If 2002/03 brought surprise and pride, the following season came with an inevitable wave of expectation. After a play-off final appearance, supporters begin to forget things like administration or having Dene Cropper as your leading striker.
That’s no slur on Dene, but if you want to get out of League Two, Division Three or whatever it was called, then you need quality up top. We went in to 2003/04 perhaps expecting to be in the top ten once again, but a pre-season that brought Rory May, Ellis Remy and a new deal for Niall McNamara couldn’t be described as inspiring. To make matters worse, play-off hero Simon Yeo was sent off within half an hour of the opening game.
This isn’t an article about the season though, it is focusing on those play-off semi-finals so, after 46 games, Lincoln City were once again in the top seven. It was the arrival of striker Gary Fletcher that turned things around, five winless games at the start of the season ended with his first home goal. By the time we approached the final game of the season, he’d bagged himself 17.
Mark Bailey’s stunner after Peter Gain’s similarly impressive strike all-but ensured we were going to finish top seven, but three games without a win leading up to the play offs meant we stumbled over the line. Yeovil visited on the final game of the season, winning 3-2 and drawing level on points. However, if they had won 8-2 then they could have dumped us out the reckoning. They didn’t.
Our opponents were Huddersfield Town, now of the Premier League. It’s perhaps telling that in 2003 we lost to Bournemouth in the final and in 2004 it was the Terriers in the semi-finals. People laugh at the thought of Lincoln City ever being in the Premier League, but when you look at those opponents, why not?
Huddersfield were the big fish who has thrashed around a small pond for a season. They shouldn’t really have been in our division given their size and stature and only goal difference promoted Torquay and not them. Torquay had been fired to third place by David Graham, a striker later to play (badly) for the Imps. Huddersfield were managed by Peter Jackson, a manager who later (badly) took control of the Imps.
We had an aggregate win over them in league action too. They had a good side, just as Scunthorpe had the season before, players such as Jon Stead, Iffy Onuora, Andy Booth and Danny Schofield were ridiculously talented at this level. It hadn’t mattered in October in front of a bumper Sincil Bank crowd, Booth opened the scoring but a tremendous second-half fight back saw City win 3-1. With the Imps 1-0 down, Keith brought off Mark Bailey and brought on Simon Yeo. Five minutes later Marcus Richardson and Gary Taylor-Fletcher had turned the game on its head before Yeo smashed a third.
That game lifted City massively and by the time we went there in February I felt we were invincible. George Cain had other ideas though, his interpretation of the offside laws resulting in the Terriers taking a 2-1 lead in a game we’d been on top in. It was Marcus Richardson again, this time Efe Sodje levelled before Cain cheated. There’s no other way to describe that goal. He cheated.
It may not have cost us a top seven place, but a point would have seen us finish fifth in the table and set us up for a two-legged play-off with Mansfield, a side we’d beaten 6-2 on aggregate over the season. Instead, we faced Huddersfield at home on May 15th, with the second leg four days later.
The first leg is a bit of a blur for me because, rather regrettably, I had a skin full the night before. Unlike the previous season where we felt lucky to be there, this time I felt we could win it. Gary Fletcher was a scoring machine, Yeo was finding his feet and even Marcus Richardson chipped in with crucial goals. With Gain and Butcher pulling the strings we had a great midfield and we had balance either side of the defence, thanks to Kevin Ellison’s arrival on loan. Say what you want about him now, he was a hell of a player for us.
Sadly, the visitors flew out the traps and were rewarded with a goal before I’d properly taken my seat. Rob Edwards, a man who had an even more crucial role to play later in the tie, took an inswinging corner from the right-hand side which saw Alan Marriott wander into no-man’s land. Iffy Onuora, making a rare stat for Jackson’s side, nodded home from three yards out.
The rest of the half was a turgid affair. When Keith’s sides were good, they were good. When they played poorly, it was sometimes tough to watch and that summed up the remainder of the half. Terry Yorath was the brains behind Jackson’s bluster and between them they stifled the Imps and looked to take a 1-0 lead back to the McAlpine.
Keith was a motivator and a man manager though and his team talk fired City back into action. Kevin Ellison’s huge throw caused havoc amongst the Terriers defenders and Simon Yeo’s volley forced keeper Paul Rachubka into a stunning reflex save. Ben Futcher collected the loose ball and teed up Fletcher six yards from goal, who made no mistake.
We were in the ascendency and should have snatched a deserved lead in the 74th minute. The ever-lively Yeo zipped past two Huddersfield defenders before pulling the ball back into the path of Marcus Richardson. He’d been clinical against Huddersfield all season, but on this occasion he completely missed the ball.
Just when it seemed we had the upper hand, Huddersfield scored a decisive second through David Mirfin. Marriott pulled off a super save from Andy Booth, but the defenders reacted slowly and Mirfin slotted home with eighteen minutes left on the clock. They were eighteen drawn-out minutes which saw Huddersfield manage the game incredibly well.
If we wanted promotion, we had to go to Huddersfield and win the game.
Away leg on the next page