In the end, there will be no panic, no last-gasp nerves.
The so-called relegation six-pointer against Crewe on the final day that many feared, will not happen. Next season, for the fourth consecutive campaign, Lincoln City will be in the third tier. Indeed, for only the second time since World War II, we’ll kick off the fourth season in the third tier, a feat not achieved by Graham Taylor’s squad in 1976. Whilst the campaign has disappointed some, others will admit that staying up is (and always will be) the primary objective.
In the end, it was achieved with consummate ease, against a side already on the beach. Make no mistake, if Cheltenham were not already safe themselves, they wouldn’t have crumpled like a discarded tissue in those first 20 minutes. They wouldn’t have come and had a go as they did, they might not have been so utterly abject in the final third. However, they are safe, and it showed. The Imps brushed them aside like a fly, and the saddest thing is they’re nowhere near the worst side we’ve played this season. Actually, they moved the ball well in key areas, and looked more solid after the break, but were ultimately well beaten. Doncaster, Gillingham, Accrington, Hartlepool and Cambridge were all poorer (in my opinion) than Cheltenham in certain areas, and those teams left Sincil Bank with 12 points and a place in the FA Cup third round. That, ladies and gentlemen, sums up our season.
I said after the game against Portsmouth I could use a template for certain games, but I struggled to find the ‘three goals, a clean sheet and could have been six’ template. Maybe it’s because this game was a rarity, one of those that we haven’t seen the like of this season. Oh, there were moments, I’ll come onto those, but ultimately it was in a league of its own. What you must remember, throughout this piece, is we didn’t beat the version of Cheltenham that are six points ahead of us going into the final fixtures; we beat a Cheltenham perhaps already applauding a job well done in remaining in the division. Fair play to them as well, because what Michael Duff has achieved there is nothing short of superb. Him and Mark Bonner at Cambridge are, for my money, more deserving of Manager of the Year than someone with £8000 per week to spend on a striker sitting in the top six.
Even the team news brought a smile; how many times has a player come on and done a job for City (usually with the first name of Max), only to not start the next game? There was no such occurrence today; Ben House scored against Portsmouth and made a few headlines and today, he played in central midfield. The chatter afterwards was of him playing in the ‘8’ role, but it felt more like a 10. Think Chris Maguire, only when House was fouled, he got up and got on with it, and when he got the ball, he looked forward. If that’s the future, then I’ll raise a glass all evening long.
Poor old Ted Bishop was once again repackaged as a right-back, and his versatility could be his downfall. I thought he had a good game, but he’s played in ten different positions over the course of the season, and has never been woeful – in fact, he’s shown glimpses of the player most people around the club think he can become. I’m looking forward to seeing more of him next season, as an eight, maybe even with Ben House alongside or further up. However, whilst it was our own players giving food for thought, it was a couple of lone rangers absolutely stealing the headlines.
The game wasn’t in doubt as early as the fourth minute. Jamie Robson, excellent all afternoon, got down the flank, and found Lewis Fiorini in space. As he has over the last ten or fifteen matches, he strutted onto the ball and picked a magnificent pass to everyone’s (former) favourite punchbag Morgan Whittaker. The winger that many experts said offered ‘nothing’ a few weeks ago sauntered into the area and finished like you’d expect an Under 18 player to do in a game against an Under 15 team. It was a wonderful goal, seemingly easy in the execution, but magnificent to watch unfold. Fiorini’s ball was sumptuous, and the finish came from a player who looked supremely confident.
Fiorini could have made it 2-0; former Chelsea man Charlie Colkett was thinking of Ibiza as he dawdled on the ball, and Ben House, thinking of next season, dispossessed with ease. Whittaker (again) moved play forward and this time it was Fiorini with the finish, beating the keeper but not the post. He need not have worried, as not long after he was involved in the second. Conor McGrandles won the ball in front of his own 18-yard box and found Fiorini, who again found the run of Whittaker. This time, the on-loan winger fed Liam Cullen, who had two bites of the cherry. The first the keeper saved, the second was hooked off the line. Luckily for us, Anthony Scully was on hand to finish the goal off with a third effort on target in as many seconds, 2-0 City.
It was barely believable from a team who struggled for a league goal before Christmas, who have rarely carved a team open, and two minutes after it seemed like we might end up with a cricket score, as we made it 3-0. Once again, City won the ball deep, with House the man to finally bring it away. This time it was Bishop with the key pass to Whittaker, and he did the rest, jinxing in front of his defender before finishing to the keeper’s right. The stopper might be wishing he’d done a bit better, but the fact was Lincoln City were 3-0 up within 20 minutes. Safety beckoned, although I did get a WhatsApp from a friend (who shall remain nameless) who said ‘one more and I think we might be safe’. Gallows humour, or a stark reminder of what we’ve thrown away at times this season? I wasn’t going to decide, I was enjoying the football too much.
The truth is, I could stop the report there. The next 25 minutes seemed a bit surreal, with parts of it played almost in silence. Was it relief, that the job seemed done, or nerves that we might concede and be on our way to a draw (as Shrewsbury managed after being 3-0 up)? I don’t really know, I just felt this huge wave of relief. I’d driven to the game, as always, with Dad, who had been constantly telling me all about how we could still be relegated, and I’d got this vision of 2010/11 in my head. As I’ve said all season, although apparently not to myself, this Lincoln side is completely different to that one. There is ability in this squad, even when the loan players leave. There’s desire too, even though we haven’t always seen it, and in Robson, House, Poole and Bishop who all started today, we’ve got huge assets that will definitely be here next season. I think my silence in those moments up to half time was just quiet relief.
I had been a bit fearful of the referee, Simon Mather, who is as card-happy as they come, but it wasn’t a worry. He did seem to give us quite a bit in the first half, not least when he booked their striker for diving in what must be the harshest booking I’ve ever seen at Sincil Bank. I think it was May or Ramsay who went down in the area, there was no foul, be the player never even appealed, and yet he got a booking. I also felt for their other forward, Kion Etete, he had a stinker. Adam Jackson had him wrapped up all afternoon, and the one occasion he did get away, in the second half, he missed an open goal. He’s a player who has the physicality, clearly has a bit of ability but just looked a yard or ten off the pace in League One. With three goals in his 12 outings, he’s clearly had better afternoons for the Robins.