As we move towards a play-off campaign, I thought I might do a short series looking back at some of our previous play-off matches.
The first, which will forever remain etched in my mind because it was the first time Lincoln City had ever reached the play offs, came against Scunthorpe United in 2003.
For those who have arrived at the Bank post-2003, it is hard to truly put into words what those few weeks meant at the end of the year. We’d been in decline ever since relegation from the third tier in 1999, watching a cash-strapped club desperately trying to survive on and off the field. We had good players, make no mistake about that, but often they simply didn’t get the chance to shine, or were unable to due to tactics or teammates. That might sound harsh, but for every Peter Gain (who was a youngster at the time) there was an Adam Buckley, for every Justin Walker, an Ian Hamilton, for every John Finnigan, a David Phillips. Marcus Stergiopolous went on to play with Hristo Stoichkov in America but was dropped for an ageing Kingsley Black at City. It was like watching a club committing slow-motion suicide, broken financially and yet also seemingly only ever a couple of steps away from having a decent side, especially with Paul Mayo emerging from the youth team. That year Chesterfield won our division, and yet we beat them 4-1 in the LDV Vans and 2-1 in the league; we weren’t far away, but always ended up failing our potential.
Then ITV Digital collapsed and the shivering, broken club seemingly drew its last breath. We went into administration, most of our talent had to leave to seek pastures new and the fat lady cleared her throat and checked up on the lyric of the death march. I’ve written before about how the fear of losing your club affects you mentally. Not knowing if there will be a Lincoln City the following season left a dark shadow over the whole summer and just emerging from that spell with a club to support was huge. I remember chatting to my Dad, explaining how anything outside the bottom two was going to be a success for us. It truly felt that way when we drew 1-1 with Kidderminster on the opening day, we had a ‘just glad to be here’ air to our team.
That is why, when early May 2003 brought a 1-1 draw with Torquay and qualification for the play-offs, it seemed like a lottery win. Lincoln City, the team written off at the start of the season, the team on its knees begging to be put out of its misery a year before, had survived and thrived. Keith’s men had delivered our first ever play-off place and it felt like Christmas, birthday, Easter and the time I met Lisa Faulkner all rolled into one. Standing between us and the first-ever appearance at a national stadium was Scunthorpe United.
We’d already beaten them on aggregate through the season, not that it mattered. In September 2002 Brian Laws side were beaten 1-0 courtesy of Ben Futcher’s goal. Jamie McCombe came on for the Iron that day, but to no avail. Later in the season we earned a 0-0 draw there, uninspiring but enough to ensure we finished in the top seven. Those results all counted for very little fifteen years ago today though, as Keith’s assortment of cast offs, non-league hopefuls and grafters took to the field against Brian Laws slick Iron side. We had Dene Cropper up front, Simon Yeo on the bench despite his first goal in seven months putting us in the semi-finals, and Ben Sedgemore in the centre of the park.
Scunthorpe had a far better side of individuals, but as Ben Sedgemore always said, we were far greater than the sum of our parts. They boasted Paul Hayes and Martin Carruthers, long before both became tired veterans. They had a tired veterans, Peter Beagrie, as good a veteran as you’ve seen in the basement division to be fair to him. Alex Calvo-Garcia was a Spaniard of some quality too, wherever you looked they oozed quality.
We weren’t there to make up the numbers though, not one bit. Keith Alexander’s teams had a similar mentality to that off Danny Cowley’s team, refuse to lose. Often that side was tactically naïve, there wasn’t really a plan B other than lump a big defender upfront, but anyone facing Lincoln City in 2003 knew they’d been in a battle. Despite our great season, the crowd of 8902 was phenomenal. We’d started the season getting 3,000 or so, much like the 2016/17 campaign, and grown from there.
Keith revitalised Lincoln City. As the red and whites shirts ran onto the sandy Sincil Bank, we all had pride running through our veins. We hadn’t finished top six with a Bozzie or Neal Eardley, we’d done it with former Ilkeston defenders and Worksop strikers. Deep down, right in the pit of my 24-year old stomach, I thought we’d be beaten. Mark Lillis had run out onto the pitch and stuck a flag in front of the travelling support, akin to Souness in Turkey, which only served to heightened the tension. They were confident and for some reason, I was not.
After 20 minutes I’d already shed a tear, Paul Mayo and Simon Weaver had given us a shock 2-0 lead. Weaver’s goal wouldn’t look out of place in 2016/17, a whipped free kick from near the corner flag nodded in at the far post. If we’re honest, their defending was poor, but ‘Horse’ as he was effectively-known didn’t care.
As for Mayo’s goal, I know my podcast co-host Ben rates it as one of the finest he’s seen at Sincil Bank, and it was a great moment for our homegrown youngster. Richard Butcher hooked a hopeful ball back in, perhaps looking for a head. Instead, he found Paul Mayo twisting expertly to volley in an exquisite second. The collection of misfits were sticking a middle finger up to the form book.
Scunny pulled a goal back before half time, one which filled me with injustice at the time. It shouldn’t have, a scrambled effort crossed the line but got hooked away and the referee gave it. At 24, I used to have rose-tinted glasses, I had rose-tinted everything back then and I swore it hadn’t crossed the line. “I was right in front of it,” I lamented to anyone who’d listen at half time. “We’ve been robbed.” We weren’t robbed. Heading into the second half, the game was as delicately poised as they come at 2-1.