Imps on Tour – MK Dons

I’ve not done many tour diaries this season, not due to a lack of trips but just because I’ve always been pushed for time. 

Shane’s Rustic Minibus has made a few trips this season and as always, the fun never stops. Port Vale turned out to be one of the best, but after only seeing us win away once last season, I’ve only seen us fail to win once this time out. I hoped that in making what could be the penultimate trip of the season, we’d be a good luck charm.

Shane’s minibus tours are unique in that you never quite know what sort of bus is going to turn up. The last couple of trips have been in a seven seater, rust on the side but heated at least. Last season I’d always take a coat for the journey home as I knew it’d be colder in the bus than naked in the Arctic circle.

We’ve always congregated for breakfast in Wragby, although my preference of the Corn Dolly does cause a few arguments. I’m not sure why, they serve nice, thick bacon. There was a vote before on the Facebook messenger group but, like Brexit, I was going to do what I wanted anyway.

We’ve seen a huge number of different people come through the bus, but as a new, nine seater pulled into Wragby market place, the group was fairly familiar. I say ‘new’, it was new to Shane, but not new in any other sense. The interior roof carpeting hung down in places and there was a cam belt on the floor in the back, which could have caused others to worry. If there’s one thing I can say about Shane’s tours, you know the bus will get you there and back. Slowly, uncomfortably, but you’ll get there.

Stopped at Peterborough, I try a new look

My dad and I were the first to hit the café, followed by Chris and Ryan / Bryan. Shane was soon to follow before the Market Rasen contingent rocked up, usually consisting of Neil and Riegan, but added to by Shaun and his daughter Charlie. That was the group that took to the road, aged between 18 and 65 and certainly a broad spectrum of views and opinion.

Obviously, as drinking on a mini bus is not allowed, we didn’t but if we had, Neil would surely have cracked open the first can as we entered Bardney. yeah, you heard that right, Bardney.

Shane decided the quickest route from Wragby to Milton Keynes was via Bardney, Navenby, Waddington, Ancaster and Grantham. I respectfully argue it wasn’t and for a short while I wondered if we were the subject of a bold kidnap attempt. We weren’t and eventually we hit the A1 services which many felt would be packed with Imps. 

It wasn’t, because most people would have gone a different way, or as I like to call it ‘the right way’. 

MK isn’t a long drive but in a minibus where smoking out of a partially open window is allowed, it bloody well feels it. Still, it’s a good crack with a group of people I probably wouldn’t normally get a chance to socialise with. Neil Carlton is one ‘football friend’ who has made an impression on me in the last year or so; he’s one of those fans who I now consider a friend, purely from bumping into him on match day. His long-suffering son Riegan sometimes has to keep him in check later in the day of course, but two nicer blokes you wouldn’t find. Unless you met me and my Dad….

Anyway, after what should have been two-and-a-half hours but seemed like eight, we arrived in the concrete jungle of Milton Keynes. I knew a bit about the ground and surrounding area thanks to my trip there earlier in the season and I’d hoped to get an authentic pint in like-minded surroundings, we’d end up meeting Andy’s Fun Bus in Newport Pagnell. We didn’t, Shane wanted to get parked and decided to chance it at the ground.

Once we’d (predictably) been turned away it seemed like a mile drive to the outskirts of town and a nondescript industrial area for the day’s parking. In truth, with 15,000 fans going to the game, it was actually quite easy. 

We cut through an underpass on foot and a homeless guy sat on a sheet looking for a few coins. I didn’t have any, but instead of actually asking he said; ‘Bloody hell, I hope you lot locked the gates to Lincoln before you all left, there are thousands of you’. That felt great. Football is tribal, almost like warfare and here we were invading a new territory. For a random local to make that sort of comment solidified that good feeling about our support.

The walk back took about ten minutes, but plans to meet Dave in Wetherspoons collapsed when we heard they were turning people away.

