We have had some great ties with Forest Green over the years, but tomorrow marks our first ever cup clash against them.
The obvious results to look back on would be the 3-2 win in November 2016, but I’m going to stray to the home fixture that season before because for me it is a hugely understated win that helped push us to the Football League.
The sun shone brightly on Sincil Bank that day, but entering the ground it felt very much like another televised top of the table clash I remember well, against Swindon (we lost 3-2) After just nine minutes it looked to be going the same way too. we started well, and they barely had a meaningful kick, but one slip and Christian Doidge was in and registering their opener.
It didn’t change the approach though, but it did quieten down a few of the fans (me included). The goal did change their approach though, from minute 10 they started time-wasting. The 122 that bothered to come from Forest Green and watch their table-topping side were in good voice though and in block 5 they were just about audible, but they had little to cheer despite being 1-0 up, as City controlled play.
I think it was a shame for the neutral that they didn’t try to play a bit more football, especially as the TV cameras were on. The remaining 36 minutes consisted of us trying to find an opening that wasn’t there, them wasting time and the referee and linesman looking clueless at each other before guessing at their decisions. It wasn’t just FGR that were the beneficiaries though, we received a couple of odd calls too. The one moment that enraged Mark Cooper, delightfully I might add, involved Sam Habergham being floored off the ball, play continuing for three minutes before they put it out purely as part of the passage of play. They then expected the ball to be given back, which obviously it wasn’t going to be. They hadn’t bothered when they went through Sam (no free-kick by the way), only when it went out did they claim to have done it sportingly. Poor form, which as we now know is the standard for Mark Cooper’s side.
I wasn’t sure how we’d find a way through in the second half. Nathan Arnold had been unusually quiet, and for all his running and pressing Lee Angol wasn’t getting the scraps from anything Rheady knocked down. There was a game plan that we stuck to, but the early goal had clearly knocked us, and it has caused them to retreat into their shells, hoping to hit us on the break. I imagine the BT viewers were less-than inspired after a tepid first 45 minutes.
There was a palpable tension around the ground at half time, usually in that situation we can glean some comfort by checking our phones and seeing how our rivals are getting on. There was none of that, the entire focus was on the action in front of us. I had a horrible feeling my pessimistic prediction of a defeat might be coming true.
In an unusual turn of events it was Lincoln out and waiting at the end of the break, and our garish fluorescent green opponents who waited around in the tunnel trying to gain the psychological upper hand. They emerged and from kick-off pumped it straight out of play on the left flank. Devoid of ideas with 45 minutes left to play? It certainly seemed that way, they felt the one goal was going to be enough to give them a six-point lead at the top.
It wasn’t, Lincoln were at it from the start and in the second half, we looked like getting much more joy. Arnold appeared to be refreshed and back to his better ways, and for the first time in the game, he began to combine nicely with Sean Long, who had one of his best games in a City shirt. Angol worked the channels just as industriously as he had in the first half, and it was the Posh loanee who finally brought the game level. Paul Farman gathered the ball in and immediately Matt Rhead called for it to come long, as was our approach at times back then. It did, and as the defenders tried to second guess which forward would get it, confusion ensued. Angol got the better of Mark Ellis who went to ground like a pigeon shot with an air rifle. Angol didn’t care, and for once the linesman’s inability to make a call worked in our favour. Angol made no mistake at all with his finish, and as soon as the ball hit the net there was only ever going to be one winner.
Forest Green’s lack of a viable route to goal meant they were always going to be on the back foot, and within six minutes the game had been turned on its head. City probed all over the park, and a whipped cross from the left was turned in by a Villagers’ defender. There was a moment of almost stunned disbelief as it looked to have gone wide, but as it nestled in the net Imps fans broke out into jubilation. 2-1, and we had gone from chasing the game to being in complete control.
After the second goal, we shut the game off delightfully. I think the ten minutes after we scored saw the ball in play for about a minute and a half, there was delayed free kicks, players going down injured and a complete breakdown of a coherent game of football. It was incredibly clever from City, although those sceptical amongst you might note it wasn’t so clever when Forest Green did it. Double standards, eh? It may have been purposeful, but I thought it was a superb response and a great way to take the sting out of the game.
