Cup Fever (Episode 11: A Lincoln Legend)

There’s no laughing, no joking around. Just pure focus.

Putting my newly developed bromance with Gergo aside, me and Kev really whip the squad into shape before the Colchester game. We’re going to train hard and play harder in order to get a couple good results before the Carabao Cup game. I constantly tell the lads about the chances of playing at Wembley in the final. The biggest stage, after beating Manchester United in front of home fans. The biggest game of most of their careers to date. And certainly mine.

I go with a strong side for the Colchester game as I want to play a second string side against Port Vale on Saturday. Primarily, to rest for Man United next week. Knott and Anderson replace Stewart and Pett but it’s our best side otherwise with Vasil serving his suspension.

*Meta Note: After this game, I’m going to be implementing a 3 game ban for any straight red cards to improve realism in the series.*

We start strongly as 8 minutes in, Rowe bullies Dickenson off the ball. He passes to Knott who waits before he plays through Harrison. His effort however is weak and well wide. Not long after, Colchester have their first chance when Dickenson plays Mandron on the left. He’s got space due to Gergo being out of position due to our attack prior. He’s got all the time in the world to put a low ball to the back post where Guthrie arrives first to tap home. It’s a frustrating goal to conceed as it wouldn’t have happened with our usual, organised back four.

We keep our heads up though when five minutes later, Harrison receives the ball and gives it back to Freckles. He moves up to within 20 yards and hits a brilliant effort off the crossbar. It bounces down and the rebound header by Harrison is caught with ease. In the 23rd minute, Wilson fouls Guthrie but the advantage is played as he pings it in for Szmodics. He hits a volley well which Vickers can only palm into the run of Mandron who lashes home from 3 yards out. 2 goals both conceeded from inside the 6 yard box and people not tracking their man. It’s sloppy defending and we look far from the team with best defensive record in the league today.

The game naturally slows down as Colchester take their foot off the gas and sit back to stop us getting back into the game. In the 41st minute, Knott has a decent effort from the edge of the box saved but in the last minute of the half, Rowe finds Harrison with a ball inside. He flicks it on to Knott who knocks it round the centre back with two quick touches. He manages to get his feet sorted before smashing it top right. He celebrates with a contained fist bump and a few low-fives on the run back to the halfway line. 2-1 at half time and we’re still very much in this.

We come out the gates in the second with Harrison having a couple good headed chances saved well by the keeper in the first 10 minutes. It’s in the 66th minute however when we manage to find an equaliser when the Colchester defenders are dragged towards towards the ball. It’s a rookie mistake which leaves Rowe in acres of space to receive Woody’s ball. He pretty much walks into the box, puts it onto his left and curls it into the bottom corner. It’s a tidy finish and this game is here for the taking now.

We’re not satisfied with a point clearly when Anderson picks out an amazing first time pass into the box for Harrison, He slices it slightly but a strong hand from the keeper denies him a bottom corner finish. Rowe is subbed off with Stewart replacing him. The two wingers switch to play on their preferred side. 10 minutes later, Pett and Sam Ham come on for Eardley and Knott. As I’m busy telling Batesy about how Pett is a great super sub, a dreadful Gergo clearance is collected by Wright 30 yards out. He knocks it forward to Kent who bends an effort into the left hand side of the net. 3-2 down with a maximum of 10 minutes left, I tell everybody to get forward to try salvage a point.

A minute of normal time left, Harrison does well to get past a couple defenders but rushes his shot straight over the bar. Colchester hold it in the corner for the last few minutes and pick up the three points with a 3-2 victory. That game could have easily gone either way but Colchester were clinical with their chances. Honestly, they probably deserved it.

Luckily for us, the teams around us aren’t winning games too. But they also aren’t losing so this Port Vale game is a vital one for us to keep in amongst it. Before that however, George Kelly literally begs me to promote our Italian prospect. He pleads that he’s ready, he can step up, he’s mature. Now I’m not going to lie, I’ve watched him train and play. He’s not the hardest of workers but there’s no denying his technical ability. Eventually, I give in. He turn’s 18 the day before the match so I call him into my office, offer him a first team contract and tell him to get a good night’s kip. Valerio Esposito is starting tomorrow.

