Today’s attendance is……9,011. Thank you for your attendance”
You’d be forgiven for thinking I was spending my Good Friday watch a game in English Football League One, or even in the lower reaches of the Championship. I wasn’t. I was watching a club that is in all but status a Football League club, but officially is classed as a Non-League side, or grassroots as our beloved Football Association often class all teams playing below the Football League. Only in Germany would you find crowds like this in the fifth tier of their game.
Prior to the visit of Torquay United, league leaders Lincoln City were three wins and a draw from a return to the Football League after a six-year hiatus. This season has almost been a perfect debut for the Cowley brothers. Four years ago to the day they were in charge at Concord Rangers when the mighty Rooks rolled into town and in the sunshine with all three points in a 3-2 win. Now they stand on the verge of taking the Imps back into the Football League in a season that has seen them make global headlines for their FA Cup exploits, yet ask them about the regrets and they will wince when they mention missing out on a trip to Wembley in the FA Trophy final after an extra-time defeat to York City in the semi-final second leg. They’ve set a high bar since arriving in Lincoln last summer and the team have responded.
What’s been impressive is how the whole city has got behind them. Attendance numbers at Sincil Bank started around the 3,000 mark as the fans were slow to return after so many false dawns in recent years. Even when they hit the top spot and started to progress in the FA Cup in mid-November, the crowds were only just topping 3,500, which in itself was higher than more than ten Football League sides. A week after the visit of Wrexham in front of 3,300 fans they faced League One Oldham Athletic in the Second Round of the FA Cup. Over 7,000 fans saw the 3-2 win and the vast majority returned two weeks later for the top of the table clash with Tranmere Rovers.
Since then the locals seem to have been hooked. Of course there has been a band wagon and people have jumped on it after the FA Cup wins against Ipswich Town, Brighton & Hove Albion and Burnley, but the difference here is the crowds have stuck with The Imps post-cup exit. Any Non-League club that’s successful will see the fair weather fans come out for the big games, claiming they’ve been fans for life but a few weeks later they are nowhere to be seen when a midweek league game takes place. Sutton United also hit the FA Cup headlines, for the right and most definitely wrong reasons this season. Eight days after 5,013 saw them take on Arsenal, 1,441 saw the home game with Boreham Wood. In fact their biggest attendance since the Arsenal game when Lincoln City arrived bring hundreds of fans to boost the attendance to over 2,200.
The club will argue there’s been a positive effect of the cup run – the average attendance at Gander Green Lane has gone up from around 1,400 at the start of the season to around 1,800 now. Gaining news fans in an area that is within the Crystal Palace catchment area is tough – Lincoln City’s big advantage is that traditionally their biggest rival for the locals football-watching attentions is Nottingham Forest, 30 minutes away on the train. Their continued demise on and off the pitch has certainly worked in the Imps’ favour.
The Football League and its member clubs continue to fail to recognise the Conference Premier as an equal. They’ve denied a third promotion place for decades, ruled that no clubs using a 3G can be promoted (despite the fact over a quarter of a Scottish Premier & Football League sides use them) and even decided to allow Premier (and subsequently Championship) B-teams to enter their Members Cup rather than opening it up to teams at the top of the Conference.
The Football League are scared of progress – why else wouldn’t they want sides such as Lincoln City or Tranmere Rovers, themselves getting average home attendances of 6,000 plus? An additional spot would generate greater competition and bring the potential of new teams joining the league. Forest Green Rovers, financially and ecologically sustainable, have been knocking on the door for years and a third spot would have seen them promoted some time ago. It’s hardly as if when new teams join the Football League they all struggle is it? Fleetwood Town, promoted less than five years ago could be a Championship side next season, joining Burton Albion. AFC Wimbledon seem to be doing well in mid-table in League One too.
On the other side of the coin you have the Football League sides struggling. The two teams currently occupying the relegation spots in League Two have both been beset by ownership issues which has in turn led to financial problems off the field and poor form on it. Just above them sit Morecambe (granted a former Conference side), another club that has an owner who appears to have disappeared off the face of the earth, taking the cheque book with him, leaving the players, management and suppliers high and dry.
