This is how I want to play. It’s been working to an extent. It has to work.
We touch down in Denmark around 9pm and arrive at the hotel not even half an hour later. I agree to let all the lads have a pint each with their supper as a way of reinforcing my human/twat management style. I’m not one to shy away from a pint but tonight I do. Tomorrow is my first game in charge. Tomorrow is the beginning of everything.
I’m awoken by Batesy, panicking nearly in tears. I can barely even wipe my eyes before the hotel door flies off it’s hinges and smacks the frame of my bed. As my eyes adjust to the light streaming in from the doorway, a lone silhouette slowly walks towards me. Kev runs to hold him back but he’s slapped away with a forearm to rival Roger Federer. The figure gets closer and closer until I can make out who it is. Danny bloody Horton. He grabs me by the throat and holds me against the wall before whispering in the most demonic voice I’ve ever heard: “You’re gonna lose. Every. Fucking. Game.” He pulls back his spare hand and the moment his fist should be rearranging my face, I shoot up from my now sweat-soaked bed. I check the alarm clock on the stand next to me. 5:28am. I give Danny a text asking he ring me when he lands. Surely he’s showing up. He can’t let me down.
So a breakdown of this tournament and specifically our group. The European Shield Invitational is a bi-annual tournament held jointly by a couple of Danish teams. While the groups are mainly other Scandinavian sides, they invite a newly promoted English League Two side (us) and a newly promoted English League One side (Doncaster Rovers). As the luck of the draw would have it, Doncaster are in our group which is good news. I’d be annoyed if we didn’t get a chance to play an English side before the season starts, even if we walk away with another million pounds in our pocket. The other two teams in our group are Norwegian side Sandefjord and Austrian side LASK Linz.
Sandefjord is a beautiful little city in Southern Norway with a population of around 70’000 people and the football team is very much what you’d imagine from that information. Celebrating their 20th anniversary next year, they’ve been in a similar limbo to my beloved Newcastle United. Bouncing between the top two divisions in Norway for the last 10 years, their strongest ever finish was 8th in the Tippeligaen coincidentally eight years ago.
Linz are a club with a much more dated origin as they’ll be 110 years old next year. Officially the European Capital of Culture, Linz sits in the north of Austria and homes roughly 200’000 people directly with surrounding areas and villages adding another 75’000. LASK Linz won the Austrian second division title last year which I learn is a way to earn an invite to this particular tournament. We play Sandefjord first, our English counterparts after and finish our group against LASK Linz.
The changing room is quiet and tense. Everybody is ready apart from a couple tying laces or sorting shinpads. “Listen, you know what I’m wanting from you. I know just as much about how you guys play as Stevie Wonder knows about colours. I’m not expecting an amazing performance. I just want you to try your best in the new system. Work hard, prove yourselves and most of all, enjoy it. Let’s get at it lads.” A chorus of cheers and clapping erupts briefly as the sound of studs pitter-patter out the changing room and down the hallway. The brief nostalgia of my playing days only lasts a few seconds as Batesy asks if I’m coming with him. I stand up, take a deep breath and follow him out.
As there’s no injuries or problems with any players, my preferred line-up I showed Kev a few days ago is the line-up today. Rhead gets my first game underway by passing back to Green after the ref’s whistle. First chance for either side comes just 8 minutes in as Eardley plays a ball to Green on the edge of the D. His touch lets him down as he’s dispossessed but Stewart reacts and plays the ball in between the two centre backs. Green runs in and laces it first time at the keeper who saves with his shoulder. Anywhere but there and we’re 1-0 up. I clap and shout to show encouragement and hide disappointment. We can’t miss those chances. 20 minutes later, Rowe outmuscles his marker before whipping a cross to the edge for Green. His volley is blocked but it falls back to him to play a pass to Rhead who hits it on the turn…directly at the keeper. He’s offside anyways so there is a silver lining but in my eyes, that’s another opportunity squandered. Half-time arrives with no further action for either side. I tell the defenders to keep it up as we’ve limited them to literally nothing and that’s always a good thing. We’ve only had a couple chances though so I tell the lads to go and attack them this half to try and get my career off to a good result.
