I’ve looked at the first two play-off semi-finals recently, our superb 6-3 victory over Scunthorpe and the heart breaking 4-3 defeat against Huddersfield.
I’m not going to look at Grimsby in 2006 or Bristol Rovers in 2007. We lost both first legs in those instances and didn’t stand a great chance in either second leg. Keith’s final season in the play-offs was almost achieved by habit. In truth, we didn’t really deserve our 2006 appearance, Peterborough’s implosion helped push a fading Keith Alexander side to the top seven. In 2007, John Schofield’s side had been found out and despite having a great strike force of Jamie Forrester and Mark Stallard, we barely made the top seven after looking at one point as though we’d be champions.
2005 was the last time I genuinely felt we could make the play-off final, the last time a Lincoln City side that had been moulded and shaped over time had made the top seven. Again, at one point we looked as though we might finish top three, especially after beating Scunthorpe 2-0 live on Sky. Alas, the following few months saw a decline, but not one serious enough to scupper the semi-final spot.
A Gary Monk own goal had us close to the top three, but three games without a win ended with a hammering at champions Yeovil. That meant Macclesfield over a two-legged semi-final, something we felt confident about. They’d been beaten 2-0 at Sincil Bank, although we had lost 2-1 there earlier in the year.
Like most of our play-off appearances, the first leg took place at Sincil Bank. It was perhaps the last ‘great’ match of the Keith era, a time of Yeo and Taylor-Fletcher, Gain and Butcher, McAuley and Marriott.
It was Gareth McAuley’s first goal in six months gave Lincoln the advantage, Kevin Sandwith whipped a free kick in from the right, left footed swinging in towards the onrushing players. McAuley, unmarked, headed the ball in beyond keeper Alan Fettis.
It wasn’t a classic, Matt Tipton almost equalised but his effort clipped the bar at the South Park End of the ground. Keith got into the lads though, and City started the second half in much the same vein as they did the first. Derek Asamoah nearly extended City’s lead, his powerful shot just went wide. For a player who had very little end product, it was perhaps the best we saw of him throughout the three games.
That meant a draw in the second leg would be enough, Imps travelled in numbers and made up a good portion of the 5,223 crowd.
Any potential nerves were settled early on, and it was a £10,000 buy from Coleraine who turned hero. The player, Gareth McAuley, used his head once again to give us a 2-0 on 15 minutes. From there, we had an hour of party atmosphere, convinced we were going to League One. It was the pinnacle of the Keith era, one more season would prove to be too far, but for 60 minutes we were comfortably beating our play-off rivals.
City dominated throughout the early stages, Paul Harsley was forced to clear off the line from Jamie McCombe’s flick. We sang, we cheered and we looked forward to our day in Cardiff. Last time we went as underdogs, this time we meant it.
Paul Harsley equalised for Town and to a degree, that shattered our joy. In the scheme of things it meant next to nothing. They still needed a goal, but his strike on the turn just unsettled our nerves. Danny Whitaker almost forced extra-time, but then another hero saved us. Alan Marriott tipped his shot over. The minutes ebbed away until finally we got a full time whistle. City were going to Cardiff, again.
Keith was delighted, coming out with the sort of rhetoric we’re used to hearing at the moment: “The team worked their socks off again and we got the right result. The fans were magnificent – we were lucky to get 2,000 a few years ago but now we’ve taken 2,000 away with us. Macclesfield had to try and score – we get slaughtered for having two or three big ‘uns, but we don’t score many from set pieces so we’re delighted.”
As for Brian Horton, the beaten manager, well he showed similar class to Paul Tisalde after our recent draw: “We were tremendous in the second half – we’ve lost to two set-pieces over the two games, but credit to Lincoln, they were organised and good luck to them.”
Good luck indeed, confidence was still high, despite the late flurry of Macclesfield pressure. Northampton and Southend faced each other in the other semi-final and only a solitary goal separated those teams over two legs. Freddie Eastwood’s penalty separated those two sides who played out a tepid brace of games. It looked like the Imps side, grown and developed over three years, were finally going to get what they deserved.
I’ll complete this series if, and only if, we win on Thursday!
THANKS TO GRAHAM BURRELL FOR THE EXCLUSIVE PHOTOS