I’ve done a few interviews and bits of late, where I’m often asked questions such as ‘how has it been as a fan in the pandemic?’, and ‘do you feel disconnected from your club?’.
I know plenty of people do, but what is disconnecton, really? We spend what, a couple of hours on a Saturday at the ground, 23 times over? 46 hours of physically being at the ground? That’s two full days in a year of 356. We’re not actually there that much. For many, including me, there has been an element of connection this season, watching every kick of the ball is a luxury I can ill afford usually, in terms of time and money. I could never get to Portsmouth on a Tuesday night, yet I watched my side win at Fratton Park this season, every kick of the game. How is that being disconnected? The nature of being a fan may have changed, but I’d argue it isn’t all about disconnection. I appreciate this is just me and there are fans and friends of mine who feel that the last year has changed them and how they feel about the club, but let me tell you, real disconnection doesn’t always come from not being able to watch games. If it did, fans who live in Bari, or New Zealand or the United States would drift away, would they not?
If you want a typical instance of real disconnection, then you must rewind time by exactly ten years to the day. As I write this at 3.15pm, it strikes me that ten years ago, I was sitting in the stands at Sincil Bank, utterly devoid of any sort of connection to my club. To all intents and purposes, I was there out of habit.
Many of you, if not most of you, will remember 2010/11. It’s mentioned now in hushed tones, occasionally rolled out as an example of where things went wrong, but it was a horror of a season. We started badly, rallied under a new manager who seemed the real deal then, inexplicably, collapsed like the retail arm of Debenhams. Needing just a single win from 11 matches, we went from the cusp of an unlikely play-off place to the National League. Watching on from the stands that afternoon in 2011, few thought we had a chance of stating up.
You know how a relegation-haunted team usually rallies late on? We didn’t do that. You know how heroes emerge from the gloom (Jimmy Glass for instance) to at least give you hope? We didn’t do that. You know how it is the hope that kills you? We were in no threat of that, because we had no hope. We were led to our deaths like a cow from the field and ended up as the main meal for National League teams the following season. We were butchered, slaughtered and few felt that anything could be done about it.
Our opponents were Aldershot Town, themselves with one win in seven. All we needed to do was match or better Barnet’s result, a draw would have been enough if they’d done the same against Port Vale. It was a tragedy of epic proportions though, in that fans were more hopeful of Barnet not getting the result they needed than they were of us getting anything. I vividly recall going into Waitrose petrol station on the way to the game and being asked by the guy behind the counter if we could do it. ‘Nope’ was my response. Everyone felt the club were already down, despite having a two-point cushion over Barnet. We had 47 points, they had 45. A draw wouldn’t be enough if they won, but anything other than a BArnet win and we were safe, our result mattered not.
Sadly, that’s exactly how the team played, as if it really didn’t matter. I couldn’t name the team, I know we had Elliot Parrish in goal and I know through the course of the season we’d played something like 30 different players in the league (33 to be precise, just checked), and after leading scorer Ashley Grimes on 15, the next highest scorer was Josh O’Keefe on four. We had signed eleven loan players since the start of the campaign, and added others (Kanyucka for instance) on short-term deals. You couldn’t predict a starting line-up each week because you often lost track of who we had, who we didn’t and where everyone played. Tom Kilbey, remember him? Nope, didn’t think so. I watched every home game that season, including the three home matches he started (aggregate score 12-0 against). I didn’t know what he looked like until last year.
That is disconnection. There were few players any fan could identify with over the course of the season (Danny Hone, Paul Green and Scott Kerr maybe the exceptions, but only Green was involved ten years ago). The manager often seemed not to care, something many at the time, myself included, put down to a squad issue rather than a Tilson issue. It was easy to blame the jokers who pulled on the shirt that season, the likes of Ben Hutchinson, Drewe Broughton, Ali Fuseini, and Gavin McCallum to name but a few. What is really sad is the ones we backed at the time: Delroy Facey, Cian Hughton, Clarke Keltie, all of whom really weren’t effective at all. It was like pinning your hopes on the only horse with four legs in a race, even though the horse had a hole in the heart and asthma.