I start as many sub players as I can with Wharton and Sam Ham coming in at the back. Wilson gets the armband today as Chapman’s starting next to Woody. Anderson and Pett are supporting our debutant Esposito on the right. Ollie Palmer starts up front and when you need a win to get back on track, who else could you possibly want up there?

It only takes 4 minutes for Esposito to announce himself as Gergo bombs forward and drags Esposito’s man towards him. He releases Valerio down the wing who puts an inch perfect cross that curls into the path of Ollie Palmer to lash in with a left footed volley from just outside the 6 yard box. Ollie runs over and hugs the youngster. What a great start for the Italian and for us today. He’ll be a hit with our strikers if he plays balls like that often enough.

Not even 5 minutes later, he’s involved again. Pett gives it to Palmer who holds it up for Esposito’s run with their left back coming to challenge. He runs and crosses from just inside the box to Chapman. His volley is blocked well by Middleton’s thigh. Pett runs back on himself and somehow hits a first time shot on the swivel up into the top right. It’s an unbelievable finish but Valerio Esposito is the architect again. It’s only took 10 minutes for the bloke to have an annoyingly popular hit song altered into his own chant. Sometimes, the chants write themselves.

In the 25th minute, Chapman has a go from 25 yards and it clips the post/crossbar joining before going out for a goal kick. A few minutes later, Esposito isn’t happy someone is taking glory away from his day so he beats his man and puts a ball right into the danger area. Pett runs in and somehow doesn’t connect with ball at the near post. It’s a goal if he gets anything on that at all but Valerio acknowledges Pett’s raised arm signalling an apology.

The flow of our play slows for quarter of an hour until a close 1-2 from Palmer and Valerio leaves the debutant open. He sets himself before hitting wide of the far post from 10 yards. His finishing needs to be worked on but it’s the only blemish in his performance so far. Right before the half ends, another Esposito run down the right is picked out by Chapman. He’s basically triple marked which shows the threat he’s been in this match. He manages to squeeze a ball inside for Palmer who hits across his body towards the bottom left. Lainton spreads himself and makes a brilliant save with his foot to turn it round for a corner. Once the corner’s cleared, the half finishes and Valerio’s chant is being belted. He’s been unplayable so far and along with the squad, we encourage him to keep it up. He speaks relatively good English but he’s silent throughout the team talk. Probably thinks he’s dreaming cause I sure as fuck do. We even trade pinches to check before we go back out.

10 minutes into the second half, Woody breaks away and runs 2 thirds of the pitch before passing to Palmer. He tests the keeper with a stinging strike but it’s a decent safe. A few minutes later, Palmer plays Valerio over the top. The keeper rushes out and with the bounce, he tries to flick a header up and over. He manages to connect before being clattered by the keeper, no foul by the way, but it loops back onto the roof of the net.

In the 62nd minute, Anderson wins a corner and he offers Valerio the chance to take it. He’s heavily applauded as he sets himself before putting a great corner in for captain Wilson to flick past the keeper to make it 3-0. Everything is going for this lad today. I take Anderson off and push Pett out to left with Knott coming on in the middle. In the 70th, Tainton doesn’t clear a cross as well as he’d like as it falls kindly for Gergo. He passes up to that man Esposito who turns and passes to Knott. He controls and finishes it through Palmer’s legs. A hat-trick of assists for him today and a 4-0 lead with 20 minutes left. What a bloody day. Eardley comes on for Gergo to give him a bit of a rest.

He tries to put the icing on the cake with a nice run before faking a shot to beat the last man. Unfortunately, his shot is a tame one at the keeper but it’s not met by groans. Deafening applause instead. A fan favourite already. A couple minutes later, Chapman miscontrols a pass and Morrall nips in to steal, He plays it behind for their striker Wilson to beat our defender Wilson but he takes one too many touches and blasts it into the chest of Vickers.

