Football is a game of ‘what-ifs’ as well as great memories. For every major triumph and saddening tragedy, there’s an element of ‘what-if?’ to consider.
What if Sean Raggett hadn’t scored against Forest Green? What if we hadn’t conceded that late leveller to Macclesfield back in 2011? What if Simon Yeo’s goal hadn’t been ruled out for offside against Southend in 2005? For me, another big one is ‘what if Egil Ostenstad hadn’t dived against us back in 1996/97?’.
Before I go on, this isn’t a Southampton-bashing article. I quite like the Saints, they were amongst the sides I used to look out for in the First Division back in the late eighties. Why? They boasted a former Imp on their Panini 87 page, in fact, I think they had two at the time, Glenn Cockerill and Gordon Hobson. Luton were the ‘big’ club I supported thanks to Mick Harford, but Tony Cunningham at Newcastle and both George Shipley and Steve Thompson at Charlton meant I had soft spots for all four.
Then, when Hobson signed for us and we drew them in the League Cup, I toyed with switching from Luton to them, briefly. Of course, I was always a Lincoln fan, but Southampton held a certain appeal. It’s why I was utterly delighted to see us draw them in the Coca Cola Cup in the 1996/97 season. After beating Manchester City, a Premier League tie was what we coveted and that’s what we got. It was a decent Southampton side too, one boasting Ostenstad, Eyal Berkovic and of course, Matt Le Tissier in what could be considered his prime.
Our 2-2 draw with them at the Dell certainly raised plenty of eyebrows. After our heroics against Manchester City, we were expected to go and give a good account of ourselves, but getting a result looked like a tall order. The Saints were unbeaten in four matches and had bagged seven goals in two home games, three coming from the boot of Le Tissier.
Few expected us to get anything from the game, even after Mark Hone put us 1-0 up in the first half. We held on until half time, but immediately after the break, Le Tissier bagged a typically super strike, with Ulrich Van Gobbel grabbing a second not long after. The Dutchman had been a part of the 1994 World Cup squad, underlining the strength the Saints had back then.
This was John Beck’s Lincoln though, a side who won games through togetherness and fight. We were never going to play a fifteen pass move up the field, often we could be thwarted by clubs at our level, but sides above us struggled to deal with our unique threat and with five minutes to go, Sir Gareth Ainsworth netted an equaliser. That meant Southampton were coming back to the Bank.
Three days after this result, Southampton beat Manchester United 6-3, a team with Cantona, Keane, Schmeichel, Neville (Gary and Phil), Scholes and Beckham. This Southampton team, led by manager Graeme Souness, weren’t bad at all as United went on to win the Premier League and make the Champions League semi-finals.
Anyway, that didn’t exactly fill us with confidence for the replay, but we warmed up for the game by coming out on top against Fulham at Craven Cottage as part of a four-game winning streak, scoring 10 goals in the process. Whilst our opponents were illustrious, we were Lincoln City, well-known horrible bastards just waiting to get under the big club’s skin.
Whilst this was going on, the usual threat of financial issues loomed large. For many years, supporters had claimed we couldn’t afford to go up, that we’d deliberately bottle promotion to avoid higher wages and paying bonuses. It was conspiracy theory stuff of the highest order, but the fact remained we weren’t well off. The following year, we did go up and we couldn’t compete financially in the third-tier, dropping straight back down. We loaned the likes of Charlie Oatway and Gary Brabin, players who could have helped keep us up, but we could never afford to move for them permanently. Also, we sold Gareth Ainsworth before the promotion out of necessity as much as anything. Money makes the world go round and with Southampton ripe for the taking, who knows where our cup run could take us.
I recall the night well, a packed Sincil Bank 10,523 in total. City lined up Richardson, Barnett, Whitney, Hone, Brown, Austin, Ainsworth, Fleming, Bos Alcide and Martin, with Jason Minett, Steve Brown and Worrell Sterling on the bench. To a degree, it is the classic John Beck side, a team solid, combative and possibly destined for better things. With a few quid in the pocket from a decent result, and an FA Cup tie up against Burnley, we could have been on the cusp of something brilliant.