As regular readers will know, I was in Germany this weekend to watch St Pauli play away at Dusseldorf.
It was a trip booked before the cup draw, one Chris and I had been hoping to make for a few months. Obviously, it meant I was in another country as we slipped to defeat at Chippenham, which was my good fortune, it seems. However, the contrasting reactions really struck a chord with me, and I wanted to share that before giving my thoughts on the cup defeat.
St Pauli are in the German second tier and went into the game against Dusseldorf winless in three matches. The hosts had won their last three, which would usually mean a degree of pessimism if the game were in England. Now, maybe it’s because of the club and culture, but the atmosphere wasn’t quiet, and their away attendance was strong (4,000+ we think). Dusseldorf get around 26,000 on average, but with St Pauli in town, that rose to 35,000. Throughout the ninety minutes, the fans sang with little bearing on what happened on the field. Dusseldorf took the lead? It kept on. A rather erratic wayward pass across the back created a chance for the hosts. Not even a groan. You know that collective groan we get when players look to go down the wing, and then play across the back? Nothing, and believe me, St Pauli were guilty of some really sloppy play at times.
St Pauli’s style is not unlike Lincoln of last season; pass out from the back, unperturbed when they mess it up. Going forward, they’re like us this season – nice play, but not creating anything really clear-cut. When they do, they need to take those chances; on Saturday, they did not. As the game wore down, their sub striker (there’s one difference to us) skied a shot over the goal, over the protective nets and probably the train station outside, but the songs kept on coming. On the final whistle, the fourth game without a win and with only two goals in those 360. minutes, do you know what happened? The players came over to the corner, and instead of booing, abusing and the like, the whole stand broke out into a rendition of You’ll Never Walk Alone.
The players just stood and admired and then applauded. Yes, they lost. Yes, the fans had travelled 250 miles for four hours and had not been given much entertainment. Yes, the player sent off on 50 minutes for a headbutt had let the team down, and yet no abuse at all. I’ve never seen that because I’ve never experienced German football, but it felt great. That said, I wasn’t on the end of the 1-0 defeat, not really; I was the open thing I always vowed never to be; a football tourist. Being brought up in the eighties and nineties, I was always conditioned by the media and culture to see the Germans as enemies, to sneer at their efficiency and their culture. Never again – they get it right. People could drink and smoke on the terraces, but there were no problems. We missed our arranged tickets but picked a couple up at face value outside the stadium – no touts, no profiteering. It all felt like a love of football and was bloody brilliant.
Two hours or so later, Lincoln City lose 1-0 to Chippenham Town in the FA Cup, one of the worst results in our history in terms of the gap between the teams, and the reaction is very, very different. Now, I’m not fan shaming here, those who made the journey to Chippenham have every right to express their support how they wish, and if that’s by abusing Mark Kennedy and the players, sadly, that is their right, and I won’t have a pop; I’ll express my opinion on it though. On social media (obviously), the reaction was contrasting; again, people can have their opinions. I saw everything from the club supposedly being in decline to people wanting the manager sacked, from Jez George getting a roasting (people quickly forgetting it was him bringing Danny Mandroiu to the club) to some criticising the board (the same board that has taken us from the bottom half of the National League to 13th in League One).
The reaction was expected. We were beaten by a club 90-odd places below us in the pyramid, just as Burnley and Brighton were in 2016/17. Back then, we wanted praise, and we wanted to be recognised for how we played. The outright indignation and anger actually do Chippenham a disservice, it feels to be like a reflection of entitlement as if we had to beat this team. We have no right to do so, they fought for their win. We went there with a squad that feels heavily depleted, and we got what we deserved. However, is that a reason to sack a young manager who has masterminded wins at Ipswich and Barnsley, at home against Derby and to a draw against Sheffield Wednesday? We’re a work in progress, and clearly, we’re struggling to put the ball in the net regularly, but is that excuse enough to call for his head? No, in my opinion, it is not. If we were 24th, maybe, if we hadn’t got a better points haul than last season, I could understand the decline thing, but to say we’re in decline because we haven’t signed a Brennan Johnson on loan this season or because Sunderland blocked us from playing Jack Diamond, is bizarre in my opinion.
I’m not defending us going out to Chippenham; even half a Lincoln City team should turn in a better attacking display, but I did note a few salient points. Firstly, the argument about five at the back is one that I find angering. We played the same formation last season at home against Sheff Weds and won 3-1, so how is it not potentially attacking? It is when deployed correctly, with the correct personnel doing what is asked, but that wasn’t the case for 45 minutes on Saturday. However, I firmly believe both Jamie Robson and TJ can play wing back – they’re not Cohen Bramall style wing backs, and the formation does need some work, but the manager didn’t go to Chippenham thinking ‘let’s keep it tight for the draw’, did he? Be honest with yourselves. Do you think a professional football manager would genuinely do that? I get the fury at the result, and I get the desire for an apology to the supporters that travelled, but let’s be realistic, we didn’t go there not to win the game, even if we played badly. By the way, MK saw that the approach hadn’t worked and went to four at the back after the break – at least he changed it upon seeing the outcome.
