The headlines will read “Lincoln City go to Wembley”, but behind that there are a million stories all converging together. There are tales of personal joy, tales from fans, players and staff and the story of a football match steeped in controversy.
The story of my semi final started in a dome atop of the Lincoln Tap House and Kitchen with two bottles of champagne and strawberries (very Made in Chelsea) and my Dad (definitely Made in Lincoln). We’d been invited as guests of my significant advertiser to enjoy pre-match drinks. It meant starting a Lincoln match amongst more new faces, something that has come to define this season. Every week I seem to be with different people, hearing different stories and getting contrasting opinions on all things Lincoln City.
Oddly, very few of the assembled fans poke of the actual game. There wasn’t any excited chatter about our line up, about possible trips to London or how Danny might approach the game. Everything seemed apprehensive, almost mooted to a point where we didn’t want to consider the fact we were attending a match. For those not driving the bubbles and nibbles helped.
I think the stunted excitement was two-fold. I think we all knew the game wasn’t the stereotypical semi-final. Deep down, we would have loved to be facing Swindon or Port Vale, not Chelsea U21s. I won’t pretend I backed their inclusion, not one bit, but when you’re presented with an opponent you have to beat them. This competition has provided a viable route to Wembley for many other sides at our level, why must we feel inadequate because we’ve got through when the kids are involved too? From 2001 to 2006 non-league teams were involved, did that diminish the finalists achievement? No. These kids, rightly or wrongly, are far better quality than the FGR or Halifax were in 2005 yet somehow we all felt a bit dirty at acknowledging this as a real game.
Secondly, we were scared of losing. It wasn’t just Wembley at stake, if Chelsea kids had won through the competition would have been degraded further, perhaps more pertinently our achievements in it this season would have been for nothing. That 4-2 win against Peterborough was superb, as was the 3-2 victory over Accrington. Those games should not have been in vain, not spectacles deemed worthless because some pampered kids rocked up and turned us over.
The game itself was well supported, that didn’t surprise me one bit. It was a semi-final, people turn up to semi-finals. Whether you support the FLT or not, last night it meant a lot to an awful lot of people. Many fans see beyond the B-team threat and just want to see Lincoln City at Wembley.
On the pitch I thought we were excellent. If it had been a league game we would have commented how they looked a threat on the break, but in truth they didn’t seem to be able to find a way out of their own half. Ampadu, the lad they signed from Exeter, is a proper talent though, he wasn’t phased by Rheady although he didn’t win many headers either. I saw an article from a Chelsea programme where they mentioned this game would provide a good warm for their Premiership B matches. Don’t be fooled into thinking the U21 teams are giving this competition respect, many don’t want to be involved (so I’m led to believe). That said, those kids wanted that game last night. We didn’t let them have it.
I’m told after twenty minutes we’d had something like 70% of possession. World class youngsters? Whatever.
Elliott Whitehouse, at home in these games as he came through the Sheffield United ranks, had one of his best games in a Lincoln shirt, but Michael Bostwick was absolutely superb. He clearly had a remit: tackle hard and tackle often. He flew into everything, fighting for every loose ball, every free header and every single kick he could get. The kids up top did not like it one bit and whilst they looked a force at the back, going forward they offered nothing at all.
Ryan Allsop came in for Farms, a big call but one many felt needed to be made. I didn’t, I was worried because in my eyes, Ross Etheridge perhaps cost us the first semi-final against York last season. History has a habit of repeating itself and I could see it happening all over again. I need not have worried, Allsop didn’t have a save to make in the first 45 minutes. He did have a big part to play later on though.
We poured forward, at times it seemed as though we laid siege to their goal. There was a clear threat from set pieces, our best chances inevitably came from corners or diagonals into the box. I’m told after twenty minutes we’d had something like 70% of possession and by half time the ball had been in the final two-thirds of the pitch for 80% of the time. World class youngsters? Whatever.
We pressed and harassed superbly, their keeper didn’t enjoy kicking and you could see we’d done our homework. Obviously, in the Premier League B or whatever it is called, they can roll the ball to the edge of the area and go from there. against Lincoln City, or in the real world, you can’t.
In the second period they did have some more of the play, but I’m not sure they ever threatened to run riot, or even really threatened to score. That isn’t down to them being a bad side, it is because we worked tremendously hard. Everton might be above them in their little league, but this Chelsea side was far better than the Everton one we beat earlier in the season. However, going forward we made a significant point about our own football. As Lee Frecklington said in his interview with me the other week, there’s no particular way you should play football, you win games and that is what we did, we tried to win the game.
72′ GOOOOOOALL!!! SKIPPER!!!!
— Lincoln City FC (@LincolnCity_FC) February 6, 2018
I didn’t realise our goal had gone in, I thought it had caught the side netting and everyone around me was cheering for no reason. Genuinely, it took five second or so to convince me we’d scored. I was pleased for Luke, he’s had a tough season and I envisage it being tougher over the next few months, but to get the goal that helped us to Wembley was a big thing for the skipper. Neal Eardley was instrumental too, another player who had a fine night.
