Recently I’ve been looking at classic games between the Imps and their next opponents, something I plan on keeping up all season. None of those classic games will have occured inside the last eleven months though, none that is apart from Forest Green.
On November 19th 2016 we travelled to the New Lawn for a tough-looking match against the runaway leaders of the National League. What happened that day set us up for the rest of the historic campaign, it raised the bar in terms of belief in our own capabilities. It made a hero of Sean Raggett and it gave the travelling Imps fans one of their greatest away days ever. Tomorrow night won’t be as pivotal as the last time we visited Nailsworth, I doubt we’ll ever go there again and come away with as much as we did last season. It wasn’t just about points, it was a victory for organisation and hard work over money and expectation.
I’ll grant you that nothing was won in November, not physically anyway. There was to be no presentation after we beat Forest Green at the New Lawn, but we knew that we’d won something that day. We’d struck a blow for the established club over the well-funded new order. We struck a blow for well-supported clubs over those who are less loved. Most crucially, we’d struck a blow over that Mark Cooper and his designer scarf.
We went into our morning kick off on that day nine points behind Forest Green, and (obviously) a win for them would open up a 12 point gap, albeit us having a game in hand. That’s significant, because at no point during the season did we have a gap of that size between us and the side below us. Essentially 12 points is the sort of gap that has the so-called ‘experts’ calling champions in November, and don’t let Alan Alger forget it.
Forest Green still had to win the game, but after 65 minutes that looked done and dusted. By our own admission we were poor poor, although in truth FGR weren’t much better. The game wasn’t a great advert for the insanely talented the National League despite Christian Doidge giving them an early lead. It came from a cross that could have been defended better at source, and again when it landed in the area. For the rest of the first half we huffed and puffed but got nowhere. Theo Robinson had a half-effort, but that was the only thing we had to show for our endeavours. We didn’t start the second period in any better form, just after the hour mark Elliott Frear laid the ball into the path of Keanu Marsh-Brown, and he drove a low shot through the legs of Alan Power and into the back of the net. 2-0, with 25 minutes to play, and Marsh-Brown rushed to the subs to do a little dance with one of his chums. City looked disconsolate and as far as classic matches go, this wasn’t very classic for long periods.
At that point you begin to plot the rest of the season. It seemed we were going to have to chase those 12 points down, but at that early stage I think we were happy as play-off contenders. Some fans were already on social media giving the side a bit of a battering, and given the performance level you could see why. We hadn’t been at the races unfortunately, and although we didn’t know it at the time, a defeat would leave us 5th at the end of play. Was that so bad in the grand scheme of things? Play-offs was the ambition back then, it is frightening how far we’ve come in such a short space of time.
I was down but optimistic for the remainder of the season. Although we hadn’t looked brilliant I thought we’d matched FGR and their two-goal lead flattered them somewhat. It flattered them for a whole four minutes, as their second goal sparked City into life. Nathan Arnold burst through the defence and fired a shot at Sam Russell, he parried it and of all the people it should fall to, Alex Woodyard stroked it home. At the time he was the only outfield player not to have scored a goal, and the joy on his face told you what it meant to him. It wasn’t a consolation though, there was 20 minutes left and Lincoln smelled an equaliser.
At 2-1 FGR began to look pressured and harassed, but it didn’t stop them launching the odd attack, Paul Farman pulled off a stunning reaction save to keep the score at 2-1, and as he did you had to think maybe it was turning into Lincoln’s day. The commentators still spoke about that twelve point lead, but the look on Mark Cooper’s face reflected a man under pressure. I imagine we may see a similar look tomorrow night, promotion earned him a reprieve after he lost the dressing room, but many more bad results and I think he’ll be the first casualty of the new season.
That day the pressure came to a head on 89 minutes. Matt Rhead was involved, flicking on a throw in with an exquisite back-heel, and the ball dropped sweetly into the path of captain Luke Waterfall. Unusually he volleyed succinctly into the back of the net, finishing with the sort of aplomb reserved only for strikers. 2-2, and that lead was going to stay at nine points. City had dragged a point from the jaws of defeat. The camera panned around to Danny Cowley, but instead of celebrating he was urging his players back to the centre circle. Surely he didn’t think we could get another did he? This was pre-Gateshead, pre-Torquay, pre-Ipswich. This was our first real example of the Lincoln City we now know and love.
Within 120 seconds we were back on the attack with a corner right in front of the 345 travelling fans. The ball was whipped across the box, and rising above everyone was Sean Raggett, nothing but a steely determination to connect with the ball in his mind. Just like he did on Saturday for his first ever Football League goal, he connected powerfully and sent those dedicated fans home with three points in the bag. City had been twelve points adrift three minutes before the goal, and now the lead was just six, with a game in hand.
Three minutes, the finest of margins but such a crucial three minutes in the context of the whole season. In the end it was us with the double-digit lead over FGR, 13 points to be exact, but it wasn’t just about the points. It was a display of resilience, a display of character and a warning to those teams thinking we didn’t have the minerals for a fight. As we celebrated across the county Sean and Luke came on BT Sports as unassuming and direct as ever. “We won’t let anyone run away with this league” were Sean’s words, and he was right. Nobody held a lead of twelve points over us again, nobody even held a lead of nine over us. On that early afternoon in November we drew a line in the sand that we were not to drop behind again. We could have dropped to 5th, instead we remained in the top two for the rest of the season.
Looking back you couldn’t have told me that was the most important game of the season on the days we faced FGR at home, or Tranmere at home, but in truth it was. Everything that came after happened because of that game, because of what those three minutes of football created. Imps fans so long accustomed to failure and let-down suddenly had cause to believe. Yes, the next twenty-six games contained crucial fixtures and big matches, but we entered them sat in the top two rather than part of the chasing pack, and that was because of those last three minutes on the New Lawn.
What other match could I possibly have chosen as a classic encounter with FGR? This was the only one that mattered, and as we now settle into the Football League, they appear to be struggling. They’ll be dangerous, any team with Doidge up top have something to offer, but I have yo question whether Mark Cooper has the tools to motivate his troops or the ability to get them over the ‘small club’ mentality that cost them the title last season, and cost them a Football League promotion much sooner. They bottle big games more often than not, and unless he finds a way to stop that then his tenure as manager won’t last long.
Forest Green? Completed it mate.
Thanks to Graham Burrell and Lincoln City for the photographs