20th April 2002, Boothferry Park, Hull, approximately 4:51pm, a tantalising pass across the face of the Hull City goal falls into the path of Dave Cameron, writes Kate Jackson.
“Soggy” Dave is less than one yard out, an open goal glaring him in the face, and he misses, denying the Imps a final day victory. The final whistle goes, manager Alan Buckley comes over to talk to the fans and the Hull City fans applaud the Imps behind the goal as they exit the stadium. None of this was particularly unique, except for one very important fact, this could have quite easily been the last ever moment any Imps fans would see Lincoln City FC.
The 2002 collapse of ITV Digital put a hefty strain on clubs that had budgeted for it, and Lincoln City were arguably the first to feel the hit, entering administration and facing the very real prospect of 118 years of history coming to an end. Then chairman Rob Bradley, as well as a group of die-hard fans, made their way to Birmingham High Court, only to hear that the plan that had been put together was unviable (source: the Season Review VHS released at the end of the 2002/3 season). Thankfully, due to some heavy personal sacrifices by the board, and revisions to the plan, the immediate threat of being dissolved was relieved a few days later as the club got a stay of execution.
Out went Alan Buckley, a high earning manager who had struggled in his time at the Imps, replaced by his assistant, Keith Alexander, himself a former Imps player and manager. Out the playing door went club record appearance holder Grant Brown, defensive partner Steve Holmes, leading goalscorer for five years straight Lee Thorpe, and former Player of the Season Justin Walker, but getting rid of high earners that weren’t out of contract, such as Kingsley Black, Ian Hamilton and Tony Battersby proved trickier. There were strong rumours that, whilst most of the players accepted a wage cut to seriously help the situation, at least one of those three refused. Fortunately, they were all gone within weeks of the season beginning, allowing the club to breathe.
Replacing the outgoing players was never going to be easy, and what came in, on paper, was not a Football League squad. Strikers Simon Yeo and Dene Cropper signed from Hyde and Worksop respectively, Simon Weaver from Nuneaton Borough, Adie Mike from Stalybridge Celtic, Ben Futcher from Doncaster Rovers (who were non-league at the time), and Scott Willis from Droylsden. It was a team that many predicted would finish dead last in Division 3, not that any City fan really cared, we were just happy to have a club, and the going through the turnstiles on the opening day at Kidderminster felt like it would never come.
City actually surprised many early on, taking the scalps of several fancied sides, including Scunthorpe and Wrexham. The form did drop off just before Christmas, but the club didn’t look in any danger of the drop as there were too many sides having bad seasons. Imps fans weren’t worried though as, even though the results weren’t necessarily going in our favour, one thing that was always evident in Keith Alexander’s sides was that they were far stronger in the second halves of seasons.
Alexander’s non-league legion, now bolstered by Richard Butcher, Chris Cornelly and several others, gained momentum, losing just once in seventeen games. The Imps were the first side to win at Hull’s new KC Stadium (there was no applauding after that game), humbling table-toppers Hartlepool at Sincil Bank with an impressive 3-0 victory, and a win on the south coast at Bournemouth in the penultimate game of the season, becoming one of only two sides that year to win at Dean Court, all showed how dangerous this side could be on their day.
That win at Bournemouth would give the Imps a three point advantage going into the final day of the season as the race for the Playoffs headed to a conclusion. A point against Torquay United would guarantee City’s first ever venture into the Playoffs, but for the longest time it didn’t feel like it was going to be the Imps’ day. A collision between Paul Morgan and Alan Marriott left Martin Gritton an open goal, which he gleefully prodded in for the Gulls. Torquay also missed a second half penalty, but the pressure seemed to have got to City. Struggling to put two passes together, strikers missing open goals and every decision going against the Imps, coupled with Oxford winning, meant City were set to miss out on the Playoffs on goal difference.
One swing of Simon Yeo’s left foot later and Sincil Bank erupted into a wave of euphoria. No-one really paid attention to the final few minutes. Even now, 18 years later, I couldn’t tell you what happened between the goal and the pitch invasion that greeted the final whistle, and I don’t think I will ever care. All I, and everyone else in the 8,000odd in the crowd that day, will ever care about is that the Imps had made it.
This rag-tag group of players that were deemed as castoffs, not good enoughs and relegation fodder had somehow upset the odds. When teams claim that they have the lowest budget in the division and use it as an excuse for only finishing midtable *cough*Steve Evans*cough*, it’s hard to take them seriously when you support a club that had virtually no budget and still made the Playoffs.