With four minutes of standard time left, Knott picks up a yellow for a bad challenge and I take the chance to give Valerio the solo recognition he deserves. The moment the number 17 is shown on the board, the entire stadium including the Port Vale fans are up on their feet. He claps as he walks off and as he hugs his replacement in Danny Rowe, he is slightly tearful. I give him the biggest man hug possible before he goes and gets a bunch of love on the bench too. Outstanding. The game finishes 4-0 and obviously, Esposito is Man of the Match. He even gets awarded the assist for the 2nd goal which means 4 assists on his debut and a perfect 10 rating in the papers the next day. George Kelly is there waiting in the changing rooms with a smug grin that screams ‘I told you so.’

There’s a bizarre atmosphere round training over the next couple days. There’s no laughing, no joking around. Just pure focus. There’s times in a session where all you can hear is Batesy’s voice followed by the ripple of a net or the thud of a ball hitting the pitch. For a good 20 minutes, just that over and over. While it’s almost eerie, it’s glorious. Whether it’s the fact we’re playing United or the fact we’re doing so well in the league, these lads are in the zone.

The press conference the day before the game is a kind one. Jose Mourinho takes the floor first and compliments the job I’ve done. In his thick Portugese accent, he talks about it being a game filled with pressure as they are expected to win. I go and have some prep with Kev before its my turn under the spotlight.

Q:”How does it feel to get this far in the competition and then draw one of the biggest, if not the biggest, club in the world?”

A: “It’s obviously a bit surreal, a head in the clouds moment. We’ve performed at a top level in the cup while maintaining consistent league form and I don’t think I could have dreamt of a better start to my tenure or a better draw. Apart from Newcastle away but that’s a thing of fantasy. Maybe in the semis ey?” A low chuckle echoes round the press room.

“End of the day, we’ve fought hard to get past quality teams such as Preston and Brighton and while United are a different kettle of fish, at the same time it’s no different. You can’t write off anybody this far into a cup. Overcoming Manchester United managed by one of the best in the world is a tough ask but I know my lads are capable.”

Q: “If you were to pick one player you could not do without tomorrow, who would that be?”

A: “I think that’s erm, incredibly hard to answer? You know we’ve been such a unit, it’s hard to pick out individual performances. While we’ve been strong all over, I think Alex Woodyard would be a massive miss tomorrow. He’s a brilliant player in all competitions but he’s put himself into top gear for this cup run. All the lads appreciate the graft he puts in, whether its stopping an attack at one end or finishing one off at the other. But he’s been a, er vital player in this cup run because he makes everyone around him better whilst playing well individually so I’d have to say Woody.”

Q: “Do you think you could go all the way and win the Carabao Cup?”

A: “As I said, I know my lads are capable. And if we pull a result out the bag against Manchester United, I’d be bloody scared to face us in the semis. That’s for sure.”

Game day. The lads have known the line-up for a long time but seeing it flash up on the TV stream is unbelievable. My name is on Sky Sports. We go for our cup tried and trusted 4-1-3-2, with Palmer and Harrison up front. Pett starts over Stewart as his form as of late has been average. One of the most underappreciated players to exist in Michael Carrick leads United tonight. Big guns are on the pitch too with Lingard, Matic, Lukaku and Sanchez all starting. I can barely believe my eyes seeing that team shake my lads hands. Speaking of which, Jose comes over and gives me a strong man hug and congratulates me heavily. I’m star-struck to an extent as I can barely get a word out. Kev shakes me out of it and gets me firmly into manager mode. Manchester United: let’s fucking have you.

*Forgot to screenshot the line-up, sorry!*

We do a great job of limiting chances in the first half. We’re defensive from the off and sacrifice any real pressure from ourselves to nullify a star-studded United side. In fact, the first proper chance takes 40 minutes to arrive. And it’s a Lincoln chance at that. Rowe plays a neat 1-2 with Palmer which leaves Rowe in behind the United defence. Lindleof catches up to him so he has no choice but to cross in for Harrison who volleys it just over the crossbar. The crowd love it and get right behind us but that’s the only big chance of the first half. I’m so proud of the lads coming in but we just need to try and push on a little to nick a goal before playing this well defensively. I tell the lads to play a more balanced, fluid game in the second.

