Saturday March 3rd, 2001. The Imps were due to travel to Mansfield for a vital League clash, and just like today’s political landscape it could have been classed as ‘interesting times’. Terry Pratchett once wrote ‘may you never live through interesting times’, but for City, something had to shake things up.
We’d been relegated from the third tier in 1999, and since then we’d been in slow and steady decline. John Reames handed the managerial reigns over to Phil Stant and George Foster, but nothing had improved, if anything it had gotten significantly worse.
After relegation we’d settled into a routine of less than obscurity. We weren’t in serious relegation danger, but we never troubled the play-off race either. Eventually we finished 15th, and it was hoped Stant could kick us on from there.
On April 1st 2000 we went to Shrewsbury and secured a 2-1 thanks to goals from Lee Thorpe and Gavin Gordon. Fast forward to March 2001, and we still hadn’t won another game away from home.
We found ourselves second from bottom, Phil Stant was removed by the new chairman Rob Bradley and his board, and Alan Buckley came in as a replacement. We took to the road on that sharp Saturday morning on the cusp of a new era, new chairman, new manager and hopefully a new attitude to winning matches away from home. ‘Interesting times’ is what I imagine someone said on the way to the game.
I went with Paul Owen, and we met up for a beer first off in the Victory on Boultham Park Road. I hoped it might be prophetic in some way, so I had two for good luck.
It wasn’t an instantly recognisable Imps side we were going to watch either, and despite having some good players it wasn’t one of the strongest Imps sides I’ve seen.
Chris Day was in goal, he’d come in on loan after an injury to Alan Marriott. Initially Mazza had been replaced by Matthew Ghent, but he dropped a clanger on his debut against Dagenham in the FA Cup and was sent back to his parent club. Day hadn’t been a great success, we’d kept just two clean sheets in his 16 games.
The porous defence consisted of Chris Perkins, James Dudgeon, Steve Holmes and Stuart Bimson. Both Holmes and Bimson were good players, but Dudgeon was a young loanee and Perkins hadn’t proved to be the rampaging and exciting full-back we’d hoped for. Far from it.
In the midfeld we had some good footballers, players whom had suffered immensely under Stant’s long ball game. Justin Walker had style and confidence, but his passing game had been severely stifled. Alongside him John Finnigan toiled away endlessly, a good player in a poor side. Out wide Paul Smith and Peter Gain were both young, but both would go on to form a part of Keith Alexander’s successful sides.
Up front we went with a duo, an not-so classic ‘big man, big man’ combo of Thorpe and Battersby. Lee Thorpe was a battering ram of a man, not the most refined footballer but a tough unit to negotiate, whereas Tony Battersby was meant to be the talented goal scorer picking up the pieces. He had three goals from 29 appearances.
On the opposite side, Mansfield side contained several names that even now fans will recognise as good footballers. Chris Greenacre, Liam Lawrence, Craig Disley, and Mickey Boudling were all on the team sheet, as were future Imps Danny Bacon and Shayne Bradley. Nobody gave us a prayer, Mansfield had just thrashed Barnet 4-1, whilst we’d lost five of the previous six.
They say a change is as good as a holiday, and within minutes of kick-off at Field Mill it became apparent that the Imps were ‘at it’. Buckley had asked them to play with the ball on the deck, spray around passes and try to find space. There was no hoof into the channels, no big boot towards Lee Thorpe and overall we looked almost composed.
After the opening twenty minutes City weren’t losing, and that was enough for the 1,200+ travelling fans. The noise began to grow from the away end, and as it did, City got their first chance. It was Paul Smith, the former Forest man not the ginger winger, after finding space on the right he fired across goal only for Bobby Mimms to save with his feet. First real chance for the Imps though, and something for the fans to cheer.
Just before half time we got something more significant to cheer, a Steve Holmes goal. It was perhaps a middle finger to the tactics previously employed. Corners would usually be attacked by a big man in the air, but this time Holmes volleyed home, rather than heading. He always had a bit about him did Steve Holmes, and his neat finish proved that. 1-0 City.
