It’s time for me to hand over to someone different for another of the regular ‘guest blogger’ spots. Today, the thoughts of Sam Stafford on our wonderful season.
It is difficult to put into words how special this season, 2016/17, has been, but I felt the need to try. So here goes. It has been a season I can say with some confidence that will never be replicated. My team, the Mighty Imps, won the league and became the first non-league side since 1914 to reach the quarter-finals of the FA Cup (and we got to the semi-final of the FA Trophy). That was special enough, but even if Lincoln do have an annus mirabilis again it will not coincide with the year that my eldest boy fell in the love with the game. This is actually the story of two people falling in love with the game. One for the first time and one renewing his vows.
Some background. The first Cup Final I can remember is 1986 and everyone at my junior school supported Forest. I remember getting tickets through school to watch a game against Coventry and was a Forest fan when Des Walker’s own goal lost the 1991 Final. I had a damascene conversion in the summer of 1992 though. My school in Nottingham had a large catchment area and a pal, still a pal, lived near Swinderby, which is between Newark and Lincoln. I stayed with him for a weekend during the school holidays and he took me to watch Lincoln, of the fourth tier, beat top flight Middlesbrough (the Pears, Hendrie, Wilkinson side) 5-1 in a pre-season friendly. That was it. Love at first sight for the first time.
The father of the girl that I fell in love with at first sight is a Leeds season ticket holder. He has two daughers. The eldest daughter, my sister-in-law, had two daughters. We had two boys so he was understandably keen to get Eldest to Elland Road. He took us both last year to, funnily enough, the Forest game when two of his pals were away. He had to sit on my knee for the last fifteen minutes, Eldest, I mean, not the father-in-law, but otherwise sat there politely and attentively. We (I) had collected stickers during the 2014 World Cup and I’d taken him to the National Football Museum (once for a swap session), but it still was not his game at that point.
He showed some interest in the 2016 Euros (we both had sticker albums this time), but it still was not his game when I tested the Lincoln waters in our third home game against Sutton in August. Another pal had access to the box of one of his pals and I thought that that would be a quiet, civilised introduction to the ‘Bank. It was perhaps too quiet and civilised though. Our two boys just played down at the front of the box. Lincoln lost a man early and went on to lose 3-1. There were signs of life, but little indication of what was to follow.
Switches were flipped in October though. For Eldest, it was the football party that he had requested for his 7th birthday having enjoyed one a few weeks earlier. He has become more and more besotted with football everyday since. For Lincoln, October heralded the start of a 17 game unbeaten streak and the first round of the Cup run.
The succession of Lincoln managers during my time following the club might politely be described as underwhelming. John Beck took us to the third tier during my secondary school pal and my first year at Manchester University, but we were playing a style of football that struggled to make friends of the hard-core supporters let alone the part-timers or the ‘could-be-persuadeds’. Keith Alexander had a good run and there was a good feel around the place in the mid-noughties, but since we came out of the league in 2010/11 we had never even finished in the top-half of the table and have even flirted with relegation. It is in these periods that, in economic terms, the inelasticity of football support becomes apparent. You go because you go.
Despite a parade of managerial mediocrity though it was still a jolt to be reminded in a Times article (a Times article!) in January that the Cowleys were the first managers to be poached from gameful employment at another club in all my time following the club. Any club that spends money and is successful has bought that success. That’s football. And whilst the involvement of a South Africa-based global equity investor and retired hedge fund manager in attracting first the Cowleys and then their transfer targets lays Lincoln open to the accusation, what has been so engaging is the way the club have gone about their business. It is easy to spend money and be unsuccessful. It is also easy to spend money on the ‘big name’ and the safe option. Lincoln’s recruitment has been on young and hungry, players and staff. Lincoln’s boardroom is not a cabal of football ambition adrift from a disinterested town. I think here of clubs like Crawley, which have had success, and Forest Green, which, at the time of writing, still have not. At worst they play to the owner’s ego. At best they adopt a ‘build it and they will come’ approach. Lincoln’s approach, by contrast, seems to be ‘let’s build it together’ and everybody, me, the hard-core, the part-time, and the ‘could-be-persuadeds’, has bought into that.
