There is more than one thing that makes Lincoln City an unusual football club.
First there is their crest, a 14th-century grotesque – an imp who once caused havoc in Lincoln Cathedral (until it was turned to stone, so legend has it, by an angel hiding in a book). There is the fact that their manager, Danny Cowley, employs his brother, Nicky, as his assistant. Then, to top it off, there are the “gold members”, VIP fans who pay a standing order to have a say in the club’s direction.
In the past 10 days Lincoln have attracted attention for another unlikely occurrence, their intrepid FA Cup performance at Portman Road. The National League side twice took the lead against Championship Ipswich and looked set to cause the upset of the third round until Tom Lawrence’s low shot from distance in the 86th minute snatched a 2-2 draw and forced a replay. Now it is the Imps against the Tractor Boys at Sincil Bank and the game is a sell-out.
Recent times have not been great for Lincoln. A club whose glory days came in the 1970s with rookie manager Graham Taylor, they held the record of most years in the Football League without reaching the top flight (104) but have been out of the league altogether since relegation in 2011. But the Cup has sparked a flame of enthusiasm. A queue several hundred fans deep awaited the release of replay tickets and the game sold out within three hours of the box office opening. That means 8,000 home fans alone, more than double Lincoln’s average gate. As well as atmosphere, of course, this means revenue. The replay is also being shown on BBC1, which will add another £72,000 to the kitty. These are not insignificant funds for a non-league club.
“It will mean a lot for the fans – we’ve not reached that stage since I can’t remember when,” says Steve Tointon, the aforementioned gold member board member. “Our performance at Portman Road was one of the best I’ve seen by a Lincoln side, but if we can repeat it we’ve got every chance of winning. The only thing is that Ipswich will be ready for us this time.”
Lincoln’s gold member scheme is perhaps unique in the British game. It allows fans to visit the boardroom (with a guest) and meet the manager three times a season. All for just £1,200 over five years. More controversially, perhaps, the gold members then vote to elect one of their body to the club board, the representative then having a vote on the running of the club. There is also a representative of the Lincoln City Supporters’ Trust sitting on the board, ostensibly meaning two of eight board votes are held by supporters.
“I would like to think we can have a positive influence,” Tointon says. “The gold membership is a subdivision of the Trust and together we have been able to make a contribution, especially when times have been difficult for the club. Most of it relates to things that would matter to fans, the ticketing and things like that. So on matches like this we try to get the best arrangements for those fans who are committed to the club.”
Tointon may be a highly committed supporter but he is not overly romantic about Cup success, with a fourth-round tie at Brighton awaiting should the Imps triumph over Ipswich at the second time of asking. “The downside is that [the Cup run] takes us out of the league a bit, and the big step for Lincoln, without any question, is getting out of this league,” he says. “Very little money comes in to the club from outside sources. But if we can get up into the next division, we can reset our position. From there we can start to plan for our future based on more certainty of income.”
Such an opportunity seems much more likely with the Cowley brothers at the helm. Lincoln are two points clear at the top of the National League and with two games in hand on their nearest rivals, Forest Green Rovers. Recruited as a pair from Braintree last summer, Danny and Nicky have brought an attractive style of football and, perhaps more importantly, a meticulous approach to training and conditioning. The pair agreed contract extensions to 2021 last week.
“I was involved in making the decision, I knew who we were looking at and who was the favourite,” says Tointon. “Clearly one or two [club officials] had done their homework, and fortunately we made the right decision. We knew that they came as a team and if you saw the reaction when we had a fans forum recently, you’d know there was complete agreement from the supporters too. It was an amazing night.” The mischievous Imps will be hoping for another night to rememberon Tuesday.
guardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010
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