The semi-finals against Scunthorpe were 180 minutes of pretty much every conceivable emotion. There was the delight of City scoring six (and three more that were disallowed), Peter Beagrie being in Mark Bailey’s pocket, Paul Mayo’s sublime volley (which was also his first goal for the club), the resignation when Scunthorpe scored twice in a minute to make it 3-3 at Sincil Bank, and the complete disgust when Brian Laws walked straight past Keith Alexander’s handshake offer, claiming he didn’t see it.
Either way, the only thing that mattered was that the Imps had made the Playoff Finals. Whilst Brian Laws was still wondering why sticking a Scunthorpe flag in the middle of the Glanford Park pitch didn’t work, the Imps were walking out on the Millennium Stadium pitch to compete for a place in Division 2.
On a personal level, it rounded off a perfect season for me. It was the first season in which I went to every game home and away in each first team competition, getting emotionally invested in the club, and it was easily my favourite time supporting the club. Nothing else will ever come close. That season made me fall in love with the club as I had only been a regular since the 2000/1 season and had only experienced poor football up until that point.
A win against Bournemouth in the final would have been a dream come true. With the Imps winning in the south coast just five weeks earlier, City fans were optimistic, but optimism quickly turned into realisation as a quite frankly brilliant Bournemouth swept the Imps aside.
Out of all of the teams that the Imps have faced in the Playoffs down the years, Bournemouth’s XI that day is comfortably the best we faced in my opinion. Man for man, they were better than City. James Hayter, Wade Elliott, Karl Fletcher and Garreth O’Connor would all go on to have consistent careers in the higher leagues, with Elliott even scoring a winning goal in the Championship Playoff Final for Burnley six years later. It was a squad that oozed quality.
Despite Ben Futcher equalising from Steve Fletcher’s opener, a goal from Carl Fletcher on the stroke of half-time changed the game and the Cherries ran away with the game in the second half, but it said it all about City’s fight and spirit that when Mark Bailey made it 4-2, fans were thinking “maybe, just maybe”. City had scored twice in less than a minute a few times during the season, so you never knew. That hope lasted two minutes before Carl Fletcher scored his second of the game to become the first side to score five in a Playoff Final.
I’ve always said that I don’t necessarily mind losing if the opposition were just too good for us, and as long as we put in the effort, and this fit both of those categories.
Despite the disappointment, City had no shame losing from losing that game. Just being there was a victory for the Imps. It was a proverbial middle finger to the so-called experts that had predicted City to get relegated. To an outsider, the celebrations that followed, an open-top bus, chanting during the following season that celebrated our heavy defeat in Cardiff, and how it is looked back fondly on these days, would all seem strange. But to anyone attending Sincil Bank that season, it meant something.
Throughout the season, the bond between the players was evident, emphasising the “Team Lincoln” attitude. Nothing will ever come close to me and whilst I would argue that five of the subsequent six Playoff campaigns would easily beat the 2002/3 team, none have come close to that same level of fight, determination and pure pride that those players showed throughout the year.
We just came up against the wrong team on the day. Had we faced Bury, the team Bournemouth had beaten in the semi-finals, then there would have been a decent chance City would have progressed, but it just wasn’t to be.
It says it all that I have watched the 5-2 defeat to Bournemouth several times since that day, but haven’t once even watched the highlights of our 2-0 defeat to Southend from two years later.
One of the things that could have made a difference in that game, and the season, potentially leading to automatic promotion, was a consistent goalscorer. Because of him scoring 4 goals in 3 games right at the end of the season, many forget that Simon Yeo was not a consistent scorer that season, and Ben Futcher, a defender, outscored him. Yeo arguably got more chances than any other striker would have done in that situation, but at least he turned up and scored that all-important goal.
Dene Cropper was not a Football League quality player, much like Dave Cameron, you would never question his effort, but the level of skill just wasn’t there. Cropper was young and had the right build, and had showed glimpses here and there, such as impressive finishes against Bournemouth and Wrexham in October. Despite that, It was no surprise that he quickly dropped back into non-league after leaving City. He was more successful after leaving City, including scoring 36 in just 27 matches for Woolley Moor United, although for context, they are in the Midlands Regional Leagues.
Chris Ward, Steve Watts, Shayne Bradley, Adie Mike, Luke Cornwall and Danny Webb had all failed to perform consistently in front of net, and it does make you wonder how different things would have been had we secured the services of Gary Fletcher (as he was known at the time) a year earlier. Fletcher was the consistent goalscorer that we needed and he proved this in the following year, where he was head-and-shoulders above the other strikers at the club.
It’s all ifs, buts and maybes, but one thing for is for sure, that day in Cardiff will always have a fond place in my memory.