Play-Off Memories: Robbed in West Yorkshire

Credit Graham Burrell

May 19 is a day that could go down in Imps history if we win tonight, but it is a date that already holds some play-off significance.

It is the date upon which the second leg of our play-off semi-final with Huddersfield Town was played 17 years ago. Quite how 17 years have passed, I will never know, because I remember this day with clarity as though it were yesterday.

If you missed my article on the first leg, you can visit it here.

The second leg promised to be one of those matches where we had to go for it, fighting back from a 2-1 deficit. There was no second chances and no George Cain, which was a blessing. This time the referee was to be Mike Pike, a name that perhaps won’t be remembered with as much vitriol, but should be.

Anyone who thinks Lincoln travelling in numbers is a new phenomenon should have a look at the picture below of the packed away end. City sold out the allocation and could have done so twice over I’m informed. We may have trailed 2-1 from the first leg, but Keith instilled belief in his sides, and in the fans. This season it felt like we were as ready to go up as we’d ever be. Just because we were losing was no reason to assume we’d roll over and let the Terriers into the final.

Huddersfield away – Courtesy of Graham Burrell

There were almost 20,000 fans in the stadium that evening, and the game does have strong comparisons with this season. City had been robbed by a referring decision which was condemned throughout football in the game against Huddersfield, much as we were against Posh earlier this month. Our opponents were playing at the lowest level they had ever played at, like Sunderland are now, and had the burden of expectation on their shoulders.

When you look at the Imps side, it is as good as I felt it got under Keith. We lined up Marriott, Bailey, McCombe, Bloomer, Futcher, Ellison, Butcher, Gain, Fletcher, Richardson and Yeo. Francis Green and Aron Wilford came on for City, whilst the unused subs were Sedgemore, Sandwith and Weaver.

Before the game I remember walking into the bar at the ground, unaware we weren’t really meant to be there. As we walked through the door everyone stopped and stared, it was like the wild west, even the pool balls on the table turned to look at us. We made our way to the bar and stood there for ten minutes, not being served. All around us, people were getting beers whilst we got ignored. I wasn’t going to be put off so I tried to force my way in when this huge hand came down in between my friend and me and landed on the bar. It had HTFC tattooed on the fingers and looked like it belonged to Bigfoot. The barman looked above me to whatever lurked behind and asked what he wanted, and this strong Yorkshire voice said “These two have been waiting too long. Serve them. Now.”

We turned to say thanks and the giant said “You best leave when you’ve had them.” I’ve never downed a pint so quick.

Butch makes it 1-0 Credit LCFC

In the ground things weren’t quite as scary, City clearly arrived eager to redress the balance. There was a little betting booth at the back of the ground and I stuck £10 on us to win 2-0 and Butch to score first at 65-1. I thought it was a good bet and maybe, were it not for Mr Pike, it would have been.

In what later became a typical Peter Jackson style performance, Huddersfield looked shell-shocked as we hit them with everything we had and the first half really belonged to the boys in dark blue. On 38 minutes a Mark Bailey ball into the box caused chaos, Marcus Richardson getting between the keeper and Efe Sodje, they all collided and in the confusion, Richard Butcher hooked the ball into an empty net. The 3,000 odd travelling fans erupted although perhaps the video replays suggest it was the boos from the home support that were loudest. They expected to win this and we had got ourselves back into the tie. Within 60 seconds, we’d turned it on its head.

Bailey celebrates the second – Credit LCFC

This time Bailey was the scorer, Richardson involved yet again. A ball from the left found Richardson who in turn cleverly picked out Bailey. He took the ball on his chest, strode past his defender and slotted home the Imps second of the game. 2-0 on the night, 3-2 on aggregate and suddenly Lincoln City were going to Cardiff again.

It is hard to describe the feeling that followed those goals and through halftime. The thoughts that one year after our defeat to Bournemouth, we were going back and would surely be favourites. The thought that the mighty Huddersfield, who seemed a huge club for us to be playing, were getting a good boot. The most overwhelming feeling for me was the joy at the £650 I should be pocketing on the way out of the ground.

Huddersfield came out all guns blazing but City defended resolutely. Iffy Onoura believed he had a penalty shout when he headed into the chest of Ben Futcher, but the replays don’t show a handball. Referee Mike Pike correctly turned the appeals away, but the 16,000 home fans got right on his back and not long afterwards, he buckled. A long ball over the top had Jamie McCombe chasing Andy Booth, the latter tumbling theatrically in the area. The linesman gave it, the referee gave it and to this day I argue it wasn’t a penalty. Booth dived. We’d been robbed once again, of a place at Cardiff and me personally of £650.

I’m not sure Bailey felt confident in Wilford’s ability… Credit LCFC

They scored to level the tie, leaving us 2-1 up on the night and in fairness after that they got the crowd behind them. With seven minutes left on the clock, Rob Edwards struck a decisive effort from twelve yards to give them the win. In the stands, we were heartbroken, the perceived injustice burning harder than the defeat. Edwards goal had been well taken and on the balance of play, a draw seemed fair, but we’d been cheated. Again. Even now, seventeen years later, I watch that penalty and it upsets me.

The aftermath wasn’t nice, their fans invaded the pitch and I recall Kevin Ellison giving one of them a jab to the temple as he goaded him. I liked Ellison, seeing that made me hopeful we’d find the £100k needed to bring him to the Bank permanently. We didn’t.

On the way out of the ground we got lots of stick from home fans, all very happy they’d beaten long-ball Lincoln, ironically helped by a dodgy penalty from a long ball. Peter Jackson made typically Jacko comments after the game too, ensuring when he eventually turned up at Sincil Bank that he never had my backing.

Credit LCFC

Ellison didn’t sign, Mark Bailey left and perhaps the finest Imps team of a generation began to break up. We had one more season before Gain, Butcher and Taylor-Fletcher left, amongst others, but many think that evening was the one chance we had to truly kick on.

What it did teach me, what we can still hold dear today, is that success breeds success. Even losing Ellison and Bailey didn’t stop our surge to three more semi-finals. Remember, success is catching and it breeds. We won’t be losing key players this summer, so whatever the outcome against Sunderland tonight, we’re staying on this upward trajectory.

I just hope it isn’t the referee we’re talking about in 48 hours time, or a dive or poor decision, because in a league season you can move quickly on from them but believe me, in a play-off semi-final the pain never subsides. To a degree, I’ve forgotten the penalty against Luke Waterfall against York and I won’t forget the penalty awarded to Posh either, but if the same happens tomorrow I’ll be writing about it with a tear in my eye well into my 60s.