Yesterday was the anniversary of our 5-3 win against Scunthorpe United, a day many will describe as one of their best as a Lincoln fan.
Even with winning the National League, getting to the FA Cup quarter-final and winning at Wembley, you’ll find some supporters who will go straight to that afternoon against Scunthorpe for the game they’d most like to relive. We’d scraped into seventh, we conceded three on a pitch of sand and yet it ranks right up there.
Oddly, certainly for me, the days after were not filled with jubilation and celebration. Why would they be? At that stage it is a job half done, a result that means little. Celebrating would only be like getting overjoyed at a 1-0 half time lead during a game. Even after the 1-0 victory a few days later, there was a final to be nervous about and then, once Bournemouth had ended our dream, there was no point in looking back at the highlights.
Only a year or two after can these games are enjoyed to the full. Macclesfield in 2017 was different, as was Shrewsbury in 2018. Those games ended with us winning something, they were the line under the season we needed to appreciate our achievements. How odd football is, that some of the greatest moments you’ll ever experience are only really fully enjoyed with context and hindsight.
For those who have arrived at the Bank post-2003, it is hard to truly put into words what those few weeks meant at the end of the year. We’d been in decline ever since relegation from the third tier in 1999, watching a cash-strapped club desperately try to survive on and off the field. We had good players, make no mistake about that, but often they simply didn’t get the chance to shine, or were unable to due to tactics or teammates. That might sound harsh, but for eve Peter Gain (who was a youngster at the time) there was an Adam Buckley, for every Justin Walker, an Ian Hamilton, for every John Finnigan, a David Phillips. Marcus Stergiopolous went on to play with Hristo Stoichkov in America but was dropped for an ageing Kingsley Black at City. It was like watching a club committing slow-motion suicide, broken financially and yet also seemingly only ever a couple of steps away from having a decent side. The year Chesterfield won our division, we beat them 4-1 in the LDV Vans and 2-1 in the league; we weren’t far away, but always ended up failing our potential.
Then ITV Digital collapsed and the shivering, broken club seemingly drew its last breath. We went into administration, most of our talent had to leave to seek pastures new and the fat lady cleared her throat.
I’ve written before about how the fear of losing your club affects you mentally. Not knowing if there will be a Lincoln City the following season left a dark shadow over the whole summer and just emerging from that spell with a club to support was huge. I remember chatting to my Dad, explaining how anything outside the bottom two was going to be a success for us. It truly felt that way when we drew 1-1 with Kidderminster on the opening day, we had a ‘just glad to be here’ air to our team.
That’s why, nine months later, as Yeo’s goal hit the net against Torquay, the reality was hard to accept. One summer you’re on your arse, staring oblivion in the face, the next you’re in the play-offs for the first time. In my lifetime, I’d seen Colin Murphy and Steve Thompson put us close, John Beck too, but they’d seemed elusive. Sure, we’d been promoted once and immediately relegated, but we’d never been in that end of season lottery. In 2002/03, a collection of non-league hopefuls, other club’s rejects and a core of perhaps five existing Lincoln players made history.
That’s why the victory against Scunthorpe was so special. We had already beaten them at Sincil Bank, Ben Futcher’s goal giving us a 1-0 win, plus we ground out a 0-0 at their place. It was expected to be tight, even though they had plenty of talent in their squad. We had scored 46 goals, one per game, yet they had bagged 68. Bottom club Shrewsbury had scored more than we had; it was never meant to be a high-scoring game. Scunthorpe could call on Steve Torpey, Martin Carruthers, Matt Sparrow and Paul Hayes in their ranks – those four players had bagged more goals than our entire squad. we survived on defensive grit, determination and an attitude that a later manager might have called ‘refuse to lose’.
That’s why winning 5-3 was such a joy. From the moment Mark Lillis stuck a Scunthorpe flag in the sand in front of their fans before the game, to the second Yeo hit our stunning fifth, it was a joyous day, one to savour forever and ever. At the time, perhaps not so much; there was queuing for tickets to consider (I think we got 2,200 for the away leg and demand was three times that). There was a two-goal deficit to avoid, a possible final against Bournemouth or Bury to consider. Don’t get me wrong: I celebrated (in all the wrong ways, but what a night / Sunday that was), but it was almost a celebration of what was to come, not what went before.
I will always count 2016-2019 as the golden period of supporting City, winning trophies and coming from non-league to the third tier. I’m excited for the future, unsure of what it holds but knowing we are, to all intents and purposes, back. However, I’m not sure anything can ever draw a parallel with almost not having a club one summer, then going to a play-off final the next. It was a renaissance of epic proportions, one that came on the back of years of decline and almost going out of business. Even when Danny took us over, we were looking stable off the field, whereas in 2002, we were dying on our feet.
That’s why yesterday was so special. That’s why Keith’s era should always rank as one of the very best, even though we didn’t actually win anything, or get promoted.