At half time of the game, it was 0-0 at our place and 0-0 at Barnet. We were staying up, not because we did anything ourselves, we were utter shit, but because Barnet couldn’t score. The difference was the Bees believed, they played with passion according to the BBC report and deserved the goal they got just after halftime. Izzie McLeod was fouled, he got up and bagged the penalty. From that moment on, our fate was sealed. Not one person in Sincil Bank believed we could win that game, not a fan, steward, player or manager. It was a limp performance, devoid of anything fans could hang on to for hope. Less than ten minute after Barnet scored, Aldershot did the same from the penalty spot, something Danny Hylton really enjoyed (the bastard), but we did not.
That was that. For the remaining 33 minute we watched our club curl up in a ball and get kicked again and again. Luke Gutteridge loved a goal against City, he added two, but long before his 69th minute effort that doubled Aldershot’s lead, Imps fans were somewhere else. I made my way around to the DJ booth, as I was Poacher back then, and spent the last ten minutes watching television, hoping for a Port Vale goal. There was no hope at the Bank, the team being kicked to death on the field were not my Lincoln City, they were an imposter wearing our red and white stripes. Hell, when it was finally confirmed (in front of our biggest crowd of the season) there was a pitch invasion, kids laughing and joking into the television cameras. In the stands, those who cared, cried. Outside the ground there was some anger, but mainly acceptance. Nobody had expected anything else. Over at Underhill, a group of players and fans, truly united and full of hope and belief, celebrated staying up. I suppose I might have felt some comfort if I’d been told that in 2012/13, both Barnet and Aldershot would feel the same pain I felt at that time as they were relegated. Aldershot haven’t been back, Barnet have, but have since gone again. Doubtless, their fans felt pain when they were relegated, but did they feel like an orphaned child looking at what used to be his home, wondering where the all the love went? No? Well, I did ten years ago today.
At the time, I spent a lot of time listening to the US punk band Rancid, and one song stood out for me in the hours after that utter debacle. I confess, I didn’t immediately realise how apt the title was (Disconnected), but the lyrics that I recall are these: ‘My memories are only for me, I prefer them to reality’. I recall sitting in my armchair that evening, skint, sad, broken and alone, listening to that album and that track, thinking that at least I had my memories, those of Keith’s team, of 1988, hell even of the 1997/98 promotion side. I had my memories and boy, were they better than the reality the club were living through.
Why do I write this melancholy diatribe against a team of players and management long-since broken up and consigned to the scrapheap? Simple, because it adds context and relevance to this very day. If you’d told me ten years ago, as I sat drunken and crying outside the ground, that in just over a decade we’d be given a chance of Championship football in the play-offs, I’d have asked for a cigarette packed full of whatever you’d been smoking, because that lack of reality was what I needed to ease the burning pain of relegation. There was no way that broken club, that could only attract more than 3,500 fans when it was out of morbid curiosity at how we’d die, could ever succeed. The business model was broken and brave souls such as Bob Dorrian were amongst the few who believed it could ever be salvaged. To be where we are now feels like I’ve crashed a Nissan Micra, taken it to the scrapyard and somehow the guys there have taken the parts from my wrecked vehicle and made me a Ferrari.
The other reason I write this is because of something I was once told by a very good friend who has no connection to football whatsoever. He refers to himself as biker trash and will occasionally message me anti-football rhetoric, because he simply does not wish to understand what I see in the game. I was round at his, maybe even around the same time as the Imps were relegated, bemoaning my life at the time (which was shit as I explained here). He listened, intently, before dropping this nugget of wisdom: ‘Well Gaz‘, he started, before a gentle pause for effect. ‘You have got to have bad days I’m afraid mucka, because otherwise how do you tell what a good day is?‘.
How do you tell indeed? Is losing 3-1 to Charlton in a dead rubber match with a top six spot assured really a cause for serious concern? Are we really disconnected from a club that is sixth best in the country at fan engagement, having been able to watch every kick of the action this season, albeit from a TV? If we were going to the game on Sunday, would we be able to imagine sitting in the stands never once believing we’d score a goal, let alone get a point? No, of course not. If you remember that burning sting of May 7th 2011, then you know that any result this season isn’t really a bad day.
The fan experience has changed this season, granted, but I have to argue that disconnected is a word not to be used lightly. You really haven’t felt disconnection until you have spent 30 minutes of a Lincoln City game watching teletext for another team’s result, unsure of who the XI players are shaming your club not fifteen feet away from you. Ten years ago, Lincoln City was disconnected from its fans. In 2021, the club is merely forced apart from them, but maintains regular contact and promises that very soon, we’ll be back together, like the fairytale ending of a long-distance love story.