Story of a season 2: Sam Stafford pens another guest piece

We got a 10am train from Leeds on the morning of the game and I could tell that Eldest’s sense of anticipation built further, as did mine, when some of the Red & White Army got on at Newark. That quiet hour he had on his DS and I had catching up on some back editions of the Blizzard were lovely, but it was also nice to have the quiet punctured by the sights and sounds of some boozy card games and good-natured banter. He was starting to see that something big was afoot.

We got the Tube straight to Wembley Park and I can remember the knowing, appreciative looks of other passengers, fans and non-fans, who could obviously see the excitement on his face and the pride on mine. Word went around the carriage when the arch came into sight and we looked for it together. I was always sceptical about the arch. It does, apparently, take the weight of 75% of the roof, but it still looks like an architectural afterthought. It does though contribute to a greater sense of arrival than I was led to believe the redeveloped stadium has.
I had not heard great things about either the stadium or the surrounding areas, but both just about exceeded my expectations. It was as wet a day as that Germany game though and having met Dave and his family under the bridge nobody was too keen on soaking up the atmosphere outside. After a photo of the two of us on Wembley Way and a smile for a passing camera crew we got in quickly. There was no queue (though is it really necessary to pat down an eight year old?); we were served a slice of pizza for him quickly, and did not have to queue for a wee wee (the practicalities of taking a child to the football). There was no ‘wow’ factor for me though, either inside the stadium or out.

I did not get a ‘wow’ from him, but all he could say when he had finished his pizza was how big it is, which is close enough and I did think that it invoked the sense of awe in him that a national stadium should in a child. I pointed out where the Shrewsbury fans were and then, in contrast, that the Lincoln fans extended ‘from there to there, and up there’. That was the ‘wow’ factor for me and my voice started to wobble at that point as the size of the Lincoln following hit me. It has become a standing joke amongst my Lincoln pals that Ipswich away last season was my Princess Diana moment. I have become a little teary at the sight of a big Lincoln crowd since.

I had no expectations of the game itself. A trophy to mark the progress being made by the club would clearly have been nice, but Shrewsbury are a full Division above and so were clearly favourites. I was just hopeful that they would give a good account of themselves in front of the cameras. In some respects, it was going to be nice to get it out of the way so as to focus on the league, which is the bread and butter, Clive.
It is impossible though for the opposition to hit the woodwork in the opening minutes and not to think that it might be your day. The goal was just reward for a really good response to that and, again, when Ryan Allsop made that absolutely sensational save I wondered whether the planets had indeed aligned. The counter point to that was when Rheady missed his chance just before he went off on the hour mark. Was it going to be hour day? Surely they would make one count eventually?

The boys struggle with ninety minutes on television. They might do half an hour and dip back in, but generally they like to watch Match Of The Day. A match here, pause it, do something else, and watch another match in a bit. Eldest though will sit attentively for ninety minutes at a ground, taking it all in. We will watch a different player for a few minutes at a time, tracking their movement and asking why they are where they are and did what they did. I tell him that every match is different, with it’s own twists and turns, heroes and villains. Each has a story.

The story of that match, I will remember, was the backs to the wall effort in the second half. Shrewsbury got on the foot front after the break and never really stopped turning the screw (you’re mixing your metaphors there, Brian). Somehow Lincoln’s resolve grew and grew in response, which considering the energy that they were expending in repelling wave after wave was quite something. The more that I could see our lads wanting it though the more I wanted it for them, and the more invested in the game I became. Others must have felt the same because with every tackle and block the noise seemed to increase. The atmosphere in those five minutes of injury time was quite something.
Eldest sat there taking it all in. He does not have an emotional attachment yet. I did not until I was in my mid-teens. I wrote last year that the feeling at Ipswich was like the divided accrued from twenty-five years of emotional investment. Wembley was like another dividend and he saw me more animated and emotional than at any other match we have been to or, in fact, ever. He has probably never seen me hug anybody apart from his mum so, thinking about it, he was probably a little curious about how I greeted Reamesy outside a pub afterwards. He can support who he wants, if he wants. I can only show him football and what supporting a football team means.

So. Another special season.

A trend is a general direction over time and a pattern is a set of data of data that follows a recognisable form. I mention this because whilst no two seasons are the same there is a pattern emerging with the Cowleys, both at Lincoln and earlier in their careers. The data is measured in points and trophies. The trend points upwards.

They are the numbers though, the science (and the Cowleys are clearly good at sports science), but sport is part science and part art. The art is the intangible, the alchemy, the, as I said before, planets aligning. How often in the life of a club will it be blessed with good, strong owners and investors who employ good, strong staff to recruit, train and motivate good, strong players. Very rarely. Even if it does how often would that club take it’s community along with them, building support, such that away allocations sell-out let alone home matches. Even more rarely. These are truly halcyon days for Lincoln City supporters. If it ended this year these two seasons would represent a massive spike on Lincoln’s success graph and we would be forever grateful. Here is the thing though, there is nothing to suggest that this will end tomorrow. I may be making myself a hostage to fortune here, but these successes do not feel like spikes, or one-offs, or the meeting of a long since forgotten target. They feel like a platform, or a foundation or a springboard to however far high the club wants to jump.

What a day. I will remember all of it. I will remember the loud-mouthed, obnoxious lad with long, ginger, curly hair who sat right behind us and tried very hard not to sound like a part-timer, but let himself down when he shouted about Paul Farman in goal (hello to him if he ends up reading this). I will remember that game of FIFA on the big screen at half-time contested by the Lincoln fan who had clearly never played FIFA before. I will remember getting a call from Dave as we were about to get into Leeds station to say that the camera crew that had clocked us earlier were from Look North and that we had made the news that night. We had indeed and Eldest was thrilled to show his mum when we finally got home at about 11pm.

I am glad that I turned down some chances to go to Wembley over the last 24 years. Doing so with Lincoln and with my boy has made so many memories for us both. The Wembley of his childhood will be the Wembley of his adulthood, so his youthful, optimistic memories will stay with him. Whilst new Wembley was not my childhood Wembley it was less the place that made Sunday 8 April 2018 special and more the people.

Eldest, me and Dave.