After a late finish last night and a well-earned lie in this morning, I can bring you the story of our first away day of the season, a testing trip to Buckinghamshire to face Gareth Ainsworth’s Wycombe Wanderers.
We (my Dad and I) booked onto one of Warren Ward’s coaches, we’ve travelled with him before and they’re always well-run and fan-friendly. The usual meeting place is the Ritz, today was a 9am departure allowing time for a full English breakfast. The pub wasn’t busy as it was for trips to Ipswich or Arsenal, but there was a covering of Imps in. I got asked in the toilet by one patron who we were playing today, and my only thought was ‘what the hell are you doing with your life to be in a Weatherspoons before 9am if you’re not going to football’. Obviously I didn’t say that, I said ‘Wycombe’ and kept my scathing thoughts on his social life to myself.
We were joined by my mate Ben Grundy whom many of you will know. He had gotten himself into a bit of a pickle, waking up too late to get his pre-booked us spot elsewhere. He had rushed to the Ritz with no phone, no money and no bank card, but he had a match ticket and in his own words ‘I’m not missing this game’. Fair play, as we boarded the bus it turned out he wasn’t the only one, another lad turned up with a back full of beers explaining he should have been on the 617 coach that had set off about eight days earlier or something.
It did mean on our smooth journey down the A46 and latterly M40 we got a running commentary of where the core group were heading. I had to laugh when he said they were planning to go to a strip bar. It cast me back to the days when I used to be young and carefree, when the alarm on Saturday morning meant beer, mates and whatever else we could find to amuse ourselves. As I sipped on my tepid can of Carling (provided by my old man at great annoyance to him) I smiled wryly picturing the mass of 617 boys converging on a den of iniquity in the middle of High Wycombe.
Aside from a bit of traffic coming past Bicester we arrived in really good time, and our driver found a decent looking pub on the main drag in. One of the great things about travelling on a coach is that the planning is done for you, no worries about where to drink or where to park, that is all down to the driver. All we needed to concentrate on was warm beer and football chatter. The bus pulled up and we disembarked, once again invaders of a Football League town, reppin’ LN5 with red, white and attitude. Last time I went to a Football League ground I was 31 (I didn’t go away under Tilson, I sat at home stabbing infected hypodermic needles into my testicles as it was slightly more bearable) but here I was at 38 sporting my colours, wiser than last time and with a few more wrinkles.
The pub did have a menacing air, we couldn’t see anybody on the windows and the huge chunk of bouncer on the door was accompanied by two policemen. He looked like Akinfenwa’s shorter, butcher brother and I made a mental note not to say anything untoward. As we approached the door he put his hand up to stop us.
“Right boys, here’s the rules,” (ominous) “On the left as you go in is a bar. there’s a pool table, some football on and you can get a drink just as normal,” (nice, that sounds about right), “There’s a beer garden out the back,” (check I’ve got my cigars. Boom, ticked two boxes of two). “On the right as you go in….” (slight pause from Adebayo 2, what is on the right? What could possibly be in a football pub other than the things already mentioned) “On the right there are some nice girls dancing on tables.” (hahaha, good one Akinfenwa), “They’ll do private dances if you want, but even if you watch they’ll be passing around a pint glass. Make sure you put a pound in it. In you go.”
For a second I had to do a double take. This respectable looking pub was half sports bar, half strip bar. Indeed as you went in, the left hand side was a well-lit pub with a pool table and seats, the right hand side was a poorly lit area featuring almost naked women gyrating on a table to the amusement of increasingly drunken football fans. I’ve been in menacing pubs on away days, friendly pubs and pubs where there seems to be no rules, but I’ve never been into one that was half-strip bar. I felt for those on our bus that had children under 18, but no doubt they found a Wacky Warehouse or something.
Not long after the 617 boy arrived as did a couple of coach loads of other very familiar Lincoln City ‘faces’. There was a great atmosphere, although as my Dad and I sat in the well-lit bar area it became apparent most fans were happy either in the dark or in the beer garden. It didn’t bother me, it meant when I went to the (constantly busy) toilet I didn’t lose my seat.
