I’m meant to be writing about Foreign Exchange Trading right now, but instead I thought I’d pen a bit about the summer of 2002, a turning point in our club’s history.
I’m not going to tell the story of the lead up to the problems, football had been dicing with death for some time, particularly in the lower leagues. Many clubs banked on TV money coming in from ITV Digital, but when the lure of Leyton Orient didn’t attract viewers, the channel went bust and many clubs felt a pinch.
I think those who are being honest could say the club had been struggling ever since the summer of 1985. The budget issues that faced Gilbert Blades and Colin Murphy in the early eighties are well-documented, but having been one of the clubs playing on the day of the Bradford Fire saw us pour money into the stadium rather than the playing staff. Back to back relegations ensued before the club then spent big on coming back. The 1987/88 season was a huge event for us, but it might be argued we began to play catch up after that.
The end result is the stadium you see now and John Reames taking a battering week after week, despite doing a grand job of holding things together. even as he left the club, gifting his shares back to the supporters, the dark clouds had formed over us, and over football in general. Our foray into the third-tier lasted one season, with a financial rift between us and many of our rivals. When we dropped back into what is Division Four, we began to flounder, then sink.
I recall narrowly avoiding relegation two years in a row, one Easter win against Barnet being a pivotal match, but by the summer of 2002, it was about much more than just league position. In April 2002, the Board of Directors announced that they were submitting a petition to the High Court for the Club to go into administration. New chairman Rob Bradley said that our penultimate clash with Rochdale could be the last game at Sincil Bank. It really was the breaking point.
My memories start around that time. I think much of the financial plight had passed me by, ever since my first game, I’d heard talk of us not being able to afford to go up, of throwing away promotion on purpose. Of course, much of it was guff, but as a younger man, it was easy to be swayed by chatter like that. When the reality of the situation hit home, supporters mobilised quickly. I don’t know who arranged the march around the City before that game against Rochdale, but I do know it was the first time I met Ben, my podcast co-host, as well as a host of other people who would become firm friends over the course of the next year or so. Shane Clarke picked up the reins of Deranged Ferret and I helped out, plus I got to know James Brown, Dave Stacey and Mark Lancaster well as we turned up at a number of supermarkets raising money.
It’s hard to put into words the desolation one feels when their football club is staring down the barrel of a gun. Sincil Bank wasn’t a great place to watch football at the time. Away fans regularly outsang us, visiting teams regularly outplayed us and yet it was still our club. Titles, Wembley and success seemed a million miles away, but at least we had something, a little hope each weekend that we might pick up a point or two. Going into the Rochdale game, that wasn’t the case. We could have easily lost our club, just like Bury did this summer. It led to sleepless nights, constant worry and real anxiety. Our football club is like a member of the family; I recall special events in my life through matches we played at the time (my brother’s wedding, drawing 2-2 with Walsall. My 21st, drawing 2-2 with Luton in the FA Cup, the day I met Fe, lost 2-1 to Kidderminster). Lincoln City is part of the family and before that march, they were on life support.
The march itself was invigorating and enjoyable, but many in the city didn’t know what we were marching for. For years, the club was just a little part of city life, tucked away at the bottom of the High Street and out of mind. Even as recently as 2011 I recall some people telling me how little they cared for the club, yet the same people now swan around in the SRP lounge as though they’re Lincoln through and through. It galls me at times if I’m honest, but that’s another story. As we marched through town, playing the drums and chanting, the little club at the bottom of the High Street forced its way into Lincoln life.
We drew that game then I think we drew again away at Hull the following season. It didn’t really matter though, Halifax had already been relegated, not that it was a huge concern. Saving the club was the real issue. Off the field we got involved in all sorts of initiatives, raising funds outside supermarkets and driving awareness as hard as we could. I spent a number of afternoons in the Poacher outfit shaking hands, posing for photos and larking about just to get a few coppers in a bucket. I got the easy job, the other lads would turn up, set everything up and probably did more bits than I could possibly attend. I’d get requests from Spalding and Skegness to go there too, but it wasn’t always easy.
I loved the togetherness of that time, the defiance in the face of adversity. The truth is few outside of our tight fanbase cared whether the club lived or died in the city. A few local businesses got on board, but we were a hot potato that just kept getting juggled around. That’s not to make light of those who did help, but I saw a big upturn in interest when Keith got us to the play-off finals a year later. Sadly, when the chips are down, it is the few who can be relied upon. When the going is good, it’s far easier to attract money.
I seem to recall a CD being released, some players getting out in the community, but it is the faces of Dave, Shane, Rick Keracher, Mark and James that stick with me, as well as Rob Bradley, Andy Townsend and Alan Long. Of course, there were more, many more, who did work I didn’t see, but these are my personal recollections. We spent an afternoon at Tesco on Canwick Road, Asda at North Hykeham, the Moorland Centre and other places. I’d get changed in my car, rarely get a break as we all rallied hard.
I can’t recall the day we were actually saved, the day a group of fans travelled to the High Court to hear the good news. You’d think it would be firmly lodged in my mind, but it’s one event that happened without anchoring to something in my head. I imagine, knowing my life at the time, that I went out and got utterly trashed, probably for a couple of days solid. All I do know is Keith stepped up, unknowns started to arrive and the club changed overnight. Even the kit went from ugly to outstanding.
Adversity. That’s what brought this club back together. With Keith and Rob at the helm, we moved forward, out of the fear and desperation and into a season that became a legend for us all. 5,849 watched that Rochdale game, bearing in mind it could have been our last. That’s a half-empty stadium, for a club with over a century of history behind us at the time. A year later, when Scunthorpe visited in the play-offs, there was just under 9,000.
I bear no malice to fans who discover the club, or who return after a spell away, but I did in 2002/03. I felt anger at the hard work put in by the few, especially when tickets for the play-off semi-finals became like gold dust. I saw people who hadn’t given a rats ass about us one year, suddenly decked in red and white the following season. That’s football though, success breeds popularity and struggle do not. Over the years I’ve changed my attitude to football fanbase and how they evolve, instead of anger when they swell, I feel pride at being a part of them when they shrink.
Nothing can match the pride I felt in my club back in 2002/03. The last three years certainly brought an unprecedented pride, but a very different achievement under different circumstances. I will never diminish the success we’ve had recently, I’ll never take for granted where we are either. But I believe that the summer of 2002, and the season that followed, was one of the greatest achievements this football club has ever seen and I will always feel that way.