That’s how a bunch of football fans found themselves in TGI Friday’s drinking before a game. It seems, on the face of it, the most inauthentic experience you could possible have. Going to watch a team widely regarded as a franchise by so-called proper fans, drinking in a faceless restaurant chain before a game. I imagine fans up and down the country drinking in the faceless Wetherspoons chains would have turned their noses up. 

To many yesterday was very much ‘plastic against plastic’. We’re Lincoln City, once struggling to get 3,000 for a home game but now taking 5,600 away. They’re MK Dons, a club formed by ripping (an ailing) club from its home and relocating to a new town to force a new identity. Yet here we were, top against second and about to serve up the most interesting game of the afternoon. Odd that.

Stadium MK has clearly been designed with Premier League football in mind. It’s a cracking venue in truth. Some might say soulless, as I’ll touch on in a minute, but there’s a certain appeal to something that just works. The queues to get in were minimal, the stewards were friendly and helpful and behind the stands the concourse was accessible and service was quick. The little pockets of bars worked well too, so you could enjoy a drink before kick off and pick from a decent selection too. 

It seemed that everywhere you went, staff were pleased to see us. It felt welcoming, perhaps something we shouldn’t encourage at Sincil Bank, I don’t know. Back in the day, you couldn’t get beer in the ground and in some places this season the selection of food has made a student’s fridge look bountiful. I didn’t get any food yesterday but I’m told that, like everything else, it was good.

Getting into the stand was easy too, so after me and Dad had quaffed a few beers and chatted to the usual faces, we were seated within seconds. The row and seat numbers weren’t all that clear, but if that’s the only thing I can possibly think to pick on then surely it wasn’t a bad afternoon? The seats were a good size, not that I sat on it for long, and the leg room was excellent too. I think back to my season ticket space at the Bank, practically sat on the knee of the guy next to me and squeezed in like tuna in a can, it did make me envious.

What did not make me envious was the atmosphere. The trouble is right now, Stadium MK is too big for MK Dons. As impressive as it might be, they would be better served with a Rotherham-style stadium. 12,000 seats might have meant fans missing out, but from their point of view it would feel tighter, maybe even angrier. The clapper things they gave away were an irritant and the cries of ‘you’re only here for the Nando’s’ would have embarrassed me if I had been a home fan.

I’m not against club’s trying to fill their stadiums. When Notts County gave tickets away you didn’t see me giving them stick for it, same with Mansfield. However, calling us plastic because out fans turn up in numbers when we’re challenging at the top is a bit rich when 3,000 of your own supporters are only there for a chicken dinner. We’re all missing the point when we give each other stick for going to watch the other club; if you’re in a stadium watching football and not at home on your sofa, you deserve some respect. Whether it’s chicken, hammers or table-topping football that drives you to a stadium it doesn’t matter. 

A few of our party were dotted around the stadium, so it was Neil, Riegan, me, Dad and Shane in the first half. I’ve never sung as much, nor as loud. Maybe it was the mix of vodka and lemonade as well as a few cans of Carling, but I really felt it yesterday. I thought the whole Imps’ support had an energy and belief. This was our generation’s ‘Fulham 83’. There was no red card though and the spirited performance brought results.

I’ve already covered the game, but to hear us vocal throughout, not just around the goal, was excellent. I’ve heard some MK fans saying they could only hear us after the second goal, perhaps if those bloody clapper things hadn’t affected their hearing, they might have heard a bit more. To be fair, their fans tried but they were too spread out and sporadic. We were all in one place, truly ‘Imps as one’. Was it the best support I’ve been involved in on an away trip? Maybe so. I didn’t get to Coventry last year and I do think it topped Everton for sheer volume and belief.

John’s goal did stop an argument between a couple of fans close to me, I understand someone had criticised Akinde and been taken to task. It wasn’t nice to see, but with John scoring whilst the argument raged on, he answered a critic he didn’t even know he had. With that a plume of red smoke appeared behind me, something that will undoubtedly earn the club a fine but that I can’t say didn’t add to the atmosphere.

