It’s hard to think it was six years ago today that we faced Aldershot in a battle to remain in the Football League. So much has happened, we’ve sunk so low and bounced back again. Losing that game feels like a life time ago, and I thought I’d never have the courage nor the inclination to write about it again.
Warning: Because I’m writing about an emotional time as an Imps fan there is some bad language in this article. There’s at least one f-bomb, and possibly two times I liken former Imps staff to male genitalia.
Had we not won the league I wouldn’t be penning this now. The pain that day caused is still raw even now, the hatred of the key characters from that time still burns strong in me. My fiancée’s father used to say ‘you shouldn’t hate anyone, hate is a strong word’, but I can comfortably say that it is hatred that burns in me. This season’s success has somewhat dampened the embers, but it’s still there.
I watched the last gasp relegation of Hartlepool unfold via various internet snippets last night. I saw the joy in Jeff Stelling as Hartlepool took an unlikely lead against Doncaster, only to sink into despair moments later as Newport grabbed their late winner on the most shocking playing surface I’ve seen since our play-off semi-final of 2003. Do you know what my first thought was? It wasn’t a sensation of sadness for Jeff, it wasn’t happiness for Newport and it wasn’t even vague indifference. My first thought for both teams was ‘at least you went out and tried to stay up’. Hartlepool might have been relegated, but they went out and fought for the blue and white. Six years ago today we surrendered our proud league status without so much as a clenched fist or stirring battle cry.
That won’t comfort Hartlepool fans tonight, and perhaps in winning their game they merely set themselves up for an even bigger fall. As I write this at 2.24pm I remember how I felt six years ago: absolutely certain we’d go down. I didn’t envisage us showing any fight or character, and I didn’t even expect us to go through a range of emotions. I expected Barnet to win their game, after all as Newport and Hartlepool showed yesterday when the chips are down teams draw on an inner strength they haven’t had for 45 games. Six years ago we didn’t have that, and I expected us to lose. The question was by how many?
I also look at the demonstrations at Leyton Orient and the similar anger that surrounds relegation haunted clubs such as Coventry City, and I remember the apathy our relegation was met with. We didn’t vent our anger because we weren’t relegated through a dodgy owner siphoning off the money or looking to cash in on the ground. We went down through bad football management, pure and simple. Whilst Hartlepool cut their losses with a lame duck manager a week ago, we stuck by ours until October of the following season. Hindsight is a great thing, but even Bob Dorrian would admit that looking back, Tilson should have been sent packing the day we got beat by Aldershot, perhaps even the day after we lost 6-0 against Rotherham at home.
So, who do I still hate from that day? Steve Tilson is one, and I’m not sure what I hate more about him. He was a bad manager with a poor record of player recruitment and an inability to instil any desire or passion into his players, which is reason in itself. He also brought hope though, and I hate him more for giving me belief in him and confidence he was the right man. He had won play-off finals and led Southend on a historic journey. I believed his rhetoric about inheriting a poor squad, but looking back he had the tools he needed to keep us up, he just arrogantly chose not to use them. Instead of playing experienced professionals like Scott Kerr and Joe Anyon, he brought in a succession of weak-willed loan players who weren’t ready for the pressure a Football League relegation brings about. That summer I defended him to the hilt, almost completely admonishing him of any blame at all. He duped me, and that makes me hate him.
The truth is we were relegated six years ago, but our demise had been coming for seven or eight weeks prior to that. It is rumoured after we beat Southend to all-but secure our safety, Steve Tilson started to tell some players they weren’t required the following season. Whether that is true or not I don’t know, but on March 12th 2011 we had 45 points having collected 26 from 17 league games since the turn of the year. In the next eleven games we collected just two points when all we needed to be safe was three. It doesn’t take a genius to work out that our problems started a long while before Danny Hylton banged in that early second-half penalty to give Aldershot a 1-0 lead.
That is one of the most enduring images of the day for me. I was right-side Stacey West as I always was, and the joy on Danny Hylton’s face created a hate inside me that will never, ever die. Here we were on the cusp of relegation, they on the other hand had nothing to play for. He hadn’t been barracked or abused at all through the game, if anything he’d been met with the same wall of indifference off the pitch as our players displayed on it. Then he scored his penalty and he stood in front of 1,500 heartbroken fans and celebrated like he’d won the FA Cup. I’ll admit had I been closer to the pitch I think I would have been over the hoardings and on him, even thinking about it now I want to punch something. I genuinely still see it some nights in my dreams, him standing wide legged, arms outstretched either side of him, fingers pointing out with absolute ecstasy on his fucking face. My heart was breaking, my football club was dying and this arsehole forward had just scored a penalty (not even a proper goal) and he revelled in the misery it was causing us.
