The Greatest Easter of All?

Courtesy Graham Burrell

Thank you for bearing with me whilst I had a day off yesterday. It was much needed and whilst I do try to get content out as much as I can, I needed a recharge.

To a degree, I still do. I don’t know about you, but supporting the Imps has, at times, be exhausting this season. There have been such high and lows and such little time to process that it almost seems as if we have had a mini-season within the last couple of months. I recall my heart rate going through the roof when we beat Hull on penalties, and the utter despair as we lost to Sunderland the same way. I’m not sure the highs of winning at Portsmouth and the lows of defeat against Rochdale were quite as contrasting due to the matches in between, but it has felt draining. I almost feel thankful for a week or so off, even if it is under some horrible circumstances.

What I like to do is to take this time to look back and gain context, both of where we currently are and in enjoying moments we struggled to fully appreciate at the time. With it being Easter weekend, I have picked a couple of big matches over this usually crucial period which will stick with me forever. One I shall hope to go into a little more tomorrow, the other I’m sure even many of our newer fans will remember with clarity. It is, of course, Easter 2017.

Bromley at home – Credit Graham Burrell

March has been a tough month in 2021, and to a degree, it was the same back in 2017. The Imps had been beaten twice in the National League since September 24th, and went into the February 28th game against York City with a three-point lead over Dagenham, and having a game in hand of all the clubs in the play-offs, in some instances two games in hand. The 1-1 draw, salvaged by Alan Power late on, was our first league draw since November 12th and it led some to wonder if we were burning out. After all, a couple of days earlier, we’d beaten Burnley in the FA Cup and just three days before we had beaten Boreham Wood in the FA Trophy quarter-final.

What followed was a really tough month. We drew two more league matches (Aldershot and Sutton), and lost three times, albeit once in the league (Arsenal FA Cup, York FAT and Boreham Wood). Forest Green overtook us, and Tranmere moved to within a point. It meant City had to fight, grind and battle to get back on top. A win against Forest Green settled the nerves, as did a vastly-underrated 2-0 victory against Dagenham. City were still running on empty though, but won 1-0 at Eastleigh, and despatched Chester and Bromley by the same score at the Bank. I remember during both of those home games, looking to the sky and asking for some intervention. We talk about ‘must-win’ matches, defining moments in history, but nothing this season can quite match up to the desperation fans had to escape the clutches of the National League.

A win v FGR settled the nerves – Credit Graham Burrell

The opponents on Good Friday, as they always seemed to be in our crucial moments, were Torquay United. We were three points clear of Tranmere with games in hand and the Gulls looked down and out with two wins in 12. Still, the Imps were on a run of nine matches in April. What could go wrong?

The game itself wasn’t a classic. We had the better of the opening ten minutes or so, but after that, an effective Torquay began to close things down. With four games to go, they were a point adrift of safety and a draw would have been a solid result for them. They doubled up on Matt Rhead, making him ineffective, and as the game wore on a draw looked likely. Would a draw be any good to us?

On 75 minutes, it would. Tranmere’s game against Aldershot was topsy-turvy, twice they’d taken the lead and twice they’d been pegged back. The crucial goal for Aldershot had been scored by a future Imp, Bernard Mensah, which meant a draw for us would be decent. Then, on 78 minutes, Jamie Reid (now of Mansfield Town) did Sean Long filling in at right-back, and his deep cross was bundled home by Ruari Keating. The silence from our fans was deafening, and the hundred or so visitors seemed to make a lot of noise.

It wasn’t a hammer blow to our hopes, but it was a huge setback. City didn’t concede in the second half at home, in fact, we had only let in one second-half goal in the league, at Sincil Bank, since November 12th and that was a Woking penalty. The previous occasion in which a team took a lead with around ten minutes left was Barrow, in our 2-1 defeat against them way back in September. Were we blinking? Was this a stumbling end to a record season?

Enter Adam Marriott and Harry Anderson. Both had been on the pitch for almost 20 minutes, but six minutes after we went 1-0 down, parity was restored. Marriott was the creator, he was a player hugely underrated and sadly blighted by injury, but he got a drive away at Brendan Moore in the Gulls goal. The keeper, who later moved to MLS to play for Atlanta United, parried it into the path of a young Anderson, who slotted home. It was his second in as many games, having scored the opener in the Chester win. He set off down the touchline to celebrate and the silence from earlier was shattered by thousands of jubilant Imps.

