Living the 2016/17 season and looking back on it conjure up two very different emotions.
I remember Danny Cowley saying something along the lines of ‘enjoy it’, not long after we lost to Boreham Wood at looked to have stumbled in our quest for league football. I wrote an article saying how I couldn’t enjoy it, because so much rode on those matches.
Yes, I am a Lincoln fan and of course, I enjoy seeing us win, but did I enjoy the first 80-odd minutes of our 2-1 win against Torquay? No. Did I enjoy 89 minutes of our 2-1 win against Gateshead? No. Did I enjoy going to the toilet 20 minutes into our clash with Macclesfield Town three years ago and seeing them score on the TV screen under the Coop Stand? No.
In fact, I lost count of the number of occasions I looked to the skies during that season and asked my Grandad Hutchinson to pull something out of the bag with the big man upstairs. Genuinely, I felt guilty after the Torquay game, so I even started asking my other Grandad who, to my knowledge, never went to a Lincoln game. It sounds ridiculous I’m sure, but such were my nerves and my lack of expectation.
I think that is why April 22nd will always be VNL day (Victory in National League Day) rather than L2 Title day. Sure, one year ago we were wrapping up our first piece of Football League silverware in my lifetime, but it came at the end of two or three weeks in which we fully expected to have it wrapped up. I never once looked to the skies last season, because promotion was almost always on the cards, certainly after that midweek win at Yeovil with saw us open up a gap.
The National League was different. Tranmere were on our heels, Forest Green picked themselves up and one slip would have seen us drop to second and into a dreaded play-off. It was a winner-takes-all competition on which our entire future was staked. How many teams can put together genuine title challenges two years in a row? Very few, because in most leagues to challenge and finish second or third is sufficient to get promoted. In 2016/17, that wasn’t the case.
I’ll never forget that day, picking up six cans of lager on the way to the ground because I knew we wouldn’t get a beer there. My uncle came up from Exeter, he was an Imps in the early eighties before moving down south. My Dad was there, Pete and Dave were there, Matty Warr was there… it felt like a carnival. Likewise, in 1987/88 my whole family turned out for that final game against Wycombe, and whilst defeat against Macclesfield would have presented us another chance, it was surely fate that we do it at home, in front of a packed Sincil Bank.
Macclesfield were surely just the patsy, a side beaten by us comfortably earlier in the season and never a real play-off challenger, but the actual story turned out to be anything but straightforward. Crammed into the ground we saw our side go 1-0 down, looking weary from a packed schedule that ran to in excess of 60 matches. At 1-0 down, I looked to the skies and asked anyone who wasn’t hacked off with my incessant requests for help. I need only loom to a winger who hadn’t scored much all season, Mr Hawkridge.
His leveller sparked utter jubilation, but it still wasn’t straightforward. A world clas save from Paul Farman kept us in it at 1-1 before Terry bagged again to give us the lead. I get shivers just typing that now, because after six years of exile the Football League felt like a Holy Grail, an unobtainable end to a sometimes horrible journey. Just ask Wrexham, York, Stockport or Kidderminster about how tough it is. we had it there, in the palm of our hands, but Macclesfield weren’t rolling over.
With ten minutes left I went to make my way to pitchside. There was no way at all I was staying off the pitch, even when Merrick the steward told me I couldn’t get down. I almost lept over his shoulder and the barrier at the same time, no mean feat in the year before my back operation. I arrived at the front with six or seven minutes to go and thankfully missed the late chance that should have levelled for the visitors. From final whistle to about half an hour later, everything is a blur. Who I hugged, I don’t know. I spent time just wandering round in a daze, tears in my eyes, not truly believing what had happened. The Football League felt so far away, my club had been on the brink of the National League North and yet here we were, holding our head up high.
After the presentations, we went up into town immediately, but as a lightweight, I was already well gone. My uncle stuck around for a bit, buying drinks in the Mailbox whilst we celebrated. I remember watching the results from the Football league coming in, particularly Exeter who my half-cousin supports. It seemed wholly unreal that we’d be back there with them, just like it had seemed beyond comprehension that we had to play Alfreton in the hours after Aldershot in 2011. The joy didn’t sink in, not at first. The beer kept flowing and we ended up in the Cheltenham, where my old man saw a load of old faces from his tarmac days. I ended up sitting on a bench outside the pub, drunk and yet insanely joyous. Sadly, we left just before the players came to the pub, but this wasn’t about hunting for photos or memories in the pub; I’d got what I wanted from the day long before Paul Farman stood on a table singing.
The weeks afterwards didn’t really allow for celebration, especially not for my site. Football is about looking forward and everything became focused on the season ahead, the challenges of becoming a Football League side. Then it became a play-off hunt, then a title hunt, then a manager hunt and so on. Before you know it, we’re three years down the line and something that seems like yesterday is history, there to be enjoyed.
Looking back, I don’t remember feeling sick outside the pub, only the joy at being promoted. I don’t remember my back hurting after hurdling Merrick, only the sensation of elation as the whistle sounded. I don’t even recall the walking to pubs or anything like that, only the people, their faces and the utter joy. I think this is the first time since that day I’ve sat down and really thought about it at any length, because it’s not reminiscing, rather than spending too much time looking back.
I know Danny’s upcoming interview has reignited the whole debate around their departure, but for me that’s recent history to be looked back upon with context in a year or two. Where we are now, what we are now, is all because of that season, one that culminated in an afternoon that is etched in my mind like a tattoo on my skin. I have the picture on my wall the Art of Football produced, signed by Danny Cowley, which shows Bradley Wood ecstatic, Alex Woodyard spraying champers, Paul Farman and Elliott Whitehouse embracing in utter joy.
Since then these players have been discarded, some ostracised (rightly) others condemned (wrongly), but time will ease all of that (apart from perhaps Bradley, sadly). The same will happen with Danny, even for those of you who love a snake emoji; time will soften the blow of their departure, the nature of it and your reaction to it. In seven years time, we’ll be celebrating a decade since arguably the greatest moment in a generation and I doubt the hatred will still burn deep, just like it didn’t with Graham Taylor after a while.
This is what football is about, memories of great times. We waited half a lifetime for that one day in April three years ago, but one year later we got a Wembley win and a year after that the third trophy in as many years. Sure, that’s ended now and we’re on a different path, but we should never be bitter that it ended, only joyous that it happened at all.
This is football. This is why we do it, year after year, and on April the 22nd 2027, 2037 and even 2047, we’ll be celebrating that wonderful afternoon when our club finally bounced back.