It looks like that decision is going to be punished early on when United dominate the first 10 following the return. Some high standard passing from them leaves Lingard open inside the box but luckily, he hits it a yard wide. Not long after, we’re on the attack when Palmer intercepts a Matic pass in the middle of the pack and plays Woody forward. The back line is disjointed and Harrison manages to flick Woody’s pass round Smalling before getting a shot off. It’s a decent effort but Joel Pereira saves well with his foot.

In the 65th minute, I bring Stewart on for Pett and with his first touches, he collects a Harrison pass and plays a great cross to Palmer who beats Smalling to the header but flicks it just wide of the near post. If Palmer scores, we riot. 10 minutes later, I bring on Sam Ham for a tired Gergo and give the nod to our star last match: Valerio Esposito. He even thinks I’m joking but after that performance, he deserves a chance. Plus, Rowe is shattered and we have no other wide midfielders. As he jogs onto the pitch, exciting chatter emerges within the loud claps. They’ve seen what he can do but can he do it tonight?

United really try to press us and with a minute of the 90 left, Harrison is released on the left. Valencia has the pace to make up for his positional error so Ellis turns back and crosses to Palmer on the edge of the D. He flicks it on to Espositio behind him. “Fuck off.” His first touch is poor but he makes up for it and cuts inside of Smalling onto his stronger foot. “Fuck off.” He strikes it under the outstretched foot of Daley Blind, round the outstretched foot of Pereira and into the bottom left corner. I cannot fucking believe it. He sprints, random leaps of joy in between, with his arms aloft straight towards the dug out and proceeds to be completely mobbed by players, coaches and manager alike. We’ve stole it at the death. After a good minute of erratic celebrations, I flatten my hair, brush myself off and encourage the lads to keep their cool and hold on.

As expected, United have 10 men in front of the ball while we have 11 behind it. The pressure is unreal and between Wilson and Vasil, there must have been 5 or 6 clearances in the dying embers of the game. Lukaku crosses it in from the left but Wilson chests it down before twatting it upfield. The referee ends the game and sends Lincoln into a feeling of pure elation. I sprint onto the pitch and jump on top of a massive pile on. I don’t care if Mourinho calls me a disrespectful cunt in the post match interview. I’m cherishing this with my squad, my team, my fans. We stay on the pitch for half an hour singing chants, taking pictures with fans and taking it all in. I’m in Dreamland.

I don’t even pay attention to who won the other tie of the night until the next morning. Spurs beat Arsenal 2-1 at Wembley while we were celebrating our result. Bournemouth knock Coventry out after a 2-0 win. I chuckle to myself as karma does come back around.  My beloved Newcastle drew 1-1 with Watford at St James’ but managed to advance after a 4-3 penalty shootout. I would have loved to have been up there but I promised the lads a night of food and drinks on me if we won. As much as I desperately want that Newcastle tie, we are again denied as we get the biggest team left in the competition in Tottenham. We’re going to Wembley first with a home crowd the next time around. I would have rather the other way round but a game at Wembley in my first season is something I never even imagined. The first leg comes not long after an away game to Luton and right before we play host to Notts County. That’s three massive games one after another which is gonna be a real test of how good this squad is. If we advance in the FA Cup, we’ll have to play the third round in that period too so it could be a hectic time.

To bring me back down to earth, Gergo tears his hamstring in training and is estimated to out for 6 weeks. He’s a big miss but we have good cover in Sam Ham and Long when it comes to wing backs so we should be safe. In more positive news, James Wilson gets us back on track by becoming November Player of the Month. Still no Manager of the Month award for me yet but maybe they’re saving my trophy for the yearly awards?

As is the story with all our success this season, we can’t celebrate for too long with a trip to Scunthorpe a few days after. I’m not too fussed about the FA Cup considering our success in the Carabao Cup but Dorrian set an objective to reach the round of 32 at the start of the season. Now another decent cup run isn’t at the forefront of my mind as the FA cup games come towards the end of the season and looking at the table, we could still be right up there. But a game is a game and I want to win. Knott comes in behind Harrison with Chapman getting another start next to captain for the day, Woody. Anderson comes in over Stewart on the left.

