The rumours were true, for once the idle chatter on social media had a basis. Michael Appleton has left Lincoln City Football Club.
Some are crestfallen, others delighted, which is a clear reflection of how divided fans are and how differently people feel this season has gone. The ‘glass half full’ brigade, of which I’m a paid-up member, see 17th in League One as a decent finish, if not spectacular. The ‘glass half empty’ brigade sees the lacklustre home performances and lack of attacking intent (at times) as a failure, and believe this squad could, and should have finished much higher. They’re happy this morning. I’m not.
Something big always happens when I can’t cover it immediately. When Michael was appointed I was on holiday and when he leaves, I was on the beers, an all-dayer celebrating the start of the summer break. We watched the Oasis tribute act outside the ground, and it was there the news began to filter through. At first, just whispers. Then, John Percy and Pete O’Rourke tweeted about it, at which point you know it’s pretty much true. I’d had an inkling since midweek, hence discussing it on the podcast, and as soon as those journos put something out, that was that.
My initial reaction is one of sadness. I remember when Dan and Nick left, that day I was devastated, as if the future had been cast in doubt, but this isn’t the same feeling. I’m sad because I believe Michael is a good coach, a man who has been desperately unlucky with the injury situation and a few other factors this campaign. I feel that there was more to come from this team, and we were close to being capable of 12th, rather than 17th, which would have been a solid finish. I don’t think Michael Appleton has failed at Lincoln City, not one bit. However, I can see a future ahead. I can see where the club is heading, and that there’s a framework in place that will allow a new Head Coach to come in and slide into the role with relative ease. For that reason, I’m not distraught as I felt in September 2019, just a bit sad.
Let’s not take away what Michael has achieved at this club. He came in after some truly wonderful seasons under Dan and Nick, and had to rebuild a side that nobody thought needed rebuilding. That first season was tough but had Covid not bitten, I have no doubt we’d still have stayed up. Michael helped attract Anthony Scully and Tayo Edun to the club, players who have either been sold for profit, or could well be in the future. Over the summer, he built a squad we expected nothing from, that got us to within a whisker of the Championship.
That was both his finest achievement as Lincoln manager, and the millstone around his neck. We’d waxed lyrical about Michael Appleton’s aspiration squad of 2020/21, we’d seen them on iFollow tearing Northampton apart, destroying Burton Albion, winning at Portsmouth, and we weren’t a big part of it. For the first season in the club’s history, the players were flying solo, without fan support. That’s why when we kicked off this season, things were always going to be tough for Michael. The fans wanted Brennan Johnson flying down the wing, they wanted Jorge Grant waving his wand and making magic, but they forgot the lowlights. They forgot Fleetwood, Rochdale, Bristol Rovers and other games where we’d struggled. Watching on iFollow and getting to Wembley only meant positive memories remained, and when we returned to the ground, that’s what people expected. Instead, we got that difficult second full season, the problem that afflicted John Schofield. Recruitment, although solid on paper, was mixed at best, and other teams’ budgets went up, meaning whilst ours did the same, we went backwards in terms of the overall spend.
Then, Michael had his cancer scare, taking him away from an already short pre-season. The indications were all there that we’d have a tough start at least, and when I met Michael ahead of the season, he told me he felt we’d see our best football come to the end of October. As we know, thanks to injuries and some awful individual form, that never really happened. However, many fans didn’t see through those circumstances, instead they dined on a dish far inferior to that of 12 months before. Teams ‘figured us out’, and there was seemingly no answer. We were bullied by some, and yet we were excellent against others. We were like a restaurant with two chefs, one serving Michelin star style cuisine, the other a greasy spoon where disgruntled waiters spit in your food. The major issue was you never quite knew which would turn up; but all-too-often, it was the latter.
I do wonder if Michael is heading back to coaching, as by Christmas I sensed perhaps things were beginning to get fractious between him and some sections of the fanbase and that perhaps he felt management was the problem. There was the interview over the break, a warts-and-all chat where he admitted the abuse some fans gave him would, in the street, cause them to end up hospitalised. He also said that he wouldn’t worry about work, that good coaches were in demand everywhere. I respected his honesty at the time, but I know some fans who were on the fence who, from that moment on, didn’t have the same respect for him. Michael also commented on how his family were affected, and that was something he was aware of. It just all felt a bit agitated running into the festive period, but a transfer window that seemed solid put those fears away. For a week or two.
