Beginning of an Era (Episode 4: A Lincoln Legend)

I was expecting a glimmer of clarity. And what I got was a whole fucking ray of it.

“Come on boss, I don’t know what else to say!” Batesy falls back into his seat after pouring us both a couple more glasses.

“We played really well and got unlucky in the final, that’s the world of football.” Unlucky is a funny word for complacent. “Fans have received the signing of Harrison well; the video of the highlights is doing the rounds on Twitter? Freckles goal alone has been retweeted like a thousand times. We did well, YOU did well mate. Should be beaming with pride, not wallowing in pity.” I smile half heartedly before flinching as the heat from the whiskey covers my throat.

“How about this Shep; in a week’s time there’s a free agent thing on in London. Players without a team showing up and fighting for a contract. Could be some quality in there and if not, a day out watching footy with yours truly can never a bad thing.” For once Kev, you’ve done the complete opposite of piss me off. We book hotel rooms in London and finish another bottle of whiskey before I stumble outside into a taxi.

The night before, Bostwick rings me and asks if I’m free the next day to discuss his future and he happily accepts the offer to join me and Kev down south. I really like Michael and I’d hate for him to spend the first month of his recovery sat in the dark. The day comes and there’s a wide variety of players. Whether you want South American tricksters, Eastern European bricks or lads from Southend who never quite got the professional contract out of academies, you’d not be out of place today. I felt awkward scouting for a replacement for Bostwick while the poor bloke was right next to me so I went in open-minded, not really looking for anything in particular but reluctant to leave empty-handed. And thankfully, I didn’t.

After half a day of if’s and maybe’s, Kev and Bostwick tell me to keep an eye on the defence of a side wearing all blue and its evident why after just one play. A centre back hooks his leg backwards to both dispossess the striker and trap the ball in-between his thigh and calf. Like Nainggolan except with half a foot height difference.  The right back begins sprinting up the line and as he passes us, the ball is pinged high over the line. The wing back beats his man, despite having a 5 yard disadvantage, and plays a neat one-two before drilling a low cross to the back post where the striker is open to tap in from 6 yards. Me and Batsey immediately lock eyes and just as he jogs past us, I grab his shoulder. “Come see me at full time. And bring your mate back there too.”

He comes straight over after the whistle with his mate who doesn’t speak a lot of English at all. He smiles and nods and constantly looks to his friend for help. Probably shitting himself in case his lack of communication messes it up but that performance alone deserves a chance. I tell them to keep it up for the remainder of the afternoon and they can join us for the road trip back up to Lincoln tomorrow. After some hard work in training drills and outshining almost every other man there, I smack away the filthy hands of the leeches that are talent scouts and jump in a minibus with our new men and their agents.

Vasil Bozhikov and Gergo Lovrenscics. A Bulgarian centre back and Hungarian wing back, both recently released by their respective clubs. They only met that morning when Gergo and Vasil were placed in the same squad as the only foreigners. If they play this well together after half a day, imagine how they’ll link up after a week, a month, a year. Now while Bozhikov is slightly past his prime (coming up 30) and Gergo will have ‘Lovren’ printed on the back of his shirt, albeit with something else after, I cannot pass the chance to sign these lads up. After a night of discussions, we agree to sign them both on two year contracts. Gergo can also play as a winger or even a striker if push comes to shove and with bags of pace, bombing up and down the touchline is a big part of his game.  Vasil is a great option at the back to compete with Wilson and Wharton and considering he goes out and buys some language teaching app overnight, he’s obviously committed.

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Bostwick doesn’t pull me aside for the original talk he wanted so I’m hoping it’s clear to him that the day together shows he’s very much respected and vital to the club, playing or not. After arriving back in Lincoln and introducing the new lads, Eardley pulls me aside and addresses some concerns regarding his position in the squad. He seems a bit upset that I’ve signed another right sided defender as he feels he played well in the tournament. Reassurance isn’t enough and he wants to be offered a better contract that in his words “at least matches Vagisil.” We arrange talks with his agent the next day for that line on its own and he agrees a new deal with a year extension. It’s upon looking through the squad I realise we have a lot of players out of contract next year, something that I’m going to try and work on for the next couple months. One of those who I won’t be working on however is Danny Horton.

He’s not joined the squad for my first games in charge and I’ve given him a week or so to come to me and explain. I would have rather he came and fed me some bullshit about his mother self combusting or being captured and held hostage by terrorist gunmen than pretend nothing’s wrong. On day 10, I get sick of waiting and pull him into my office. Now maybe I’m naive but when he sat down, I was expecting something. He’s only 17 I mean he could be homesick? He could be annoyed with the change of management, scared he’s not going break into the team now I’m here? I expected a glimmer of clarity. And what I got is a whole fucking ray of it.

3 minutes. No, that’s not how long it took Harrison to open his Lincoln account. That was 2 minutes in case you forgot. It’s how long it took me to go from an understanding, patient gaffer to Sir Alex Ferguson finding someone shit in his cereal the morning after losing to Arsenal. He didn’t seem bothered at first and only perked up after I threatened his contract. Overly defensive and combative, I was still willing to find a light shining through. Until he disrespected his fellow players. Especially, Ollie fucking Palmer.  I kicked him out and told him not to bother showing up to training tomorrow. Or ever in fact. I ring his dad, who happens to be his agent, and explain the situation. We agree a payment for the rest of his contract and I tell him his son should take this as a learning curve. He strongly agrees and even thanks me for it. How does a disillusioned kid fall from such a clear-headed family? Maybe he’ll find a team at an event similar to the one I attended two weeks ago but for now, he’s out of a job. Sorry it couldn’t work out better Danny.