The first 15 minutes of the second half is, in all honesty boring, until the hour mark is met by the best chance of the game. Eardley’s cross is punched away and Sandefjord counter. Shamohammed picks up the ball and runs to the half way line and plays a peach of a through-ball in for Engblom. Allsop rushes out quite early thinking he can beat him to the ball but Engblom squares it back to the edge of the box for Kurtovic to shoot over the sliding challenge of Wilson. My heart’s in my mouth until I see it ping up and over off the cross bar. He really should have scored that and we’re lucky to still be drawing. The remaining half hour is pretty much silent apart from a few pot shots. The games finishes 0-0.
It’s not the best result but it’s also not the worst. We actually played some good football but I tell Kev to have a focus on defending counter attacks in training as that chance from Kurtovic was too close for comfort. The other game in our group seems to be a much more enjoyable game as Linz emerged 3-2 victors over Doncaster. I check my phone and see I have no missed calls or texts from Horton still. Strike two.
Over the next couple days. we received a few offers from a group of clubs back home. Barnet bid 165k for our third goalkeeper Paul Farman and Exeter bid the same amount for Matt Rhead. I accept both as we need the money and offloading some players who won’t play is a win-win. Rhead really didn’t impress me and was wheezing by the 70th minute which isn’t good enough when we have the league and 3 cup competitions to compete in. Charlton come in with a whopping 620k bid for Woodyard but I have no intention of selling so I refuse the offer with no negotiation.
The last offer we get before our next game is from our next opponents, Doncaster. Darren Ferguson’s side are staying in the same hotel so me and Darren decide to have dinner together. By the end of the dinner, we’ve exchanged numbers and agreed a 220k deal for Luke Waterfall. I really debate it at first because he is club captain but he is going to be a 4th choice CB once I bring in a recruitment as I want Wharton to get some games. As he’s a Blackburn player, giving him some game time should build a good impression over at Ewood Park in case I ever want to nab one of their players in a future transfer window. I decide to agree and get him, Rhead and Farman together before lights out to inform them about the offers I’ve accepted for them all. It’s an awkward exchange but they are all professional and accept that if first team football isn’t regular here, a move is their best option.
For the game against Doncaster, I make a few changes to the team. I move Green up front and push Stewart into the middle with Anderson coming in on the left. Woody comes in for Freckles alongside Bostwick. The rest of the team stays the same.
It doesn’t take long for my changes to link up as in the 8th minute, outstanding build up play involving 21 passes is topped off by Green dropping his shoulder and smashing the ball into the top left. I jump and pump my fist upwards as Green wheels away to smack the corner flag. 1-0.
We keep up the pressure and on the 21st minute, Woody gives it to Green who plays a first time ball behind for Anderson. He outpaces the centre back and cuts in but drills it off the near post. Doncaster look to counter but we regain shape well. 15 minutes late, Stewart shows me the good feet Batesy talked about by using a roulette to beat his man and follows up with a great ball for Green. Green touches it to the right quickly which completely wrong foots Alcock but the resulting shot can only skim over the crossbar. Just before half time, Doncaster get their first real chance after Rowe (Tommy, not our Danny) and Beestin finish a neat one-two with the latter forcing a great low save to Allsop’s right. The parried shot finds Blair on the far edge of the box. He turns Habergham and Anderson, who was the best player on the pitch so far, slides in just as the pass is played and the ref awards a penalty. I hold my head in my hands as it’s such a reckless challenge that didn’t need to happen. Marquis sends Allsop the wrong way from the spot to take the teams level at half time.