Then there’s the claim the players aren’t good enough – we’re 13th in League One, and everyone was praising them a few weeks ago for their commitment. Again, I know we didn’t set the world alight with our attacking play on Saturday, but the squad is hugely depleted. Tom Hopper, Jordon Garrick, Ben House and Danny Mandroiu are injured, Jack Diamond is cup-tied, Ted Bishop was forced to play 60 minutes in his first game back from injury – it’s literally five of our six recognised attacking players out for the game. You all know my stance on signing a striker; I wish we had in the summer, and in fairness, having Jacob Davenport in and not playing instead of a workmanlike forward does get me a bit angry, but can you legislate for 83% of your forward players being out injured like that? I know what you’ll say – Charley Kendall could be here in the team as he’s not getting in at Sutton, but do you think we sent him to Sutton thinking, ‘at least he’ll be warming a bench?’ – no, we expected him to play, get minutes he wouldn’t get here and come back better for it.
The fact is that for all of the criticism, much justified, Saturday was a horrible chapter in a story that is still emerging. Claiming ‘we will go down’ and the like is the sort of tripe I read last season under MA when he was struggling, but did we go down? No. It’s the same bile I recall when we won League Two but could only draw at Oldham, when we made the playoffs the year before, but had drawn at Morecambe. Both of those results brought doom and gloom, which didn’t happen. Hell, even in the ‘glory years’ of 2016/17, when away trips meant Bromley and Boreham Wood, there were those getting on the team’s back for having a cup run which would cost us promotion.
I know what it is – in my opinion, anger and over-the-top reaction are manifestations one of two things. Either, as Mark Kennedy suggests, fans know little about football (which, in some cases, I’m afraid is true), or it’s fear. The fans I see hammering the club, some are lifelong supporters, supporters who were there when we were losing against Tamworth and Dover. They’re fans who claim they’ll stop going, but won’t, even if we end up playing Chippenham in the league. The anger comes from fear – fear of us being relegated, fear of losing our status as an up-and-coming team, fear of defeat. Fear brings out negative emotions, and it’s no surprise to see posts on Sunday on Monday that start with ‘now I’ve slept on it’. That’s social media for you – you can say what you want to everyone immediately, and paint a bleaker picture of the situation at the club than is neccesary.
Yes, Saturday was embarrassing, even having dinner in Koln with Chris, I felt the pain, and I hadn’t made the journey. But in the aftermath of defeat, we should be trying to support the club that many of us will never leave, will never abandon and will never ditch in favour of another. We should be more like those St Pauli fans, singing in the face of defeat, of average performances (individually and collectively). We should be more positive because this is our club; it’s who we’ll always support. Nobody is running it into the ground, nobody is taking it backward (football in general, is doing that), and nobody is asset-stripping or whatever other ridiculous conspiracy theory is being touted on social media this week. In football, you win games, you have good seasons or spells, and then you lose games, you rebuild, you change and you evolve. What never changes is you and I, supporters, turning up every week in shirts, scarves and hats, hoping this week is one where we get to cheer, not jeer.
We support the club not purely for what they can give us but for what we can also give them, do we not? Maybe I’m different, but I don’t support Lincoln City because they win. Hell, for many years, I didn’t support them because they entertained me. I support them because that’s what I do. I want them to do well, I want to play my part and whilst I can be critical, I also think sometimes you have to be supportive. People likened this to Carshalton away, and as a standalone result, it is, but in the grander scheme of things, the club is a million miles away from where we were that dark day.
The thing is, you can cheer every week. You can love the club all of the time, no matter what we’re doing on the pitch. Who knows, that might actually be a positive thing; it might actually be something that helps. Look at it like a marriage; sometimes it’s great; you’re getting laid all the time, going out for nice meals, and sharing great moments. Other times, it can be tough (I’m told), you might bicker over something, or the bedtime fun dries up a bit, but do you immediately think, ‘we’ll if the sex doesn’t come back, I’m leaving and not coming back?’ Of course not, because you’re in love and you work on it. If you walk away, you never loved him or her anyway, and that’s the same with the club.
Perhaps, by taking a leaf out of the book of St Pauli fans and getting behind the team when it is good, bad and indifferent, we can make our own marriage to Lincoln City a bit happier. Just without the sex, hopefully.