Lincoln and Millwall are not old adversaries – the Lions have only visited our ground on eight occasions, and not at all this century.
There will be a generation of supporters who cannot remember us facing them at all, but games will stand out for those of a certain vintage. Our 3-1 win in 1982 is well-known for being featured on Match of the Day, but February 13th 1999, stands out for me because it was a game that gave me (false) hope of surviving relegation.
The back story to the game is a long one, which I’ll look at in more detail in an upcoming ‘Week That Was’ article, but the bare facts are these – defeat at Millwall in September 1998 had plunged us into the bottom four of the division, and we’d been there ever since. The club had been forced to sell players to survive (Leo Fortune-West, Jason Perry and Jon Whitney) and had brought in short-term fixes such as Bruce Grobbelaar, which fixed nothing. All season, we’d looked like relegation fodder.
Then, from nowhere, the resurgence came. We won 1-0 on Boxing Day, sparking a four-game unbeaten run in the league, with wins against Bournemouth (2-1) and Northampton (1-0) at home. We drew home and away with Burnley and won in the AWS against Mansfield (1-0) and at Hartlepool (3-0) to get within two matches of Wembley. We lost two of the nine fixtures after Christmas, one against second-tier side Sunderland in the FA Cup, and at Oldham in the league. Millwall, hunting a top six spot, would be a test, but we looked like a team in form.
It wasn’t a great time for me personally – I’d attended the Burnley game a fortnight earlier but called in sick either side of the weekend at work (and a few days before to go and see Faithless). I’d been spotted at the game (my company sponsored the game) and fired when I returned to work. This was the first home game as an unemployed man, the first after a linesman called me offside and asked to change out of my Poacher outfit. Possibly.
Anyway, City were bang in form, which is hard to remember looking back. We lined up John Vaughan, Kevin Austin, Stuart Bimson, Jason Barnett, Steve Holmes, John Finnigan, Terry Fleming, Lee Thorpe, Paul Miller, Gavin Gordon and Tony Battersby, with Ian Wilkins, Richard Peacock and Lee Philpott on the bench. Much of the ‘problem’ was that the team was more or less the one that came up the year before, as funds didn’t allow for wholesale changes. Loan players like Charlie Hartfield and Gary Brabin had come in and had an impact, but not enough of one to help push us further up the table.
As for Millwall, some notable names in their side include Marc Bircham, who went on to appear for QPR, Neil Harris, Stuart Nethercott, and Ricky Newman. They were certainly going to be a handful, and came into the game with just three defeats in 15 across all competitions and just three league defeats in 17 matches. On top of that, they had the best away record in the division.
Millwall started brightly, and Paul Ifill volleyed wide early doors before they lost Scott Fitzgerald to injury. That gave the Imps a lift, and within 15 minutes of kick-off, we had a lead to defend. Keeper Ben Roberts had just joined the Lions on loan from Middlesbrough, and he came rushing out to clear a clever ball from the flank, created by Bimson and Fleming taking a quick free kick. Roberts was beaten to the ball by leading scorer Battersby, who nodded home his tenth of the season. 1-0 City, and a good portion of the 4,613 supporters were utterly delighted.
Paul Miller almost grabbed a second minutes afterwards, but Roberts made the save, which was the last real action of the half. It was a game of few chances, with our midfield asserting dominance, but without being creative. Lee Thorpe was commended in John Reames’ post-match interview as he was tracking back to combat the threat from Millwall’s left. “It’s not his natural game,” concluded the chairman/manager, “but he was excellent”
After the restart, Millwall had their best spell. Australian international Lucas Neill was a constant threat without an end product, running at the Imps back four, which was marshalled superbly by Kevin Austin. Stuart Bimson, playing left back, was rated the Imps Man of the Match in the Echo, but all were excellent, whilst the skilfully John Finnigan kept working hard in the engine room.
Austin was called into action when Neill did finally break the lines, making a last-ditch tackle, before Vaughan was forced to make a diving save to keep out Ifill’s stinging drive. The Lions were clearing their throats and beginning to roar, but the Imps had a trick up their sleeve.
Battersby, a top player on his day, turned smartly in the area to draw a save from Roberts on 63 minutes, which got the Simons Stand off their feet, whilst Vaughan easily gathered Neill’s 25-yard drive at the other end. That was the catalyst for a quick break upfield, Battersby, Finnigan and a young Gavin Gordon combining to win the Imps a corner. From Bimson’s delivery (what we wouldn’t give for that right now), Steve Holmes nodded home to give us a 2-0 lead.
That was pretty much game over, with Millwall only having one more serious effort at goal, but Richard Sadlier’s shot from 12 yards was stopped by Vaughan, ensuring a comfortable final few minutes for the Imps supporters. When the whistle sounded and the final scores were read out to those leaving the ground, there were huge cheers – City were out of the bottom four for the first time since September.
“We knew we had to get the previous game (Oldham) out of our system, and we reacted well,” said Reames after the game. “We got at them from the off, scrapped and battled and showed a little bit of quality too. It’s really pleasing to get out of the bottom four; there’s a good feeling around the place at the moment.”
As for Man of the Match, Bimson, with two assists, he was happy to have played a part. “I was trotting back to my position when Terry spotted they weren’t organised,” he said of the first goal. “He rolled it to me, I got a decent cross in, and Batts was brave enough to get there before their keeper.”
It left City looking forward to the AWS Northern Section Semi-Final against Wrexham on the following Tuesday and gave hope of securing a place in the second tier for the following season.
Sadly, Bimson turned villain three days later, heading a cross into his own net in extra time to send City out of the Shield in through a golden goal. A month later, despite losing twice (Preston 5-0, Fulham 1-0), City were still outside the bottom four thanks to three wins (Blackpool 1-0, Bristol Rovers 1-0 and Chesterfield 2-0). Fortress Sincil Bank was close to helping us secure our place in the third tier, but we collapsed.
We got three points from a possible 27 between March 20th and April 27th, losing at home to Notts County (1-0), York (2-1) and Walsall (1-0). Sadly, even a late spurt couldn’t save us from relegation after a single season. In the end, we were five points from safety (51, the magic number), but took the fight right down to the final day.
Still, on a cold February afternoon, we tamed the lions, the last time they had the pleasure of our company.