Here We Go Again: Sheffield United 0-0 Imps (2-3)

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Whilst I was growing up, cup runs were not a Lincoln City thing.

I remember playing Palace a couple of times and the 1996/97 Coca-Cola Cup exploits, but the truth is we were a bit rubbish at cups. We lost against bigger teams, sometimes heavily (5-1 Palace, 6-1 Sheff Utd), and once we’d had a cup run we knew we would have to wait a couple of years before the next time we drew a team destinated to finish 17th in the top flight.

Now we’ve played Everton, Liverpool, Southampton, Burnley, Arsenal, Sheffield United and West Ham United are on the horizon. We even win a few games, and we never embarrass ourselves. We’re usually good to go deep in the EFL Trophy as well. Lincoln City have become a cup team, as well as a decent league team.

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There’s going deep in a competition, and then there’s winning away against a Premier League side, singing for 90 minutes straight and seeing the winning penalty shootout right in front of you. Those nights are special, they stay with you, and last night at Bramall Lane will stay with me forever.

Why? Because it had all of the components of a disappointing night. Many fancied us to go through, which means there was some expectation amongst our fans. When the teams dropped with no Walker or O’Connor, it looked concerning from a depth point of view. On the way there, roadworks at Dunham Toll Bridge added a good half hour onto the journey.

At the ground, a large number of fans found their seats occupied. Obviously, they were told by the offenders to ‘go find another seat’, not so easy in a sold-out away end. That led to many standing in gangways and the like getting angry, but it also led to a lot of tension, culminating in one fan punching another immediately in front of us just for standing up. Fans behind us were getting angry with us for standing up, but we had no choice, as those in front were.

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Then there was the crap atmosphere from the home end, not a single song all game. Their keeper’s antics during penalties were really poor, and on the way home, it was a good 40 minutes getting out of Sheffield, only to be held up by a precession of Imps trying to get back over Dunham Toll Bridge. All in all, there were so many components of a bad away day that it needed something monumental to paint over it.

Something like a 90-minute performance worthy of 0-0 against a Premier League side. Something like a penalty shoot-out that left Imps cheering the heroes in green and white, and jeering the keeper as he walked forlon back to the centre circle. Enjoy the bench this season Davies, because the cup competition you were likely to play in has just ended.

I’m not going to tell you about the game. We’re a League One side that played four players who didn’t start our last league match, and we held a Premier League side over 90 minutes. We soaked up less pressure than we did in league matches against the blue half of the city, and had a chance or two ourselves.

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To a man, we were brilliant with our game plan, and every single player in a Lincoln shirt did his team proud. If I had to pick out a couple for Man of the Match, Ethan Erhahon, Sean Roughan, Alex Mitchell, TJ Eyoma, and Reeco Hackett were all excellent, but there wasn’t a single player who didn’t play well. Ali Smith looked cool and composed, considering he’s not a regular, and even subs, like Jovon, came on and battled hard. Let’s not forget Sheff Utd started an £18m striker, a fee that’s assumed to be around 72 times more than our most expensive signing.

No, you don’t go to a Premier League side and hold them 0-0 unless you play excellently, and doubtless, I’ll be analysing the nuts and bolts of the game on the podcast, but I’m not doing to occasion the disservice of dissecting it here. That’s what I normally do, break it down, analyse, and look at what went right or wrong, but sometimes you just appreciate the art. Sometimes, you look at a painting and talk about shades, brush strokes, inspiration, stories and the artist.

Sometimes, you just stand back and say, ‘that’s a f*cking great piece of art’.

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The entire game was set against a cacophony of noise from the away end, much of it like a dance track, a single hook on a loop that started ‘we’ve got Ethan in the middle’ and went on endlessly. The first time I heard it I strained to hear the next line. The last time I heard it was rattling around the inside of my head at 1 a.m. as I finally got into bed. There are 7,000 or so Sheff Utd fans who might just have it in their head as well, as it was the only noise in a stadium so devoid of atmosphere I had to pinch myself to be convinced I wasn’t watching Forest Green. I know it’s a cup game, and they’re going to be better in the Premier League, but in terms of noise, home and away were light years apart.

The first half ebbed and flowed, bringing little in terms of chances for either team, a credit to us without a doubt. The second period had a cup-tie feel, it was a higher tempo, and as the lights came on, I got the sense something special was developing. It’s funny how time passes differently – in the first half, after what felt like 30 minutes, I looked up, and there were only ten on the clock. In the second half, after what felt like ten minutes, I looked up, and there were 15 left to play. Then there were ten. Then five. Then four minutes of stoppage time. Then it was over.

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The expected deluge of pressure never came. The home side had the same number of chances, and quality, as any given League One side might expect. Without being unkind, penalties were as much a mercy for the home side as they were to us. Having to take them in front of 3,000 Lincoln fans was a stroke of luck, and it swung the balance in our favour.

Lukas Jensen hoped to swing the balance in our favour even more. He had all his notes on a water bottle, and he checked as their first taker strode up. It didn’t matter – he didn’t save the effort. As they scored, Adam Davies, a man who has gone from nobody to below Steve Evans on my imaginary shitlist, picked up the bottle and threw it into the crowd. Of everything that happened last night, that was the first element that left a sour taste sparked by anyone or anything related to Sheffield United. The stewarding was good, the fans were no issue and the ground is nice. Davies? Nob.

He didn’t get near our second penalty, but both he and Jensen made saves to leave us at 1-1 after two pens. For the first time in the evening, I started feeling nervous. I had expected nothing, and I’d convinced myself penalties were a lottery, but Davies had made it personal, and as I yelled abuse and gestured to him that he was lower than Steve Evans’ underbelly, I’d been sucked in. That’s not to say I wasn’t invested. Obviously, it’s Lincoln, but I was angry. I wasn’t watching a game of football anymore, I was watching a battle, good versus evil.

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Good job as well – another Jensen save, some good Imps penalties and a final one skied high into the criminally empty seats of the block above saw Lincoln City once again win a League Cup tie. It’s the second time I’ve seen my team come away victorious from a Premier League ground, and we’ve got Ethan in the middle.

Penalties have never felt so sweet. When we’re taking them for an extra point in the EFL Trophy, they’re meaningless. Sunderland and Chelsea kids in the semi-finals meant a fair bit, but did they really mean as much as last night? Yes, in terms of money and trophies, but no to the 3,000 behind the goal who sense something building at Sincil Bank. As the players celebrated in front of us and Davies was bid a warm farewell, it felt like a rubber stamp of something bigger. Tactically we bested a Premier League side. We outfought them, we outsung them, and nobody could deny that we deserved the victory.

The reward? West Ham, a European trophy winner last season, at Sincil Bank. Another little slice of history. Another night where anything could happen, but one that 8,500 Lincoln City fans will get to see.

You’ll all have your memories of last night; you’ll all have your feelings this morning. I got in at 1 am, telling you I could write, and yet here I am, starting at 6 am the next morning, unable to sleep and wanting to share my thoughts before I head off to be a part of the great British justice system. I’ll record a podcast tonight, where we’ll bang on and on about the win before focusing on the serious task of three more points on Saturday.

However, a win like last night builds confidence, breeds belief in the fans and the players and, most of all, leaves nobody in any doubt whereabouts on the pitch Ethan plays.