The second half starts and the first big chance falls to Doncaster in the 73rd minute. Marquis cuts back on the corner of the box and plays Whiteman. He lets it run through his legs and finesses it round Wharton and the keeper to make it 2-1 off the far post. It’s a brilliant goal to be fair and I can’t fault anyone for conceding that. I bring on Tom Pett, our other out and out left winger in retaliation.
As the final 10 minutes approach, I decide to make use of the remaining subs I have. I bring on Palmer and Freckles for Anderson and Woody to add some more height in the final minutes. I change to a 4-2-2-2 with Green and Palmer up front. Just two minutes later, Bostwick’s cross is headed out for a corner which Sam Ham (a nickname from my own library, not the lads) whips front post. 6’5 Ollie Palmer rises and nods it off the underside of the bar with his first touch to equalise. My first bit of tactical mastery comes off perfectly. We very nearly nick it at the death with Palmer holding off his man before backheeling the ball into the run of Pett. He takes the ball well in his stride but hits it a yard wide of the far post. Full time whistle blows immediately after. Habergham is awarded Man of the Match which is thoroughly deserved. I would have liked 3 points at half time but Doncaster came back in the second and a point is probably fair.
Linz won their second game 2-0 meaning that they top the group on 6 points while we sit second on 2 and the others on 1 point each. As long as we win our next game, we’re through. Only our next game is against league leaders, Linz who have beat the two teams we have struggled against. Kev suggests I change the formation to something more familiar. I refrain. This is how I want to play. It’s been working to an extent. It has to work.
Before the next game, Rhead, Waterfall and Farman come together to tell me that they’ve agreed terms with their new clubs and want to fly over to join them in their pre-season training camps. I book the lads a row of seats on the first flight the following morning with money out of my own pocket and wish them well. I also receive an email from Stevenage lodging a bid of 320k for Sam Ham. His last performance fresh in my mind, it’s swiftly rejected.
After a solid performance last time out, I’m feeling positive about this game. The Freckles and Bostwick partnership returns for this game with Anderson making way for Palmer to start up front with Green moving behind. Palmer deserves a start after his short display against Doncaster.
Even though Linz last two results should make me shake in my boots, I’m excited. However, that excitement is well and truly drained when two early chances from the two Brazilian’s Alan and Joao Victor test Allsop. The first half is a very dull affair after that with Palmer having a couple attempts comfortably saved . Going in at half-time, Kev tells me Sandefjord are 1-0 up so as it stands, we’re out the tournament. Cheers Kev.
In the 53rd minute, we have a big chance when Linz do not organise themselves quick enough after clearing a corner. Bostwick spots a gap and plays Rowe who hammers the ball over the bar from the corner of the 6 yard box. Freckles is hobbling slightly after challenging for the corner so I sub on Woody as a precaution. I tell the lads to attack as the hour mark approaches as we need to score after hearing Sandefjord have solidified their lead with another goal. It takes 15 minutes of hard pressing until Green forces an error. He pings the ball forward to the feet of Palmer who backs into his man waiting for a runner. Rowe comes to the rescue and the lay off pass bounces up off his foot. He somehow sets himself and absolutely twats it on the volley with his left into the roof of the net. The composure to finish that chance is world class and fortunately for us, we control the game and there’s no further chances. The game ends 1-0 and I have my first win as Lincoln manager. Ollie Palmer comes straight over to thank me for playing him and I have to tip my hat to him. He played great today.
Now it’s worth mentioning that Lincoln were the only team to remain unbeaten in the group stages and we also conceded the tied lowest amount of goals. Tied with our opponents in the semis: Lillestrøm SK. Despite a disappointing 12th place finish in the second division of Norwegian football after relegation last season. they won the Norwegian equivalent of the FA Cup. As a result, they are offically classed as ‘Norwegian National Champions’ and have earned a place in Europa League qualifiers. We’re playing the bloody champions.
