Danny made much of the ‘next match’ always being the most important match of the season, but now we have claimed our Football League place back we can look back more objectively. Sure, at the time North Ferriby away was the most important game, but would it make the top five of important games?
There were many matches that could claim to be the most important for many reasons. Over the next few days I’m going to pick a few games that I believed not only influenced the title win, but were also significant games for the football club as a whole.
The first game I’ve picked didn’t contribute to our league title in terms of points at all, but when you look back at the season it was the one point you could easily pinpoint as being pivotal. Something very significant started, something that as yet hasn’t gone away. It was perhaps the match where most people got on board the Lincoln Loco in a single hit, and it represented a real step change in terms of crowds at Sincil Bank. I’m referring to Monday December 5th, and Oldham Athletic in the FA Cup.
We went into that game having hit the top spot in the league a week earlier, and we were a team full of confidence. When the draw was first made I was disappointed, I hoped for a good cup run and I thought as a National League team, to draw a former Premiership side battling in League One meant we were more or less already out of the cup. I believe in my club, but I’m also pessimistic when it comes to achieving the impossible, whether impossible is an opinion or whether it is fact.
Prior to the Oldham game our average attendance was 3374, and that had been boosted to 3917 coming to watch us beat Maidstone. Prior to the Maidstone game we had won away at FGR (3-2) and York (4-1), and yet still just under 4,000 fans came along on a Saturday afternoon a week later to see us chip away at FGR’s lead in the league. As a footballing side I will talk about that 3-2 win on November 19th in another blog, but no matter what it did for the players and for our confidence, it didn’t put bums on seats.
Our biggest crowd of the season up to that point had been 4049 against Solihull Moors which looked to be an odd game to start breaking the 4,000 barrier. We had won five on the bounce, including a 1-0 win at Tranmere which had taken us top. Psychologically perhaps there is something about being on the top of the table that brings people out of their armchairs. We drew against Solihull, and four days later just 3578 watched as Barrow beat us 2-1 and we slipped to third.
Attendances had been good when compared to previous seasons, and nobody was complaining at all. When the Oldham game was announced as being live on TV part of me wondered if the local residents might stay at home in the warm to watch the game. It was played on a Monday night though, and that meant without kicking a ball we would be in the third round draw. That was made prior to kick off, and shown live in the TP Suite. It added an element of occasion to the evening. Maybe it was that which attracted the extra fans. Maybe it was being top of the table. Maybe a force greater than you and I just dictated that this was the night when Lincoln City Football Club would show the world they’re back.
7012 fans came to that match, 3,000 more than any other match that season. Oldham brought 415 which meant from somewhere an extra 2500 fans who hadn’t previously been to Sincil Bank that season chose to come along. Those numbers may be flawed of course, it may be many of the fans had been to the odd game when others were missing, but in essence one match saw a 70% increase on our highest attendance, around 100% increase on our average attendance. This was a Premiership giant coming long, it may have been a tough encounter on the pitch, but Oldham are not exactly a draw off it. We faced them in the League in 1998 and just 3224 came along.
Whatever it was that brought the fans out, it brought them in numbers. Before the game the plan was to watch the cup draw in the TP suite, but that plan was dashed when we realised half of Lincoln had chosen to do the same. It was at that point we realised the game might attract a few extra fans, so after watching us pull Ipswich out of the bag we went into the ground. If anything I was a little bit disappointed with Ipswich, I didn’t think it offered much reward if we were able to beat Oldham. It wasn’t the first time I was wrongly irked by a cup draw, and it wouldn’t be the last either.
As you would expect from a December evening it was cold and eventually it would become quite foggy. On a night like that you need scintillating football to warm you up, and despite us playing a team two tiers above us, it did feel like there might be an upset on the cards. In Theo Robinson we had a player who had experience of a higher level of football, but as a unit we were playing with confidence and zest. The only thing that may have worked against us was the absence of Sean Raggett (sent off against Wrexham earlier in the week) and his usual understudy Callum Howe (cup tied from his Southport spell). Veteran defender Jamie McCombe came in for his first outing since August.
Lincoln immediately attacked Oldham with (and I’ll use these words as liberally as Danny does) a real energy and purpose. Terry Hawkridge had the first decent effort at goal, set up by a great pass from Theo Robinson. When your team sets about their game plan early it gets the crowd onside, and when that crowd is over 7,000 it makes a big difference. Oldham were used to getting home crowds of 3,500 and they crumbled under the pressure of such an electric atmosphere.
It was Hawkridge again involved when City took the lead. He brought the ball infield from the left flank and landed a diagonal ball on the head of Matt Rhead. As he did all season, he angled a header back across goal and into the danger area. Theo Robinson didn’t need a second invite to make his run, he probably didn’t even wait for the first. He was playing for a permanent contract in the Football League, and this was his bread and butter. He cut across the keeper and neatly headed the ball away to the keepers right. Sincil Bank went off like a Kalashnikov. Nobody seemed to care that it wasn’t so much a header as a scuffed shoulder into the net. In fact, had he caught it squarely on his head the keeper might have saved it. He didn’t, and City were 1-0 up.