The ease with which we could get a beer at half time was impressive too. Big double doors opened into a smoking area for those who enjoy a cancer stick, but it allowed for conversation too. I caught up with a few friends again and everything just felt right. It felt like a celebration, although obviously winning wasn’t assured. I’ve said already at 1-0 I never thought we’d lose the game. After all, we’ve never lost after taking the lead, but we’ve only lost four times in the league anyway!

By the time we got back to our seats for the second half, Shaun and Charlie had joined us. Such was the room in front of the seats that six went into four very easily and we didn’t feel squashed. It did mean I stood right behind my dad, echoing how he used to stand behind me as a kid. Football is as much about the people you go with and the experiences you have as it is winning or losing and I’m so lucky that I’m enjoying the best of times with the man who made me the fan I am today. He’s been struggling a lot recently with a bad shoulder, but you wouldn’t have known yesterday. 

The minutes ticked away and not once did the noise level drop. I can’t say I’ve ever sung for 90 minutes, but I didn’t miss one word of one song. I’m told the iFollow feed panned around the ground at one point and settled on me, arms aloft belting out whatever tune we were singing at the time. I’m often pensive at games, keen to study what happens for the writing, not always invested in the moment.

I was certainly invested in a moment towards the end. After Matt Gilks’ save I felt I wanted to tweet about him and was busy on my phone, maybe hoping to eat up a minute of that stoppage time, when I heard someone say ‘go on John’ next to me. I looked up as Bruno curled the ball home and everything went mental. I stood, surveyed the action with a real sense of being there at the right time. That moment will be talked about as much as Thommo’s sending off at Fulham, as much as Phil brown’s winner against Wycombe in ’88, or Nathan Arnold’s goals against Ipswich. It’s a real ‘I was there moment’ and you know what? half of Lincoln was.

I remember coming out of Burnley and hugging random people as I did and I felt a similar ambience as we streamed out of the ground. I did finally see Dave, queuing up for a wee as he does half his life. I caught up with Warrs (Matt) too, the guy who will be taking Dave’s seat next to me next season. Ric Stephens was outside, a lad I seem to know far better on social media than I do in the flesh but again, when we met up its as if all the computer based stuff was us sitting around a table in a pub chewing the fat. I even gave Chris Ashton a hug, a man who has been as much a part of Lincoln City as anyone during his lifetime.

Predictably, it took us hours to get home. The minibus was blocked in a car park that seemed to empty slower than Sincil Bank after a game. We all sat around, Chris lamenting the fact his singing section ticket had turned into a non-singing section somehow. No idea how of course, nor how my non-singing section one (that I retained) got me in behind the goal. Anyway….

We left the ground at 5pm and it was 8pm before we hit Peterborough services. by then one or two of our party, mentioning no names, were a bit worse for wear. Ryan slept, Chris and Charlie smoked and Neil drank. This time when we stopped we did see some familiar faces and had a bit of a sing outside McDonalds. There were a few Oldham fans in, on their way back from Colchester and they wished us well. A few of them just stood around with their coats zipped up, not quite sure what to make of the 6ft 5in skinhead lolling about with a half-eaten burger in one hand and a can of beer in the other.

That was that. We hit Wragby at 9pm, my lift to Louth was already waiting and I was soundly asleep before the clock struck ten. When I dreamed, it was of writing up the day.

When I woke, with clarity and sobriety on my side at last, I realised I’d witnessed the day that Lincoln City FC showed why they were heading to League One and I’d done it with a great group of friends and, perhaps most important of all, with my Dad.

 


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2 Comments

  1. Brilliant stuff, Gary. Your tour diaries are a must read. More of them, please. I thought trying to find real ale near the Everton ground was bad enough but drinking in TGI Fridays, that would be hell even for Sartre. What were the “clapper” things? I don’t know about your generation’s ‘Fulham ’83’ – that was one of the truly awful days, on a par with the Southport in ’75, the first fall from grace from the Football League, the two Millennium Stadium disasters and the whole of the second sentence to the Gulags of the Conference. What’s happening now by no means balances the scales but it sure helps.

    • I think by Fulham ’83 I meant one of those ‘make or break’ matches. I appreciate that day it was more break than make of course!!

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