The next day, we travel to a different hotel to prepare minus Rhead, Farman and Waterfall who head back to England to finalise their transfers. When I arrive, I get a call from the chairman telling me about a lot of money coming into the club. Bob allocates 220k from the sales of Farman and Rhead to the transfer kitty as well as 308k prize fund for reaching the knockout stages. If that’s the amount for just getting through, imagine if we win the final. With all this money coming into the club and all these players leaving, you must be thinking I have something up my sleeve? Of course I do.
Welcome my first signing, Ellis Harrison. The 23 year old Welshman who stands at 5’11 is a fast, hard working striker who can run for days. Bristol Rovers did see him as an important player so it takes a hefty 600k to get them to agree. I hold a video call with Ellis and his agent and after some back and forth negotiating, he agrees on a 4.3k a week deal with a decent signing on fee and a healthy bit of money once he hits 15 goals for the club. As much I like having money, I hope he gets the extra paycheck relatively soon. He flies over that evening and decides he wants the now vacant number 9 shirt. As any sensible striker should.
Ellis arrives and gets signed on in time to start our semi final game against Lillestrøm. I tell Ollie it’s nothing personal and he’ll make a cameo in the second half. He’s very understanding and even encourages me to get him involved quickly. Another reason why Ollie Palmer is slowly becoming the Lincoln equivalent of Kolo Toure. I start the same team that started the Linz game with Palmer happily sitting on the bench while new boy Harrison leads the line for the first time in a Lincoln shirt.
It doesn’t take long for him to make an impact either as just 2 minutes in, Sam Ham plays it inside to Harrison. He lays it off to Rowe and makes the run which Freckles spots after receiving the ball. He drops his right shoulder and smacks it across goal into the side of the net to give us a very early 1-0 lead. As Harrison runs over to the crowd, he stops and kisses the Lincoln badge in front of the camera man. A nice touch that fans at home will appreciate when watching the highlights of the tournament on Youtube.
We’re attacking again just eight minutes later as Freckles and Harrison combine again. The latter Cruyff turns his man and hits it low to the near post to double his goal tally. “Could be a game changer this lad Shep” laughs Batesy. Too fucking right he could. We win a throw in on the 15th minute that’s flicked on by the captain. Now you know when you’re watching a match and it falls right for the wrong player? Well Freckles is the player who receives the ball 30 yards out. Now I don’t know why he hit it. Whether it was the fact we were 2-0 up or if the spirit of Stevie G himself was summoned at quarter to 4 to possess an Irish bloke in the middle of Denmark. But what I do know is that top bins screamers never go out of fashion. In the words of 2015 True Geordie, he unleashes an absolute thundercunt into the stanchion of the goalposts. The best part? He jogs over to the touchline in front of the sub bench and simply bows. Both sets of fans are on their feet clapping that strike. Goal of the tournament hands down. After everyone’s pulled their jaw back up from the ground, Green plays Harrison a ball in behind which he hits hard and low. It bounces off the near post, off the keepers head and is cleared by a defender before we can process the madness that just occurred.
The rest of the first half passes and so does the first 25 of the second until Tobias Gran pings a ball into the middle where Gray Martin is there to capitalise with a calm finish into the top right. Now it’s 3-1 with 20 minutes left, I tell the lads to sit back and try control the game to avoid a shock comeback. In the 77th minute, Harrison gets kicked in the head challenging for a rebound so I take him off as a precaution as he looks a tad wobbly when back on his feet. I congratulate him with a firm handshake and a pat on the back. 2 goals on your debut is not bad at all. I make a number of subs in the final 15 minutes, some to rest tired legs and others to time waste. We see the game out and advance to the final as it finishes 3-1.
*Forgot to screenshot this scoreline, sorry!*
So many positives to take from that game. Whether it’s a lethal new #9, the variety and quality in holding midfield or the fact we truly dominated Lillestrøm in a convincing, high scoring match. Take your bloody pick. Our Austrian friends Linz won their semi final 2-1 which means we face them in the final.