The Cowley brothers look like and sound like genuinely nice people who genuinely love the game. They appear to be having fun, which means that everybody around them appears to be having fun. They are clearly football people. There is no cynicism to them, no sense of world-weariness. When they do offer the odd footballing cliché they are saying it for the first time and not the umpteenth time. They work long hours because they want to and not because they have to and I suspect that they probably do not see full-time management as work at all.
Watching the Cowleys, and watching a child fall in love with the game, is to be reminded why you fell in love with it yourself. Eldest does not see Cristiano Ronaldo as a vehicle for selling underwear on Instagram. He sees a superhero who can score from all angles. He knows not that Wayne Rooney’s private life was once quite complicated or of his seemingly annual agitations for a better contract. He sees the captain of Manchester United. Most of other children in Year 2 have Manchester United shirts. I know not why Eldest alighted on Spurs as his first, fleeting love. I think that Harry Kane and Delle Alli playing for England at the Euros may have had something to do with it. Suffice to say that between me telling him that I would take him to see Spurs at nearby Burnley and the match itself Spurs had gone out of the Europa League to Gent and his interested in them had waned. He still sat there captivated though.
Guiseley. Altrincham. Oldham. Ipswich. Brighton. Burnley. Arsenal.
There is a trajectory to that Cup run that is almost perfect. Each round (accepting that there is little between Guiseley and Altrincham) a step up in significance and achievement. I have a story to tell about each and I will remember them forever. I will remember travelling back from the Brighton game working out how to tell Mrs Stafford that the fifth round clashed with a trip to London that I had arranged for the two of us as her Christmas present. Having dispatched Burnley I then needed to tell her that the sixth round clashed with a trip to Legoland Windsor that we had booked for boys’ Christmas present. I will remember watching Match of the Day (MOTD) with Eldest and Lincoln having top billing. I will remember bursting with pride as we dominated Ipswich for large periods in front of the nigh on 5,000 strong #Impvasion of Portman Road. I am getting a little teary even now thinking about it.
Eldest has three tiers of clubs. I think that Burnley and Spurs are in the second tier, but it is fluid. I know that Real Madrid, Barcelona, Portugal and Argentina form the first tier because of Ronaldo and Messi. I also know that Lincoln’s cup exploits have squeezed them into the third tier with Leeds. He has big decision to make at some point, or he may not, or he may that think he is in a relationship with a club when another one catches his eye. It is his decision. All I know, and I have told him this, is that the highs are not the highs without the lows. That feeling at Ipswich was the dividend accrued from twenty five years of emotional investment.
As the cup run and unbeaten run gathered momentum in December we moved house and with so much going on preparing for that I had promised Eldest that we would explore a local side for him to try out once Christmas was out of the way. He went to train for the first time on a quagmire in his Grandad’s Leeds kit and some new (black) boots. He loved it, and I was not that disappointed that the white kit came back un-wearable. I saw the first half of his debut a few weeks later before catching my train to the Burnley game. He scored his first hat-trick in an end-of-season 5-aside tournament and we both beamed with pride.
My season has had so many special moments, but it is easy to pick the highlight of our season. The season that he and I have shared. Watching MOTD on a Sunday morning is nice. Seeing him score his first goal was lovely. Taking him to Burnley versus Tottenham was good, but taking him to watch Metz against PSG was special.
We like to get away at Easter if we can because the August holiday always seems a long way away at that point so we explored an extra six nights in a Eurocamp caravan on a site that we have been to when going to Eurodisney. When we told the boys that we were having an extra week in France the first thing Eldest asked was whether we could go and watch PSG. They must have been added to his radar courtesy of the Champions League ‘Match Attax’ cards that his spending money is now going on.
