Tonight Lincoln City go into battle, perhaps one of the oddest and most controversial battles of our 133-year history. The lure of a first Wembley appearance alone is enough to whet the appetite, but the stakes are much higher than a simple prize for our club. We’re fighting for everything that is right in football, the beleaguered competition’s last modicum of integrity and perhaps for football itself.
I’ll be frank, despite attending games as I have, I don’t like the youth team’s presence. I don’t find it insulting particularly, I just think they epitomise what is wrong with our game at the highest level. You want to know why our national team is, for want of a better word, crap? Because all the best young players stay stuck in an academy before slowly filtering down the league system, broken and poorer for it. Whilst potential future England players such as Jacob Mellis and Billy Knott fester in the lower leagues, players such as Jamie Vardy who played proper football from a young age, litter the national side.
I appreciate there are counter arguments each way, but nobody can argue soundly that our philosophy of protecting young players in under 23 leagues, or sending them out on a hundred short-term loan deals, is aiding their development. They need competitive football, they need to be part of a team that achieves something. Turning up for three or four games in the Checkatrade Trophy won’t help, it is arrogant to think it will. The rise of these academy teams is killing our talent, pure and simple.
I’ve always believed in the Football league Trophy though, whether it is to give Lee Frecklington his first run out in a Lincoln shirt, or to provide a viable route to Wembley for a club that otherwise might not get there. I couldn’t boycott the tournament as my principles were not as strong as my love for the club. We spent too many seasons competing against the likes of Ebbsfleet to pass up the chance to watch a match against Notts County or Peterborough, no matter what the circumstances. We’ve actually been brilliant in the trophy, we’ve seen some wonderful games of football, some superb goals and we’re now just 90 minutes from a first ever Wembley final.
People might think a team not having been to Wembley in 133 years must be a bit rubbish, but we’ve been desperately unlucky. Okay, up until around 1980 we didn’t have a sniff, but many other sides didn’t either. It has only been since the inception of the play offs and the FLT that lower league teams have had a real chance. We’ve not got a bad record in both, but circumstance and fate kept us away from our national stadium.
In 1983 a rather wonderful Colin Murphy side battled bravely through to the final of this competition, or an early version of it, and came up against Millwall. It had been a turbulent season, one in which we’d beaten Leicester and narrowly lost to West Ham in the League Cup, one in which we’d looked like being promoted to the Second Division (now the Championship) before board room troubles halted our progress. Harry Redknapp’s first game in management ended in a 9-0 defeat at Sincil Bank, Millwall were also defeated at the Bank with Sam Allardyce in their defence.
By the time we made the Football League Trophy final later in the season, we’d slipped out of the promotion race. We had still managed impressive wins against the likes of Norwich in the quarter-final, the Canaries a Division One side at the time. We were eager to win it once we made the final stages, Grimsby had been the first team to lift the trophy the season before but they were eliminated at the group stage by us. Chester fell in the semi-final after extra time meaning we were through to the showpiece final. Sadly, it took place at Sincil Bank, not Wembley.
In 2003 we bounced back from administration to finish in the play-offs for the first time in our history. Keith Alexander’s brave collections of cast-offs and non-league players proved the whole of the fourth tier wrong with battling displays of bravery and courage. Once again, near neighbours were beaten en route, Scunthorpe defeated 6-3 on aggregate in a wonderful two-legged semi-final. This time, the showpiece event was at a National Stadium, only Wembley was under renovation so we went to Cardiff instead. When we repeated the feat two-years later, we were back in Wales.
So, Lincoln City could have been to Wembley three times in our history, we could have been three times in the past year too! We were only one dodgy penalty kick away from an FA Trophy final, 90 minutes away from the FA Cup semi-final and earlier this season we would have drawn Spurs in the third round had we progressed. Again, it didn’t happen. Tonight we’re just 90 minutes away from going, again with it in our hands and the odds stacked against us.
Standing in our way are, arguably, some of the most talented kids in the world today. Chelsea have a fine academy of players who you’ll doubtless see turning out for Barnet in eight years time, but right now they’re on top of their game. They’re young, hungry and being coached by the finest staff money can buy. Their facilities will be infinitely better than ours, they have more staff, more resources and more ability. It is the haves against the have nots, no matter how well we do, we cannot be compared to the pampered princes of football that will arrive this evening.
One thing money can’t buy, one thing that cannot be coached into you is attitude. Another is a viciously partisan home crowd.They’re our two ‘secret’ weapons tomorrow, something that tactically you can’t prepare for. These kids might be special and all that, but will they ever have played under such hostile conditions? Even when they beat Portsmouth for instance, was the atmosphere cranked right up? I doubt it. I did notice they beat MK Dons earlier in the tournament too, if there was ever a game that lacked soul that must have been it. I’ve been called a cab for going to the city games, what on earth does that make the Franchise FC fans?
We won’t win on ability alone, we won’t win on attitude alone, but our secret weapon won’t even step onto the pitch. There’s two of them, they’re both called Cowley and they will have prepared for this game as though it is their last. They want Wembley just as much as we do, they want a legacy at Sincil Bank, they want to be remembered in fifty years time as the managers that changed everything. Two of our greatest managers of the last 37 years took us into games which should have been played at Wembley, they want to go one better. If that means getting Matt Rhead to introduce himself early, or asking Michael Bostwick to get in an early reducer, they’ll do it. If it means churning up an already well-worn pitch, they’ll do it. Whatever it takes to win, they’ll do it.
How will the kids cope with that? Our previous brush with an u21 side saw a match that was pretty much men against boys take place. It was a narrow margin, but if we’d gone at it with a full squad we should have won by a bigger margin. Will that be the case tonight?
I’ll tell you one thing, there will be a lot of suits and ties up in the FA headquarters with very nippy bum holes this evening. They never imagined their experiment would backfire like this. They will have hoped the kids got through to the quarter finals at the most, not all the way to Wembley. With Chelsea having fielded Batshuayi and Musonda early doors too, they really defecated over the so-called aims of the Checktrade Trophy. If Chelsea were to get to the final it would cause even more uproar than anything that has gone before. This is a lower league competition, not one for Premier League clubs to field £32m strikers when they feel like it. They’ll want us to win almost as much as we want it ourselves.
If someone had said to me, would you take defeat against Swindon and a win against Chelsea kids, I would have said yes. I’ve never felt like this about a cup competition, not even Arsenal in the FA cup last season. I’ve always prioritised the league, but tonight is different. Tonight feels important for so many reasons and I believe come May, our fate won’t be decided by a solitary point. We’ll either be two or three outside or inside whatever we’re aiming for, history won’t care whether we beat Swindon or not. However, history will be made no matter what happens tonight, either the evil corporate scum that control the upper echelons of our game break up another fine tradition, the mickey mouse trophy being a route to Wembley, or knights in shining red and white armour strike a blow for all that is good and great about football in League One and League Two.
I hope we win, I hope we go back to being vilified for (in the main) supporting the competition because if we watch our team run out at Wembley against Shrewsbury or Fleetwood, it will all be worth it. We will have stopped the cancerous u21 teams from succeeding, for now. We will have flown the flag for League Two in the final and, most importantly of all, we will have written another chapter in the history of Lincoln City.
Those players tonight have the chance to etch their names on this club for eternity and in doing so, can show English football that all is not lost just yet. Up The Imps.