The play-offs: Sixth time lucky?

Misleading headline alert! There’s no chance this will be sixth time lucky. If Lincoln City make it into League One this season, it will be anything but luck that has driven us there.

Now we’ve let the Yeovil dust settle we can look ahead to 180 minutes of football that will be unpredictable, exciting and for one manager, career defining. Paul Tisdale is under a lot of pressure at Exeter and is favourite for the MK Dons job. A two-legged defeat to City would put the final nail in his already-sealed coffin.

However, we don’t care about Exeter, do we? We care about Lincoln and the truth is we’ve limped over the line somewhat, buoyed by the great win against Coventry, the low-quality win against Colchester and that final day struggle against the Glovers. We’ve not surged over the line in a blaze of glory, but with injuries taking their toll, we did enough.

Still, as with every Lincoln side Danny Cowley has ever put out, there is loads to be optimistic about, I’d say more than ever before. Our second leg against the Grecians is in nine or ten days time depending on how you want to count the days, meaning the most meticulous management duo we’ve ever had now have more time than ever to watch videos and study players.

Celebrating the goal that got us over the line – courtesy of Graham Burrell

When we beat them earlier in the season, we had less time to study them, so the play-off set up surely benefits us. I’m not saying Exeter study any less than we do, but we have Danny and Nicky on the case. Do you believe Matt Oakley, their assistant manager, will put the same time in as Nicky? Do you believe Tisdale and Oakley, a good management pairing, will work as efficiently as two brothers who have grown up together talking about the game on the school bus, before sleeping when on holiday, playing as young men and coming up from Concord to Lincoln? In terms of preparation I believe the two-legged semi-final benefits us and, before anyone says it, York City last season came around the same time as lots of other games.

I keep hearing nobody wants to play us in the play-offs too. We’re labelled as bullies, a physical side with a certain style of play, something I accept to a degree. There was little physical about Tom Pett’s finish, was there? Paul Tisdale admitted in March we were the better side and psychologically that will hold some weight. The Grecians came fourth and while all that means is so-called home advantage in the second leg, it does mean over 46 games they were better than us, just.

What is notable is they changed tactics from early in the season. When they won1-0 early in the season they played a possession game, frustrating us for long periods by dictating the pace and getting the winner through a passing move. They seem to have come full circle, now happy to launch it towards Stockley and do whatever it takes after that to pick up the pieces. The latter suits us, the former not so much, but they’re unlikely to switch back now.

No, Exeter will bring the same game plan they brought in March which could result in another open game. Last season, their aggregate score against Carlisle was 6-5, they then lost to seventh-placed Blackpool in the final. I wouldn’t be surprised at a high-scoring semi-final this season, I only hope the team finishing in seventh get promoted once again.

Seems a long while ago since we lost 1-0 at their place

As you know I’ve got some close relatives who are Exeter fans and they don’t paint a picture that should worry us a great amount. Paul Tisdale has been booed recently and many of their fans think it is time to go. They were, by all accounts, awful. Their last two matches have been described as uninspiring, the penultimate game against Stevenage was so bad I’m told some fans left early to go on the pop in London.

I’ve been interested in the one advantage they do have, the number of fans we can take to their place. It’s a double-edged sword really the 350 is a pathetic number, given their current capacity is 6,087. Surely, we should be given 600? It might not seem a huge amount more, but Danny has always said our fans make a difference. They did at Coventry, that is for sure. With the FA giving Exeter special dispensation to allocate us far fewer, it gives them an advantage, however slight.

I read the calls for us to do the same, give them a similar amount. That wouldn’t be fair, but as a percentage there is a call for us to maybe give them 600 and not 1000. All season clubs have done that to them, Swindon gave them something like 350 when their ground could have held several thousand. My opinion is this; we don’t want to be a team seen to be spiteful. In a play-off semi-final we’re supposed to give 10% and we have, even though we know we can’t have the same back. They’re redeveloping their ground, it hasn’t been done on purpose and part of me is proud we’ve retained our integrity and haven’t pushed to reduce their capacity. Whether they have 1000 or 600 fans at the Bank, our 9000 should create enough of an atmosphere to give us a big lift.

