Tonight we face Manchester City kids in a game worth £10k to the club, but back in the summer of 2003, we faced them in front of a packed Sincil Bank crowd.
Classic matches are often talked about on my site, but never have I chatted about a friendly as a classic game. Let’s be honest here, if a League Two club (as we were then) has Manchester City on their list of pre-season friendly games, they’re likely to see a line up not unlike the one we have to face this evening.
Even back in 2002/03, top-flight clubs often brought reserve teams to friendly matches, but not Kevin Keegan. He keeps his word and not for the first time, he delivered. He gave Alan Shearer his debut at Lincoln and he ensured a star-studded Man City tram visited for this friendly too.
The game did have a bit of background. Nobody can forget that wonderful summer of 2003 when the club arrived at the Millennium Stadium less than a year after standing at the gates of oblivion, and in his programme notes for the Man City game, Keith Alexander called it reward for the fans sticking with the club. I suppose some fans see matches against big stars as a reward, and the attendance of 6,500 attested to that. Of course, that was in a time when the club’s average attendance was much less; 4,500 turned up for the season opener against Oxford not long afterwards.
Naturally, with such a big club, there was excitement around the place when they arrived. This was a Man City team boasting stars such as Robbie Fowley, Nicolas Anelka, David Seaman and Paul Wanchope. For the Imps, it was a transition period – Stuart Bimson had gone and Gary Fletcher, later to become Taylor-Fletcher, had not yet signed. There is an unfamiliar feel about the line up that evening too, especially for the Imps.
Our team was Alan Marriott, Matt Bloomer, Paul Mayo, Ben Futcher, Paul Morgan, Simon Weaver, Richard Liburd, Richard Butcher, Peter Gain, Rory May, Simon Yeo. On the bench was Allan Pearce, Mark Bailey, Nigel Jemson, Dave Wattley, Niall McNamara, Ben Sedgemore, Lee Frecklington, Darren Horrigan, Chris Cornelly, Dave Coulson and Chris Davies. Every single player got game time too, in a disjointed encounter and you will notice that ‘trialist A’ was named back then, former Nottingham Forets and Shrewsbury man Nigel Jemson getting a run out.
Man City started with Seaman in goal, then Sun Jihai, David Sommeil, Sylvian Distin, Michael Tarnat, Shaun Wright-Phillips, Paul Bosvelt, Danny Tiatto, Trevor Sinclair, Robbie Fowler and Nicolas Anelka. They too had a packed bench, including Jon Macken, Joey Barton, Richard Dunne, Paul Wanchope and keeper Carlo Nash.
It was a first look at the new pitch for most supporters too. In May 2003, the playing surface looked like Huttoft Beach, and the club’s hard work had it looking like a snooker table for the illustrious opposition on show. In terms of commercial revenue, no stone was left unturned – there were 18 mascots prior to kick off!
Everyone expected the Imps to struggle, despite it being a friendly. Anelka had joined them from Liverpool for £13m the summer before, and had bagged 14 times as they finished ninth in the Premier League. They were in the UEFA Cup too, and were expected to do well in the top flight once more. That made the start to the game very surprising indeed, even though it was a friendly.
On the ten-minute mark, Richard Liburd burst into the area, only to be crudely felled by Distin. At the South Park end of the ground, Paul Mayo did what he did best and beat Seaman from 12-yards, making it 1-0 to the Imps. With the crowd on their feet as though the game meant something, Keith Alexander’s side pressed on again and soon made it two.
Simon yeo’s pace helped create the chance, with a ball finding Matt Bloomer racing in the channel from the right. He hooked a shot over England keeper Seaman to make it 2-0 to the hosts, quick as you like.
Of course, the visitors weren’t busting a gut to get into the game, but they did want to save face in an intriguing game of football. City held it to 2-0 until just before half time, but the class of Anelka helped them back into the tie. I was stood at the back of the Stacey West for the game, and watched as Anelka drove a fierce, unstoppable effort into the back of the net right in front of us. As it was a friendly, I felt comfortable giving him a little ripple of applause for lighting up what had become an exhibition game.
The second half wasn’t exactly ‘thrill a minute’, but we did get a first look at the away kit. In another seized opportunity, the lads emerged for the second half wearing the dark blue away kit for the first time, still a personal favourite of mine.
The game was stop and start after the break, as we began to see a flurry of substitutions. I may be wrong, but I’m pretty sure it was the first time we saw Lee Frecklington in action, certainly in a high-profile game like this, when he came on to replace Peter Gain on 77 minutes. Jemson got much of the second half, replacing Rory May on 58 minutes. He didn’t do enough that summer to earn a deal, and May was soon discarded too after a slow start to the season. Mark Bailey came on just before the hour mark too, and was taken off two minutes from time to give YT player Chris Davies a spell. We also got a first look at Joey Barton, he replaced Paul Bosvelt and got half an hour. Doubtless, the significance of his appearance was lost on everyone at the time, but he’s since made himself known around the world.
As the game seemed to ebb away, the Imps looked set to register a morale-boosting pre-season win, but an international made it 2-2 with just seconds remaining. Costa Rica star Paulo Wanchope had replaced Anelka on the hour and it was he who had the last say, turning in a smart ball from a young and energetic Shaun Wright-Phillips.
That was that, the floodlights went out, crowds waited for the Manchester City players to sign bits of paper and I went home. I don’t recall being Poacher that night, I suspect I didn’t bother for some reason or another. It seems now like a missed opportunity, but whilst I missed out, the club did not. The crowd of 6,500 was not surpassed until we played Boston and Hull later in the season, even Huddersfield at home only just broke the 6,000 mark. The club raked the cash in at a time when we were still needing to be frugal, and doubtless, that boost helped finance a deal for Gary Taylor-Fletcher, who arrived soon after the start of the season.