Cause For Optimism As Imps Edge Towards Successful Season Finish

Credit Graham Burrell

Here we are, on the eve of the final game of the season, with nothing to worry about.

In reality, it’s been 12 years since we were truly worried about the final game, but when you’re competing with giants such as Derby, Sheff Weds, and Ipswich, a team like Lincoln perhaps expects to be worried. The fact is we’re not worried, nor have we really been haunted by relegation at all. I can’t recall us being in the bottom four, I don’t ever recall a game this season where, if we lost, we’d be in the bottom four. We have been midtable for all of the campaign, with enough mild peril to keep it interesting, but never enough to require fresh underwear at a game.

I’ve read lots of criticism throughout the season, some of it justified at the time. Hell, I’ve even written a bit of my own as well, and been pulled up for it. At times, it’s been exciting; at others, it’s been predictable. We’ve been tough and hard to beat, a bit like the boxer who just rides out fights for points wins. That could be seen as dour, but when you’re punching in a weight class above your natural level, any victory is a victory.

Credit Graham Burrell

I don’t want to seem sycophantic, with this piece, and there will be a full analysis of the squad and season on the site over the coming weeks, but in my eyes, this campaign has been a raging success. Do you remember back in July, when it kicked off, we knew nothing? We feared the worst, and I suggested anything outside the bottom four would be a success. Okay, I may be a pessimist at times, but with the upheaval, a rookie head coach, and an overhauled playing squad, it felt like we might be relegation fodder. Some big pundits thought so. Some of our fans thought so. I thought so. In fact, in your pre-season predictions, 1% thought we’d finish higher than tenth, and just 10% thought we’d be in the top half.

Those early games hinted at us being decent, but a month into the season, we had lost Anthony Scully, as well as McGrandles and Bridcutt, in the summer. Would those players get into the current squad? Scully, probably, yes, because he would tuck in nicely as part of a front three. Bridcutt over Erhahon? Not for me. McGrandles over Virtue? Nope. The fear of what we had lost was soon to be offset by the positivity of what we were gaining. However, it wasn’t instant, and in the period between August remodelling and January, when we ramped it up, we had to be solid.

Credit Graham Burrell

Solid we were. People forget December, a time when we were laden with excitement over a cup run, and coming off the back of wins at Portman Road and Oakwell. Burton gave us the Christmas hump, and the January spell was pretty tough to take. Some signings didn’t work out, and we were shot-shy. However, we didn’t plummet down the table, we just made ourselves tough to beat, and whilst it didn’t excite everyone, it clearly worked.

The last few weeks have been topsy-turvy, with us showing an unusual lack of cohesion in defeats at Exeter, and against Posh and Burton. We’ve had some big wins as well, continuing our fine form against the top teams with the win at Plymouth. If anything, we’ve crammed a season of excitement into a month or two, after eight months of doing what was required. To go back to boxing, we soaked up punches for the first 11 rounds, and in the final round, we’ve come out with reckless abandon, throwing punches, but taking a few as well.

It actually shows me up somewhat. Once we were safe, not mathematically, but virtually (Sheff Weds away), I said we’d learn nothing about the team, and from then on, we’ve learned loads. We’ve seen players change into something different (Sorensen), and we’ve seen goals (House) and creativity (Mandroiu). We’ve seen a vision of the future, possibly. If we can find a way to play our football of the last eight weeks but combine it with the defensive acumen and solidity from earlier in the season, there’s no reason we shouldn’t be knocking on the door of the top ten next season.

Credit Graham Burrell

Now, that sounds aspirational, but we are still knocking on the door of the top ten this season. That’s right – Lincoln City, relegation candidates in July, could (and should) have been in the top ten come May. We should have beaten Accrington, Exeter, Fleetwood, MK Dons, and Forest Green at home. We could have beaten Forest Green, MK Dons, and Morecambe away. Shoulda, woulda, coulda, I know, but I think we had it in us, in terms of ability, to be 15 points better off than we are now. Those matches were often ones punctuated by injuries, moments where players made poor choices, or a lack of cutting edge. We could have finished higher than we are right now and if we had accrued those extra points, we’d be seventh.