Now we poured forward, roared on by vocal travelling support. Tony Battersby flicked a ball on for Lee Thorpe, and his effort beat the keeper, but struck the post and came back out. It didn’t matter, we were playing proper football, looking excellent against a side that started the day in tenth.
Half time brought no respite for the yellow shirts, and City were right back on it after the restart. Peter Gain was having a great game, this long before he established himself as a first team regular. On 54 minute he bagged an assist with teasing a left footed cross that Smith nodded home from close range. The cheers could be heard back in Lincoln I’m told.
They had barely subsided when we entered into dreamland, and grabbed a third goal. Gain again was involved, this time getting a shot off at Mimms which he parried, but like a proper centre forward, Lee Thorpe stroked the rebound home. 3-0, and with no signs of Mansfield Town even turning up.
At that moment we believed perhaps our first away win in eleven months was there for the taking. But with half an hour left though you just couldn’t tell, this Lincoln side weren’t great at keeping clean sheets. If Mansfield scored, would they find a way back not the game? Earlier in the season we’d been 3-0 up at Barnet and lost 4-3, so we were well versed in throwing away three goal leads.
Alan Buckley chose not to look to his subs bench, hardly surprising given the raggle-taggle assortment of players he had there. Ben Sedgemore was a good option, but Anthony Henry, Gareth Grant and Dave Cameron were not options that would shore up the defence. Henry was a centre half, but he’d struggled to nail down a first team spot, and little did he know his appearance in Phil Stant’s last game as manager had been his last.
Mansfield on the other hand took full advantage of their stronger squad. On came Craig Disley and Danny Bacon, and they changed the complexion of the game. Mansfield began to find a shape and cohesion, probably because a young Craig Disley entered the fray. City retreated, suddenly all-too aware of their own frailties and looking to fulfil a self-prophecy.
With 15 minutes left to play, Shayne Bradley found himself in the sort of space forwards had become accustomed to against Lincoln, and he made no mistake in firing past Chris Day. As the ball hit the net you could almost hear the sighs from Imps players and fans. Here we go again.
Liam Lawrence came on and immediately it was 3-2, a Lee Williams cross was headed in by Mark Blake. From 3-0 up and cruising to 3-2 and on the ropes inside 180 seconds.
Football matches change so quickly, defeat can be snatched from the jaws of victory, and good teams can steal victory from the clutches of defeat. Mansfield were a good team, and despite our three goal advantage, we were not. Those of us that were at Barnet sensed it happening all over again.
The minutes ticked away, yellow shorts hunted for an opening, but for the first time in the season City were resolute. Not winning away was a monkey on our back, and with bottom side Carlisle within touching distance we knew we had to get points on the board. The red and white shirted players chased, harassed and clung on as best they could. After what seemed like an eternity, Mr D Pugh blew on his whistle to signal the end of our barren spell away. City had won 3-2, just.
When coming away from a win such as that, fans are not inclined to talk about the virtues of the opposition. Instead we were waxing lyrical about the new-look Imps side. I was thrilled for young Gainy, he was a player I’d already marked out as a cut above. Battersby had a good game as did Thorpey, and they looked to gel really well. In midfield Justin Walker and John Finnigan made a great partnership, Walker full of flair and style had at last looked comfortable in his Imps shirt, perhaps for the first time. Maybe Alan Buckley was leading us towards the promised land of the play-offs?
Three days later James Dudgeon, Paul Smith and Gainy all scored as we won 3-1 away at Kidderminster, a victory that had us all believing that the corner had been turned. Little did we know we were twelve months away from administration, more upheaval and an off-the-field battle for survival. If someone had told me that, I would have asked them to go away. One certainty with supporting a side like Lincoln City is that you know, deep down, the bad times are only ever just around the corner, so you have to celebrate the good times as best you can.
I celebrated that win against Mansfield as if we’d won the FA Cup, and why not? Let’s hope we get a similar result there this season.