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The squad take the news well and generally seem happy to get rid of a toxic personality but Kev tells me a few lads were nervously whispering about their own contracts now. It’s a good thing though as the remaining few days of training goes brilliantly. Everybody works hard, pushes their boundaries to try prove their worth. I even think a couple spies might be watching as Blackburn try to exercise our new friendship with a 650k offer for Woody. I have to bite my tongue to stop myself from either laughing or screaming down the phone. Bostwick’s absence has only confirmed my disgust in offers for holding midfielders. I do accept a 50k offer for fourth choice keeper Richard Walton from Sligo Rovers as three keepers should get us through the season. I’ve even been giving Josh Vickers, our second choice keeper extra training to try and improve his game so when Allsop returns to Southampton at the end of the season, we won’t miss him too much.  He’s only 21 so there’s plenty room for improvement there. The graft from the squad earns them a solid day of rest before my first league game in charge. Wycombe Wanderers, away from bloody home.

I want to play well here. These fans are the loyal fans. A 6 hour round trip in football is never easy and I’d hate to get off on the wrong foot with a loss in front of the Lincoln faithful. I decide to give the Bulgaria/Hungary duo a start with Eardley moving onto the left side and Sam Ham dropping to the bench. It’s hard to do as he played so well in pre-season but I want to show faith in Eardley while giving the new lads a chance to impress the fans early. We have a mid-week cup game to play too so he’ll definitely get playing time then. Woody and Freckles start behind Stewart, Green and Rowe with Harrison making his competitive debut up front. I do feel sorry for Vasil having to man mark Adebayo Akinfenwa in his first appearance but it’s a good test for him to get used to the physicality of the English game. I tell Wilson to make sure he helps him out as much as he can. Freckles wears the armband today but I think I’m going to rotate the band weekly, similar to Southgate with England, while Bostwick’s out.

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The Beast gets my first league game underway. Just under 15 minutes in, a throw in on the left hand side accumulates in Harrison threading through Woody. He laces his effort off the far post. 10 minutes later, we win a corner which Harrison acrobatically volleys at the keeper before its cleared up to Akinfenwa. He holds off Vasil and tries to play in Saunders but it’s intercepted by Freckles. Gergo bombs forward into space and plays it back to Green with his first touch. Now Green plays an outrageous 30 yard chip over the defensive line and as I’m shouting at Stewart to control it, his eyes follow the ball over his shoulder. It drops as he connects perfectly with a left footed effort. It bounces directly under the keepers arm and nestles in the bottom corner. I can’t help but erupt with joy and have a group hug with all the lads as Stewart runs over to join us. What a fucking finish to get my season up and running. Take a bow mate.

The rest of the first half is pretty quiet and we control the game pretty well. There’s no other real chance until the 52nd minute when Green plays Harrison. He outpaces El-Abd and dinks a floating ball into the middle. Stewart uses the momentum from his run inside to leap high and power a header into the side netting of the goal. 2-0 up, dominating away from home. This is the life. My euphoria is almost tripled when Woody nicks the ball in the centre circle. He bombs forward and plays a ball high over the top for Rowe. He touches it forward brilliantly with his head and whips an early cross ever so slightly behind the unmarked Harrison who does well to even connect at all. The ball spins awkwardly into the ground and past the outstretched hand of the goalkeeper before bouncing off the post. We are really in control of this game.

In the 70th minute, Gergo uses his body to dispossess his man and plays it sideways to Vasil. He peels away instantly with Vasil playing a first time ball over the onrushing attackers. Before me and Kev could even lock eyes to confirm our hopes of a right hand side partnership, the ball is drilled into Rowe 30 yards forward. He plays a first time ball with ever so slightly too much for Harrison which he can’t claim before the keeper. A few minutes later, Rowe makes up for his mis-hit pass with an inch perfect one for Harrison again. He out-strengths his marker before hitting it across goal and it bobbles a hair length past the post. As the ball leaves the pitch, Pett and Sam Ham are waiting to be subbed on. Lovernscics and Stewart walk off together to rapturous applause from the away following. Both have been outstanding but Stewart’s name is chanted following his brace. He’s been electric today but Gergo gets a man hug from me.

It’s only on the 81st minute that Wycombe finally test Allsop between the posts after Woody is dispossessed under desperate high pressure. Mackail-Smith plays Adebayo who wrong foots Vasil with his first touch. Allsop rushes and makes a great save with his trailing arm before pouncing on the rebound. He’s had literally nothing to do but he’s showed up when it matters. Palmer comes on for Rowe, who also receives massive cheers from the away end, and Harrison moves out wide for the remainder of the match. Scrappy clearances aside, we see out the game and it finishes 2-0.

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I’m absolutely buzzing with the result and so are all the lads. Stewart deservedly collects Man of the Match but the local paper the next morning gives our front four 9+ ratings. In fact, our lowest rating is Allsop on a 7.8 and that’s only because his 85 minute long statue impression was a straight 10. Another thing that’s a straight 10 is the fact that we are currently sat 2nd in the league after only Grimsby matched our 2-0 result with a lot of teams having score draws. And to those who say it’s only because there’s 1 game played: fuck off. We’re gonna be there after 46. Right?

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