Tomorrow, the Imps will look to secure a place in a play-off final for the first time in 16 years.
It was May 21st 2005 when we travelled to Moss Rose in great numbers to see if Keith’s heroes could make it a second final appearance in three years. The first leg had been kind, we had a 1-0 lead to defend, and that gave us plenty of confidence. In fact, I’d say I was more confident going there than I will be when tomorrow’s game kicks off.
The Imps travelled in good numbers making up a huge section of the 5,223 crowd. I was one of those in attendance, and I went with Stimmo and my Dad. We went so early, that we even had to wait for the pub to open in Macclesfield at 11 am. Best to beat the rush, right?
City really were a team packed with aerial ability that afternoon. We lined up Marriott, McCombe, Morgan, Futcher, McAuley, Sandwith, Butcher, Gain, Taylor-Fletcher, Yeo, Green, with Asamoah, Bloomer and Beevers all coming on. Unused subs were Hanlon and the keeper, Simon Rayner.
Conceding early would mean the Imps had to battle back once again, but within 15 minutes of kick off we looked home and hosed. It was the £10,000 buy from Coleraine who turned hero: Gareth McAuley. In a team of giants, he was the one who used his head once again to give us a 2-0 aggregate advantage. From there, we had an hour of party atmosphere in the stands, utterly convinced we were going to League One. It was the pinnacle of the Keith era, one more season would prove to be too far, but for 60 minutes we were comfortably beating our play-off rivals.
The game wasn’t bad either, after a rather scrappy first encounter. City dominated throughout the early stages, Paul Harsley was forced to clear off the line from McCombe’s flick. We sang, we cheered and we looked forward to our day in Cardiff. The last time we went, in 2003, we went as the underdogs. In 2005, we feared nobody at all, this time we meant it.
With 15 minutes left, Harsley equalised for Town and to a degree, that put us on edge. They say 2-0 is a dangerous scoreline, but it isn’t half as dangerous as 2-1 (actually it probably is exactly half as dangerous), and that serves as a warning on Saturday as much as it did 16 years ago. The songs didn’t die out, but they came with a few more breaks and a bit less exuberance.
In the scheme of things, with that wonderful thing insight, it meant next to nothing. They still needed a goal which was not to come, but we didn’t know that. Danny Whitaker almost forced extra time, but then another hero saved us. Alan Marriott tipped his shot over. The minutes ebbed away until finally, we got a full time whistle. City were going to Cardiff, again.
Keith was delighted, coming out with the sort of rhetoric we never tired of hearing: “The team worked their socks off again and we got the right result. The fans were magnificent – we were lucky to get 2,000 a few years ago but now we’ve taken 2,000 away with us. Macclesfield had to try and score – we get slaughtered for having two or three big ‘uns, but we don’t score many from set-pieces so we’re delighted.”
As for Brian Horton, the beaten manager, he showed some class with his comments: “We were tremendous in the second half – we’ve lost to two set-pieces over the two games, but credit to Lincoln, they were organised and good luck to them.”
Good luck indeed, confidence was still high, despite the late flurry of Macclesfield pressure. Northampton and Southend faced each other in the other semi-final and only a solitary goal separated those teams over two legs. Freddie Eastwood’s penalty decided who we would face and who we would not, and those two sides had played out a tepid brace of games. It looked like the Imps side, grown and developed over three years, were finally going to get what they deserved.
They didn’t, but if we triumph tomorrow then you can read about the final in a week or so. If we lose, the play-off memories series ends, abruptly!