In 2003/04 City registered a fine double over next weekend’s opponents, Mansfield Town. It was the Keith Alexander era at it’s very best, slick and skilled players mixed with gritty and robust tactics. Up until the last eighteen months, 2003/04 was perhaps the very best Lincoln City team I had seen. In a two-part special I’ve teamed up with Graham Burrell to bring those memories flooding back.
December 13th, 2003
The turn of the year wasn’t a great time to be a Lincoln City fan. Sure, after a horrible start to the season we’d battled back to the edge of the promotion race. Ahead of the visit to Mansfield we had lost two in a row, 3-0 in the FA Cup to Southend and 3-1 at Yeovil. crucially though, Keith Alexander had spent the time battling for his life.
Gary Simpson was in the caretaker role after Keith suffered his aneurism, and after one defeat in 18 there were fears the wheels might come off our promotion charge. With no Keith to motivate the troops, how could we approach a tough match like the Stags away? They had a great win at Northampton and a good show at Wycombe in the FA Cup in the lead up to the game. Their home form had been good, but with four wins from eleven our away form wasn’t too shabby either.
The Stags went into the game featuring many now-familiar faces. Junior Mendes played up front, himself an ex-Imp and Colin Larkin was on the bench. Liam Lawrence was their talisman, his form eventually earned him a move up the divisions, but he was their danger man in 2003. Former Imps trainee Luke Dimech was on the bench, and Market Rasen resident Craig Disley was alongside him.
City lined up: Marriott, Bailey, Mayo, Futcher, Morgan, Weaver, Gain Butcher, Richardson, Cropper, Yeo. Gary Fletcher, later to add a Taylor to the name, sat out through injury. It is as close to a ‘classic’ Keith team as you can get, and like Keith’s teams the strength was on the pitch, not on the bench. Our subs that day were Niall McNamara, Matt Bloomer, Ben Sedgemore, Allan Pearce and Richard Liburd.
Despite the hype, City were all over the game like dog mess on a Grimsby pavement. Lee Williamson battled with Richard Butcher in midfield and there did not seem to be much danger. However, Butch had other ideas and after securing possession he launched an unstoppable drive from a good thirty yards out to give the Imps a quick fire lead.
City took control of the game having a lead to defend, the 5-2-3 formation allowed some flexibility when defending the ball, and quite often Mark Bailey or Paul Mayo were able to advance and cause issues. Liam Lawrence tested Mazza from close range, but in truth Mansfield looked to be huffing and puffing with no fear of blowing the house down. Mark Bailey was returning after nine games out injured, and Imps fans knew when he played we looked much more solid.
A rare moment of sloppy defending from Morgan and Futcher allowed Iyseden Christie to collect the ball in the Imps box. Futcher executed a clumsy challenge from behind just as the striker looked likely to score and the referee (correctly) had no hesitation in pointing to the spot. Liam Lawrence gobbled up the opportunity from 18-yards as you’d expect to level the scores.
H-T: Stags 1 – 1 Lincoln City
In the second half City put the disappointment of conceding behind them, and took control of the game once again. City were first to the second balls, and that was if they hadn’t claimed the first. Peter Gain and Richard Butcher were superb, switching sides and playing off each other as if they were one single entity. Those two in midfield was THE quintessential pairing for my money, two hard working players with an eye for the sublime but a work rate to match. It didn’t always work for them, often our direct tactics kept their input to a minimum, but when they got involved in a like for like battle with an opposition midfield, they were rarely beaten. .
It was Mansfield’s turn to show defensive frailty, allowing City to steal a lead, and what turned out to be the winning goal just five minutes into the second period. Mark Bailey surged down the right in his brash and uncomplicated manner. He presented a couple of opportunities to the defenders to put a foot in, but doggedly he found his way to the edge of the 18-yard area. He fed the ball through to Gainy who lurked on the edge of the area in space. You know what happened next. His effort from 20-yards beat Kevin Pilkington low in his goal, and City were back in front..
Once City had the lead again they closed the game down effectively. Neither side had anything clear cut to shout about, despite Keith Curle throwing his forwards on. Colin Larkin came on, Neil Mackenzie did the same. City took off Richardson and Cropper, bringing on McNamara and Bloomer to get more bodies behind the ball. It worked as City sent their 1008 supporters home happy.
Gary Simpson was delighted with his sides endeavour. He said after the game: “It was a superb result. Our game plan was to frustrate them. We knew we would have to defend and I told the players that we would have to score to get something out of the games. We got off to a good start and then they came back at us but as the game progressed they ran out of ideas. Full marks to our players, they were superb. This was a big test of character for us but the lads came through with flying colours and I’m really proud of them.”
It would be March before the Imps faced the Stags again, where they’d be looking for their first double over the Stags since 1995/96. It would be a crucial game too, both sides chasing the play-off spots. Who would come out on top?
Part Two next week
GALLERY COURTESY OF GRAHAM BURRELL