This evening, some of us lucky Lincoln City supporters are going home.
Before I write anything about a Sincil Bank return, I want to focus on those who have not got a ticket, those loyal fans who either could not enter the ballot, or those that did and were subsequently not successful. I cannot begin to imagine how those people feel, but I can empathise.
Our last foray into the play-offs came in 2018 when we faced a two-legged tie against Exeter, Sadly, I had a back operation as I’m sure many of you know, and I couldn’t get to Sincil Bank for the home leg. Watching such a crucial game on television felt wrong, like a bad dream with me looking on at a place I should be. I would have travelled to Exeter too, but instead spent that night on my sofa watching both that and the finals of the Football Blogging Awards, in which I was nominated. Those were horrible experiences, but I had still had the pleasure of a whole season watching City, seeing us win at Wembley and generally being around the club.
So, to my mates Roy and Nick, and to anyone else who did not get a ticket, I do understand to a degree how it will feel and I just hope that we get through the two matches and give you (those of you that can go) a chance of seeing this fine team at Wembley.
I was lucky enough to get a ticket in the ballot for my Dad and me. I haven’t put much at all on social media about it, I wanted to keep a certain dignity as I know it is an emotive subject for those who were not successful. It is an odd feeling and I sense tonight will be a bit like a kid’s school play that one parent has to miss. It will be a good event and some will remember it fondly, but it won’t quite be as good as it could be. The roar of 3,000 fans can be loud, we made it loud back in 2002/03, but it won’t be the same as 10,000. That said, I’m not negative about going back, I have just tempered my own excitement somewhat.
The thing to remember is this: it is a return to the ground, but not a return to normal. There will be no fans congregating in the fan zone for beers and chatter. There will be no half time break mingling with your mates chewing over the first half. There will be no bouncing up and down from the 617, no hugging a random stranger behind you if we get a last-gasp winner. It’s football Jim, but not as we know it.
In fact, tonight’s game is a one-off occasion as a supporter that I do hope we’ll never experience again, but also that over 3,000 will be able to say ‘they were there’. Limited fan numbers, a different pre-match routine and some faces not being there make it an event like no other before, or after. There will be utter elation at seeing the boys live, in the stands, for the first time in more than a year. I have been lucky enough to attend two matches this season, Liverpool and Wimbledon, but both were behind glass. This is different, this will be a chance to be where I feel most at home (other than home, obviously) and experiencing football as it should be, although on the other hand, not as it should be as well!
Personally, it is going to be nice being back in the Stacey West. I watched almost all of my football from there as a lad, and went in there whenever away fans were elsewhere throughout my time as a City supporter. I can’t recall the last game I saw from there, but it hasn’t been since I gave up Poacher – it might even be as far back as Tamworth on April 13 2013 – I seem to think after that for some reason I moved to the Coop (certainly I was up there for our 2-1 win against Forest Green a few months later). It will be strange watching from one end, you can’t always see what is going on properly, but it will almost be fitting to be back there, with my Dad, where it all began in 1986. With my season ticket being back up in the Coop, it might be the only game we watched together in the Stacey West for the next eight or nine years as well.
Of course, putting all of the oddities and restrictions aside, this is a massive game for our football club. Preparations haven’t been ideal with Joe Bursik having to come in on loan, but we should still be able to go toe to toe with Sunderland. They’re a good side, but so are we and with a virtually fully fit outfield squad, and I’d back us to be competitive on any day of the week with all of our players fit. That said, the play-offs are a different competition altogether and whilst some believe we are the dark horses to go up, you only have to look at Blackpool last night to see the levels you need. At times this season, we’ve played badly and won, at times we’ve played well and lost. For 180 minutes, we need to play well and win. I don’t think you can play badly at this stage of the season and not be punished, so we need performances as we got away at Portsmouth, at home to Oxford and Charlton and maybe even like we put in at London Road, just for 90 minutes, not 70.
I think that the uncertainty over being back in the ground, how to act and feeling for those who are not there has actually taken away some of my concerns around the game. Other play-off matches have left me worried, anxious, confident and all manner of other feelings, but I’ve thought little about the game, and more about the experience.
That will change, no doubt, the minute those players run out and I envisage a feeling similar to that I experienced at Adams Park back in 2017 for our first game back in the league. Mind you, my attitude it’s changing as I write these words, it is becoming even more real, but unlike others I slept like a baby last night (dribbling but not crying) and haven’t felt worried about the game at all. You know why? Whatever will be, will be. If we go up, we go up. If we do not, I firmly believe we’ll challenge again next season. If the consolation prize is another campaign like this one, then you can’t be too worried about losing, right?
Of course, we want to win and have a stab at the Championship. This is the closest we have been since 1982, is it not? One or two matches from being part of England’s second tier, from competing in the seventh biggest division in Europe. That’s the prize, and to achieve it would feel like winning the lottery. I guess that’s why there’s no worry from me: it feels like we won the lottery twice this season, once with the team’ overachieving and personally, again in the ballot. If you get five numbers and await the sixth on a Saturday, part of you is satisfied with your big win already in the bag and the other part of you might begin to get twitchy as the final ball rattles around in the tube, ready to drop.
Well, tonight at 6 pm the ball will be rattling in the tube. It remains to be seen whether, come the end of May, it is showing our number, but whatever the outcome, Lincoln City and Michael Appleton are already winners. It’s just a shame we can’t all gather around to see if ultimately, they get all six balls and a stab at the Championship.