Michael Appleton: How Will History Define Him?

Courtesy Graham Burrell

Michael Appleton has returned to League One management with Charlton Athletic and will be back at the Bank in a little over a month with his new side.

Naturally, Blackpool and Lincoln fans have had plenty to say about his appointment, a split between complimentary and derogatory. I used to be a fan of our former head coach and often got accused of not saying anything bad because I wanted to stay ‘in’ with the club. I guess it was a fair assessment if you didn’t know me; I was on the supporter’s board, I wrote for the programme, and was invited down to the training ground on occasions to do a few interviews. However, I did always say what I felt at the time, just as I will now.

It surprises me that there’s so much ill feeling towards Michael from Lincoln fans, but he did occupy the hot seat at a unique time for the club. He came in on the back of our most successful spell ever and, within six months, saw a season ended early. His next season was played behind closed doors, and when he did get a full season in front of proper crowds, he spent a portion of the summer recovering from a cancer scare before we had a substandard season. Then, he walked.

Credit Graham Burrell


I can fully understand those supporters who struggled to get behind him. We were often poor at home (I’ll never forget Gav, who sits behind me, saying he was sick of watching Lincoln lose at home). In that second season, we were lacklustre at times, offered little going forward, and seemingly stuck with the same players who were doing nothing week after week (ahem, Maguire). At times, supporting Lincoln that season felt like a chore, like wading through a mile of boggy water, stoically dragging ourselves onwards with little to inspire us or keep us going.

The 2021/22 season was, to put it bluntly, horrible. We started ok but then crumbled and won just twice at home in the league before the turn of the year. We struggled to beat Bowers & Pitsea, we were dumped out of the FA Cup and EFL Trophy by League Two teams, and we only officially avoided relegation on Easter Monday, although we did end up 12 points above the dropzone. We had a squad of relatively unpopular players, too many loans during the second half of the season, and we lost our identity. That is the season that sticks in fan’s minds, but it should be taken in context. To do that, we have to remember what happened the season before.

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Michael Appleton had to completely rebuild the Imps’ squad, with 13 players released at the end of the 2019/20 season. With the wage cap, it left us in a good position to be reactive, and we ended up with a host of top talents, such as Tayo Edun, Anthony Scully, Adam Jackson, Lewis Montsma, and others. We did well in the loan market, in no small part due to Appleton’s influence, and whilst clubs fought against wage caps, we were able to seize the moment. However, he still had to get them playing.

Yes, we blew automatic promotion on the back of a horrible injury record that saw us lose Tom Hopper, Liam Bridcutt and Jorge Grant at key moments, as well as struggle to get matches out of Adam Jackson and Joe Walsh. We clung on to the play-offs, beating Sunderland over two legs to set up a final against a resurgent Blackpool, losing at Wembley. We had Liverpool in the League Cup, we were a penalty kick away from the EFL Trophy final, and yet as fans, we were watching on TV. For me, that counts against Michael, because we weren’t there to share in the joy. We felt disconnected.

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It made the following season harder to take. The signings were of a lower quality because the wage cap was lifted, and we were no longer able to compete effectively. Fans expected the likes of Johnson and Rogers and instead got an injured Dan N’Lundulu. Our home form was poor – we won seven games at home, only one team (Fleetwood) won fewer and stayed up. We scored 25 at home, the fewest of any team that stayed up. We lost 11 at home, more than any team that stayed up. Each week, 8,000 fans watched us struggle, whereas away, at Cambridge (5-1), Wigan (2-1), Sunderland (3-1) and Plymouth (2-1) we looked impressive. That’s another reason I think Michael’s legacy is somewhat diminished right now. The only real highlight of the season in terms of home matches was beating Sheffield Wednesday 3-1.

The signings that summer, looking back, were not great. Adelakun has proven to be a flop, N’Lundulu as well. Maguire was poor despite huge hopes, and Jamie Robson never settled and was moved on quickly. Ted, a great player, struggled with injuries, and Lasse only found his niche long after Blackpool had let Appleton go. Remember, we did sign Regan Poole and Cohen Bramall on Michael’s watch, both which proved to be superb signings.

Courtesy Graham Burrell


Then there were the injuries – Michael’s fault, or not? You might hear a few whispers coming out of staff who have since left that suggest Michael dispensed with a good framework put in place by his predecessor, which resulted in more injuries. However, could you blame Montsma’s long-term injury on the manager? No. What about Joe Walsh’s absence, which hit us hard? Again, no. I wasn’t behind the scenes, so how you view our injury crisis under Michael is as informed as me.

You may blame training; Michael Bostwick barely kicked a ball in training under DC, but Liam Bridcutt would train at full pelt all the time. You may blame the manager, or you may point to Covid and the small gap between our play-off final and the resumption of football the following August. You may realise we were not the only ones to suffer injuries, but with a smaller squad, they hit us harder.