After an hour and a half drinking some of the worst lager I’ve ever tasted we were ready to roll. That pub may have known how to put women on tables or turn a blind eye to the more salacious behaviour of the modern-day football fan, but their Foster had less life in it than road kill. I actually stuck my finger in my fourth pint and wiggled it around to try and get some fizz, but all I got was a wet finger, not something you want to boast about on the way out of a strip bar.
It was soon back on the bus and off to Adams Park. Oddly having had a few spare seats on the journey down we suddenly had people standing in the aisles as stranded Imps who didn’t fancy a 25-minute walk piled on for a free lift. We’re all Imps, aren’t we?
Once we had negated the single lane running up to the ground we found ourselves in the ‘fan zone’, a new phenomena to Imps fans but a staple of the Football League. These are tented areas where travelling fans can get a bit of food, a plastic bottle of Fosters and mix safely with a few other fans. We didn’t have long until kick off which was a shame as there were a lot of people I would have liked to chat to, but the one I did have ten minutes with was Colin Murphy’s son and his pal, both who lived away. They’re blog readers and top blokes too, and I even got a free flag to take away. I was particularly interested in his shirt, a match-worn number 14 from the GMVC days. We had a discussion about who might have worn it, and for the record it would have been one of Willie Gamble, Shane Nicholson, Mark Sertori, Les Hunter, Dave Clarke or Andy Moore. In case you’re reading.
Adams Park isn’t a bad ground at all, despite my Dad’s proclamation of ‘shit hole’ as we walked through the turnstiles. He says that pretty much everywhere we go, including Burnley, so I take it with a pinch of salt. It might be on an industrial estate but it is surrounded by greenery and hills and I always consider it to be one of the better grounds we visit. Aside from the flooded toilets which caused me concern for my red and yellow Munchen, everything seemed to be in order. The whole ‘sit in your own seat’ mantra that I spouted last week went out of the window when Dad and I realised we weren’t sat together, so we positioned right at the back of the stand in a cordoned off area. We’re Lincoln City, we sit where we’re told (unless I don’t like it, then we move). What can I say, I’m a self-confessed hypocrite at times.
I was disappointed with the away following to a degree. Given this was our first game back in the Football League I thought 2,000 was a real possibility, even if half of the season ticket holders travelled we would have filled the stand. Talking to a few faces it appears that the clubs message of just 23 tickets being left in the week put many off travelling. Dad would have brought his partner Mo for instance, but they believed the club rhetoric that we were almost sold out. I spoke to four or five people that said the same thing, and I can’t help but think that the miscommunication on the club’s part led to us having a reduced number of fans travel to the games. I’m not going to start demanding explanations or getting indignant like many on social media, but it is perplexing to say the least.
That said 1433 isn’t a bad number to take away on your first game of the season, and with the 617 boys grouped together the atmosphere had a little nudge when it was required. The moment he lads came out was wonderful though, to a neutral onlooker it was just two teams coming out for a football match, but for Imps fans it was so much more. This was redemption, the holy grail that we have been chasing for six years. Paul Farman visibly had the biggest smile, he’s been on the journey longer than many fans and being in the Football League has always meant so much to him. Inwardly I would imagine that Danny and Nicky had the largest grins. By his own admission in the press conference both he and Nicky had wanted to be professional footballers but had ‘come up a little short’ of what was required. Now, after almost a decade managing in the non-league scene, they got to walk across the paint as Football League managers. I can’t think of two nicer blokes for that to happen to.
The away end was noisy without being given any real reason to be on the pitch. The opening was scrappy, a series of long Wycombe balls towards Akinfenwa resulted in fouls against our defenders, whereas the same in reverse resulted in fouls against Matt Rhead. The exchanges on the floor were limited to a few passes but nothing for the fans to cheer. Then, against the run of play, came Matt Green’s opener and the roof lifted slightly. A well-worked ball from Nathan Arnold across goal was always going to be gobbled up by a predator like Green, and I’ve seen enough of him to be convinced we have a 20-goal striker on our hands. I’m sure Green noted that his ‘replacement’ Lee Angol endured a miserable start to his Stags career, taken off and (allegedly) having a little paddy when he was. Oh dear.
