Future football annals, if they look beyond the Premier League’s almighty self-importance, might fairly call 2017 the Year of the Imp.
Lincoln City entered it top of the National League, quickly knocked Ipswich Town, Brighton & Hove Albion and Burnley out of the FA Cup before losing at Arsenal, duly secured promotion as champions and, by beating Forest Green Rovers 2-1 at Sincil Bank on Saturday, lie third in League Two. It was a fine end to a phenomenal year.
That word comes from Danny Cowley, their manager. “Football is a phenomenon,” he wrote in the programme. “It has the power to change lives and it feels it has done that in Lincoln. We must never forget its power. We need to keep using it to affect people’s lives for the better.” William Cobbett, who got in before him (1830), rated the city’s cathedral “the finest building in the whole world”. Now, even here, football may be the new religion.
Or perhaps it is especially in Lincoln. Cowley appears a manager with a difference. “We might not be a Premier League club but we have Premier League people,” he has said, describing the game at the top as a fantasy world with players getting ridiculous money. “At least here we forge a real connection with the people. We give something back.” They have the division’s highest average attendance, 8,617, which is 3,500 more than last season and 1,100 more than Coventry City.
“The best thing to come out of 2017 is the possibilities and challenges that lie ahead,” he said. “Today’s win was about people, honest hard-working boys. Normally the best things in life you have to fight for. I never want us to stand still.”
No one thought of doing that here. It was a high-intensity clash, as they have been recently, with a growing off-pitch animosity from Rovers, who have been on the receiving end lately, beaten twice by late goals after leading last season, and who may feel their historic thunder was stolen in spring, when they got into the League for the first time. Lincoln have done it a record six times, which tells its own story.
They keep on coming, thriving now on a small squad, clear discipline and terrific energy. Alex Woodyard was a harrier in midfield alongside the tougher Michael Bostwick. Harry Anderson and Nathan Arnold covered miles at speed up and down the flanks. Matt Green was endlessly game for anything that came his way up front. And the portlier Matt Rhead scored both goals, heading in Neal Eardley’s early cross and restoring the lead before the hour from Anderson’s burst and pass. Between times Christian Doidge punished a rare bit of casual defending for his 12th league goal, half Rovers’ total for the season. They have one point from six games since their last win on 18 November and prop up the table. Lincoln have 16 from their past six.
Nonetheless it could have been different as Rovers laid late siege to Lincoln’s goal. Sean Raggett made a crucial, full-stretch block; Josh Vickers pushed away a snap shot from Doidge; and from a corner Lee Collins hit a post and the ball was forced over the line, prompting Mark Cooper, Rovers’ manager, to say: “The referee couldn’t wait to disallow the goal, which always happens here.” Before the game he said: “We try and conduct ourselves in the right manner in every circumstance.” After it he refused to shake Cowley’s hand, leading to a skirmishing eddy of both squads. Cowley said: “If they fought like that all the time, they wouldn’t be where they are.”
Cooper, hosting Wycombe Wanderers on Monday, finds himself in a position to do Lincoln a favour while Cowley goes to Luton Town, still top of the table but 4-0 losers at Port Vale on Saturday. It will be Raggett’s last match before returning to Norwich after 18 months. “You can’t replace someone like him,” he said. “He has an unbelievable mentality. I’ll follow his future with interest.” And he surely will.
Until Saturday Lincoln were the only League club unvisited in half a century on the football beat. It was a fine, heartwarming place to finish, beneath the cathedral’s gaze.
• The sight of Nuno Espirito Santo – mid-phone call – celebrating Ryan Bennett’s winner in the directors’ box after being banished to the stands at Ashton Gate was one of the best images of the weekend. His wild fist-pumping did, though, irk a few in close proximity, namely the former Bristol City manager Alan Dicks. Bennett’s headed winner reinforced the fact that it is surely a case of when and not if Wolverhampton Wanderers win promotion to the Premier League.
• If Lincoln have half a chance of successive promotions, then in League One Portsmouth seem intent on having a go themselves. They racked up an eighth win in their last 10 by coming from behind to dispatch Northampton Town and move up to sixth. The former Dagenham & Redbridge striker Oli Hawkins, who has also been utilised by the manager, Kenny Jackett, at centre-back, scored two and, with him and the captain Brett Pitman, they are not short of firepower.
• Luton are not perfect. They lost for the first time since October after the highly rated Bournemouth loanee Ben Whitfield capped Port Vale’s shock 4-0 win over Nathan Jones’s side and with Lincoln coming to Kenilworth Road on New Year’s Day, it does not get any easier. “Best thing is we get to put it right in 44 hours,” tweeted the Hatters’ striker Danny Hylton afterwards. “We were poor,” Jones said. “We were second best from start to finish.” Ben Fisher
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