Tonight’s game away at Southampton might not quite have the same impact as our FA Cup tie with Burnley, but for Mark Kennedy, it is a great opportunity to put himself on a fast track to increased respect from Imps supporters.
To be honest, there are still those out there who knee-jerked after Chippenham and are not quite onboard the Kennedy Express just yet. It’s a slower journey than the old Lincoln Loco, but we’re in a different division with much more going against us. Still, the roaring success circa 2016-2019 has now gone, we’ve had the Appleton buffer to split things up, and the new journey has started. It’s interesting, there are clear signs of progression, but people like me keep saying we need to be patient.
It’s been good so far – there’s been ups and downs, but we’re doing what many fans felt we should have done in 2019/20 – consolidate, build for the future and accept our level for now. We are, hopefully, a midtable League One side looking to push ourselves forward into the top ten, but not immediately expecting that. Last season was tough because many people marked us as promotion hopefuls. This season, we were many pundit’s relegation favourites, and in truth, in both years, we should have been somewhere in between. That’s Mark’s remit, to put us in between and then build for the future.
That comes with a bit of a hit among some supporters. Football fans want their team to win every match, and that leads to entitlement and a degree of over-expectation. The meltdown after, for instance, Port Vale away shows that some fans just can’t accept consolidation, nor that we will win games and lose games in approximately equal measure. It means a manager who gets two wins and two defeats probably takes a while to get supporters onside. Mark’s in an unusual position in that he came into the club with no reputation amongst the wider football world (he had plenty in football circles), and he came into a divided fanbase. Some fans instantly warmed to him because he was not Michael Appleton. Others felt the opposite and struggled to connect with him, perhaps out of uncertainty or fear.
One thing that will quickly shift people from the fence is a cup run, and that’s where we find ourselves. Something that will give a manager respect, almost untouchable respect, is a big result in a cup. Look at John Beck. He never actually got us promoted; he went with our dreams fading in 1998. However, he gave us the draw at The Dell and a win at Maine Road, and time has left him a hero with many. How is it that a manager with no promotions and a win percentage similar to Peter Jackson, Sam Ellis and John Reames is still seen as a popular figure? Big cup results (and saving us from the drop, I guess).
That’s what Mark Kennedy stands on the cusp of. If he gets a result tonight, and given there’s no replay, we’re talking a penalties win; then he will cement himself as part of Lincoln legend. That’s a word thrown around easily, but note I don’t say ‘a’ Lincoln legend. No, he’d create a little bit of legend of his own, a slice of history. Imagine being the manager who took us on our best-ever League Cup run – that would elevate him above simple ‘Lincoln head coach’ for eternity. Even if he didn’t get us out of League One, even if he did a John Beck and didn’t really achieve much afterwards, there would still be a little slice of history that belonged to him, and the 1,500 fans travelling, plus those of us unable to get the time off work, would all be swayed more towards the so-called rookie manager who many thought was taking us down.
It’s not all about Mark, but as a relatively new boss, this could be a seminal moment for him. Remember the other week, Gareth Ainsworth said that we were flying under the radar a bit and that there was something good getting together here? A win against a Premier League side, on pens or not, would let the cat right out of the bag. There would be no more secret; the papers would be filled with news of the little League One club getting to the last eight. We’d be the story. Mark Kennedy would be the story. It might even be said that a new era would well and truly have started.
Think back to the Cowley era. Those of us close to the club pinpoint North Ferriby (6-1) as the start of something big, or perhaps breaking the 4,000 mark against Solihull Moors. However, the real benchmark, the moment people began to take notice of two schoolteachers from Essex, was when we beat Oldham Athletic in front of the TV cameras at Sincil Bank. Tonight could be Mark Kennedy’s Oldham moment, a result that firmly begins a new era.
Of course, it might not. We are more likely to go there, battle hard and lose perhaps 3-1 if we’re lucky to get a goal. If that’s the case, nothing changes, there’s no fast track to history for Mark, but that doesn’t mean it’s a failure. Getting to this point is an achievement. We’re as deep in the competition as we ever have been, and that comes with a really tricky (and seemingly underwhelming) tie at Bristol City. For me, merely being in tonight’s game indicates our progress, from struggling at Barrow to sweeping aside the Robins. We’re moving forward all of the time and I’m excited to see what happens next, not just the next game, but the transfer window and through until the end of the season.
However, whilst I always preach about the long game, the big picture and all of that, there’s no denying that tonight represents an opportunity. To get the winning goal would put a player in Gijs Bos territory, always applauded and welcomed back at the Bank. The 1500 that are going will tell their kids if we win, and their kids will pass it on to their kids. It’ll be one of those moments where even lapsed fans or those with a passing interest in the club would say, ‘I remember when we beat Southampton at their place’. The likeliness, without being pessimistic, is that we will get beat bravely and come home to focus on the Papa John’s and the league, but isn’t it just nice to be at this stage, to be on the field against a top-flight side deep into the competition.
Isn’t it nice to have hope and, to a degree, a bit of belief? That’s what Mark Kennedy has instilled in this football club in the last six months, and whatever the outcome of tonight’s game, that is all we could have asked back in July.
Up the Imps.