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Not Danny Cowley

Michael Bostwick – a name that conjures up imagery of League Two title wins, thundering tackles, and a time gone by. For me, Michael Appleton’s biggest crime, in many people’s eyes, was one he couldn’t help but commit – he wasn’t Danny Cowley. Replacing a man (or two men) who had won three trophies in as many seasons, who earned two promotions and brought us great cup runs, was nigh-on impossible.

When DC left, I remember Michael O’Connor doing an interview, saying whoever came in needed to change next to nothing. Michael Appleton came in and changed everything, and despite the Wembley appearance, that just didn’t work for some fans. He didn’t fist pump after a win, he wasn’t a big crowd-clapper, and that was another issue people had.

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Unpopular Decisions

Of course, Michael made certain decisions that fans found difficult to deal with. Releasing Bozzie was one, letting Harry go a season later was another. Freezing out the legend Lee Frecklington was another, and the rather aggressive interview he did at Christmas got some supporters back up. It was tough for me because I’d had the pleasure of interviewing Michael for a live podcast and doing a couple of one-to-one interviews at the training ground; I saw him differently. I saw a more down-to-earth figure, a man whom I felt had a different public persona from how he really was.

Different players will have different views on that. Jack Payne might not be as effusive in praise as Conor McGrandles. Tom Pett won’t have Michael on his Christmas card list, but I think Liam Bridcutt probably has him on speed dial. I suspect if Michael didn’t like you, he wouldn’t have his mind changed. Perhaps I was lucky and made a good impression first time out!

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How Will History View Him?

As time moves forward, it will dull the negativity around that final season. In five years, maybe ten, the role Michael played in the club’s evolution will be more widely appreciated, and the week-to-week grind of home defeats and poor performances will be forgotten. We didn’t go down as we did when Colin Murphy left, and John Pickering took over. He wasn’t sacked as quickly as George Kerr was after Graham Taylor took over. He survived the tough second season, which John Schofield did not after Keith left. He weathered a huge storm in 2021/22, and whilst he wasn’t always popular in doing so, we remained a League One club.

Lesser men may have walked in the winter when things got tough and lesser chairman might have sacked him. Whilst it was quite clear after the game against Crewe that Michael Appleton and Lincoln City had reached the end of the road, he didn’t leave under a cloud for me. He kept us in the division, having previously delivered some memorable performances.

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I always think when you say, ‘I like this manager’ or ‘I dislike that manager,’ it’s very black and white, and football management never is. I liked Michael Appleton the person, and in 2020/21, I really liked Michael Appleton the head coach. By the end of the 2021/22 season, I wasn’t upset that he left, but it didn’t change my opinion of him as a person, not one bit. Everyone will have different opinions, that’s football, but I felt the need to justify mine as it’s a topic of conversation.

Do I think Mark Kennedy is a better fit in terms of personality? Yes, absolutely. Let me ask you this – would Mark have found it every bit as challenging taking over from a legend like Danny rather than a coach who ended up divisive like Michael? Yes, I think he would. The Michael Appleton era feels a long way in the past, so credit to Mark for what he’s done here. I don’t like to compare managers; it’s not fair as they all have different remits (certainly at Lincoln), but MA could never shrug off the DC comparisons, whereas I’m not sure many people have ever drawn a comparison between MK and MA.

However, anyone would have struggled to fill DC’s shoes, and that’s another reason I respect the job Michael did here.

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How Will He Do At Charlton?

The final question is, how do I think he’ll do at Charlton? I think he’ll do well. He’s got a squad of players that is above average for the division, whereas, in his second season with us and his time at Blackpool, he perhaps had an upper-bottom-half squad. He’s a good coach, and he’s got good players, and in the likes of Edun and McGrandles, he has generals who know and understand him. I recall him telling me about his time at Oxford when he needed allies in the dressing room, and he signed Alex MacDonald. He likes to work with people who understand his ethos, and in those two, he has players he can instantly relate to. If that spreads across a talented squad, then he’ll do well.

Tactically, he might have to adjust somewhat to the level of expectation at Charlton. In 2020/21, there was no expectation at Lincoln, no crowds, and that leaned itself to patient football. The Valley expects promotion, and if Michael sticks 4-3-3 and the team creates as few chances as they did under him, I wonder if he might not be afforded time. Still, with a decent squad of talented players, he should be okay.

One day, perhaps there will be a general consensus amongst Imps fans that whilst he isn’t to be mentioned in the same breath as Keith, Graham Taylor, Danny, or Colin Murphy, he was a bit more than a run-of-the-mill Imps manager. At least, I hope that’s how history eventually sees him.


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