That’s not to say where we are isn’t a triumph – it is. I think above midtable and a cup run, given the level of competition in the division, is a huge achievement for a head coach in his first full season. The squad has changed massively since that first game – five of the players who appeared on the opening day against Exeter are no longer with the club, whilst three (Eyoma, Sanders and Oakley-Boothe) haven’t been first-team choices since Christmas. So, with a squad churn from the first game of around 40%, we’ve managed to put in what anyone in the ground back in July would have called a decent season.

Credit Graham Burrell

One Year Ago

One year ago, we were preparing to face Crewe with an uncertain future. Our manager at the time had certainly lost half of the fanbase, the squad felt a little tired and over-reliant on loan players. Results had been average, and there was a feeling, for some at least, that we’d lost our direction. No, the majority (in my opinion) see where we’re going; they see the positives and can identify with the club and players once again. We’re a year on from beating Crewe, but in real terms, it feels like we’re further down the line than that. Let me ask you this – who were the big hopes in the squad 12 months ago? Who were the players you felt would smash it this season, on their Imps performances alone? Regan Poole, maybe? Now look at this squad. Roughan, O’Connor, Erhahon, Mandroiu, Duffy, House, and even Lasse Sorensen are part of a group of players who you feel are more than adequate for next season. Last season, we needed an overhaul; this coming season, we need tinkering.

I said it on the podcast this week, and I’m going to double down on my opinion – if you think this season’s outcomes have been anything other than a success, then you’re showing a lack of understanding of the game of football. I’m sorry, that’s my opinion, and I’m not usually as forthright in saying it. If Fleetwood lose to Ipswich, whatever the outcome of our game, we’ll finish in the top half of League One for the first time in a ‘normal’ season since 1982/83. The Covid campaign was a massive achievement, but it was a level playing field for the first time in history, and a lot of the big guns were restricted by the wage cap. With no crowd, young players didn’t have as much pressure, and we were able to snare loans (Rogers and Johnson) we wouldn’t stand a hope of getting now. It wasn’t normal by any means. In a normal season, this is our best finish for 40 years.

100 Years of History

Now consider this – that finish, in 1982/83, was the culmination of Colin Murphy’s squad building, the pinnacle of his first stint in charge of the club. It came on the back of a positive trajectory, the crest of a wave, but it was a decline from 1981/82. The last time we achieved a top-half finish in the third tier after a bottom-half finish the season before (discounting the Covid season) was in 1948. That’s right. In 1946/47, we finished 12th out of 22, and the following season, we topped the table. By the way, that was with the same manager as the season before, Bill Anderson. You have to go back almost 100 years for an instance of a new manager Horace Henshall, securing a top-half finish after a bottom-half the year before. In 1923/24, we finished 19th in Division Three (North), and David Calderhead Jr. left the club. Henshall replaced him, in his first managerial role, and guided us to 8th.

100 years. That’s how long it has been since anyone has achieved what Mark Kennedy has achieved this season. There’s an argument for Michael Appleton in Covid times, but it’s one of those records with an asterisk next to it, given the circumstances. That’s not to play down what Michael achieved at all, but there’s no doubt Mark has been a success this campaign, especially with only our second-ever appearance in Round Four of the League Cup as well.

Credit Graham Burrell

Last season, on the final day, we waited to see what Michael’s reaction was going to be. We waited to applaud the obvious shoo-in for Player of the Year. We waited to see which direction our club might go in. This season, we should applaud the players and staff, we should chant the head coach’s name, and we can look forward to not being lumped into the bottom four when it comes to everyone’s predictions. We have the foundations of a bright future, an optimism that perhaps we had after the Covid season, rightly or wrongly, but one I feel has a real basis. We’re on the right track, and draw, lose, or win on Sunday, that won’t change.

Up the Imps.