Play-Off Memories: Our First National Final

Credit - Graham Burrell

I think the title sums up how we felt 18 years ago today.

The Imps were there in our first ever major final appearance at a national stadium, denied the chance to appear at Wembley for the first time. In 2001/02, the season ended with us unsure as to whether we’d even have a club to support a year later. In 2002/03, we were 90 minutes from the third-tier and bursting with pride.

To a degree, the achievement came in being in the top seven in May, and then beating Scunthorpe over two legs. If you missed those articles, you can find a bit about the first leg here and a bit about the second leg here. Those wins, 6-3 on aggregate, ensured we went to face Bournemouth in Cardiff, but we felt delighted just to be there. Remember Arsenal in the FA Cup? It was a bit like that, it felt like a day out and the reward for our endeavour, not the final step of the journey. It didn’t matter, to a degree, if we won or lost, although obviously, we wanted to go up. Did that go against us? Not in the semi-finals, the only play off appearance in seven in which we have won both legs, but we went to Cardiff as the underdog and, sadly, played a bit like it too.

Credit Graham Burrell

It is a tough one to recollect, because my memories are very personal and I’ve never watched the actual game back. I have it somewhere on VHS video, but we lost, heavily, and despite the feelings of pride I didn’t want to watch it again. I suppose it would be a bit like having a son as a boxer – you’d be delighted if he got a world title shot, but you wouldn’t watch it back if he got his ass kicked, would you?

Oddly, much like now, I had been on holiday in Devon with my Mum the week before. I had to secure a ticket whilst away and in those days, mobile signal was rare. We were in a place called Challaborough Bay, and I couldn’t get hold of anyone. The club phone lines were blocked and although I had left the Poacher suit at the club and told them I’d be there, I couldn’t get confirmation of such.

I began to panic, believing that not only may I not get to go out in the suit, but I might not even be able to get to the game. If the club thought I was on holiday then maybe they weren’t going to save me a couple of tickets. I could be about to miss the biggest day in the club’s history. How odd, that 18 years on, I have a similar fear, only this time I’m not Poacher. Funny how history repeats itself, lets hope the result is different next week!

I did eventually get through to the club, and secured my place, as well as buying a ticket to make sure at my Uncle’s in Exeter. The same Uncle, Keith, also attended the 2005 final with me, our win against Macclesfield in 2017 and our 2018 Wembley appearance. I also saw him yesterday, so again there might be an omen there. Funnily enough, the last time I saw him before this week was play-off final day back in 2019 when Sunderland lost to Charlton….

Courtesy of Graham Burrell

On that wet afternoon in Wales, the roof of the stadium was closed and that created a very humid atmosphere which was especially unsettling for me in the Poacher suit. Surprisingly there was very little I could do around the Millennium Stadium turf. I was only allowed to patrol a small ‘L’ shaped section of pathway behind the advertising hoardings, which meant my resources for mischief-making were limited. The atmosphere in the ground was strangely dampened by the fact that the roof had been closed. It felt like a massive sports hall with sound echoing around it in an eerie manner. There may well have been 30,000 in the stands, but the capacity is closer to eighty which meant it sounded (and looked) a bit empty. That said, the rousing rendition of Hey Jude before the game was spine-tingling.

The changing area I used was clearly a conference room with those temporary dividers that you see in office blocks. Cherry Bear, the mascot from Bournemouth, was already getting changed when I arrived and I tried to engage him in small talk, but the man clearly wasn’t interested. I asked why he never came to Sincil Bank to which he replied we ‘create a horrible and aggressive atmosphere’. Secretly, I was quite proud of that, and I just ignored him after. He was tense, I was just enjoying the day out.

The game itself was unremarkable for the Imps. We lined up Marriott, Weaver, Morgan, Futcher, Bailey, Butcher, Gain, Bimson, Smith, Cropper and Mayo. Cornelly, Willis and Yeo all came on as subs whilst Sedgemore and Bloomer were unused. It wasn’t a classic from our perspective, we were never really in it and it all felt like an occasion rather than a contest. The first 30 minutes were uninspiring, our direct approach leaving them chasing loose balls and neither side got into their rhythm. They scored first through Steve Fletcher, and we got a brief glimpse of hope when Ben Futcher headed us level. He got ahead of his marker, Steve Fletcher, and nodded home from four yards out.

Credit LCFC

The lead didn’t last long. Carl Fletcher headed them ahead just before half time. After the break, Stephen Purches and Garreth O’Connor netted to make it 4-1. Mark Bailey gave the scoreline a bit of respectability with another headed goal, his first for the Imps, after sub Chris Cornelly put in a pinpoint cross, but it was wiped out by another Carl Fletcher strike. Bournemouth were a very good side who by rights should have gone up automatically. We’d stormed the promotion party late on but had won few friends with our direct style of play. We were the team of grafters, the plucky underdogs who would eventually be found out on the big stage.

And so, it came to pass. We lost the game by five goals to two. Towards the end of the game, I made my way down to the tunnel area where I could collect the suit and deposit it back onto the coach. I was held back for five minutes as the players came off the pitch, all united in grief at our loss. The most upset player to wander past me had to be Stuart Bimson, his rough burly demeanour being let down by floods of tears running down his face. I felt the same emptiness as the players did at that moment and standing there, watching them come past, I felt privileged to be part of that inner sanctum. In 121 years, nobody had witnessed a Lincoln City side leaving the pitch after a major domestic final, and yet here I was, witnessing first-hand what it meant to those players.

It was a wonderful occasion, the pinnacle of a season in which we’d surprised the division, the football world and ourselves. In the end, we always knew we might come up a little short and the right team won, without a doubt. It seems like a different life and much has happened to the club since then. We were back there two years later and were not going to simply make up the numbers on that occasion, although the outcome was the same. In 2021, will we finally see Lincoln City break a play-off hoodoo that first reared it’s head almost two decades ago?