I googled the PSG fixture list and it turned out that they were at Metz on the Tuesday night of our six night stay. I googled where Metz is and it turns out that it is near the borders with Luxembourg and Switzerland. I put Vic-sur-Aisne and Metz into AA Routefinder and it was 2 hours and 45 minutes from the campsite. I do that kind of drive at work and was up for it. So was he. She thought that we were crackers, but did not object. After an hour navigating my way, with some trial and error, through the FC Metz website, and having secured the last two seats next to each other in the ground, we were going to go to Metz.
We waved Mrs Stafford and Youngest off early and they headed to Eurodisney on the coach trip organised by the campsite. Then we had the morning to kill so we did what he only ever wants to do now. We played football.
It was a 6:30 kick off, but we set off after lunch. I had full control of the Ipod. He played FIFA 15 on his Nintendo DS, pausing every so often to ask if so-and-so still plays for such-and-such. He soaks up as much information as he can. I used to too, but find myself answering ‘we will have to have a look’ more often than not. I was a Champo devotee. I hope that he does not discover Football Manager until his A-Levels at the earliest.
We had a little wander around Metz and took in the Cathedral and the Place de la République before heading to the ground. It was still hours before kick-off, but the shop was open and that was the only place he wanted to spend his grandparents’ spending money. We came out with a training kit and ball for him and a scarf each. The ball was taken back to the car where he put his new shirt on, we found a McDonalds, and got back to the ground an hour before kick-off.
The Stade Saint-Symphorien is a terrific ground. Since we got back I looked into it’s history and it opened in 1923 and became the home of FC Metz when the club was founded in 1932. The main stand dates back to 1962, but the three-tiered West Stand and the East Stand were renovated in 1999 and 2001 respectively. The ground did not host a 1998 World Cup match and when France was selected to host the 2016 Euros plans were presented to extensively renovate it. Funding was not secured though and Metz withdrew as a candidate host. I was not too disappointed to find this out. As we sat waiting for kick off Eldest pointed out that it’s the kind of ground I like. ‘You like four stands and not bowls don’t you, Daddy?’ Perhaps I am turning into my Dad and he is turning into me.
Football is like life. You win. You lose. You might deserve to win and lose. You might deserve to lose and win. Sometimes nothing happens. You draw. You love. You get hurt. You take the rough with the smooth. I had no expectations of the game itself. I was just happy of the experience. I wanted to tick off another ground, my first in France, and spend some time with my boy. As it turned out, not only did the sun shine on us, because it was a beautiful, if crisp evening, but the footballing sun shone too. We were rewarded for our adventure with an absolutely brilliant game. PSG did not need to get out of third gear to stroll back in at half-time two nil up. They could have won by as many as they wanted, but they did not want to and Metz held on. Cheick Diabaté came on and lifted a flagging side and a flagging crowd. When he scored an equaliser on 88 minutes the crowd were up and it was the whole crowd at this point and not just the Ultras in the Tribute Est who had banged the drum for their team incessantly throughout. Metz hit the bar from a free-kick and, having been dead and buried, could have won it.
As I said though, and as Eldest will learn, football is like life. PSG went straight up the other end and scored. The locals around us meandered out with the same air of resignation that they came in with. We stayed until the end. My Dad was always big on leaving early. I could not understand it then and I do not understand it now. The game is ninety minutes long. See it through.
I felt sure that Eldest would fall asleep as we headed back to the campsite, but he stayed with me, now playing as Metz on his DS, and we got back to the campsite at about midnight. He diligently laid out his new kit, scarf and ball on the table to show his Mum and brother that morning.
Lincoln finished as Champions on 99 points. I got to the Good Friday game against Torquay on the way down to France and we came from one down in the last five minutes to win 2-1. I got to eleven games this season, and saw all of the BT Sport TV games. I do not think that I have done double figures since the boys were born. The league was sealed at the rearranged trip to Legoland a week later, which was on our way home from France.
The season is drawing to a close. Eldest has his first FA Cup Final to look for to. It may not be a classic, but I know that he will remember it regardless. I hope he wants to watch the build-up all afternoon like I used to.
He has not alighted on a team yet. I do not mind if he does, when he does or who it is when he does. I know that he will be looking forward to the new season all summer. So will I.
Up The Imps
(Imps photos by Graham Burrell)