I remember a time when the Imps barely ever played Premier League opposition – now it’s something we see most seasons! Sheffield United will be the latest, adding to Southampton, Everton, Burnley, Arsenal, and Liverpool from previous seasons.
Our encounters with the Blades are few and far between, but I do recall the last one back around the turn of the century. I remember it because of a wonder goal we scored, not the six we conceded. Selective memory can be a wonderful thing.
The year is 2000, and the Imps are in a bit of a rut. We’d been relegated out of the third tier in 1999 and finished midtable the following season. Phil Stant was in charge, and despite having some decent players, we weren’t getting a tune from the band. We’d opened the season losing 2-0 at home against Hartlepool (Tony Lormor scoring) and then needed a 90th-minute winner to earn a point at The Shay, Halifax.
The League Cup offered some respite – we drew Division One side (now the Championship) Sheffield United. Managed by Neil Warnock, they had a good squad, and a two-legged affair was sure to bring a few bums on seats and earn the club a bit of money. We went to Bramall Lane in the first leg, with the second leg due after games against Hull, Brighton and Southend.
Doubtless, Phil Stant would have wanted us to go to Sheffield and keep it tight, hoping to nick a goal. The Imps lined up Marriott, Brown, Mayo, Logan, Holmes, Smith, Walker, Finnigan, Cameron, Miller and Battersby. Gain and Stergiopoulos came on, whilst Peacock, Barnett and Lindle were on the bench. The Blades boasted Phil Jagielka, Marcus Bent and David Kelly in their side, as well as a young Tyrone Thompson, who came off the bench. OK
If the game plan had been to keep it tight and nick a goal, things didn’t go to plan. Instead, Paul Smith headed home a Justin Walker corner to hand the Imps a shock lead in the fifth minute. That meant just 85 or so to hold on for – we held out for a little under half an hour. It wasn’t bad against a team 57 league places higher than the Imps.
Sadly, Warnock’s Blades fought back hard. Mazza pulled off a super save on 32 minutes from Kelly’s point-blank range effort from six yards, but the resulting corner saw Bent head home.
Kelly had a hand in the second – he was shoved over in the area by Richard Logan, and Paul Devlin stroked home the penalty on 45 minutes. It was a killer blow, as City went in demoralised and came out in the second half playing like a side who had the stuffing knocked out of them.
The defence failed to clear a free-kick on 52 minutes, with Kelly lurking to turn in the loose ball. Six minutes later, Devlin, a thorn in the Imps’ side, whipped in a cross that deflected off Grant Brown for an own goal.
To compound Lincoln’s woe four minutes later, a Devlin cross deflected off the Imps’ unfortunate club captain Grant Brown and past Marriott for the Blades’ fourth goal. It only took a further seven minutes for a rampant Blades team to add a fifth, Bent poking Devlin’s cross into an empty net.
City were shattered and beaten, and Bent completed his hat-trick two minutes into injury time after a Bobby Ford shot fell to him a yard out. After a decent first half, the tie was over in 45 minutes, with a desolate City left with nothing to play for other than pride.
Oddly, it acted as a catalyst for us to kick on. Holmes and Cameron scored as we won for the first time that season against Brighton, 2-0. They would go on to win the title, and our next opponents, Hull City, would finish in the top seven – City drew 1-1 at Boothferry Park. Just days before Sheffield United arrived for the return leg, the Imps thrashed Southend 3-0; Gavin Gordon, Paul Smith and Steve Holmes scoring. It lifted the club up to eighth in the table.
The return leg was a damp squib, with the expected large home crowd turned off by the first-leg defeat and likely by having two home matches in four days. Just 1,379 supporters turned up to watch a dour, uneventful game. Uneventful, aside from a wonder goal from an Imp.
City made several changes from the team that lost 6-1. Jason Barnett came into the side, as did Gain and Stergiopoulos. The Aussie was on a short-term deal with the club, Gain making his first start of the season.
It felt like a glorified friendly United gave Tyrone Thompson his first start, whilst tormentor from the first leg, Devlin, missed out completely. They were unlikely to lose by five, and few thought they’d lose at all.
Dave Cameron, a man who struggled for goals during his time up top for the Imps, hit the angle of the post and bar in the first half, but it was the closest either side came to breaking the deadlock, although Finnigan produced a great cross from the right which Tony Battersby headed narrowly wide.
The second half arrived, and fans had no reason to get off their seats until Stergiopoulos had his moment. He cut inside Andy Woodward before finishing with a superb right-foot shot into the bottom corner. I was in Box 18, at the end of the executive suite in the corner, and recall watching it sail in. It was the standout moment in an aggregate 6-2 defeat and the one major thing the midfielder did during his short stay.
Sadly, it stopped our decent run – we won one of the next eight and flirted with relegation for much of the season. Sheffield United fared about the same, finishing just below midtable, and they didn’t have a great run in the cup – Colchester were beaten in the next round before they went down 2-1 after extra time against Sheffield Wednesday in the third round.