We are controlling game from the off but it’s only half chances until the 21st minute. Anderson is played on the left and passes to Harrison who cruyff turns and slices his effort just wide of the left post. 10 minutes later, we leave a gap right through the middle of the pitch so when Ojo picks up the ball, he plays it all the way up to Newcastle loanee, Ivan Toney. He gives it Novak who touches away from his man and hits a thunderbolt that cannons off the post.

In the 32nd minute, Harrison is fouled around 35 yards out dead centre of the goal. Sam Ham stands over it and passes short to Chapman on the left hand side of the wall. The wall ran forward to block the ball they expected to go over them. This leaves a gap for Chapman to slide the ball into Woody who uses the outside of his foot to set himself before hitting a deadly accurate strike into the top left corner. It’s a brilliant goal and it’s Woody who steps up to the plate in the cup again.

We stay on the search for a second when we pass around the edge of the box until Sam Ham has space to whip a cross in. Rowe comes in with a great running header but it bounces down and off the inside of the far post. Rowe reacts and dives in to beat Morris to rebound and make it 2-0. He runs over and poses like Rose from Titanic on the advertisement board in front of a packed away stand.

The second half starts just as brightly as the first when Chapman has time to pick a pass to Rowe in the 53rd minute. He rolls it forward before whipping a perfect shot into the top left corner to make it 3-0. No keeper in the world is saving that and it’s Danny Rowe yet again making a case for a permanent transfer. With his form, he should slot right back into the Ipswich side if someone doesn’t pick him up.

On the hour mark, Eardley’s free to run forward as no Scunthorpe players feel like pressing. He crosses to Anderson on the edge of the box who flings himself up to a bicycle kick which he connects with well. It’s too central however and is palmed over for a corner but what a goal that would have been if that went in. Goal of the competition hands down. 5 minutes later, Novak is squared a ball back and has a whole goal to aim at but puts it well wide. That should have been their chance to get a late comeback started.

In the 72nd minute, Rowe and Knott play 1-2’s until Rowe passes to Harrison on the edge of the D. He laces an effort top right but a great save denies him from a goal for his tally. Pett and Stewart come on for Anderson and Rowe, the latter has the away end chanting and on their feet as he walks off. The game calms down for a while with Wharton replacing Wilson in the 84th minute the last point of interest in the game. We progress into the 3rd round, where all the big boys start coming into play.

Our next game is our best shot at grabbing silverware this season but it’s also the tournament I wouldn’t beat myself up about if we were knocked out. We travel to Fratton Park in the Checkatrade Trophy Area Semi-Finals with a return to league action against Yeovil away on Saturday. It’s also a game where we need three points as Luton host Notts County so one/both of them have to drop points. A draw would be ideal but both teams will be well up for it and it could easily go either way.

Allsop starts in goal and Wharton is next to Wilson. Williams and Esposito get games on the wings with Ollie Palmer leading the line.

The atmosphere in Fratton Park is almost intimidating and it shows when 6 minutes in, Walkes intercepts Sam Ham’s pass and picks out O’Keefe. He puts it into the box for Pitman who turns Wharton but is off balance when he tries whip a shot into top left. Only a few minutes later, Chaplin comes inside the box to pull the trigger but Freckles puts a foot in the way and catches his leg mid-swing. He goes down and it’s a penalty and a fair one at that. The same man steps up and tucks it under Allsops’ hand into the bottom right. Neither keeper can stop penalties, even if they dive the right way apparently. 1-0 down.

The next 20-25 minutes is constant Portsmouth pressure but Williams manages to win us a corner. The ball finds Ollie Palmer at the near post but his goal is denied by a rapid reflex save from the keeper. Right before half time, Sam Ham bombs forward and squares it for Palmer. He slices his shot but the keeper is caught off guard by this as the ball rolls into the near post before being cleared. We just need a bit of luck in this game and we can go on to win it.