We didn’t get relegated, but Doncaster, Wimbledon and Gillingham did and they all won at Sincil Bank. Sadly, that’s just not acceptable to some supporters and it’s a source of frustration to me as well. From the four teams that went down, we took eight points from a possible 24, and only beat Crewe at home in a dead rubber that was a weak performance at best. After the highs of last season, it felt like a huge step back. It wasn’t, not really, because last season was an anomaly, something that occurred as many different aspects came together at just the right time. The wage cap, us shedding players in January 2020, a couple of super-lucky loan deals and senior players coming to the fore all made last season what it was. This year, we did underperform, but not as much as it appears. Still, those who enjoy facts will see Lincoln finishing 5th in 2021 and 17th in 2022. That’s what the record books will say.
There have been aspects I haven’t agreed with the manager on, for what it is worth. Some players did get frozen out quite quickly; Max Sanders being one, and Max Melbourne, Zack Elbouzedi and Sean Roughan others. It wasn’t unusual either; Lee Frecklinton’s departure was something that felt desperately sad as well, and for one or two, that perceived style of man-management wasn’t the best for the squad. We don’t know, we didn’t see exactly what went on, nor how it affected other players, but a former club employee told me once the sight of Freck training hard on his own was one of the saddest sights they’d seen during their time at the club. Contrast that with the development of Tayo Edun, going on to play at the top of the Championship, and the suggestion is Michael’s man-management was spot on. Look how he rejuvenated Jorge Grant as well; it’s just a shame that to some, it did appear that once you were out in the cold, the door was very much locked.
Overall, I feel a bit sad for Michael as a man as well. I waited for the lap of honour to see if I could spot signs of him going as he went around the pitch. He had his little one with him and was at the back of the group, largely anonymous despite being the man who led us to a fourth successive season in the third tier for almost forty years. It led me to believe he wasn’t going; if he had been, surely there would have been a wave, something to hint at it being his last swansong. There wasn’t, and perhaps that sums up the relationship he feels he had with fans as much as anything. I hope he didn’t feel that fans wouldn’t want him to say goodbye. Maybe that’s just him, a man who shuns the limelight, who isn’t one for making big, showy statements. Lots of people I spoke to yesterday said how their main issue was a lack of passion in the dugout, a lack of connection with supporters in general. I find that absurd if I’m honest; you don’t get points for jumping up and down on the spot and shouting at people. Anyone who met Michael would have known what a genuine guy he was, driven and motivated, but sadly not everyone could. Even this last week or so, I saw on social media a fan had met him at the training ground and mentioned how surprised he’d been at his warmth, openness and passion. If only that could have been relayed to the supporters en masse, perhaps things would have been different.
We don’t know why Michael has gone, not really. There’s rhetoric about different challenges, natural times, the sort of stuff you’d expect from a parting of ways by mutual consent. Ultimately, I think it comes down to that perceived absence of connection, first and foremost. Had Michael been the sort to interact with fans on matchday in the manner many wished, perhaps there might have been more goodwill, less vitriol on social media and maybe that would have stopped the situation from snowballing out of control, as it felt like it did. That’s football though, ifs, buts and maybes. If you work in facts, Michael has gone, and that’s the end of it.
I wish him all the best, and that’s genuine. On a personal level, I liked Michael Appleton and I always appreciated how candid he was. He gave me a chance to see us go within a whisker of the second tier, so it wasn’t just Dad telling me about the ghosts Fulham ’82 that whetted my appetitive for a return to that level. Michael gave us some of the very best football we’ve seen at the Bank in a long time, but the pity was we were actually there to see it. He was both blessed and cursed by that Covid-hit season, and that for me will be his legacy, the reason fans look back and recall him fondly. Nobody looks back at Colin Murphy’s reign and goes ’83/84 was poor’, and time will dull the pain of this season’s disappointments. A new man will come in, he’ll take the helm and perhaps he might bring us a fifth season at this level, and a sixth.
I just hope, for his sake and for the sake of the glass half full brigade, that the new manager knows the words to Sweet Caroline. Just to give him a fighting chance.