Lincoln City at Wembley…. or not.

Today is the day we could have been delivering the ‘coup de grace’ to the National League sides,  enjoying another champagne moment in a season that seems to have been floating along on a river of the bubbly stuff. We could have been at Wembley asserting our complete dominance of the non-league scene, we could have been facing Macclesfield Town again for some silverware. Instead, we’re not. We’re Football League, but we still haven’t been to Wembley. Or have we?

With this season’s ups and downs, we are now one of just three Football League clubs that have not played at Wembley, the other two being Crawley Town and Accrington Stanley. With Crawley only being Football League for six years, and Stanley missing out on a good 40 odd years, that essentially makes us the team with the longest spell of league football behind us still never to have played at the home of football.

It is a monkey on our back, but in truth it is only misfortune that has prevented us from appearing at the National Stadium, because on at least three occasions we have earned the right to do so, only for circumstance to fail us. However, before I press on, I think it would be remiss not to mention the one-time we did play at Wembley.

I know, the record books say we never have, but they are in fact wrong. Sort of. At the end of the 1967/68 season we entered into a 5 a-side tournament. Nowadays 5 a-side conjurs up images of astroturf battles amongst work places and pubs, but in the fifties, sixties and seventies it was serious business. From 1957 through to the early 1990’s there was an incredibly popular 5 a-side tournament held in London. You had to qualify for it, and most teams put out strong sides. West Ham for instance, won it in 1967 featuring Bobby Moore and Geoff Hurst. That tells you how serious it was.

It’s Wembley, just not as you know it.

The sixties weren’t a good time for Lincoln City. As we ushered in the age of bad teeth, LSD and the Beatles, Lincoln City fell through the trap door into Division Four. Up until that point we had the best part of a decade as a second tier side, and before that we’d always been the equivalent of League One. As people’s hair grew longer and things got groovy, the Imps hit rock bottom.

In May of 1968 City had finished 13th out of 24 in the old Fourth Division, hardly heady heights but still our best placing for three years (22nd, 22nd, 24th in the three previous seasons). Ron Gray had pushed the team onwards despite the club being skint, but that wasn’t going to stop us entering the prestigious tournament. There was an eight team qualifying section with matches taking place at the Mecca Rolarena in Leeds. City qualified, finishing with an emphatic 5-2 win against Halifax Town. The Imps were off to Wembley, just not ‘the’ Wembley.

Wembley is a pretty big area of London, and the 5 a-side tournaments were held at the Empire Pool, Wembley. The arena was more used to hosting gigs by the Rolling Stones than it was good quality football, which was handy because upon arrival City did not serve up good quality football. In the first (and only) match we were beaten 1-0 by our old foes, Grimsby Town. Two months later Ron Gray called on Grimsby to see if he could sign a young full back he’d seen playing for them called Graham Taylor. Who needed the twin towers when you were signing one of the games legendary figures?

Gordon Hobson through on goal as we beat Millwall 3-1 in Dec 1982

1982/83 was the next brush with the famous twin towers, although at the time we wouldn’t have known it. That was a season far more famous for what we didn’t achieve, and the players we didn’t sign. Running away with the league at Christmas, a lack of investment caused the club to crash and burn, eventually finishing sixth. Fans of a certain age will tell you all about it, but they might not recall the fact we made it to our first ever National Cup Final.

We reached the final of the Football League Trophy, later replaced by such tournaments as the Associate Members Cup and the Freight Rover Trophy. These days it has it’s equivalent in the EFL Trophy, but in 1982/83 it was a little known competition. We played three games in the group stage, firstly drawing at Scunthorpe in early August in front of 1022 fans. Four days later the popularity of the competition shone through as we went to Grimsby and attracted just 1430 for our 2-1 win, before the group stage concluded ahead of the season kicking off properly with us beating Sheffield United 3-1 at Sincil Bank. 2820 watched that game, and to put that into context the Blades visited the Bank a month later in the league, and 8550 watched us thump them 3-0. The Imps stalwart Maurice Burton wrote:

“The Trophy, still very much in infant terms of football progress, is not yet being taken too seriously by too many clubs, though City’s achievement in reaching the quarter finals without losing a match will give them confidence for the new season”

