Wait, what? The 3-0 win in 2009, the one that came between the empty promises of Peter Jackson and the flawed philosophy of Chris Sutton? How on earth is this is classic match, seriously?
First of all it was a win in a long run of incredibly dreary seasons which failed to ever get the pulse racing, but for me it was also a teasing glimpse into what I truly believe was a good squad’s potential. You see, that 2009/10 team was packed with talent, skilful players and fighters, but it had been managed by a man with little tactical understanding in Peter Jackson.
What we needed was a man coming in who could get them functioning, instead we got a man who simply tore them apart with little or not thought. However, what we did get was one match where maybe, just maybe we got to see what could have been.
When you look at some of the players, you can see the spine of a side which had potential. Rob Burch was in goal, a keeper of tremendous ability who probably never won me over because of the way he replaced Mazza, which wasn’t his fault. He was a good keeper though.
At full back we had Aaron Brown, a player I rated. He might not have been a defensive player as such, I felt he was more of a wing back and looked good when attacking. Big Janos was also at the back, a limited defender but one capable of playing in a decent League Two team, that is for sure.
We had two legends of Lincoln City in the midfield, Scott Kerr and Richard Butcher. Both were bombed out by Sutton, Kerr later restored but Butcher never was. Those two had to be retained and built around, they knew the club and the culture. Most of all, we identified with them. They weren’t faceless loans, they were Lincoln City players we knew and loved.
He gets derided now, but Rene Howe went on to show what a good striker he was too. Sutton didn’t fancy him and he never looked happy at City, but he was the ‘proven goalscorer’ that fans rave about. He turned up here and what happened? He flopped, but under the right manager he would have scored. So would Chris Fagan in my opinion, a lightweight striker that Sutton didn’t rate but who went onto score plenty over in Ireland.
There was a spine there, with some sensible loans and a bit of good management, we could have gone on to do well. Remember, less than two weeks after this game Sergio Torres joined on loan. 4-3-3, Torres, Butcher and Kerr in the middle of the park with Howe, Fagan and another running off could have worked. Hell, I didn’t rate Lenny John-Lewis but he’s gone on to prove me wrong hasn’t he?
The management duo for this game were Simon Clark and Tom Spall, two men who did the best they could and maybe, just maybe gave us a glimpse of what could have been.
City came out of the blocks with the intensity of a 2016/17 Danny Cowley side, swarming all over their hapless opponents like wasps. This Darlington side had beaten us 1-0 not four days before, but this wasn’t to be a repeat. A Cian Hughton cross was slammed home by Rene Howe, with the front man showing the sort of awareness and clinical finishing that defined him throughout his career.
City didn’t even sit on the lead, something Jacko loved to do. John-Lewis and the Jamie Clarke both tried their luck from range, both having perhaps been given a chance they were desperate to seize. Clarke was one who never convinced me, but his FA Cup goals will always be fondly recalled. As for John-Lewis, I never rated him at all but his career since suggests I might have been wrong. Maybe he suffered from playing under poor managers at Lincoln, but in this game he looked hungry.
Paul Connor started too, a nice bloke who never produced decent form at City. His 19th minute injury gave pre-season hope Chris Fagan a chance.
Rene Howe looked more alive than perhaps he ever did in a Lincoln shirt and he headed a Richard Butcher ball into the side netting on 25 minutes. Five minutes later he went one better, he contested a ball with keeper David Knight which was dropped, leaving Howe with a simple tap-in. Would it be given as a foul in 2018? Maybe, maybe not but it gave City a lead of two goals. Remember, Peter Jackson had left days before, the club was bereft of belief but here we were 2-0 up. It was a poor Darlington side, it had to be as Kevin Gall was playing for them, but we looked excellent.
Even the last chance of the half fell to City, Jamie Clarke hitting an effort straight at Knight. Half time brought an odd situation where Imps fans felt they were in with a chance of winning the game. It was the first time all season City had scored in the first half of a game.
The second half picked up where the first left off, any rare Darlington moves ended with big Janos snuffing them out whilst City always looked on the cusp of a goal. John-Lewis got away down the flank on 55 minutes, beat his marker and crossed for Fagan who struck the inside of the post, enough to see it make the score 3-0.
With thirty minutes left, the game was over and both teams knew it. Maybe nerves kicked in for City, but we now looked content to sit back and defend the lead, which wasn’t hard against Darlington who were amongst the poorest sides to visit the Bank all season. Fagan and Howe both missed with headers in the second half, maybe showing glimpses of a partnership that was never allowed to grow and flourish. City certainly dominated the rest of the game but this wasn’t a classic side, merely one which I believe had promise. The bench showed a lack of depth, Kern Miller, Andy Hutchinson and Nathan Adams all waiting to get on along with some kid called Clucas.
Late on, Howe had a chance to seal his hat trick when he turned inside his marker, and struck a great shot, only to see his effort go straight at Knight.
It ended 3-0 to City, leaving us 12th but just a solitary win away from fifth-placed Crewe. Sadly the makeshift management duo lost the next four games including a humiliating 3-0 home defeat by Notts County. Chris Sutton took over and a side containing Butcher, Kerr, Fagan, Howe, Stefan Oakes, Torres, Burch and Brown won two on the spin. By the time we lost to Morecambe just three weeks later we had Anthony Pulis, Eric Lichaj, and Khano Smith in the starting XI, Butcher, Kerr, Torres and Kovacs all dropped.
Now, you tell me that Chris Sutton wasn’t all that bad. In three weeks he took an embryonic side, a squad with potential and added in the wrong places, dropped the wrong players and set us on a collision course with the National League. What is even worse is he had the contacts to make us great, if only he’d trusted the nucleus of players he had at the club.
Thanks to Graham Burrell for the pictures