The Hotel’s Booked – A Play-Off Fairytale Unfolding

Credit Graham Burrell

It feels like a fairytale that we are three-quarters of the way through. Lincoln City’s play-off challenge was little more than fan fiction, a fantasy story concocted to keep the season alive a few weeks ago.

Now, it is absolutely real. Now, we can count ourselves as bona fide challengers, one of perhaps four teams still in with a chance. Orient will feel Good Friday is their chance to stay attached to the pack, but they’re the outsiders. Blackpool have been reeled in, Stevenage have a marginal advantage thanks to their late goal yesterday, and Oxford are ours for the taking. It’s not quite in our hands, but we’re certainly right in the mix.

That’s led me (us, actually) to book a hotel for the play-off final. Me, the eternal pessimist, the man who can always see the tunnel long before the light is visible, has booked a hotel. Okay, it’s one of those that you pay when you get there, and it can be cancelled right up to the second leg of the semi-final, so there’s no real commitment on our part, but right now, there’s a bed in London with my name on it May 18th. Indeed, I even cancelled a weekend away with Fe, booked when we were tumbling towards a battle against the drop (seemingly).

Credit Graham Burrell

Why? Why have I decided to join Charlie and Chris and grab a place in their booking? Because, for the first time ever in a play-off hunt, I believe. I believe we can get to the final. I’m not saying we will, but I believe we can. I even believe we can win it.

Back in 2003, our first appearance, we were just lucky to get there. In 2004, I felt Huddersfield would be too strong in the semis, and in 2005, I felt the same about Southend in the final. In 2006, we were never truly at the races, and in 2007, we limped over the line. Back in 2018, after a hard season back in League Two, we were always the outsiders, and never did I truly feel we would win those games.

In 2021, everything was different. Had there been crowds at games, I’m not sure we’d have made the top six. Our young players played with freedom and expression but without the pressure a big crowd brings. Let’s be honest, we were sensational up to beating Gillingham 3-0; then we won two matches in 13. We were the side sliding out of form, and even the presence of Morgan Rogers and Brennan Johnson couldn’t help us get to where we wanted to go. We went to Wembley and everything felt flat. The Championship felt further away during that game than it had the day we beat the Gills.

Credit Graham Burrell

Now, things are different. The Championship still feels a long way away, but I have a belief. We’re the team in form, even without key players. We’re the team nobody wants to meet in the play-offs, certainly not Barnsley, and we’re priced shorter to win promotion that way than Oxford and Blackpool. We’ve arrived here from nowhere, from being cut adrift but five or six wins, and now we’re part of the conversation.

In my heart of hearts, do I think we’ll be promoted? I believe it is more possible than ever before. The run to the top six is not easy – we have a tougher run-in in terms of points per game for our opponents than anyone around us – the teams we have to play have 1.42 points per game between them, whereas our challengers have slightly easier opponents; Stevenage (1.38), Oxford (1.34), Blackpool (1.33) and Orient (1.36). It’s all much of a muchness, and there is some positive news – our next four matches are easier than our opponents. The next four teams we’ve played have amassed 1.25 points per game, whereas almost all of the teams we play have tougher spells – Stevenage are at 1.60, Oxford 1.29 and Orient 1.33. Only Blackpool, at 1.17, have an easier four matches, and they’re already a point behind us with a goal difference of eight fewer. These next four games could be crucial.

Credit Graham Burrell

You’d expect Blackpool to drop points over Easter – they have Wycombe and Derby. You’d expect Stevenage, away at Charlton and at home to Bolton, to struggle to get two. Orient we face on Good Friday, and then they have to host Peterborough, whilst we go to Carlisle. On paper, four points from our matches should be enough to keep up right in the hunt, although Oxford will expect to take the same, as a minimum, from games against Fleetwood and Shrewsbury.

After that, who knows. Oxford have us and Stevenage inside a week, and those fixtures could be deciders. One thing is for certain – it’s been a mad couple of months for Imps fans, coming from nowhere to suddenly be a firm part of the play-off hunt. Bolton, Derby and Peterborough want the top two, but the one who doesn’t go up with Pompey might feel finishing fourth, rather than third, is an advantage. There isn’t always a team that comes from nowhere, but when one does, they have momentum. We felt that in 2007, when Bristol Rovers were 16th, 18 points behind us on March 13th, and they still brushed us aside in the semi-finals.

Courtesy Graham Burrell

That is why I’ve booked my hotel. We’re the team in form, and we’ve got here with horrible injuries that have left us without a forward line for a few months, and without a central midfield for our next game. However, there’s a verve about the team right now, a je ne sais pas that has meant despite the setbacks, we’re the team everyone fears.

It’s odd. I never thought I’d be sat having a romantic beachside honeymoon dinner, subtely checking my phone for the Carlisle and Stevenage score. I never thought I’d be shuffling a weekend away mid-May for the possiblity of a play-off final. Both of those things seemed inconcievable two months ago, but right now, the prospect of playing Forest, Sheffield United, Middlesbrough and QPR in league action next season does not seem so incredible.

Up the Imps.