Thank the lord that we don’t play Sunderland today, because May 12th is a date on which we have twice contested a play-off encounter.
The first time we appeared in the final stages of the season on this date was 2007. That season has drawn comparisons with this one, perhaps a little unfairly. We played tremendous football in the early part of the campaign, but couldn’t win a raffle by the time it got around to winter. There were no serious injuries to blame either, we just got found out.
From leading the table at the end of August, we clung to fifth. What was galling was the fact between February 17th and the final day of the season, we won just once, but we were only eleven points outside the top three. We lost to Hereford 4-1 at home, they finished 16th, we also lost to Mansfield at home (2-1 and they finished 17th), Wrexham (3-0 and 19th), drew with Accrington (2-2 and 20th) and Grimsby (0-0, 15th). It was a horrible run, and by the time Chester rolled up on the final day, there was a real air of apathy around the ground.
We won that game, 2-0, putting us into the play-offs against Bristol Rovers, but it didn’t spark excitement. After 16 matches, we were top and they were down in 17th, the gap between us a whopping 16 points, but they finished sixth to our fifth, and we’d drawn 0-0 with them a couple of weeks before the end of the season. In fact, the only goal in the two meetings in the league came from the penalty spot in the home game, but history mattered little. They boasted Rickie Lambert and Richard Walker, had reached the final of the EFL Trophy and had lost one in eleven league matches.
A few years later, I recall chuckling into the bottom of a pint glass at feeling such apathy and disappointment at finishing in a play-off spot. We’d likely just lost to Bromley, or Woking, or Salisbury, and I felt that wonderful thing ‘hindsight’. Enjoy the good times, even if they’re unsuccessful. Sadly, four play-off defeats in a row had been interpreted as a failure, rather than consistency by many fans. We consistently finished in the top seven of League Two, and felt we should be top three. Never lose sight of where you are because you’re looking at where you’d like to be.
It was the first Lincoln City play-off game I missed, and the only one up until my back operation. I felt no excitement and genuinely couldn’t see how we’d get a result. Because of that, I took my place in the Varsity (I think it was still the Varsity at the time) and watched on the screens there, as I had most of the World Cup the summer before. People talk about a feeling of disconnection now, but let me tell you a few bad results and the expectancy of a play-off defeat creates the same. We’d been the losers four years in a row and all the rhetoric was about it being five on the spin.
The worst thing about it was the fact the Imps looked great on paper. We lined up Marriott, Morgan, Beevers, Eaden, Brown, Green, Frecklington, Hughes, Kerr, Forrester and Stallard. On the bench were Rayner, May and Amoo unused, with Mendes and Gritton both getting on the field. As well as Walker and Lambert, The Gas boasted Craig Disley, an excellent player on his day, and a young Matt Green on the bench.
There were more than 10,000 fans in the Memorial Stadium, and before the ten-minute mark, they had the lead. Ten minutes was all it took to do what they hadn’t managed in 180 in the league, score past the Imps. Lambert was the provider, his cross was headed past Marriott for the opening goal. Not long after, Lambert’s free-kick had to be saved by Mazza, as the home side looked in complete control.
We did level, Jeff Hughes struck a superb free-kick to level things on the half-hour. He was our best player by a mile, and we appearing for the penultimate time for the Imps. He looked likely to be our saviour with clever runs, but we just never got the other ten on the same page.
In the second period, Mazza was back in action, saving well from Disley, then again from a superb Lewis Haldane volley. If there were to be a winner (which we know there was), it was only ever going to be the home side. The decisive goal did at least come from a future England international. A quick free-kick by Steve Elliott found Lambert, who succinctly volleyed home to give the Gas the lead, and the game.
Still they pressed forward, Lambert heading wide on 70 minutes, then Disley narrowly missing a cross from Sean Rigg in the dying moments. The game ended 2-1, with the Imps needing at least two clear goals in the second leg: a big ask from a side that had only won by such a margin twice since thrashing Rochdale 7-1 in October.
“Obviously we’re disappointed not to have got a positive result from this game,” said John Schofield after the game. “But I think we can take enough out of this game to believe we’re still very much in this tie. We just have to make sure we are switched on and ready for the fight at Sincil Bank for the second leg.”