Our first Great Teams post of 2013 features Lincoln City, one of several clubs we have featured in the series who now find themselves outside the Football League – see also our look back to famous Cambridge United and Stockport County sides of the past. Tom Clarke is a sports journalist with The Daily Mail and can be found on Twitter here, while some of his previous grumblings about Lincoln City can be found at the now sadly discontinued Pope and Swift, an excellent pan-sports blog that is begging to be succeeded. Here, Tom remembers the happier times of the 2002-03 season.
“You’re not singing…”
Millennium Stadium, Cardiff. 24th May, 2003.
“You’re not singing…”
My Dad, brother, uncle and I are stood with around 15,000 Lincoln City fans, all of us chanting in the direction of subdued Bournemouth supporters.
“You’re not singing anymore…”
Lincoln’s Ben Futcher has just headed a thirty fifth minute equaliser in the Division Three Play-off final. Bournemouth 1 Lincoln 1.
“You’re not siiiiinnngging anymore”.
That was as good as it got. That’s often how it goes supporting Lincoln City. Fleeting moments of unbridled joy quickly extinguished by crushing reality. I’m sure many other supporters of lower-league football teams feel the same but having been born in 1989, the year we were promoted from the conference, and being too young to enjoy or take in the promotion of 1998 (followed swiftly by relegation), this play-off final, coming one season after serious financial trouble and finishing third from bottom seemed like a miracle. Since then there have been more play-off failures (this was the first of five successive years in the play-offs) including another final defeat, followed by mismanagement and relegation to non-league. This is why, for me, that moment after Futcher’s equaliser was so brilliant and so great. I wasn’t exaggerating. It really was as good as it got.
Bournemouth scored their second right on half-time and we never looked like getting back into the game. We lost 5-2. The score line may have flattered them but the victory didn’t. Although that team fell just short of what would have been a remarkable promotion I still regard them as the greatest Lincoln team.
Crucial to any successful football team is a great goalkeeper. Ours was Alan Marriott. An excellent shot stopper, Marriott joined us after being released by Tottenham as a youngster in 1999. Great reflexes, good communication and a loyal servant to the club, Marriott was the perfect fourth-tier goalkeeper. Only his slightly small build (for a keeper) at just over 6 ft and occasionally poor distribution stopped him from playing at a higher level. It is no surprise to see him still performing well for Mansfield in the Blue Square Bet Premier these days.
Suggesting Marriott as the ideal base of this team may lead you to believe that I am presenting a well-balanced side with equal strengths in all departments. I wish that were true but in front of Marriott stood five men who were not just the leading players in the success of this side; they were the whole damn show.
We operated a 5-3-2 formation for much of the ‘play-off era’ with great success. The two full-backs not only provided defensive cover but also were a great attacking threat – owing much to their commitment and stamina. Both Mark Bailey (right wing) and Stuart ‘Bimmo’ Bimson (left wing) were short, stocky and bald. Both enjoyed a crunching tackle on a wet Tuesday night in Rochdale and both could whip in deadly crosses from out wide. The Baldy Babes (ahem) flanked three fantastic third division central defenders. Simon Weaver, Futcher and Paul Morgan.
Weaver, the least accomplished of the three in my opinion (perhaps because he spent too long on his hair) was a good passer and probably the quickest of the three. At 6ft 7in Futcher was always going to be a key player but as well as dominating in defence he was also lethal from long throws and those crosses from the Hairless Heroes (that’s even worse) – finishing that 2002-03 season as our top scorer with 11. Marshalling the back five was captain Paul Morgan. Shorter than the other two, Morgan’s real strength as a defender was in his reading of the game. He was that classic heroic defender. Nemanja Vidic, Jamie Carragher, Colin Hendry, Tony Adams – all these players would, at the point when your team were certain to concede, show up with a tackle, block or interception. Morgan was our Tony Adams.
If the defence took the lead roles then our midfield was an excellent supporting cast. Paul Smith often rivalled Weaver in the hair stakes (they both tried the blond-tipped Mohawk a la Beckham at World Cup 02 – classic) but his creative talents meant I let him get away with it. If Paul Morgan was our Tony Adams then Richard Butcher was our Steven Gerrard. An all-action midfielder who was fierce (sometimes too fierce) in the tackle and could pelt goals in from 30 yards. His death two years ago was sad for many lower-league fans. Alongside these two men was by far Lincoln’s most gifted footballer of my generation; Peter Gain. Like Marriott he was signed from Tottenham in 1999 and played over 200 games for us before leaving for Peterborough in 2005. Always calm on the ball, Gain had an exquisite first touch and his accurate passing with his favoured left foot was often key to releasing our marauding full backs. I always felt more confident with Gain in our side.
The strength and importance placed on our defence was largely due to the weakest part of this team – the strikers. Dene Cropper, who started the final, was a hard-working but limited player who didn’t have the quality of the likes of Gain. There was however one man whose cameo performances were key to getting us to that final. Simon Yeo had been in the army and worked as a postman while playing semi-professional football, most successfully for Hyde United and it was from Hyde that we signed him in 2002. A small, bulldog-like player, Yeo came up with some vital goals not least his late brace in the 5-3 semi-final, first leg win over Scunthorpe. The ultimate cult hero, he started the final on the bench and couldn’t save us when he came on.
Matt Bloomer and Ben Sedgemore both deserve mentions as does Paul Mayo, the other man who started the final. Mayo was an all-action defender/midfielder/striker, hard-working and the scorer important goals. With “Bimmo”, “Yeo” and “Mayo” we didn’t exactly need to be the most creative when it came to terrace chanting.
The man who deserves all the credit for turning this team of youngsters and non-league nobody’s into promotion contenders is Keith Alexander.
Alexander is the greatest Lincoln manager of my time supporting the club. Since his death in 2010 there have been many articles and blogs written about his skills as a manager – from his development of a simple but highly-effective style of football which served us so well for those years to his ability to find quality players in non-league for very little money. As well as many of the stars of this 02-03 team, Gary Taylor-Fletcher and Gareth McAuley both owe a large part of their success to Alexander as do George Boyd, Aaron McLean and Craig Mackail-Smith, all of whom he signed while manager at Peterborough.
Alexander took over with the club in administration and many of the old guard released but he dragged us from the brink of disaster to a play-off final. And he did it all wearing bright yellow socks. What a man.
Alexander arguably led better Lincoln sides into the play-offs and indeed many of these players were part of more talented and accomplished teams than the one I have offered as my best. But the fact we never did achieve promotion under Alexander means that the 02-03 side takes the crown. As many sport fans say ‘It’s the hope that kills you’ and the expectation that came with the following play-off attempts is what tinges the memory of those later teams. With this side the success was so unexpected, so unlike the Lincoln City I knew, that the winning never failed to amaze me. They were the perfect fourth-tier team; tough, hard-working, efficient but ultimately just short of success.