Play-Off Memories: The Last Final For City

Courtesy Graham Burrell

16 years ago today, City stepped out for their last play-off final appearance, or at least the last until this Sunday.

It was an era-defining defeat, the final hurrah of the squad that Keith built, stumbling at the last moment. It was the end of the road for some of our big players, and despite two more play-offs to follow, the best chance we had at promotion until a PE Teacher from Essex pulled up outside the Bank.

Keith Alexander had four great years with us in his second spell as gaffer, but the third was the end of an era. Had we gone up and the team had stayed together, there is every chance we’d have survived and thrived in the third-tier. That was a key difference from 2003 – we’d evolved and we weren’t the goggled-eyed tourists feeling lucky to be invited to the party, we were serious contenders looking to progress. Which will we be this weekend?

I struggle to write about the game if I’m honest, because it hurt. Badly. A few matches prior to the season ending we’d beaten Scunthorpe 2-0 and looked on our way to an automatic promotion spot. Things went awry, losing at Northampton and Notts County, which ensured clubs crept up above us and in the end, we clung on to a top seven spot. We lost momentum with one win in five going into the final, we didn’t entirely convince over two legs against Macclesfield in the semi-finals, but once you get to the final, form is forgotten. By the fans at least.

The Imps’ team certainly sounds strong, but perhaps there is an imbalance to address; we started with Mazza in goal, obviously. Paul Morgan, Gareth McAuley, Ben Futcher and Jamie McCombe were all in the starting XI, as well as Sandwith. I can’t recall who played right back (McCombe maybe?), but Lee Beevers was on the bench. Could the back five have had more balance with a central defender taken out? If so, who drops out, McCombe, McAuley or Futcher? Probably Futcher for me, but then I wasn’t the manager who had taken us to within a whisker of third-tier football.

The midfield was classic Keith, Peter Gain and Richard Butcher with Ritchie Hanlon on the bench. Ciaran Toner had left under a cloud a few weeks earlier, but again his presence might have added some balance and for a while, he even kept Gain out of the side. The three up front were Francis Green, Gary Taylor-Fletcher and Simon Yeo; that’s an iconic Lincoln City side if ever I saw one.

I fear squad depth let us down; Bloomer and Beevers both came on but the other options were Hanlon, Asamoah and keeper Simon Rayner. If only we’d had the lumbering presence of Marcus Richardson and the tenacity of Toner to call upon. If only. Even so, we made a decent fist of the game against a strong Southend side. We now know Steve Tilson to be a weak manager, at least for us, but at Southend he seemingly had something special. Freddie Eastwood was a real threat, whilst Kevin Maher had some quality in the middle of the park. Mark Bentley and Duncan Jupp both had good careers and Lawrie Dudfield and Nicky Nicolau have Imps’ connections too. It was a good game to watch, punctuated by one bad decision that killed us. Simon Yeo scored a perfectly good goal, ruled out for offside. If we got ahead, we could have kept them out for 90 minutes; we proved that by taking the game to extra time.

Credit – LCFC

Unlike the previous final, it was a glorious day in Cardiff. I went along as Poacher, but like 2003 and this week, I had a holiday in Devon on my mind. This time, I was due at the holiday let on the day of the final, so had to arrange a one-way trip to Cardiff, then a train to Totnes where I’d be picked up. I got a lift down with my Dad and my mate Dale, arriving in Cardiff around 8am if I recall. Well, you need to soak up as much of the day, don’t you?  By the time mascots were allowed onto the pitch for a penalty shoot-out I had my wits about me despite a few pints. I duly scored a penalty in front of the Imps fans which means I can claim to have scored at both the old Wembley and the Millennium Stadium.

The game went into extra-time and it brought real heartache. We finished the game without Yeo, Green, or Taylor Fletcher on the pitch, leaving Asamoah as the only recognised striker, so it was no surprise when Southend scored. Freddie Eastwood got the goal that killed us, with Duncan Jupp making sure five minutes later. We lost the game 2-0 and for the second time in three years, I cried a little at a football game. This time, the tears were frustration and anger, directed at nobody in particular.

I could have cried even more in the weeks after; the squad broke up almost at once. Simon Yeo announced he had a deal to go and play in New Zealand, Gary Taylor-Fletcher wasn’t offered a deal as third-tier side Huddersfield watched on. Richard Butcher got a move up a division to Oldham, and nobody begrudged him the chance of football at a higher level. Worst of all, his midfield partner and my favourite player Peter Gain left as well. I think Ben Futcher went off to sign for a ‘bigger club’ too; Boston United. We even lost Kevin Sandwith, a decent left-back who defected to another side in our division, Macclesfield Town.

Credit – LCFC

Sure, we made the play-offs the next time out, but this was truly the end of an era. Within a year, Keith had gone and soon the only reminders of our once-proud play-off heritage were Alan Marriott and Paul Morgan. Both stayed until the bitter end, Morgs leaving after our defeat against Bristol Rovers in 2007, Mazza shamelessly and unforgivably dumped by Peter Jackson a year later.

Sixteen years is a long time, in football and in life. Since this game, we’ve almost died been reborn and soared higher than ever, at least in my lifetime. How the class of 2005 compares with the class of 2017, or indeed 2021, is hard to say as they were very different, but I’m not sure I’ve felt the same desolation as I did that day since. 2011 was different, we’d been prepared for the relegation for some time and almost greeted it with sad expectation, but on May 28th 2005 we went to Wales with a different expectation; we went knowing a win might keep the best Imps’ side of a generation together and give us a stab at something Keith’s heroes deserved; third-tier football. We came away facing the prospect of an era-defining set of departures and the sort of sinking feeling that you only get having snatched defeat from the jaws of history. I felt pessimistic after that game and hindsight perhaps proved me right to do so.

Still, those players didn’t fail that day, circumstance defeated us. Losing Toner and Richardson was a big hit, having the goal ruled out was harsh and eventually, the better side won. That Southend team won League One the following season, as well as having twice been to the Millennium Stadium as EFL Trophy finalists in 2004 and a month before we met in 2005. They were the real deal, a side that should have been promoted automatically. When you reach this stage of the season, it always comes down to two teams who have done incredibly well, both of whom probably deserve to go up. To fail in a play-off final is tough, but is it really failure? Any team in League One this season, other than Hull and Peterborough, would argue not and there are 20 other clubs looking enviously at us right now, as there were in 2005. We lost then, we did bounce back to finish top seven twice afterwards, but a great team broke up. If we were to lose this weekend, that wouldn’t happen, but if we were to win, then the future is very, very exciting.

It was a tough season to be a League Two side in 2005; Scunthorpe went up automatically and ended their journey in the Championship, as did champions Yeovil and Swansea went one division further with their ascent. All of the clubs above us went on to brighter things and, had we had that little bit of luck, we might have too.

16 years later, we are finally where we could have been during Keith’s reign, in the third-tier. The style is different, the club is different but had it not been for two players fighting and a marginal linesman’s flag, we might have been Swansea, Yeovil, Southend or Scunthorpe, all of whom did very well. Football is full of ifs and buts, and I sincerely hope we are not discussing those when teatime rolls around this Sunday.

Hopefully, despite the result in 2005, there are some happy memories of the day to be had in the gallery on the following page.