Ask any five Lincoln City fans between the ages of 35 and 45 who their favourite player ever is, and you’ll get four who tell you it is Gareth Ainsworth.
Ask over 500 of them who their top five were, and the most popular, by twice as many votes as the next, will be Gareth Ainsworth. We know this, because we did it for our 100th podcast episode and Ainsworth was the most popular player by a mile, but we’re not the only ones. He clearly left an indelible mark on Imps fans, but the question is why? What is it about Gareth Ainsworth that inspired so many to hold him in high regard 24 years after he left the club?
Today, Ainsworth is a Championship manager who oozes cool from every pour. Whether it is the orange Mustang he drives, his rock band Cold Blooded Hearts or those snakeskin boots, it is clear to see why he is an icon in 2021, but in 1995, things were a little different for the Imps, and Ainsworth.
He signed without fanfare, arriving at the same time as Jon Whitney, Jason Barnett and Barry Richardson as John Beck looked to pick up the broken pieces left behind by Steve Wicks and Sam Ellis. He had a decent start, 12 goals in 31 games, which helped the Imps pull away from the bottom of the table.
“The first thing that comes to me was his overall work rate and effort,” says Imps fan Lee Curtis. “He had a never say die attitude, picking up the ball, running flat out at defenders for 90 minutes. With his ability to beat players and score goals he was the most exciting player in a Lincoln shirt for a number of years, probably since David Puttnam.”
It was Puttnam who Ainsworth essentially replaced. The flying winger had been a stalwart of the early nineties side, but after scoring on the opening day against Preston, he was allowed to leave for Gillingham. Ainsworth certainly filled that gap, but it was more than his ability on the field which struck a chord, it was almost a sense of him being a man of the people, ahead of his time.
“It wasn’t just his ability and work rate it was his whole persona,” continues Lee. “The hair, the rock star, straight-talking and the way he celebrated with the supporters.”
Early on in his Imps stint, he bagged a brace as we thrashed Fulham 4-0, celebrating with supporters behind the stands. For many years, it seemed alien for players to hug supporters after scoring, but Ainsworth broke that taboo. It was a metaphorical message from him to us, saying “I’m one of you,” whether he meant it or not.
The season ended with a 5-0 thumping of Torquay United, and by the time the next one started, something had changed, something that took Ainsworth from one level to the next, without kicking a ball. Euro 96.
To get a feel for that summer, you have to go back to the eighties and look at football in the wider context. It wasn’t the game of the masses, many fans were afraid to go to stadiums and supporters were, rightly or wrongly demonised. 1985 was a particular low, but violence at Euro 88 underlined why many felt aggrieved with football. Much began to change with Italia 90, when football began to become ‘cool’ again. When Sky sanitised the top flight and packaged it in bright colours and graphics, the long journey towards the family-friendly sport we have today had begun.
At Lincoln City, it took a little longer. As the Premier League glitz began, so did our decline in the post-GMVC years. Long ball tactics hampered efforts to draw fans to the ground and even the skills of Tony Lormor and David Puttnam weren’t enough to truly convince fans that the changes happening elsewhere were happening at Lincoln too. Up until 2016, there was a certain lack of respect in the city for our club, and only since our recent success has it truly been banished. Euro 96 changed that, for a few years at least.
I even felt a changing of the mood ahead of the 96/97 season. Maybe it was the visit of Newcastle, maybe it was just the wonderful summer of music and culture we enjoyed, but despite losing the long trip down to Torquay in August, it felt like something changed and Gareth Ainsworth was at the forefront of that. The prior season, the team had evolved and escaped relegation, but 96/97 was Beck’s Team Lincoln, and the key ambassador was the increasingly long-haired winger from Blackburn.
That summer was a pivotal once in my lifetime, that is for sure. I was 17, all youthful energy with nowhere to place it. In other summers, it might have been wasted or without anywhere to properly be expressed, but in 1996 I had an outlet. The Adam and Eve in Wragby hosted all the Euro 96 games for us, and prior to each match me and my mates would gather around the pool table and pump the jukebox full of silver. Pulp, Ocean Colour Scene, Oasis and Blur emanated from the speaker providing a backdrop against which only good memories could be formed. Despite the ultimate disappointment against Germany, it was our very own summer of love, with Cool Britannia giving us an identity and purpose. When domestic football resumed, Ainsworth embodied everything that summer meant to us.
