For the second time today we welcome a guest blogger. This time ‘Unbelievable Jeff’, fresh from being inspired by the Future Imps Fund book ‘On The Road With Lincoln City’, tells us of his last trip to Colchester.
1997 was an odd year. It was probably one of the most memorable years of the 90s. For it brought about the first change in government in eighteen years, the death of the “People’s Princess” and brought about the cringeworthy style of “Cool Britannia”. People loved Tony Blair, and John Beck was treated with the relationship that is normally afforded to marmite.
His Beckensian leadership, during his first full season of 96/97, had presided over our most successful season since 1992/93, when we missed out on a play-off place due to the ridiculous goals scored rule. Sadly we missed out on the last day of the season due to falling at the last hurdle. Our old nemesis and bogey team – Rochdale, saw to that.
During the 1996/97 season there were many high points, and of course low points. The highest point was beating Man City on aggregate, in the then Coca Cola Cup. We narrowly missed out on progression in a replay against Southampton. This was painful for me. I was a student at the University of Portsmouth and losing to “The Scummers” was not on. To this day I can safely say it was never a penalty. Le Tissier was impotent and it took a dying swan effort to award “The Scummers” an unfair penalty.
Still, there was always the league. A planned visit to Layer Road with my late Uncle Ian was proposed. Being on the south coast, and reliant on matches in the sphere of an affordable train ticket was the key. Ian lived in West London, so the Colchester game was possible. Unfortunately, his then wife put a spanner in the works and we had to cancel our trip to Layer Road (pictured top).
So, the 30th November 1996 came, and buoyed on from our recent victory at the high-flying Fulham, I agreed to go to Fratton Park with my cousin and his daughter. I can’t really recall what happened in the game, as I was listening to the football scores on Five Live, thanks to my trusted Sony Walkman. What I heard throughout the afternoon was agony. The Imps were 2-1 down at Layer Road. That then became three, four, then seven. The ignominy of seeing your team’s details on the Videprinter – which was kindly videoed for me by my flat mate, saying Colchester Utd 7 (SEVEN) – 1 Lincoln City was thoroughly humbling.
Fast forward to 1997. I was still in Portsmouth and we were on an unbeaten run. The previous cup glories were sadly not on the cards again, and by now we had sold Gareth Ainsworth to Port Vale, following his hat-trick against Scarborough at home. It was a game we should have won, but frustratingly drew 3-3. The option of Layer Road came up again with my uncle. A few calls were put in and we arranged to go. It was a game that could see us go top of the league, IF, and I mean IF, results went our way.
On the morning of 22nd November 1997, I got up incredibly early, for a student this was around 7am, I made my way to Portsmouth and Southsea station and boarded the rackety slam door South West Trains effort of a carriage and chuffed off to Clapham Junction. I arrived at my uncle’s abode in Brentford at half past nine. We diverted to the Dew Drop Inn, on Brentford High Street, and endured its drab interior for a hearty fry up. The buses and tubes were then taken to get to Liverpool Street, for us to catch a train to Colchester. It was a long journey full of rackety tubes, trains and fighting through walls of commuters.
We arrived at Colchester around 1230, and soon realised that Layer Road was a magnificent hike from the train station. Being a keen walker, we decided to have a KFC – to build up the strength of the journey ahead of us. If only I had purchased some Kendal Mint Cake! Our journey to the ground was around an hour. We duly got there and went in. Our away terrace was covered, and situated at the south end of the ground. Well it felt like the South end. Soon the away crowd began to fill up, and an executive decision was made to stand at the back, mainly as it was so cold we would be less likely to suffer exposure in numbers. I remember that we stood next to a long time Lincoln City fan legend. He was called Phil and worked in the crisp factory. I won’t detail his full nickname, as it would probably cause offence.
This was the best decision we made. Phil was the most enthusiastic, positive and comical fan we had. It was amazing to stand next to him and live the game through him. The game was end to end in the first half, and Colchester had many efforts. Barry Richardson, despite sporting a rather pre-brit-pop grunge look, was not his usual hot-headed self. He seemed to have a virtual pause button that day, which made him able to block and save everything that was thrown his way. No doubt they ran out of kitchen sinks in Colchester that day.
I can’t remember when it happened, all I know is that it was dark, and we were kicking to the home fans in the north end. A Lincoln attack ended with a shot being blocked and who should mop it up at the back post, but our recent signing Gavin Gordon (pictured). Against the run of play and all odds, we were ahead. Colchester were our promotion rivals. Phil went mad, next to us and so did my uncle and I. Being next to someone so into a game made us enjoy it so much more. I swear that it was at that game that I did some damage to the discs in my back, owing to the jumping and staggering around that we were doing.
All we had to do was weather the storm from Colchester. Unbelievably we did. Barry and his virtual pause button pulled off saves that Gordon Banks would applaud. Results were also going our way and the whistle went. The appalling result of the previous season had been overturned and we were top of the league.
My Uncle screamed that when we went top of the league, we were there. And we were. It was an amazing thing to see and experience. That’s why I will always love John Beck’s time as manager. Yes, the style wasn’t great, yes he had some issues with Customs and Excise. Yes, we all needed neck supports. Yet for the first time in years, John Beck made us exceptionally hard to beat. We achieved some unbelievable victories, and I don’t think that he is appreciated as much as he should be. The hour long walk back to the station felt like minutes and the train journey back to Liverpool Street flew by. Could this be our year? Well, we all know how it ended. It was fitting that on the day we were promoted, a Brighton fan and I were glued to the TV watching Ceefax. The journey was complete.
The Beckensian era gave me precious time with my late uncle, and times I will never forget. In the week before he died – some 10 years later, my uncle said to me “Remember, when we went top of the league we were there.” That choked me and still does to this day. I shed a tear on 22nd April 2017, as we lifted the Vanarama Trophy. I knew somewhere that he was looking on and smiling.
It is now 20 years on, almost to the day – give or take a few hours, that we went to the top of the league. Layer Road is no longer there, neither is John Beck in management. Yet the spirit of the Beckensian Era, now lives on and has been built upon by the Cowleyean Era. Lincoln are again a team hard to beat, and are in the transition phase akin to Lincoln in 1996/97. Yes, the style of play isn’t always that attractive, we don’t always get the results we want, but that same spark that John Beck uncovered is to the fore again. Lincoln City have become cool again, but unlike Cool Britannia I hope that this phase isn’t a fad and will be the start of something that we can build on. For like John Beck, they see potential with this club and they share the dream that we can be anything we want to be.
Up the Imps.