Nearly every time December 17th comes around I am haunted by the ghost of almost-Christmas past. Traditionally Christmas wasn’t a great time for Lincoln City, and the Christmas of 1997 in particular was one to forget.
December 17th was the date of a famously bad FA Cup second-round replay. It was already our fourth game in the competition in 1997/98, despite us being a league club. We laboured to a win over Gainsborough Trinity over two matches, and were then held 2-2 at home by lowly Emley. Had it not been for a Terry Fleming equaliser after seven minutes of injury time we would have been out. That result was our 18th game unbeaten in a good run that had seen us surge up the table.
Just a couple of days after that first draw we lost our unbeaten run in the EFL Trophy game against Wigan, but our attention was already pulled elsewhere. The FA Cup third-round draw had thrown us up against West Ham, if we beat Emley, and memories of an early eighties giant-killing began to flood back for those old enough to remember. For the record, I wasn’t!
All we had to do was deal with Emley. Like Gainsborough before them, their home ground wasn’t capable of hosting Lincoln City and so we made our way to Huddersfield’s McAlpine Stadium. We had already suffered cup misery in these relatively new opulent surroundings, it had opened in 1994 and we had become one of the first teams to lose by a ‘golden goal’ after a 2-2 draw in normal time in another Mickey Mouse cup game.
That game didn’t take place on December 17th though, it was on November 30th. In the 1994/95 season, we did lose of Saturday game of December 17th, 2-1 away at Torquay. It’s a good job I didn’t believe in omens. I travelled to the McAlpine Stadium that night, and goals by Jon Whitney and former Emley player Colin Alcide had seen us secure a comfortable 2-0 lead. For a team beaten once in 20 outings, you imagined we might have been able to close the game down.
We couldn’t. Emley pulled two back late on to send us into extra time once again in Huddersfield’s new stadium. There was no golden goal, and that was a good thing as Emley won (and scored) a penalty to give them a 3-2 lead, and put Upton Park within their grasp.
Mark Hone wasn’t often cherished for his goal-scoring prowess, but the energetic midfielder-turned-commentator grabbed our third of the night to potentially save our blushes and send the tie to penalties. Five spot-kicks stood between us and a trip to a West Ham side featuring the likes of Hartson and Berkovic (not kicking and punching each other at that time).
Jason Barnett missed one for City and Paul Viner did the same a couple of kicks later for Emley. The final penalty of the five fell to Phil Stant, he had to score to take it to sudden death. Miss and we were not just out of the FA Cup but we missed our pay day at Upton Park and our chance to show the big boys what a horrible long ball side we had become. He missed.
I think I may have cried a little. I was just nineteen years old and frankly, I’d had three pints too many of the old amber nectar (for the record, that’s four pints). I got home and found I’d also been dumped by my girlfriend at the time. Her birthday was December 17th, and she wasn’t happy I chose Lincoln City over her. Neither was I.
From being unbeaten in 18, we failed to win a single game until January 31st. Our next outing just before Christmas saw us thumped 5-1 at Peterborough in a match where Dave Regis and Simon Brown made their one (and only) appearances for the Imps. Emley started the rot, but we did regain form and end up going up at the end of the season.
Since that game, I can only recall City playing once on the cursed date of December 17th, although my memory may be wrong and frankly my home internet is so bad that I don’t have the inclination nor the patience to sit and actually check. Our first season in the Blue Square Premier we managed to win away, at Forest Green by two goals to nil, Alan Power and Francis Laurent scoring in front of a bumper crowd of 946 in Nailsworth. I didn’t return home to find my girlfriend had left me that day, I stayed at home and ensured she didn’t have reason to.
My other ‘famous’ December 17th came in 2016, as the Imps faced Tranmere in the National League. we had already beaten them 1-0 at their place and needed to steal the advantage over a promotion rival. We took an early lead through Nathan Arnold, only for Andy Mangan to dive blatantly and win a penalty for the visitors. Jeff Hughes (yup, that Jeff Hughes) stuck it away, and that was that, until the 81st minutes. It was then that Adam Marriott, on the field for less than a minute, grabbed the winner. It doesn’t sound like such a bad day, right?
In my utter delight, I lept down the stairs in the lower Coop to celebrate with Marriott who was heading to the touchline right in front of me. I slipped, put my hand out to steady myself and bumped down two or three steps. Undeterred, I do get up and some replays of the celebration have me coming in and patting him on the shoulder, albeit a bit late. What the replay will not show is the bone in my wrist that I had just broken on the steps.
I got home, wrote up the game and only then noticed my wrist was swollen. Yup, I had my right hand in a special brace all through Christmas. Damn you December 17th, and thank the Lord we ain’t got a game today!