When we talk about the FA Cup, it is easy to stop the conversation at 2016/17, or even go back to the seventies and miss out much of my lifetime supporting the Imps.
There’s a perception that rarely did we trouble the third round – the second was often one we took a raincheck on. However, 20 years ago, we breezed into the second round against a side flying high in League One and who were en route to the Championship. Also, in the decade previous, we’d only failed to get past the first round on three occasions – funny how history makes you think we were worse than we actually were.
The game took place in a brief moment in history, a single window where a manager’s future was the discussion before and after, but in very different ways. In the week before the game, it had emerged that Barry Fry wanted Keith Alexander to take over at Peterborough United. The Echo printed ‘Keep Keith at the Bank’ banners, and we all sang ‘stand up if you love the boss‘ during the game. There was a real feeling we could lose the gaffer, the man who had put the pride back into the Pride of Lincolnshire.
Just a few days later, he suffered a brain aneurysm, and we felt we could lose him in another way entirely. It was a surreal couple of weeks, and slap bang in the middle was this game, a first-round tie against Brighton and Hove Albion.
Managed by Mark McGhee, they were quite a side – they had Leon Knight up top, a player who would end the season on 25 goals as they finished fourth, beating Swindon and Bristol City in the play-offs. We weren’t doing badly – one defeat in 14 had seen us climb up the table after some early season misery, and the FA Cup offered a little respite. 4,400 fans turned up, disappointingly only our fourth-highest attendance of the season, but proof that the FA Cup did once hold an allure.
Would our display of affection for Keith make a difference? Could the Imps make it into round two?
City lined up in a familiar 5-2-3 formation, but there was a name on the bench I had to look up – Ben Martin, a young defender we signed on loan from Swindon who didn’t kick a ball for us. The team? A Marriott, P Morgan, S Weaver, M Bloomer, P Mayo, B Futcher, P Gain, R Butcher, (77) F Green, (80) S Yeo, and G Taylor-Fletcher. On the bench were B Martin, S Willis, B Sedgemore, (80) R May and (77) N McNamara.
The Imps were given a little shove in the right direction on 13 minutes – defender Guy Butters literally pushing over Ben Futcher as we whipped in a corner. Paul Mayo had the responsibility from 12 yards, and he didn’t disappoint, blasting the ball past Michael Kuipers to give us an early, unexpected lead.
The game wasn’t as riveting as the scoreline suggests – neither side was able to force many clear-cut chances in the first period. There were five shots in total for both sides, City with three (two on target) and Brighton with two, both on target. The difference? Brighton didn’t score either of theirs, whilst we did.
Our second came on 37 minutes. Yeo, playing on the left of a front three, hooked the ball in the channel for Green. He twisted and turned before delivering a cross into the area, where before you could say ‘modern wing back’, Matt Bloomer had arrived to lift the ball into the net. City were in dreamland, beating Brighton 2-0, a Brighton side that had been taken to extra time by Boston a few days earlier in the EFL Trophy.
Incidentally, Boston were getting beaten in their first-round tie (eventually losing to Macclesfield 3-0), and Grimsby were on their way to beating QPR 1-0, although the latter were promoted and the Cods relegated at the end of the season. To round off the Lincolnshire Football League sides, Scunthorpe were brushing aside Shrewsbury Town, 2-1. Gainsborough had made the first round, but they were getting a bit of a lesson in their tie, 7-1 at Brentford. There was no such disappointment at Sincil Bank, as City came out firing.
On 60 minutes, it was game, set and match. Paul Mayo delivered a corner into the area, Kuipers flapped, and Yeo lashed home from close range. The striker was on a rich run of form, bagging his fifth goal in seven matches. The Imps scored three goals, but in total only had three shots on target!
Brighton did get their consolation from one of their two second-half shots on target. John Piercy chipped towards the goal, and Mayo got a touch, but Chris McPhee, the two-goal hero against Boston, scored from the rebound. It mattered not; City had claimed a scalp and were in the bag for the next round. Brighton couldn’t get on the ball – they only had 45% possession in the second half, as the difference between League One and League Two became blurred.
Of course, football took a backseat after that. We drew Southend away in the next round (I can imagine I said something like ‘not that, anything but that’) and were beaten 3-0. The dream was over for another year, but we had made a memory worth looking back on 20 years later.