I’ve always said football is all about hope and belief. Wherever you are, whichever team you follow, it is the hope that keeps you coming back and the hope that kills you every season. It’s why some of those same fans cheering our title-winning game against Macclesfield would drag themselves to FA Trophy games against Carshalton. We might win the league, we might get to Wembley.
A football fan’s life is spent looking up at the teams above you in the league, the teams in the division above yours, aspiring to be one place better all the time. When those big cup draws come out the fairy tale starts, just as it did for us last season. It all moves so fast, one minute you’re the darlings of the media and Justin Allen of the Sun wants to be your mate, the next season you’re out of the cup and he’s sliming over the seats at Leatherhead or Slough.
It is important, every so often, to simply stand still and take stock of where you are or where you have come as a club. On this weekend last season we were close to going 12 points behind Forest Green in the promotion race, stuck in a chasing pack alongside Dover Athletic and Barrow. Tomorrow, we host the 1987 FA Cup Winners at Sincil Bank an equal terms in front of almost 10,000 fans. I believe, if you take into account those in the boxes, the various match day staff and stewards, 10,000 will see the game tomorrow. Contrast that with 345 who travelled to Nailsworth last season.
The history of our two clubs couldn’t be much different, as far as I’m concerned Coventry City are the biggest club in our league. They’ve no right no be stuck in the fourth division alongside Forest Green, Morecambe and Barnet. They’re a club steeped in history with a top-flight fan base. What has happened to them should be a cautionary tale to any side looking to move grounds. I follow the SISU saga from afar, not always understanding of the specifics but acutely aware of the devastating impact they’re plight has on their fans.
Football isn’t a caring place though is it and they come to Sincil Bank as equals for the first time since 1962. We’ve played them as equals on just eight occasions, three further cup matches, with a solitary FA Cup match in 1963 as our last meeting. Our record against them looks similar to that of our record against Manchester United, Chelsea or Arsenal. They may not match those teams in terms of trophies, but in my eyes they were every bit as big as them in other respects.
Younger fans may not know that Coventry City were promoted to the top flight in 1967 and remained there until 2001, the third-longest tenure by a side. Only Arsenal (1919) and Everton (1954) had longer unbroken stays. In 1970 Coventry beat Bayern Munich 2-1 in the Fairs Cup at Highfield Road, although they were eliminated after a 6-1 thumping in Germany.
I often tell the story of my first Imps game, October 5th 1986. I was asked by my Dad to flick through the Panini sticker album and chose a ‘big club’ because following Lincoln would get me picked on. I chose Luton but I pondered over Coventry as they had Trevor Peake playing for them. Mick Harford won the day, but as I watched City get beat 4-1 at home to Hartlepool, Coventry faced Aston Villa in the top flight.
Even as we rose through the divisions, Coventry City were still a big club. Our first match in the third tier saw us lose to Bournemouth, on the same day Darren Huckerby and Dion Dublin scored to give Cov a 2-1 win against a Chelsea side containing Poyet, Casiraghi, Desailly and Vialli. We hosted Burnley in January that season, then a third tier club, and drew 1-1. On the same day, Coventry beat Liverpool 2-1, Noel Whelan and George Boateng scoring.
The point I’m making here is nothing stands still in football, nobody is truly a ‘lower division’ side for eternity because the game is organic, teams evolve and (in the case of Coventry) they contract and implode. They’re comparative football royalty, a top-flight side far more used to trips to Anfield than they ever will be to Sincil Bank and yet tomorrow they visit our turf as equals. That is literal equals too, we share the same points and the Imps have the opportunity to go above them for the first time since (and this took some researching, believe me), the 1924/25 season. We’ve been above them in the divisional structure since then (in 1951/52 we replaced them in the second tier) but to find an actual league table showing Lincoln City above Coventry you have to go back to the 1920’s. In 1925/26 the Imps (pictured top) finished one point above the Sky Blues in the table, thus relegating them.
So, we’re back full circle to hope. Our hope is that this fifty year cycle of lower divisional struggle is about to be broken under the watchful eye of two bright young managers with the world at their feet. The new ground is happening, not as the potential saviour of the club, but as a vehicle to grow. Football is always about success on the pitch in my eyes and our success is bringing people to Sincil Bank in second-tier numbers. Since the early 1960’s we’ve been lower league and Coventry have not. Now, the Sky Blues find themselves in real danger of scrabbling around these divisions for a while, yet Lincoln City might just be passing them tomorrow as we did fifty-odd years ago on our way down. Tomorrow night the people of Lincoln could see their name above Coventry City for the first time since talking movies were invented.
Hope, it is what keeps us going. In 1926 your Dad’s Granddad probably looked at the papers and hoped we’d stay above Coventry the following season. Finally, his hope might be realised, even just for a week.
Remember, you have just two more days to order your copy of Graham Burrell’s excellent photo book, Imperfect Focus, co-written by me, in order to get an exclusive print with your order. Details on how to do it are here