The Imps continue the pre-season campaign tomorrow with a trip up north to Hartlepool United.
They’re not a team we’ve seen a huge amount of in recent seasons; our relegation and promotion journeys have often been heavily contrasted. However, for fans of a certain age, Hartlepool are one of those teams we always use to face. They were traditionally a Fourth Division side, as were we, and my very first game was a miserable defeat against them. Looking back, miserable defeats seem to sum up many of our encounters with the club affectionately known as the Monkey Hangers.
The most recent game against them came in this season’s FA Cup, and it was a miserable affair. It came on the back of three defeats, two at home (Portsmouth 3-0 and Accrington 1-0) and one in the cup (Carlisle away). Despite that, we went into the match as favourites, but it was dire. We didn’t test their keeper, who looked awful, and we deserved to lose. Out the window went a possible FA Cup Third Round tie, and with it, the prize money. We lost the next game as well, 2-0 at Crewe, and for the first time last season, I had relegation fears.
The Hartlepool game was notable because it was the first time Chris Maguire had a pop at supporters as we left the field. It wouldn’t be the last, but it does raise an interesting question. With Hartlepool being the team we were playing when his descent into pantomime villain began, will they also be the team against whom he begins his rise from the ashes? Thus far this summer we haven’t seen Mags in action at all; he was in Lincoln when we went away to Gainsborough, and post-match, Mark Kennedy hinted at fitness being the issue. He said something to the effect of ‘with the work we’ve done with Ross’ suggesting both Mags and Joe Walsh had either reacted to the session or were not as fit as required. Walsh has since been confirmed as being injured, but Scully was injured and he was at the game. Why not Maguire? He then didn’t appear against Sheffield United at all; is he injured? Is he, as some rumours suggest, looking for an exit? Or, will he come back against Hartlepool and bring his obvious quality but with a more positive demeanour?
I’m pretty sure I know the answer, but you live in hope. On his day, Maguire is a talented footballer, and it would be nice to see him playing happily. I get the impression last season was not a happy camp at times, especially with John Marquis talking about his 2021/22 season in such negative terms after signing for Bristol Rovers. it will be interesting to see if there is more of a sense of togetherness, something that feels to have been lacking a little.
Tomorrow’s game doesn’t mean anything at all, but it is an interesting one, a trip to a League Two club as part of the pre-season fixtures. The last time we went to Victoria Park in the league and got anything was 1994, when Dean West, David Puttnam and Colin Greenall scored; we did win the EFL Trophy in 1999, 3-0, with goals by Tony Battersby, Lee Thorpe and Paul Miller. It will be our first trip there in any competition since the 2006/07 season when Paul Green’s early opener was cancelled out by a late penalty by Ritchie Barker. We beat them 2-0 at our place that season, but they still went up in second place, whilst we fluffed our automatic promotion bid and then got embarrassed in the play-offs by Bristol Rovers.
Interestingly (depending on how you define interesting), our reserve team had some joy against Hartlepool back in 2006/07. Having been beaten 5-0 by Hartlepool Reserves on April 16th, we faced them in the reserve cup final just eight days later, winning on penalties after a 1-1 draw. Gary King scored (thanks to the new Nannestad book, I found that out), with a Simon Raynor penalty save earning us the silverware. I’ve even found a picture for you.
Of course, none of that matters tomorrow. All that matters for most players in 45 minutes, maybe 60 and staying injury free as we work towards the big kick-off in two weeks. However, for one player, tomorrow might just be the start of redemption and the road back to the Imps’ first team. Or, it could be another indication that not every member of the current squad is likely to appear for the club this season.