The turn of the century isn’t remembered for being a time of classic Imps history.
May 1999 saw us relegated out of the third-tier after a one-season stay and despite facing the likes of Manchester City and Stoke one season, we struggled to settle after the drop. After beating Rotherham 2-1 on the opening day of the 1999/00 season, we failed to win in nine consecutive matches. The highs of the previous season, if they could be described that, were gone and without John Beck’s spoiling tactics, we quickly got gobbled up by the mediocrity that is mid-table fourth-tier football.
We did begin to find a method of sorts. Gavin Gordon, Lee Thorpe and assistant manager Phil Stant all struck as we won 3-1 at Chester City, sparking a run. Looking back now, it seems we should have been doing much better with such an array of striking talent and for a few games we certainly looked like improving. Exeter and Darlington were beaten 1-0 at the Bank (Richard Peacock and Gavin Gordon getting the goals), before an impressive 3-2 win at Leyton Orient courtesy in no small part to Lee Thorpe’s 86th-minute strike. Southend end halted the winning run with a 2-2 draw, future Imp Martin Carruthers bagging twice for them whilst Dave Barnett and Thorpe again scored for us.
That brought Chester City to the Bank in a quick turnaround. having beaten them 3-1 a few weeks prior, hopes were high that we could keep climbing the table. We sat in 14th place, just three points behind sixth-placed Exeter City. Chester were rock bottom, with just two wins to their name and having conceded 27 goals, the highest in the division. Could we further compound their misery?
I remember the game because the mood around the ground was strangely subdued. Despite the good run, we really had little to cheer and in the early days of being the mascot, there wasn’t a lot of joy to be had from the crowd. It wasn’t a bad turnout though, not for the time, 3,790 were there to watch a Chester team featuring Luke Beckett and future Imps Junior Agogo and Michael Blackwood.
The Imps lined up as follows: Barry Richardson, Terry Fleming, Mick Galloway, Grant Brown, Dave Barnett, Lee Philpott, Paul Smith, John Finnigan, Paul Miller, Gavin Gordon, Lee Thorpe. On the bench was Alan Marriott, Anthony Henry, Peter Gain, Phil Stant and Tony Battersby.
On paper, that’s not a bad Imps side at all. Mick Galloway added some quality on loan, whilst Gordon and Thorpe were a handful for any defenders on their day. Finns was quality in the middle of the park, Lee Philpott could turn it on at any time and we all know of Fleming’s combative qualities. On the bench, Gain and Mazza would obviously go on to great things with us, whilst Phil Stant was still scoring a few. We were one or two quality players away from a top seven challenge. This line up came at a time of an injury crisis too: Jason Barnett, Stuart Bimson, Steve Welsh, Steve Holmes and Dave Phillips all missed out.
City didn’t start particularly well, as was the common theme at the time, even after taking an early lead. The words ‘Dave Barnett’ and ‘goal’ were not uttered much during his Imps’ stay, but he headed his second in as many games on ten minutes to give us the lead. Despite that, the quiet crowd and sloppy play allowed the game to run away from us a little. Chester were desperately fighting against the drop and their spirit wasn’t matched with the end product, but it led to a rather tense early period for the home fans. It wasn’t a pretty first half, especially not when the talented Agogo bagged on 41 minutes to give the visitors parity, and set nerves a-jangling around the ground. Oddly, the next time Agogo would score would be four weeks later for the Imps against Shrewsbury, whilst on a short loan.
City came out needing a flood of goals in the second half, despite only scoring five in their previous six matches. The burden was falling on the likes onto Thorpe, described in the Echo report of the game as a ‘re-born striker’. His form had certainly improved and both him and Gordon began to help us get more of a foothold in the game. Chester tired, but never stopped their probing, although just before the hour the game turned again. It was Thorpe who put us back in the lead, a quality finish on 59 minutes suddenly waking the crowd up.
Perhaps apathy at the poor starts and the earlier run had kept the fans quiet, but as the second went in a lid was lifted on the noise. The Imps fans began to fully get behind the side and it showed on the field, as the likes of Lee Philpott began to find acres of space in which to create and probe. John Finnigan only scored three goals in his 137 league outings for City, one of which 15 minutes from time nailed sealed Chester’s fate. From there it was all Lincoln, the unity between fan and team evident as we swept forward against a tired and beaten looking Chester. Even the 79th-minute injury of Gavin Gordon didn’t dampen the game too much, with his replacement Stant adding a fourth on the stroke of full time after a great delivery from the ever-threatening Philpott. The result lifted us up to ninth, just one win from fifth. However, just eight points separated 15 teams, making the long, dark winter as crucial as ever.
A week later, City laboured to a 1-0 win against Welling in the FA Cup, which left us unbeaten in eight and facing a tie with Luton Town on my 21st birthday in November. All was set it seemed for a stab at promotion, but sadly it wasn’t to be. Injuries and a lack of confidence saw us begin to tumble, prompted by an agonising 2-1 defeat at home against Peterborough. Had we won that game on November 2nd, we might have had the impetus we needed to push on, instead we went to Mansfield and were hammered 5-2. Philpott gave us an early lead against Posh but a Howard Forinton double killed us off before half time, and a week later Darrell Clarke and Chris Greenacre both grabbed a brace for the Stags to put us in our place. We rallied, briefly, losing just one of the next five, but only winning one too; 4-2 against York in the EFL Trophy.
Between November 2nd and February 11th, we won just two league matches, away at Cheltenham and at home to Hull City. A run which saw us plummet to 18th. A eight-game unbeaten run in February and March kept us safe, but by the time Steve Holmes gave us a 1-0 win against Southend in our final home game of the season, we’d been out of the promotion frame for many, many months.
Worse was to come over the coming years; we continued to decline both in terms of our league position and financial stability, leading to administration in 2002. I think the rest could be described a history.