Had Danny Rowe laid the ball off to his left rather than shoot we would have been two up moments later. It wasn’t an easy night for the wingers, they peddle the style of football Chelsea are used to, playing on the deck and beating players, so their threat looked less significant than most.
Only when we scored did Chelsea look like they wanted it and sure enough, they were quickly level. I’m sure Danny will say it was a bad goal from a defensive point of view, it rolled across the goal and past three defenders before they picked it up at the back stick. When the shot comes in, Allsop has three players in front of him. It was tough on City, really tough.
From there Chelsea looked happy to go to penalties, odd for a side that had already lost twice on spot kicks in the group stages. Maybe they knew we hadn’t won a shoot out in 17 years, maybe not. Let’s face it, we’ve not seen many penalty shoot outs at Lincoln, the odd county cup perhaps but that is about it. It was the first I’ve ever seen in the flesh, to be honest I almost walked out. The pessimist in me had convinced the rest of me that the story had been written and we’d go out. I was even preparing the humble ‘we supported the trophy, now we must accept our fate’ blog. When Sam scored his spot kick but the officials didn’t give it, I felt even more certain. Luke’s hand ball last season, Wembley being closed when we earned our last two visits and now a dodgy decision from a penalty. The Wembley curse strikes again.
I suppose for someone who has a passing belief in fate, in fairy tales and stories which write themselves, as soon as Freck stepped up the job was done
Ethan Ampadu, by far Chelsea’s best player and a product of the Exeter City youth system, missed his penalty. It was harsh on the centre back because he will go on to be one of the very best footballer sin the Welsh side, there’s no doubt about that. Elliott Whitehouse and Ollie Palmer are two players I’ve been known to criticise, constructively of course but I’ve often asked whether they offer anything other than a brief impact from the bench. Both stroked home confident and assured penalty kicks, then our new keeper gave himself an instant reputation amongst fans with a wonderful save, before the ever-dependable Matt Green bagged his. I thought Green had a tough evening, he was shackled well and didn’t really get a sniff of goal, but he never gave up working and always offered a run. From twelve yards, I never doubted him.
I suppose for someone who has a passing belief in fate, in fairy tales and stories which write themselves, as soon as Freck stepped up the job was done. Ironically I’d spoken to Freck last week about penalties and he told me he’d only ever missed one, in the Wembley play off final for Steve Evans. Those notes appeared in the Swindon programme where he scored his penalty and then he bangs home the final spot kick to seal our own Wembley performance. He always envisaged his career ending with a spell at City, I’m not sure he dared imagine he’d score a spot kick with his only touch of the game to secure our trip there.
— Wembley Stadium (@wembleystadium) February 6, 2018
Of course, that sparked scenes of delirium. In that moment, nobody cared how we’d won, nobody cared about who we’d beaten. Lincoln City were in a cup final and, quite rightly, that emotion over rode all of the others. I’m sure those who choose not to attend the games will have afforded themselves a smile at home. We didn’t just beat kids teams, we beat local rivals, we beat League One sides and we did it convincingly at times. Oddly, when I listened back to the highlights of the tournament, Billy Knott set up a goal in the first match, JMD grabbed tow in the second and Josh Ginnelly put the third group game to bed. Sean Raggett scored late against Accrington, Nathan Arnold provided the cross that beat Rochdale, all players who have left or are likely to not play for us again. Danny was right, this Wembley final has taken a great effort from an awful lot of people.
Without sounding too much like a cliché, we must now park Wembley and pretend it isn’t even happening. There’s an awful lot of football to be played between now and April 8th, football that is far more important than the Checkatrade Trophy final. There’s 11 games, 33 points up for grabs in a quest to secure our second appearance in two months at the national stadium. The benefits of getting there though are immense, financially it is good for the club, on a day when we announced such a superb financial situation it just added to the good news. There’s also a psychological benefit too. If we do get to the play offs and if we do get to Wembley again, our players will know what it is all about. They will experience the big event, the noise of the crowd and they will have had their ‘day out’. When we played in Cardiff the first time it felt like a day out, a great experience for the club, but the second time felt like proper business. On April 8th we get our day out, we get our day after 133 Wembley-free years. At the end of May, lets hope at the very least we go there with the serious business of promotion.
Just a word on that 133 year wait, it technically isn’t correct is it? The stadium opened in 1923, so we’ve actually endured 95 Wembley free years. If you take away the five years it wasn’t open, that is just 90 years. See, it isn’t all that bad after all, is it?
As for the Checkatrade Trophy, in my eyes it is now the competition which brings us our first ever national stadium final. It is a very much maligned and misunderstood trophy with lots of positive and negatives, but in beating the kids last night we at least retained the slim sliver of integrity it does have left. I know I won’t worry about under 21 sides, B team or anything like that when the red and white striped shirts grace the hallowed turf in April and deep down, wherever you choose to be and whatever your principles are, I know there will be a little bit of pride in almost all Lincoln City fans that day. Genuinely, I don’t say this to be provocative, but if you don’t even feel a tiny bit of pride at City reaching a Wembley final, winning six games on the spin and then despatching the pantomime villains in the semi-final, I’m not sure you’re actually an Imp at all.