In the 52nd minute,  Palmer and Valerio exchange passes until Pett is threaded through. He hits a shot straight at keeper but a late slide from Clarke gifts us a penalty of our own. Palmer steps up and hits a hard penalty towards the bottom right; but of course, the keeper gets down with a strong hand to push it round the post. When it comes to penalties, we are the club equivalent of England. We get another set piece five minutes later, this time a free kick. Eardley gets it up and over but clips the crossbar.

A man who has been relatively silent in relation to his explosive start is Esposito. He comes in with some great foodwork to weave in and out and follows it up with a good ball. Palmer hits it first time but it’s saved well. Palmer goes down after the challenge from the defender prior and I think that my bad luck streak is just about to get even worse. He does get back up but I take him off as a precaution. Long comes on for Eardley also and considering we have no sub strikers, Valerio Esposito gets the nod up front.

In the 78th minute, I bring on Whitehouse for Pett and tell them to really push for a goal but we can’t break through a solid Portsmouth defence. It ends 1-0 and I said I wasn’t bothered about this competition but it’s frustrating to lose in a big game when we had our fair share of chances too.

It’s straight back to the league after our emphatic 4-0 win last time out. Esposito asks to keep his place in the side and despite my worries regarding his fitness, I bring him in. Long and Eardley start either side of defence with Vasil coming back to the side. Knott, Stewart and Valerio start behind Ollie Palmer who luckily was fine after his knock midweek. I’m keeping one eye on the Luton-Notts game too.

The first quarter of an hour, Yeovil put their bodies on the line, blocking a few good shots. We have a corner that Harrison tries to flick on over the keeper but he dives backwards to push over the bar brilliantly. Harrison has an eye for goal today when he gets brought down right on the edge of the box in the 22nd minute. There’s a heavy debate about whether it’s a penalty or a free kick but the ref chooses a free kick on the very edge. To be honest, it’s where the contact starts and he catches him just shy of the 18 yard line. Valerio lays it off to Freckles who smashes an effort just over. Harrison comes back a few minutes later with a lethal strike towards the bottom left but the keeper gets a strong hand to it.

In the 39th minute, Stewart beats his man and demonstrates his flair with a rabona cross to Woody. His header towards the bottom right is denied, again by a great save. Stewart collects the clearance and passes to Knott who slots Harrison in. He really scuffs it with no real connection or power but the keeper can only parry it out for a corner. The corner is whipped in by Freckles for Harrison to climb and power a header into the opposite corner. It’s an unreal header and we go in at half time with a 1-0 lead. Valerio looks shattered so Rowe replaces him in the second half.

We have half an hour of semi decent to good chances but just no second goal. In the 71st minute, I bring on Chapman and Anderson for Stewart and Freckles to see if fresh legs can put this game to bed for us. It almost does the opposite when Anderson is dispossessed by Gobern. Our line is way too high and leaves an easy ball through for Seager. Vickers rushes out and Seager tries to wait but he blasts an effort into Vickers’ face. He manages to pounce on the rebound and checks his nose isn’t bleeding before kicking the ball back upfield.

Moments after 3 minutes of added time is shown, Wharton wins the header from a goal kick and it goes all the way up to Harrison. He peels off his man who falls over his own legs when Ellis passes to Knott. He simply lays it back into the space for him to touch and hammer home for his brace. The scoreline remains 2-0 until the final whistle which is the same scoreline in the Luton game. That means we jump back above Notts County into second place with two points either side of us between 1st and 3rd place.

As has become somewhat tradition at Lincoln, all the lads gather for the FA Cup draw after a training session. Just as I’m telling Batesy, I’m not too fussed about who we get, we get drawn out the pot. Away. To Sunderland at the Stadium of Light. Now we’ll play Luton, Sunderland, Tottenham and Notts County one after another at the start of the new year. It’s a big test and obviously I want to win all of them. But if I could pick one game to win, it’s that one. I’m not losing to the Mackems at the Stadium of Shite.

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