Four minutes remained on the clock and as we know, this Lincoln team were never beaten. With 9011 fans (188 visitors) suddenly behind the side, there was only to be one outcome. Marriott was again involved, he got the ball in a good area and drew a foul. Sam Habergham stepped up and the rest, as they almost always say when discussing this game, is history.

A crucial game in our club’s history – credit Graham Burrell

Of the match, I wrote this which I think is best repeated word for word: “I know this is a phrase that gets mentioned time and time again around Lincoln City, but to keep believing and keep pushing forward after going 1-0 down late on takes an immense amount of character and togetherness. As the passes went astray in the second half our players didn’t get at each other, they got their heads down and went again. After Torquay scored the players didn’t shrink in the face of an embarrassing defeat in front of 9,000 fans, they dusted themselves down and kept on doing what they had been doing all game. They believed, the fans believed but I suspect over at Prenton Park they didn’t want to believe.”

Right now, watching that back, I literally have a tear in my eye. Hearing the commentator say ‘a win at Gateshead could see Lincoln return to the league for the first time in six years’ reminds me exactly what we achieved that season. It was simply sensational and it doesn’t hurt to look back every so often and understand the enormity of the task. Still, we needed that win at Gateshead.

Never a nice place to play football – credit Graham Burrell

That win, a dramatic and exciting as it was, will always be remembered for the last seven or eight minutes and not the first 85, but so what? That is what good memories are, a reflection of the best bits of a certain day. In 15 years time, we won’t remember the Rochdale defeat of this season, we won’t even remember the crippling injuries with any real clarity, we’ll recall the win at Portsmouth or the hammering of Burton. I wonder if we’ll have two memories within four days of each other? Who knows, with Saturday/Tuesday between returning and the end of the season, maybe we will. Will we have a thrilling climax to a game twice in 96 hours?

There is only so much that can be written about Gateshead, Easter Monday 2017. The history books show an outcome, but not a story. City were, for want of a better word, woeful for 89 minutes of a dour and unentertaining encounter. Those with selective memories will forget that, but like a long drawn out film with an explosive ending, the whole tale of the game is only dramatic if told from the start. The only real action of the first 45 minutes was a foul committed in our area by Sean Raggett, one which led to a penalty stroked home with ease by Patrick Mclaughlin. Elsewhere, Tranmere easily swept aside Guiseley, with another Imps connection helping make it a contest: Derek Asamoah scored late for Guiseley.

It meant Tranmere would be back on our heels with three matches to go, and although our fate was in our hands, the team looked shattered. Danny Cowley knew it too, he spoke ahead of the game about us being off method in some of our run in. There’s no surprise though, the trip to Gateshead was our 58th matches of the season. It was only Gateshaead’s 48th and over at Guiseley, Tranmere were taking part in their 52nd. We had Sam Habergham and Paul Farman playing through injuries and the lads were dead on their feet.

It showed too, we were lacklustre, beaten and despondent, but as we had already proven that Easter, we were never beaten. In the last minute, a driven cross from Sean Long caught the arm of Jamal Fyfield and Peter Wright pointed to the same spot he had done 61 minutes earlier. A roar went up from the travelling supporters as if a goal had been scored, and seconds later it was. Rheady stepped up and blasted home his 15th league goal of the season, levelling proceedings. On the touchline, Danny Cowley rushed to get his players back in their half. We were into injury time, but he knew then what we know now: City could score again. Adam Marriott retrieved the ball and put it back on the centre spot, ready for history to be written.

Courtesy Graham Burrell

The ball worked its way back to Paul Farman to punt it forward. He hit it long and deep, with the commentators saying even with the Rheady penalty, Tranmere made up two points. They had barely finished when it dropped onto the big man’s head for a flick on to Nathan Arnold, who swivelled and volleyed past Dan Hanford. City had been losing 1-0 seconds earlier, but just as we had on Good Friday, it became 2-1. Pure delirium.

I can’t watch the video now without getting goosebumps, it was perhaps one of the most significant moments in our recent history. Sure, Ipswich and Burnley were huge, but they didn’t get us our Football League status back, did they? No, those two games did. Had we lost those two matches, we would have finished on 93 points, one behind Tranmere, Had we drawn one and lost one, we would have been level on points with Mickey Mellon’s side, relying on goal difference. How different might those final three matches have been? A week later, Terry Hawkridge bagged a brace against Macclesfield and we got our Football League status back, something I pray we don’t lose again in my lifetime.

There have been many Easter weekends the Imps have been in action and I hope to bring you an article on my favourite Easter Monday pre-Cowley tomorrow, but in the meantime suck this article in, enjoy it, and come back refreshed and ready for more history to be written this April.