I actually think being at home in the first leg is an advantage for us. It was against Scunthorpe in 2003, we blew them away in the first match and left them with a job to do in the second leg. The same could happen here, City set the target and then have to stifle the Grecians on a Thursday evening. With our fans on a Saturday afternoon and hopefully a relatively full squad to choose from, I’d back us to beat Exeter, Then, with five days recovery and even more time to study their approach, I’d back us to draw there.

Celebrating our 3-2 win in March. More of the same, please.

I’m not saying we’ll win the tie overall, they’re a good side with quality players such as Stockley, Boateng and Dean Moxey. They have several approaches they use and could well have been top three rather than slumming it with us in the play-offs.  What I am saying is the format suits us, it suits our manager’s approach and the home leg, in my opinion, gives you a chance to set the score to beat. That is psychology, like batting first in cricket. If you do your job right, you get a two-goal lead let’s say, that leaves them chasing the game in the second leg, opening up and coming at us.

Then there’s this ‘nobody wants to play Lincoln’ psychology too. We’ve already won the physical battle with them once recently, one of their fans has told me he feels well do the same again. There’s a perception, current or not, that we’re bruisers who battle and bully. If you go into a fight believing your opponent is stronger, then he’s already half way there.

Whatever happens, a top seven finish has been marvellous and our work-in-progress squad has achieved significantly more than we dared dream. Now, the EFL Trophy win can be savoured because it didn’t derail the promotion bid. Now, those draws against Morecambe can be considered good points because we made it anyway. Now, we face three one-off games and as I’ve said before, I wouldn’t dare bet against Lincoln City in one-off matches.


Thank you to everyone who voted for me in the Football Blogging Awards, I’m incredibly grateful for your support. The ceremony is next Thursday and I’m still not clear on whether I can attend or not. It may be I’m looking for a London-based SW reader to attend on my behalf, but we shall know better come the weekend.

Also, thank you for the incredibly kind messages of support in the aftermath of my recent operation. It has truly humbled me how many of you have got in touch. I’m home now and although I won’t be as prolific as usual on here, you’ll have something to read every day. My SW readers and ‘football family’ have been superb and it has led me to re-evaluate what a friend really is. I’d always classed myself as having few friends but lots of acquaintances. Now, thanks to you lot, I’m not sure that is correct. Cheers.

Finally, please blame any typos on a mixture of tramadol and diazepam. I know I can’t use that excuse for the past two years, but I’m sticking with it right now!


  1. Enjoy your recovery and take it easy young man. It’s a pleasure to read your superb articles and thoughts.

  2. For those of us living overseas and unable to keep up with the action personally, the ‘daily reads’ are absolutely brilliant and have certainly made being away from the UK easier. Hoping you’re back to 100% health asap and will be able to make the final!

  3. Take it easy and don’t do anything like rushing back too soon, your words of wisdom are too valuable to lose. It is surprising how much of a large family we have come in the last 2 years and you have been a big part of bringing us altogether, we are all Imps, it is surprising how we now know people we only knew by sight before, it is all due to a common love of being one big happy family with one aim, supporting our beloved club. Keep up the good work and get well all in your own time

  4. Another good read produced with thought and sincerity,take it easy for a while but DON’T stop the reports !!

  5. Totally agree with the preperation being a bonus, and you can add in our sports science that will benefit us as the season comes to its weary close compared to Exeter. I think the biggest factor though is experience. I stealing slightly from the totally football league podcast, but we are used to big games. We had a final this year already and won it. We had the semi final to get through as well. But we have the Burnley game under our belt, Brighton, Ipswich, we have the Arsenal game as well albeit not successful.

    In terms of tickets, I agree on not being spiteful. The reason Exeter have a reduced away allocation is because they want more home fans in. This is so their home fans don’t miss out, not to make an advantage. I am not sure it matters how many home fans you have atmosphere wise when half the ground is missing. If we were to reduce our allocation to them that would be pure spite to punish them. Exter are not doing it to punish the away side, but to help their own fans. And in addition, the ultimate losers are themselves. Because of the work they are missing out on a pay day. In amongst all this we need to use this to our advantage in the same way Southampton did with their hotel being cancelled in Swansea at last minute. Use it as motivation, battling against the odds. Perhaps also the 378 lucky few should be vetted for volume of singing

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