Before the game starts, I tell the lads that regardless of the result, I’m overwhelmed with how well we’ve played. This result isn’t important. All I want is to see some good football. Same again, some might say. I pick a unchanged side from last time out except for Anderson on the right with Rowe dropping to the bench.
We get off to a bad start when Bostwick’s poor touch let’s him down and forces a 50/50 between himself and Michorl. Bostwick gets there first to pass it away but Michorl comes in hard after. He picks up a well justified yellow but Bostwick is rolling around basically in tears holding his leg. I tell Woody to warm up quickly as the stretcher is sent out. Not like this. He’s been dominating the midfield winning all the aerial battles and bullying the opposition all tournament. He grits his teeth as he passes me but releases a groan down the tunnel. Let it out mate, I don’t care. I’m well and truly gutted but there’s still a game of football happening.
14 minutes in, Wharton and Sam Ham don’t communicate and neither clear a simple cross. It’s volleyed off the bar by Gartler and the rebound is headed by Goiginger against Wharton shoulder to loop over the sprawling hands of Allsop. I lob the water bottle in my hand against the glass of the sub bench’s cover. I can’t be annoyed with the finish as it’s complete luck but the 5 seconds prior is abysmal. 1-0 down. 13 minutes later, our luck turns as Harrison touches a Green pass round Trauner and is hacked down in retaliation. It’s only after a swift fist pump I realise we haven’t actually decided on a designated penalty taker so I let the lads decide between them. Everyone seems happy to follow the who wins it, takes it rule so Harrison puts the ball down on the spot. The whistle blows but he waits a couple seconds before lashing an unsaveable effo… “HOW THE FUCK’S HE SAVED THAT?” I scream in frustration as the poor water bottle is again thrown with full force. Harrison smacks it top left and somehow, the keeper dives and palms it round the post with his trailing hand. It really isn’t our day. Just before half time, Harrison forces a good save with an effort from 20 yards but we go in 1-0 down after 45 minutes. I don’t even give a team talk as I’m too busy checking for cracks at the bench.
10 minutes into the second half, great build up play results in Harrison playing Anderson in 1-on-1 from the edge of the 6 yard box. Before you can say ‘surely that’s a goal’, Anderson skies it 3 yards over the bar. Rowe replaces him immediately out of pure frustration. Not with the miss. Well not entirely with the miss but we’ve been so unlucky today. We control the game for another half hour, unable to break through the Linz back line. I resort to the 4 triple 2 formation used in the last 10 against Doncaster to try and take this game to extra time. Palmer, Pett and Long take to the field. In the very last moments of the game, patient build up play finds Palmer at an awkward angle but alone with the keeper to beat. He controls it and tries to finesse it round the keeper but it wraps round the wrong side of the post. We lose 1-0 and Linz win the silverware. I reluctantly shake hands and storm down the tunnel.
Batesy thinks it’s a good time to inform me that Linz didn’t actually have a shot on target but still managed to beat us. Just fuck off Kev, I’m not in the mood. In my blind rage, I dismiss concerns regarding Bostwick and tell the physios to sort out scans or whatever they do. I go back to the hotel to order room service and cry a little.
We leave the next day with Bostwick unable to board the plane on his own. He’s knackered his ACL and will be out until the middle of February. He can’t even tell me without choking up a little. He’s worked so hard to get to the point and it’s been ripped away from him before he can even get started. With all these thoughts rattling around in my head, Kev decides to stick his progressively more annoying head up.
“Fixtures have been announced boss. First game is away to Wycombe.” As Mourinho said after a humiliating 1-0 defeat to Newcastle United, the footballing gods can either be with you or against you. Today, they’ve been massively against us. “Only up from here though, right gaffer?” pleads Palmer. As much as I can’t see it through my rage-tinted glasses, he’s right. I love Ollie Palmer.