17 years ago today, I cried for the first time at a football match. I’m not an emotional man (although I did once cry at an episode of Bad Girls), but on May 24th, 2003, I cried at a game.
I didn’t cry at the end. I cried as the teams ran out onto the pitch, choked with pride in my football club and what it had achieved in such a short space of time. One year prior, in the summer of 2002, we were one High Couty judge away from not existing. What followed was a remarkable 12 months which spawned Imps’ legend. Talking about it now still feel like it just happened, like every Imps’ fan will remember the power of Mark Bailey, the tenacity of Richard Butcher, the skills of Peter Gain, the poise of Paul Morgan or, as important as anything, the team that was far greater than the sum of its parts.
I was Poacher at the time and I had spent much of the previous summer raising money alongside other fans to help save the club. I got pushed around supermarkets in trolleys, nearly chopped my legs off at the ankles on a rogue bench and waited patiently for a text message to relay the outcome of the High Couty judgement. I went to bed at night wondering if tomorrow was the day I woke up to no football club. I’d never considered that Lincoln City wouldn’t exist and I’d become known for my undying love of the club through my friends. For many people I knew, I was ‘Mr Lincoln City’, although every town, village or workplace has one just like me. It didn’t matter though; no Lincoln for me meant a bleak future.
One year later I’d travelled from a holiday in Devon (Challaborough Bay near Bigbury, lovely place) with my Mum. Her and my partner at the time waited around in Cardiff all day whilst I went to the game with my mate Lee; I’d been on the cans since around 9am and rocked up at the ground a little worse for wear. I went out as Poacher and paraded in front of the City fans in an experience I can barely recall and yet which will always be with me. Smiling faces looking back at me confirmed that something special had happened; the same faces had either been on their sofas or etched with pain the year before.
For those who don’t know, Lincoln City were once famous for never having played at a National Stadium. The 1983 FLT saw us meet Millwall in the final at Sincil Bank, whereas it later became Wembley. The play-offs were introduced and although both Murphy, Beck and Thommo almost took us there, we were always the ones on the outside looking in. 2003 changed all of that; through sheer grit and fight we found ourselves in the top seven, not a year on from being thankful for 22nd.
What I can recall from that day, clearly, is coming back into the tunnel area after doing my stint. I had to be in before the players came out and I waited before the tunnel area in a big room. I was unreal to see Keith Alexander leading the boys out for the final game of the 2002/03 Division Three season, the first time a Lincoln City manager had ever done so. Yes, I cried. Not a lot, but I did. Together, the players, fans and staff had achieved what nobody thought possible.
Did I think we’d win the game? No, not really. The closed roof on the stadium didn’t help matters and I found the 90 minutes of action to be tough at times. Big Ben Futcher gave us a bit of hope and Mark Bailey kept some interest in the game, but Bournemouth were better than us. Sure, we lost the game, but once that defeat had settled in I felt we could be equally as proud. I had the pleasure of being in the same place behind the tunnel when the players came off the pitch, many of them in tears. Bimmo was the one that stood out for me; a typical hard-nut full back with tears in his eyes on what proved to be his last game for the club.
Since then we’ve been back to the play-offs a few times, even coming to treat them with a little contempt by the time Bristol Rovers beat us over two legs. We’ve been to Wembley and won and the club has lost and restored its pride as well. We’ve won stuff, achieved plenty and redefined ourselves, but 17 years ago today was remarkable; from a near-death experience to within a whisker of promotion. At the time, defeat hurt and I couldn’t look back fondly at the game but as I sit here writing today, I can see those yellow shirts walking out, one after another, and I feel the pride welling up in me again.
I’m not sure anything will quite give me the same feeling again. There have been more successful times, there have been times where the redemption felt stronger, but for one-year rags to riches story, it is unparalleled in our history.
Next Page – Relive The Day With Bubs’ Gallery