“He seemed to resonate with the fans. It was the first time I’d ever made a real connection with an Imps player,” said Ben Franklin. “His spell at Lincoln coincided with the start of Britpop and the global emergence of Oasis and word got round that he was a bit of a rock star too, it all really fell into place.”
22 goals and 46 games later, Ainsworth had cemented his legend. The spirit of Euro 96 eventually wore off for some, but in Lincoln, our very own rock star ensured it remained alive and well. That Lincoln City side didn’t win anything other than friends (and only a few of those at that), but for anyone on the journey that season, it was an electrifying ride. The Coca Cola Cup run saw us win at Maine Road and draw at the Dell, with Ainsworth playing a key part. One key trait for any legend is success and whilst Ainsworth won nothing with the Imps, we were successful.
“Gareth Ainsworth is the best 30 grand Lincoln ever spent,” says Ash Boothright. “He could tackle, he could head the ball and he was a natural goal scorer. His work ethic was unbelievable, he could run all day. He was also a fantastic lad off the field, Generous with his time and polite.”
It seems one of the reasons Gareth endures to this day is the perfect storm of ability and personality. Yes, the Imps were growing in popularity, with attendances climbing during the season. Yes, there were other good players in the side, such as Kevin Austin and Phil Stant, but none were quite as relatable as Gareth. He could have been the Imps top striker, or he could have been your mate from the pub, pool cue in hand, fifty pences on the table, waiting to win a couple of pints on a Thursday night.
In fact, he often was. He played pool in local leagues and I recall the week he left the Imps, his team turned up to play ours, The Ivy Club, one player short. I played as Gareth Ainsworth, and I’m pretty sure I lost. Sorry, Gareth.
Imps fan Chris Gooding also played pool with him, turning out for the Turks Head at Heighington, and he confirms exactly what it was about Gareth that everyone saw. “Even though we obviously knew he was a footballer, I didn’t feel the need to speak to him that much about football. The sole reason being was he had so many other interests, particularly music
“In the Turks Head, he was often found on the karaoke and then became captain of the pool team. Gareth was an infectious character once you got to know him! I found him very humble but with a sharp sense of humour.”
Sadly, all good things come to an end, but even that added to his legacy. Wigan were keen on taking him for a fee thought to be around £500,000, but there was no transfer request, and no drop in performance levels. When it appeared he was going to leave, with Port Vale stumping up the cash, he promptly smashed his first and only Sincil Bank hattrick in the 3-3 draw with Scarborough.
Sam Stafford remembers that game well. “Ainsworth was my hero. His last home game was Scarborough and he was signing programmes in front of the Stacey West. As he signed mine, I told him that no Imps fan would begrudge him a move, but to keep his head down and keep working for us in the meantime.”
He did that, bagging all three goals and he waved goodbye to the Imps fans as he left the field, and ten days later did the same for the last time away at Rotherham, before joining Port Vale. He left the club on a run of three defeats and a draw, but on the back of him going, we went 18 unbeaten. It was a bittersweet run, like your favourite series dropping the best ever episodes in the months after the best actor has left – it was good, but it wasn’t quite the same.
“I’ll never forget the day I got home from school and found out that he had joined Port Vale,” added Ben Franklin. “I grieved like I’d lost a family member.”
There were no tears from me when he left, because I was not the sort to cry over a player bettering himself, but there was a sense of loss. As ’97 turned into ’98, much changed in the world, especially in the music we listened to. Britpop went all experimental, Blur turned grunge and Oasis disappeared up their own behinds with Be Here Now, and with that, the wonderful summer of 96 began to fade into legend, just as the rock star Imps’ winger did. Now, when I think back, I can’t help but throw the two together in one mosaic of memories, but that is my personal take on Ainsworth and Lincoln. Others, as you have seen here, have their own reasons for still loving the man.
Was it his ability? Yes. Was it his goals? Absolutely. Was it his relatability? Yes, again. It was everything. He came in when we were on our arse, and left as we headed towards the third tier for the first time since the early eighties. He was the player all the lads wanted to be, the one the girls wanted to be with. He was (and still is) effortlessly cool, but he worked for everything and always had time for you. He was, as Sam Stafford says, unique.
“I don’t think buccaneering is used enough to describe players nowadays, but Ainsworth was whole-hearted and buccaneering.”
That he was and, because of it, he will always be a legend at Sincil Bank.
Thanks to Ben Franklin, Lee Curtis, Ash Boothright, Sam Stafford and Chris Gooding for their input in this article.