Last week I went back to December 2003, and told the tale of how City, without poorly manager Keith Alexander, overcame the Stags in a titanic tussle to win 2-1. Two super strikes from Butch and Gainy won us the match, and Keith was by now back in the dugout.
The win in December had seen us ascend to 8th in the table, but by the time the Stags got on a bus to visit our humble abode, we were still in eighth place. We had broken into the top six with wins against the likes of Boston (1-0) and Bury (2-1), but defeat at home to Torquay (3-1) and consecutive home draws with local rivals (Scunthorpe 1-1, Boston 1-1), left us on the edge of the play-off race.
Worse was to come, just two weeks before the Mansfield match we travelled to play-off hopefuls Huddersfield, losing 2-1 to the most bizarre goal I’ve ever seen scored. Pawel Abbott slotted home from a position 40 yards offside to win them a tight affair.
As always, Keith was tinkering in the transfer market. Paul Mayo said farewell to the Imps crowd on February 28th, signing off his first spell at the club with a goal as we san Hull City 2-0. Dave Wattley replaced him for a trip to Cheltenham on March 6th, but a Marcus Richardson brace couldn’t prevent us slipping to a 3-2 defeat. Immediately Keith used some of the money Watford paid for Mayo to bring in defender Jamie McCombe from Scunthorpe, and he went straight into the squad for the game with the Stags.
Keith was delighted to finally bag his man after Scunthorpe decided against releasing him to City, despite telling the player he was free to leave. In his programme notes Chairman Rob Bradley said: “Our new addition is Jamie McCombe and at last we welcome him here to Lincoln City after the unnecessarily drawn out transfer saga that we became embroiled in with Scunthorpe United.” Keith, as ever, was far more reticent with his comments, simply welcoming his new face and suggesting another might join before the match.
With just enough time to sign up, Kevin Ellison joined up with the squad, also going straight into the side. He came in as left-back cover, meaning City could slip comfortably into the 5-2-3 (or 3-5-2 depending on your view) that they’d been familiar with all season. In addition to the new faces, Richard Butcher continued to miss out due to injury and Ben Sedgemore deputised for him in the middle of the park. Simon Yeo was on the bench.
The Imps team that lined up against Mansfield was:
A Marriott, S Weaver, J McCombe, M Bailey, B Sedgemore, P Gain, K Ellison, G Taylor-Fletcher, F Green, P Morgan, M Richardson.
Mansfield were sixth in the table with a game in hand over City, and a lead of five points. With March slipping away, The Imps knew nothing less than a victory would be sufficient.
City’s first half showing was anything but play-off material. Mansfield looked lively, and as was the case in the first match it was Liam Lawrence that registered a goal for them. He scored the equaliser in the first match, but his goal at the Bank gave the Stags a vital lead. Gary Taylor-Fletcher found himself on defensive duties and was adjudged to have committed a ‘strikers tackle’ on Lawrence in the area. The future Sunderland player got up and slammed home the opening goal of the game.
The penalty was harsh on Taylor-Fletcher. He didn’t make a tackle as such, but Lawrence theatrically went across the strikers body and that drew the attention of the referee. He made no mistake in front of the Stacey West though, scoring his 17th of the season.
Keith must have gotten into his players ears in the second half, because Lincoln came out revitalised and ready for a battle. Kevin Ellison began to find his feet, and the front three of Marcus Richardson, GTF and Francis Green all had a goal or two in them on their day.
Just ten minutes into the second half, City were level. A Ben Sedgemore corner was headed away, only as far as Ellison on the edge of the box. He drove an effort into the packed penalty area, and it deflected up off a defender, falling to the feet of GTF. He fired the ball into the roof of the net to make amends for the so-called penalty earlier. 1-1.
City weren’t done though, and a quick fire double killed off the Stags challenge like a crossbow to the head. Ben Sedgemore nodded an innocuous looking ball to Taylor-Fletcher, deep in his own half. The striker shifted a gear and outpaced three defenders before firing a powerful low shot at goal from 25 yards. Kevin Pilkington got nowhere near it in the Mansfield goal, and City were a goal to the good.
That quickly turned into a two-goal advantage with a classic Imps move of the time. Paul Morgan hoisted the ball forward, Marcus Richardson flicked it on and Francis Green got behind his defender before lofting a beautiful lob over the despairing Pilkington. All three points were coming to City after a ruthless and effective second half mauling.
Like Ellison, Jamie McCombe was keen on a debut goal too. His half volley rattled the cross-bar as City threatened to runaway with the match. Mansfield looked a spent force, devoid of ideas and lacking the spark required to break down the resolute Imps defence. Simon Yeo came on as a sub, much as he had for most of the season, and scored a trademark goal. Another defensive header from Sedgemore fell to Yeo, and he outpaced his marker before also lobbing Pilkington to compound a thoroughly miserable day for the keeper. The bumper crowd of 6,034 had been treated to a master class of finishing by the dominant Imps, but the 1700 travelling fans were left to wonder if they’d stand the pace in the play-off race.
Keith was delighted with his sides tenacity and application: “The lads battled very well and showed good character to come back and get a result against a very good team. Mansfield are a good side and we’ve done the double over them this season. People look at us and don’t give us credit for the football that we play and the lads for how well they’ve done. It was an excellent victory.”
Much-fancied Mansfield coming to Sincil Bank? City not being credited for the good things they do? How familiar does that sound?
City ended the season with a play-off semi-final defeat against Huddersfield Town, and possibly the best Imps side of a generation began to break up. We couldn’t afford the £100k price-tag on Ellison’s head, so he slipped through our fingers, and by the time the next season kicked off Mark Bailey had left also. We did bring in a defender from Ireland called McAuley, but it is a point for keen debate as to whether this was the finest Imps side of the last twenty years or not. One thing is for sure: 2017 is the first time we’ve been as competitive consistently as the Keith era, and when you work hard and compete every week results will come.
Thanks to Graham Burrell for the continued access to his back-catalogue of Imps shots.