December brought the quarter final and a Derek Bell hat trick put paid to Norwich City of the First Division as the crowds tipped 3800. Interest was high as City were cruising in the league and had given First Division West Ham a scare in the Milk Cup. Maurice Burton was enthusiastic about the fledgling competition:

“The Football League Trophy is still a little known competition, but City are keen to become the second winners of it following the success of Grimsby Town last season”

Ten days later Bell hit another treble, this time it was against Harry Redknapp’s Bournemouth side as we racked up a 9-0 win. That sealed a barely-mentioned semi-final clash with Chester City, but all eyes were on the league and not some Mickey Mouse cup. 11832 crammed into Sincil Bank on December 28th to watch us lose 2-1 to Huddersfield, and begin our steady decline that would eventually lead to the GMVC. Apparently you don’t get any extra points for winning 9-0, a ruling that Tranmere fell foul of this season!

Glenn Cockerill, Trevor Peake and Phil Turner all scored in the semi-final as we easily despatched Chester, but they were first team regulars playing in a sides show of a competition. That win came in the same month as supporter demonstrations against the board, and it was followed by three defeats and a draw. Gilbert Blades stepped down against a backdrop of death threats and perceived lack of ambition.

Nobody truly cared about a final against Milwall on April 20th, especially not as the final was played at Sincil Bank. It rained and the game was conducted on a quagmire of a pitch. Just days before the Norwich City game, City had beaten Millwall 3-1 to cement a lead at the top of the table. Embarrassingly we lost the cup final 3-2, and only 3142 fans cared enough to turn out. Maurice Burton didn’t even get to write in the programme notes, but one imagines if he had it would have lamented the state of the club and the collapse of such a promising season. Three days later George Shipley, Phil Neale and Gordon Hobson were in the side that lost 1-0 to a rejuvenated Bournemouth. Nobody had given Wembley a thought as we finished the season in sixth.

Muddy, half empty and beaten 3-2. Not a great night to be an Imp.

The following year it was announced the final would be held at Wembley Stadium, only for the Horse of the Year show to ruin the turf and force it to be moved to Hull. Bournemouth, under the watchful eye of the young ‘Arry, picked up the trophy, but just 6,500 people turned out. The following year the competition finally arrived at Wembley, City were just two games away when Wigan came to Sincil Bank and claimed the Northern Area Semi-Final win. Rats, the twin towers elude us again. Wigan went on to beat Brentford in the final by three goals to one, and this time over 39,000 watched on. The competition had arrived, two years too late for the Imps.

Of course in 2003 we reached a play-off final, traditionally held at Wembley Stadium. Lincoln City in the first proper final match at a big stadium, and fate conspires against us again. The last matches at the old Wembley were played in the year 2000, so as you know we ended up in Cardiff. Two years later we were back again, Cardiff again. Under normal circumstances we would have played twice at Wembley, and instead we twice pitched up at the home of Welsh rugby. By the time Wembley was opened up, we were crap again. That’s how it’s been until this season, when just extra time stood between us and being in London today. we all know what happened, a phantom hand ball robbed us of the final gloss on the season. I doubt you’re sat at home miserable though, we’re Football League, York City go to Boston United next year and even Macclesfield have to play Maidenhead.

I’m starting to wonder if there might be a Wembley curse on the red and white of City. During the last season of her being open, yours truly went along to film some adverts for Axa Insurance. They were sponsoring the FA Cup and Poacher was invited to take part. We took some penalties on the turf, we played around in the changing rooms, and finally we got to go, one by one, into the Royal Box to hold aloft the real actual bona-fida 100% priceless FA Cup. It was a once in a lifetime moment, and in the days before digital photography it meant out came my film camera to be utilised by my good mate Dave. In my Imps shirt I knew I’d have a photo to cherish, Lincoln City finally lifting a trophy in the great stadium. I enjoyed my moment immensely, but I couldn’t wait to see what it looked like.

Sadly, I’ll never know. Dave couldn’t get the lens cap off. We’ve only just started speaking again this season, as I’ve just about forgiven him. Cursed I tell you. Cursed.

Mind you, if we just keep winning leagues and getting to FA Cup quarter finals, I’m not sure I’m too fussed. After all, I know I’d rather be wearing the shoes of a Lincoln City fan than any other 2016/17 National League club.