Progress: A Tale of Two Football Club

Credit Graham Burrell

You wait two months for a game in which the Imps score twice and all of a sudden two come along in the space of a single weekend, writes Richard Godson.

Meanwhile, Nailsworth’s finest lose by the same margin in successive games to leave them rooted to the foot of the table and heading straight back down to League Two, having picked up exactly half the number of points that City have so far.

It hasn’t always been like that. City’s drop into non-league oblivion in 2011 brought us to Forest Green Rovers’ level for the first time. Actually, the two clubs might have been in the same league but for most of Lincoln’s six-year sojourn in the National League the Villagers had much the better of things. In Season 2011-2012, in spite of taking 4 points off Rovers, we still finished seven places and 21 points behind them. A season later the tofu munchers took all six points off the Imps enabling them to finish nine points and six places clear of sixteenth place Lincoln.

Credit Graham Burrell

In August 2013, one might have been forgiven for believing we were finally getting the better of Rovers thanks to a brace from Wade Fairhurst. However, three months later and the return game at the New Lawn saw the Imps on the end of a 4-1 reverse. Come the end of the season only two points separated City and Forest Green who still finished four places above us. This was the season in which Luton Town began their renaissance, amassing 101 points and scoring 102 goals to top the table 19 points clear of second place Cambridge United.

2014-2015 saw further evidence of City’s stagnation while Forest Green advanced to fifth and might have finished higher but for a 3 points deduction for fielding an ineligible player. As it was they picked up 21 more points than fifteenth place City.

Twelve months later, the gap between the two clubs was even starker as Lincoln’s doldrums years continued with a thirteenth place finish on 61 points, not helped by a double defeat at the hands of the Gloucestershire side. They, of course, had their highest finish so far as runners up to Cheltenham and 28 points clear of City. Clearly, something had to change.

And boy, did it just? By the time the two clubs went toe to toe at the New Lawn on 19 November, Mark Cooper’s side were poised to go 12 points clear of the new look Cowley managed Imps but looking back at the first three and a half months of that historic season, it had not been one way traffic by any stretch of the imagination. The Imps topped the table early doors and Rovers only entered the top five after the sixth game of the season at which time Tranmere Rovers were in the middle of a five match run at the summit, at the end of which Forest Green hit the pinnacle. However it was for a single game, after which the Imps overhauled them for a couple of games before Dagenham & Redbridge rose to the top for a three game interval.

After that and for a couple of months Rovers dominated the table while City, in between the FA Cup Fourth Qualifying Round and First Round proper went on something of a run to cement themselves in second. That run included coming from behind to brush Chester aside by 5 goals to 2 and show something of that never say die attitude that became the hallmark of City’s season. That same spirit was enough to turn around a two goal deficit at the New Lawn in front of the television cameras as Woodyard, Waterfall and Raggett ensured a sensational finish that wiped the smug smile off Mark Cooper’s face and probably caused Rovers’ chairman Dale Vince to regurgitate his falafel lunch. More importantly the deficit was narrowed to six points whereas with ten minutes to go it had looked like widening to twelve.

Credit Graham Burrell

From that point on it was the Imps who had momentum and ten days later Lincoln were top of the tree. An FA Cup Second Round interlude against Oldham Athletic at a foggy Sincil Bank allowed Tranmere briefly to overhaul City only for them to yield the advantage a week later, succumbing to goals from Arnold and Marriott as City added to their win at Prenton Park back in September. Forest Green meanwhile, had slipped to third.

A surfeit of Christmas pudding could have been the cause of City’s defeat away at Guiseley on Boxing Day but victory in the away encounter on New Year’s Day ensured Tranmere’s final return to the top lasted only a matter of days.

By this time City were advancing deep into both FA Cup and FA Trophy territory causing a fixture backlog that did allow Forest Green a four day spell in top spot in late March but that never say die attitude, including coming from behind in the return encounter at Sincil Bank to beat Mark Cooper’s by 3 goals to 1, as the closing stages of a 61 game season beckoned, ensured the Imps occupied the one automatic promotion spot, thirteen points and two places ahead of Forest Green who were promoted via the playoffs.

The following season was like Lincoln’s early National League years in reverse with a seventh place finish for the Imps, who clearly took to Football League life significantly better than Rovers who languished in 21st, a full 28 points behind City. More than that, City did the double over Rovers that season, a Harry Anderson goal being the difference between the two sides away at Nailsworth in September and a Matt Rhead brace doing the business in the return encounter on 30 December. In 2018/19, we did the double over them again, winning at Sincil Bank thanks to a late Kellan Gordon goal, with a John Akinde brace securing all three points at the New Lawn.

The two clubs were not to meet again in the league until this season but a 6-2 thrashing in the FA Cup First Round in November 2020 suggested the difference between them had grown to a yawning chasm.

And so to the present day and whilst head to head, honours have been even, City currently ride eleven places and 26 points ahead of Plant Based Rovers and that makes me feel very content indeed.

Any excuse to show this picture again (courtesy of Graham Burrell)

Before I finish, it is worth looking at the other top five finishers from our National League winning season. Runners-up Tranmere were promoted the following season and repeated the feat a year later to reach League One. However, they went straight back down again and now sit in 11th place in League Two.

Dagenham & Redbridge, having finished fourth in 2016-2017 are now lying tenth in the National League and Aldershot Town who occupied the remaining top five place that season are in a scrap to avoid relegation, all of which tells me that for all of the criticism heaped on Mark Kennedy and the players this season, including on occasion from me, I’d far sooner be in Clive Nates’ shoes than Dale Vince’s.