Wycombe scored two quick-fire goals to change it all around very quickly. One was a free header inside the area, the other a ‘Sam Habergham’ style free kick that cut the grass as it beat Paul Farman. Both were disappointing to concede and I’m sure a Cowley shaped boot was connecting with arses during the half time period. The half-time whistle came at the right time, the Imps had looked devoid of ideas and Wycombe had begun to look dominant. They’re very one dimensional, lots of play is focused around hitting the lump up top and getting around him for the pieces. It’s a shame because in spells they look like a really good footballing team, but they insist on playing the longer ball. Gareth Ainsworth is an Imps legend, but he was raised in football by John Beck and although he has refined the art you can see elements of his masters tactics in there.
City had looked decent in flashes without ever really ascending to the heights of which we know they’re capable, but within minutes of the restart we were level. It was arguably the pick of the afternoon’s goals, a super Alex Woodyard ball found Josh Ginnelly, and his first goal in Imps colours. Ginnelly looked a threat all afternoon, he’s so pacey and he sprinted away from the defence to lift the ball into the goal right in front of the home support. 2-2 and at that point I thought perhaps only one winner.
Wycombe weren’t at the races in the second half, their balls to Akinfenwa became more erratic and he isn’t one to go chasing anything not within two feet of him. Our balls to Rheady became less frequent, instead we looked to get wide and attack from the flanks. Neal Eardly had a solid game at left-back, and I suspect when Sam is fit Sean Long may have a real battle on his hands to keep his place. On the right we struggled against a really good left-back, Nathan got little change out of Joe Jacobson who won the home team Man of the Match and my own unofficial Wycombe man of the match too.
Despite a couple of late corners Wycombe never truly threatened us, and despite the odd chance we had nothing clear cut either. I got the impression after around 70 minutes both teams decided a point was a solid enough to start to the 2017/18 season and settled for that, more disappointing from Wycombe’s perspective than ours. The final ten played out with an air of inevitability which convinced me to take down my flag and go to the loo before the whistle went to facilitate a quick exit. I needn’t have bothered, my old man doesn’t have my incredible foresight and so all I managed was to stand around outside the ground waiting for him.
Before that though the players came an applauded the fans, Sean Raggett notably coming over alone before disappearing quickly down the tunnel. Much was made of this, it could be his last game for the club, Stoke were watching him and he’s just saying goodbye etc. Let’s just see how the week pans out.
Gareth Ainsworth came over and took some applause too which was a nice touch. Afterwards he spoke highly of Danny and Nicky, and thanked the Imps fans for their support as he always gave us his all. Ainsworth is a City legend and he’s still unique as a football manager. How much did he look like a rock star in his casually opened shirt and long hair? This isn’t a festival though, it is the Football League and if his Wycombe side are a barometer of how good you need to be to enter the top ten, Lincoln City are laughing.
Finally we were away, last into the coach park always means first out and so we were on the road by 5.30pm, back in Lincoln by 9pm and for me finally through the door of my Wolds cottage at just after 10pm. City had managed a draw in a tough opening game, a match that we perhaps should have won. Aside from five crazy minutes defensively we really deserved to come away with all three points. We were nowhere near the levels we will reach as the season progresses, and we still drew away at play-off chasing Wycombe. There were plenty of positives to take away from the game, the performances of Ginnelly, Eardly and Green amongst those. We did look fragile across the back at times, but not throughout. We did look one-dimensional at times trying to hit Rheady, but not throughout. On the other hand we moved the ball swiftly across the park on the floor, but not throughout. One thing we did not do was exert enough of a threat in the final third, something that will come as our exciting attacking players get more used to each other.
A good solid start, now onto the first of our cup distractions at Rotherham. I’m driving there and I can confidently predict there will be no strip clubs on the way.