I can’t see one compelling reason why at least there should not be three-up, three-down between the Football League and the Conference. In fact I’d go a bit further and restructure the leagues completely, having a 20 team Premier and Championship league, then three regionally based leagues of 20, meaning the top 8 of the Conference would join the league – less travel, less long midweek trips, more local games, more new grounds for fans to visit.
So back to Good Friday. It had indeed been a good Friday before we arrived at a heaving Sincil Bank as my horse had come in at 33/1 at Lingfield Park. Of course that meant the beers and pies would be on me but that’s a small price to pay for such luck. There’s fewer better sights approaching a football ground than the walk up Sincil Bank itself, with the modern Co-Operative Stand trying to nudge the Cathedral out of shot in the distance. I came here at the start of last season when Torquay United were the visitors on that occasion. No more than a couple of thousand had been here and what was noticeable back then were the lack of fans in Lincoln shirts, with kids running around sporting Man Utd, Chelsea, Arsenal, Barcelona and even a LA Galaxy shirts. Today I felt out-of-place without a Lincoln City shirt on. The transformation was amazing.
Northern Steve had procured the last seats in the house a few hours earlier. So last-minute that the seats didn’t actually exist – I believe we were supposed to bring our own emergency chairs. The seats were in the front row behind the goal, but were taken by wheelchair users and their carers. Fortunately the stewards re-housed us in the overflown section, next to the away fans. Everyone we met (and Steve knows a few in these parts) greeted us with a “UTI!”. At first I tried to explain that the coins in my pocket were chaffing, hence my strange gait rather than it being some Urinary Tract Infection but in these parts it means Up The Imps. Comfortably seated with any pain, let the game commence.
Lincoln City 2 Torquay United 1 – Sincil Bank – Friday 14th April 2017
The mark of a good team is knowing that they’ve never been beaten. When Torquay took the lead thanks to Ruairi Keating (nephew of Ronan no less) close range effort with just ten minutes to play you got a sense that The Gulls could upset the odds and put a dent in Lincoln’s promotion push. They’d kept the Imps at bay for most of the game with keeper Brendan Moore being tested only on occasion as Lincoln seemed to feel the long-ball game would have more success against a side fighting for their lives at the bottom.
The style of Lincoln play had surprised me. I’d seen them fleetingly this season, and had seen the Cowley’s teams play not only at Concord Rangers but also at Braintree Town. They are set up with two big, but mobile centre-backs, pacy full-backs and workmen-like midfielders and of course the away fans pantomime villain Rhead up front. But they also had been successful playing the ball to feet this season. Torquay were more than a match for most of the opening half, with Paul Farman in the Lincoln goal the busier of the two.
In the final minute of the first half Moore pulled off a great save down at his post which better keepers would have never got to. But overall, the visitors could be pleased with a good half of football. Other scores from around the division were kind to both teams, with Torquay’s need more pressing than the Imps you would say, having suffered so badly with events off the pitch in the last few years. Seeing the Lincoln City re-birth in the past couple of seasons both on and off the pitch should give Gulls fans some hope, although in the darkest days you really don’t want to open the curtains and see who else is having a good time.
The goal was the tipping point to try something different. The ball stayed on the ground and they stretched Torquay, forcing them into conceding free-kick after free-kick on the edge of the box. With three minutes to go Harry Anderson was the quickest to react to Marriott’s shot that had been well saved by Moore and the Imps were back in the game. They could sense victory and threw everyone forward. As the clock ticked over the 90th minute mark, another foul was awarded just outside the box. With the Torquay wall being assembled, Rhead stood in front of the keeper, moving step by step with him, telling him where the ball was going to go in the football equivalent of sledging. He stepped back and Sam Habergham’s free-kick was as good as you would see anywhere in World Football. The Torquay players sank to their knees – they knew they were beaten.
Momentum is hard to create but once a team has it, they are hard to stop. The fans went off into the rainy Lincolnshire afternoon knowing that just two more wins stood between them and a return to the Football League. For Torquay it would be a nervous few weeks hoping others would slip up in their fight against relegation to Conference South, where their local derby next season could be with Truro City.