklington had a massive job on his hands lifting the player’s heads and keeping them in the league, and he has done it well. I do think it’ll be tough next time out for them though, that league looks more like a professional league every season with Boston, Darlington, Stockport, Kidderminster, Halifax and of course York in there as well. The Northolme is set to see some big matches next year and I wish him and the club all the best.
Non of this really bothers us anymore though. Not going to Wembley in the FA Trophy final seems to have no meaning anymore. At one stage in early March we could have gone to Wembley three times, and yet here we are no closer to the Old Dame than we have been in the last 125 years and we’re still smiling more than DB Cooper if he survived that jump (look it up kids). We’ve ended the season unbeaten in 11, and in 61 matches we have lost just nine times, one of those against Premier League giants Arsenal. Twelve months ago we were at Whaddon Road forming a guard of honour for Cheltenham as they readied themselves for a return to league football, and not one of us would have believed we’d be anywhere near having the same done for us. This football club has been transformed, and although the Cowley brothers have been the catalyst it is every single person connected with the club that have helped make it happen. The players have been superb, the fan base has increased as the season has worn on and everyone at the club has worked tirelessly to ensure the promotion push has rolled on.
We celebrated last week and no doubt we’re still celebrating this evening. Southport has seen more visiting football fans this afternoon than it will see for many years to come, and we stand on the threshold of something even greater than just ‘being a Football League’ club again. I get the impression Danny and Nicky are going nowhere, I get the impression a majority of the players are going nowhere as well. With a strong recruitment policy and the backing of our sensible board and our wonderful supporters, what might we be celebrating in twelve months time?