We lost 3-0, you’d think that I’d have some anger for Luke Gutteridge who grabbed the other two. I don’t, I don’t recall him celebrating too much, maybe I was too busy trying to get a signal on my phone for the latest Barnet score. Gutteridge had reason to celebrate as well, he had a torrid time whenever he came to Sincil Bank. He got sent off for Cambridge one season and I jeered him off the field, and yet six years ago his two goals were irrelevant to me. 1-0, 3-0 or 15-0 we were going down, and it was Hylton who had taken pleasure in our demise. I imagine he’s the type that deliberately cuts into a funeral procession with his car stereo blasting out ‘Staying Alive’ just for fun.
When the whistle was finally blown and the corpse of my football club finally got the shot in the head it had been begging for since March, that gross indifference resonated around the stadium. When Grimsby went down the year before they smashed the place up like a bunch of thugs (as they tend to do). Leyton Orient stormed the pitch as their demise became clear and halted the game. We just accepted it and went for a drink. There was a bit of anger but it came from the same idiots that invaded the pitch for a second time as the National League Trophy was being presented, the sort that turn up just to ‘get in amongst it’. Bizarrely they targeted Ashley Grimes, perhaps the only player to have the slightest bit of dignity remaining intact. He had at least scored the goals that gave us a fighting chance, even if he’d decided to give up scoring goals for lent and then forgotten how to start again once Easter had ended.
I appreciate this might not have been an easy read, there will be names, emotions and situations I’ve mentioned above that you will have buried away like upsetting childhood memories. It did happen though, and we must never forget it. We didn’t come down through a bad owner though, we didn’t even come down through a lack of funds (Carayol and Jarrett weren’t cheap, nor was that cock Ben Hutchinson). We came down because two men managed our club and neither of them had a clue what they were doing. Chris Sutton (who I believe would have kept us up) was an arrogant and belligerent man who wanted to spend every last penny he could on fancy-dan players who weren’t up for a fight. Steve Tilson was a chancer, a Jekyll and Hyde who was once the hero of Essex but ended up the most hated man in Lincolnshire, for ever.
Six years on, how things change. Six years on that solid ownership has steered us through some choppy waters, it’s rebuilt the damaged hull of the good-ship Lincoln City and finally we’re sailing back towards the good times. I’ve learned to trust men from Essex again as well, and I haven’t had it thrown back in my face. In Danny and Nicky we have managers we can trust, not because they say we can, but because they have proven it over and over again. We have players that would fight over the last biscuit in a packet (even if it was just Rich Tea), and who will stand together and fight anyone and everyone that threatens to take away what they deserve. Six years ago the unworthy few that wore red and white couldn’t do justice to our proud club or its fans, they didn’t deserve to wear the shirt and they don’t deserve to be remembered as Lincoln City players. Six years on, the players we have now in my opinion could happily have the red and white stripe tattooed on them so that for the rest of time, everything they do and everywhere they go they would be representing my football club.
That’s why I’ve written this piece today, because not only should we acknowledge what a great season this has been, but we must also remember how far we’ve come in six years.
It’s now 2.50pm on May 7th 2017. If I could go back in time and chat to myself on that fateful day, I’d put an arm around my shoulder and tell myself that the team in front of me might be wearing Lincoln City colours, they might be playing on Lincoln City’s pitch but they were no more a part of the club than the players wearing Aldershot shirts. I’d tell myself that it will all be alright, that I’d only have to endure another four years of really awful football before we’d begin to see any real change.
Then I’d tell myself that it will all be worth it, because even after writing this, it has been worth it. I’d go through it all again to feel the way I feel about my club now. I’d take Hylton’s snivelling face goading me in my dreams, I’d take Tilson saying ‘for sure’ over and over again for no reason, and I’d even accept Ben Hutchinson wearing a Lincoln shirt bearing my family name.
I’d accept it all because where we are now is where you want to be as a football fan. I’m proud of our club board for sticking to their guns and pushing on, I’m proud of the players, management and staff that have brought us back from the dead and most of all I’m proud to be a Lincoln City fan.