Not long afterwards we won a weak free kick on the edge of the area, with Lee Angol certainly waiting for a trailing leg to get in his way. Sam Habergham and Nathan Arnold lined up behind it, and as they did I remarked to my mate Dave that it looked an awful lot like the same situation as one we had at Gateshead away in the FA Trophy. “Here comes a Sam Habergham daisy cutter,” I said, and as I did his low drive crept into the net for 3-1. I remember the whirling sicky feeling in the pit of my stomach lift and disperse like a falafel fart in the warm spring air. If I wasn’t very much mistaken as that third goal went in everything seemed brighter, everything seemed warmer and I’m absolutely certain everything felt as positive as it had before my pessimistic alter ego had begun spinning a story of worry and collapse.
It could and should have been four one as we went for the jugular. Harry Anderson’s introduction, back on loan for a second time, caused them more problems. I thought when he came on we looked as dangerous as we have at any point over the last six weeks, but that could just have been confidence. Space opened up all over the place, and FGR hadn’t really got a lot to offer. At one point Marcus Kelly got the ball for them on the left flank just inside the attacking half with his back to goal, and City pressed him all the way back along the line into his own defensive corner. For a team with Football League aspirations, I thought they looked really poor.
If you took Christian Doidge out of that team, I doubt they would have ever made the Football League. They were decidedly average all across the park, and it was only Doidge’s persistence and opportunism that gave them a goal lead to defend anyway. The number 6, Traore looked like a good player, but that master tactician Mark Cooper dragged him off not long after we’d scored our second. His changes altered the game in our favour, the master tactician that he is.
As for City, well I felt we were the better team from start to finish. One or two of our lads took forty-five minutes to get going, but some were superb from the start. Alan Power took some stick for his role in their goal, but he was outstanding after that. We looked much more balanced and stable with him and Alex Woodyard in the middle of the park, and that became really apparent as the game went on. There was one passage of play towards the end of the game where the two of them were scrapping like pit bull terriers trying to win the ball, and after twenty seconds of pinball they broke up the play tenaciously. It epitomised how hard they’d worked as a pair for the whole game.
Lee Angol was superb as well, perhaps even as good as he ever got in an Imps shirt. At the time, he looked like the type of player fans easily get frustrated with, he did fight and give away the odd free-kick. Also his style of dropping off the last man and looking for scraps didn’t always come off and left supporters angry. Theo ‘Cup Game’ Robinson used to do the same, gamble on the defence slipping up and letting him in, but it rarely came off for Theo either. Mind you, it did if you give Angol the ball in the 18-yard area, and he had a sight of goal, then nine times out of ten he would score. History suggests that might not be the case.
I’m not sure whether the roar from the stands at the end was all joy, or whether some of it was sheer relief that the wheels hadn’t come off at all, At the end of the game, I noted: “We’re still on our way. It’s been a tough few weeks without being too damaging to our overall aim of league football. I know we dropped points on Tuesday, but today we bounced back in the way that champions-elect can do. The race for the title is (arguably) a three-horse race now, and we’ve taken twelve points from the other two teams battling against us. They still have each other to play as well, and coupled with our games in hand I can only see the next few weeks going one way. We need to remain on our game, but today Lincoln City looked all the doubters in the eye (including me), raised a middle finger and demonstrated exactly why they are top of the league. I was wrong and I’ve never been so bloody happy about it.”
That result was March 25th and, within less than a month, we were back in the promised land, winning the National League. In the scheme of things, had we lost this game, we would still have finished a point ahead of Tranmere, and seven ahead of Forest Green, but that wouldn’t tell the whole picture. Would they have had renewed optimism? going into this game, we’d won just two of the previous seven games, the worst spell of our season. We won seven of the next eight fixtures to lift the title, no doubt because this win renewed that belief. Forest Green had won five in six coming into the game, but lost their next fixture against North Ferriby at home 1-0 (thanks to former Imp and disgraced ex-pro Reece Thompson), before winning just three of their final seven fixtures (including losing 2-0 at Southport). The only other point in the season they had a run that bad was after we beat them 3-2 in November.
In fact, (and FGR fans might want to look away now), in the encounters between us over the next four years (all of which we won), they have only won three of the 16 matches that followed, drawing one and losing four after Harry’s goal beat them 1-0, winning one and losing three after the Matt Rhead double in Raggs’ last game, drawing one and losing three after Kellan Gordon gave us a 2-1 win and finally, winning two, drawing one and losing one after Akinde’s brace in our last meeting. They will be hoping for a result tomorrow, as they have currently lost just two in 12 and wouldn’t want us to break up the run, again, would they?