Fans inside Sincil Bank hadn’t witnessed an atmosphere like that in years, bar perhaps the 3-2 win against Grimsby Town a year or two earlier. It was clear Oldham hadn’t prepared for going 1-0 down, and they hadn’t prepared to play in front of such passionate home support, high in numbers and loud in voice. Within seconds they collapsed completely.
Rhead tried to collect the ball in midfield but looked to be pulled over. The referee wasn’t having any of it and Carl Winchester brought the ball away. He looked to play a square ball across the front of his own 18 yard area, and the whole stadium could hear Steve Thompson’s intake of breath. He always says square balls lose you games, and this one did. Terry Hawkridge popped up from nowhere to pick off the pass, stride into the area and finish with all the confidence of a 30-goal a season striker. 2-0 to the Imps with 24 minutes on the clock.
Cries of ‘who are ya?’ rang out around the Bank, and for the next 20 minutes it was hard to spot which team were non-league. Oldham did have a chance, Ryan McLaughlin forced a save from Paul Farman before a weak effort by the hapless Winchester was cleared by a resolute Imps defence.
Half time came and with it came the queues for the toilets in the Coop stand, a phenomenon not seen at Sincil Bank for a long while. By December we’d seen big wins at home, we’d seen table topping football but nothing could prepare us for a giant killing of this magnitude. At second round stage the biggest clubs you can play are those in League One, and Lincoln City had dismantled Oldham and looked great value for the two-goal lead.
Minutes after the restart it was three. Alan Power was making just his seventh start of a tough season, but he cleverly disposed Oli Banks in the middle of the park and played a lovely ball through to ‘FA Cup Theo’. With the cameras rolling he didn’t need to be told what to do, his delightful flick showed class and composure to put the Imps 3-0 up and all-but into the third round. Who cared if it was only Ipswich? Most of the chatter was about prize money anyway, that’s when we weren’t signing ‘who are ya?’ to the beleaguered travelling fans.
The Latics brought on Billy McKay and Lee Croft and to be fair to them it changed the dynamic of the game. Two goals in three minutes brought them right back into it, the first a firm header from defender Peter Clarke after a corner. Erwin then slipped a ball through to the substitute McKay, and he threaded home past Farms to jangle those Imps nerves just a little bit more. Nerves jangled, perhaps so. Noise silenced? Not a chance.
Oldham piled on the pressure as the minutes ticked away, Lee Croft in particular a threat, and it was his stinging drive that almost brought them level. Farman was equal to that, and all over the pitch whatever Oldham tried, Lincoln had an answer. It was nail-biting stuff as we edged towards the 90-minute mark.
At that point the evening began to feel ethereal. The fog that had been threatening to come down all night dropped across the park like a blanket of smoke. Fans couldn’t see from one side of the pitch to the other, the keepers could barely see the half way line. If Imps needed anything other than a 3-2 lead and 7000 fans to make the night unforgettable, this was it. Then, from the thick fog came the shrill sound of a final whistle being blown. City had won 3-2, and 7,000 fans went home happy even if by the end they couldn’t actually see what they’d paid to watch.
Danny Cowley paid tribute to the club’s fans after the game, and although it wasn’t the first time he had done so it was the first time he’d seen us out in such force. He claimed the 7,012 supporters in the ground “carried” City to the win after conceding two quick goals.
“For us to have over 7,000, it’s beyond all of our wildest expectations. I think credit goes to the players, because they’ve got people in the city believing again. We said it in the dressing room that they might have League One players, but we’ve got Premier League people. We’ve got proper people, proper characters and they dug in when it really mattered.”
He spoke those words live on Radio Lincolnshire, and no doubt any armchair Imps fans listening in were convinced that now was the time to go and check out the Cowley revolution. They had read about it in the Echo, they had heard it on the radio and now they’d seen it on TV. This was Lincoln City 2.0, a new and improved red and white army with match-winning capabilities and the ‘character’ upgrade thrown in as well. We even had an influential and likeable figurehead leading the revolution, a modest man who spoke honestly and passionately about the club. Why would they not come flooding back?
3374 was the average attendance before that night. Including that game the average attendance through until the end of the season was 7442. That is a whopping 120% increase, the sort of step change that sales managers would be given company cars for, the sort of increase that even the Wolf of Wall Street might even be humble about. That foggy night in December really did change the attitudes of some of the passing fans, some of the lapsed fans and it piqued the interest of some who had never been before. 6335 turned out for Tranmere Rovers visit 12 days later, we took 4,838 away to Ipswich and by the end of the season 8942 had gone to Arsenal and 10,000 were out in force to watch us win the league.
There have been important matches in the league, that is for sure. There have been cup games that represented bigger acts of giant-killing too, there’s no mistake there. There is not a single game you can pinpoint that represents such a turn around in attitudes nor that signals such a significant rise in attendances as the FA Cup tie with Oldham. At the end of the game we sang ‘we’re Lincoln City, we’re on our way back’, and for the first time in 2016/17, the nation heard us. It wouldn’t be the last time either.