Another year draws to a close and once again, Lincoln City sit atop of the division in which they compete, proudly looking down on 23 other teams.
In 2016, it was Bromley, Boreham Wood and Guiseley we looked down upon. In 2018, it was Forest Green, Grimsby and Mansfield. In 2020, it is Sunderland, Ipswich and Hull City. That, ladies and gentlemen, is progression. The last two occasions on which we have been top of the pile at New Year, we have gone on to win the division. If that were to happen this season, it would be the culmination of a journey few dared dream about. There is a long way to go and deep down, I think we all know the size of the task is far, far greater than it was in 2016 or 2018, but nonetheless, football is all about hope.
2020 has been a horror of a year in many ways, driving hope from people in every aspect of their lives, but at Lincoln City, it has not. Off the pitch, maybe so with redundancies, cost-cutting and the spectre of financial doom hanging over us, but in terms of the footballing side of the club, things have gone from strength to strength despite the pandemic.
One year ago, we were not in a terrible place in terms of results, with New Year’s Eve falling squarely between beating Ipswich 5-3 and Peterborough 2-1. They were good results, but taking the wider context we were in an interesting position. To say we have had five seasons of unabating progression is wrong, and it doesn’t do justice to the current management team. Arguably, if ahead of the 2019/20 season, someone had said ‘you’ll be challenging for promotion in 18 months’ time, it wasn’t inconceivable, was it? Three trophies in three years, Danny and Nicky seemingly having a method and blueprint that worked – it certainly hinted and a positive future.
However, when 2020 broke into dawn 364 days ago, this club was at a crossroads of sorts. I recall being asked in summer 2019 ‘what if Danny ever leaves the club’. Naively, I told the person asking it wouldn’t happen and moved on. In my gut, I feared it and when he did up sticks and leave, along with Nicky, it hurt. It hurt because we had become so accustomed to the success, to competing, that the end of an era dawned. That isn’t always bad, but when that era is the most successful in the club’s history in terms of trophies, it left the future as a gaping dark chasm of fear. We all reacted differently, some with anger (some still hold it), so with blind optimism, some sitting on the fence. Even when we made an appointment, nothing could change people’s stance, not really. Many fans will readily admit they weren’t sold on Michael Appleton at the time, due to a combination of that fear and uncertainty, and his record at Portsmouth, Blackpool and Blackburn. You see, fans don’t understand reputation within football, we look at pages like Wikipedia and say, ‘he didn’t win many at Ewood Park’, and the opinion is formed. Go on, how many times have we signed a striker and said, ‘he hasn’t scored many before?’, without knowing anything else about him? That’s what fans do.
By the time December 31st arrived, we could see the changes Michael had been making, but results had been patchy. I’d seen some calls for his head, other people hammering the style of play. Which game was it where Cian Bolger got pelters for playing out from the back and reacted angrily at the crowd? Much of that was a manifestation of the uncertainty, of the fear that those ‘glory days’ under the DC/NC combination had gone. That’s where we were 365 days ago – staring at 2020 hoping maybe for consolidation, hoping to become a Gillingham or Rochdale, established as a League One club but understanding that we simply weren’t going to be able to compete with the big boys.
Remember that feeling of going into games not expecting to come out as winners? I recall MK Dons at home in February (I think), where I told my Dad I felt a draw would be a decent result. I remember the elation at beating Blackpool 1-0 just after Harry Toffolo left, feeling like we were putting daylight between the bottom three and us. That was the aspiration, to have enough between us and the trapdoor to sleep easy. Don’t forget, until we beat Burton in the last game, we could all attend, some still had us down as being in a relegation battle. Indeed, in my post-match analysis, I recall feeling sure after that win that we were safe. That was nine months ago.
Nine months later, where is that fear? Where is that uncertainty? Bar maybe one person, where is the disbelief is Michael Appleton. It has gone. Trust has arrived almost as quickly as it did with Danny and Nicky in 2016, and the job Michael has done has been more overwhelming. Of the players were actually owned one year ago, only four remain at the club and two, Alex Bradley and Aron Lewis, are playing no part. In just 12 months we have undergone a complete overhaul, dismantling a side that had won the League Two title and assembling one which, if the season were to end on PPG now, would win the League One title. I appreciated that is a huge reach, but being top at this stage is no accident. We have more points per game than any of our rivals and whilst that might be challenging to maintain, we all believe that maybe come May, we are still there in the top six, believing.
Where now for the Imps? I think this transfer window is a real test of Michael’s skills. The last two have seen him make lots of signings, managing players out of the club and identifying numerous targets to bring in. This will show us another side to his style, the window where we only need a couple of new faces, not wholesale changes. I do expect a big departure, that is a by-product of where we are and how well we’re doing, but I have belief Michael can handle that. The trick is keeping players like Anthony Scully and Remy Howarth focused and involved, whilst also adding quality that might help us maintain a serious promotion push. One year ago, we had little to judge Michael on and stepped into a transfer window full of unknowns. It could be argued we came out of that with fans even edgier than they were in December, but hindsight would have us all sleeping a little easier when John Akinde, Harry Toffolo, Bruno Andrade and the rest left the club.
I’m really tempted to use the title ‘what a difference a year makes’, but to outside observers maybe it doesn’t. We got promoted from the National League, took a season to settle, and won promotion. We took a season to settle in League One and are now challenging for promotion. It looks like continuity, it looks like a case of ‘same old, same old’, but it really isn’t. This year has seen us with a higher squad churn than you’d expect from a successful side. It has seen us finally become something other than ‘long ball Lincoln’ in the eyes of those outside the club. It has seen us take a 40% budget cut and still seemingly have a better drilled, more talented squad of players. It has seen a 12-month evolution which we could barely have imagined possible in December 2019.
It is hard to lavish praise on Michael’s achievements without seemingly devaluing those of Danny and the players who left the club this year. I will never look to diminish what those players and the management team achieved, never. That is history now though and, in my eyes, the two achievements are very different. Danny and Nicky took a dying club arguably bigger than the level it was in, breathed new life into it and took us to a level many older supporters feel we belong at. Michael Appleton took a successful club at a peak in their history, took it apart, rebuilt it and has somehow improved it in the process. The fact he has done it in one calendar year (from his first transfer window to now), is remarkable.
If 2021 delivers on the promise that late 2020 has shown, then the Lincoln City trajectory might be even more startling than we could ever have dared to dream of. Whatever happens, I take my hat off to Michael, his staff and players, and those behind the scenes running our football club.
Happy New Year to you all.