This weekend marks Michael’s 100th game in the dugout, his 101st as the Imps boss.
That’s caused some confusion on Twitter, but he wasn’t in the dugout for our win at Wimbledon back in December due to Covid. Technically, our draw with Rotherham was his 100th game in charge, but as we let that slip by without note, we’re going to use the dugout thing as our excuse.
Michael’s reign has been incredible when you consider what he has achieved. He had to replace a manager who had won three trophies in three years, earned two promotions and had a failed play-off campaign. Danny Cowley’s achievements will never be forgotten, and time will eventually return him to the high esteem he should be held in. Whilst he’s manager of Portsmouth, some will still feel raw or cannot acknowledge the climb we made.
Michael’s remit was very different, arguably just as tough, if not more so. He had to come into a club that was on such a steep upward curve; there really wasn’t an awful lot more he could achieve in terms of success (or so we thought). A manager rarely comes in and continues unprecedented success; look at David Moyes after Sir Alex, George Kerr after Graham Taylor, John Pickering after Colin Murphy. Success often falls away after a big name leaves (Clough/Revie anyone?), putting Michael in a tough position. Even by standing still, he would perhaps be judged to be failing.
What he inherited was a job few could see needed doing from the outside. We had a strong squad (on paper), but one that was bloated in terms of wages and not the right toolbox for Michael’s approach. There was a concern, perhaps privately, around the overall age of the squad too, and whilst some senior players didn’t let us down, others were on the precipice when Michael came in. Some he nudged gently over the edge, some he pushed a little more violently.
I did, for a while, wonder if there was a touch of the Clough and Revie about Michael coming in. Him and the previous boss were not rivals, but there was a clash of styles, a difference of approach, and I felt there might even be some squad members still loyal to the previous boss. I remember my first visit to the training ground after Michael was appointed; he was warm and friendly, but he did feel like a great force meeting an immovable object. He had a vision and desire to change, whilst much of the squad had spoken of little needing to change. I’m not suggesting there was friction, but you had to wonder which would win out; the manager’s desire or the player power.
As it transpired, that feeling did Michael a huge disservice. He is stoic in his methods, and he is uncompromising in his work. He knows what he wants and what he does not; tough decisions were made around players such as Lee Frecklington, Neal Eardley and Michael Bostwick. The first transfer window was brutal; out went Andrade, Toff and Akinde, in came youngsters who had promise but were not proven. We fell down the league, and for some, that was too much; I recall a question being asked about Michael’s future on social media before he’d even seen Christmas. That wouldn’t bother him, not one bit.
I think Covid did us a bit of a favour if I’m honest. We were brutal with the squad cull, and when Covid hit it offered a cloak of protection. Big earners had already moved on, or been released, and we had very few legacy players on what was termed at the time ‘old money’. The salary cap helped as well, contrary to what you might think, it was a buyer’s market last summer. Clubs couldn’t make big purchases, so lots of players were left fighting for precious spots with professional clubs. Michael, supported by Jez and the staff, recruited well, and within a couple of weeks we saw his vision unfold in front of us.
Oxford fans told us we would see the benefits once he got his players in, and boy, they were right. When I’m asked about great seasons at this football club, 2020/21 will be up there, just behind 87/88, 16/17 and the Keith. I might even be tempted to put it above 18/19, the League Two title season, purely for the thrills, spills and excitement of a Wembley appearance. It was certainly the best football I’d ever seen a Lincoln City side play, and we were held back only by the pandemic which had perhaps helped us in the first instance.
That brings us to this season, a very different prospect to last. This time, the gap between the haves and the have nots is huge, and the magic of the transfer window had faded a bit by deadline day. Michael knows he’s a little short in terms of numbers, but nonetheless, we have a decent squad looking for a top half finish. I don’t think anyone would begrudge us that, and nobody would see it as a failure after last season. That’s important too, because the previous manager might not have been afforded the luxury of finishing lower than the season before, not with a strong budget and not with what was (for many) not always great football. Michael is different, he plays a style of football that has you coming away from a 1-1 draw talking positively, and our budget is so far behind the big 12 that anything in the top half means we’ve punched above our weight.
Before I run down my five favourite Michael Appleton matches, there is another key element to his reign that I have to mention; loyalty. Michael was approached this summer, as we know, and I’m sure others wanted him that we do not know about. His commitment to the club is admirable, and it has been created by such a unique personal background I believe it is unparalleled in our division. Michael has club-hopped, he has upgraded and he’s been burned. There isn’t a manager in the Football League with Michael’s background and experiences and I think it makes for an interesting couple of years. When he says he wants to finish a job, I believe him, and for those who didn’t, he proved it over the summer. You never say never, and one day he will get the move up the divisions, but I think we’ll know in advance he’s on the edge and, hopefully, we’ll be a Championship club by then.
That was Michael Appleton, 100 games in charge, 99 in the dugout. It’s been quite a ride, and I’m delighted to be looking forward to the next 100 firmly believing he’ll be with us for the duration. Now, here are my personal five favourite matches of the Michael Appleton era.
Disclaimer: There are so many games I wanted to include here, five-goal thrashings, thrilling finishes etc. I found it incredibly hard to narrow it down! Don’t come at me saying ‘this was better’ etc, as it is very much a personal list. As a treat, I’ve included highlights from the game too.