New Year, Same Story (Episode 13: A Lincoln Legend)

He thanks me for saving him for any grief he would have got from the fans for appointing me. My pleasure.

It’s easy to get caught up on a day like this. A day which is dedicated to watching football hungover. A day in which the top spot in the league is open for the taking. A day in which we play our main title challengers: Luton Town. But not me. I’m dead focused.

You obviously want your strongest side to play in games like these so when Freckles asks to be rested at the New Years Eve party, I’m in a dilemma. How can Freckles even want to sit this game out, it’s our biggest game of the season? I like to think I’m a manager who wants to give his squad everything they want but this is a big change. I debate with Batesy and we both (reluctantly) decide to grant Lee his wish as keeping the best relationship with our captain is important. I find Chapman and tell him that he’s in for the match. Time to step up mate.

As mentioned, Chapman starts with Woody and a full fitness Harrison leads the line. Stewart, Pett and a bang in form Danny Rowe are tasked with helping Ellis put the ball in the back of the net. My team talk finishes with one sentence: “Let’s go take the league today and shock these fuckers.”

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We start brightly when 5 minutes in, Pett gets the ball inside and passes to Harrison on the edge. He runs past his man into the box before backheeling into Pett’s run. He tries to place into the top right but rattles the crossbar. That’s two chances Pett should have buried in recent weeks and with Green not too far from coming back to fitness, he needs to show me now more than ever why he deserves to keep his place.

In the 12th minute, Stewart threads a ball to Pett who heel chops a pass into Harrison. He weights the through ball perfectly into Rowe who has his near post shot saved by the keeper’s knee. It bounces up into the air and Harrison beats Escobar in the air to nod home at the back post. It’s not the prettiest goal but I’ll take any goal against these lot. 1-0.

The game quietens down as Luton get their shit together and in the 36th minute, they test Vickers into a good save at his near post from Hylton’s shot and we counter. Pett runs all the way before crossing to Harrison on the edge of the box who does well to direct a header just wide. A couple minutes before half time, Pett feeds Rowe on the right hand side who gives it to Harrison inside. He hits a shot on the swivel with some great curl but he can only hit the post before the ball bounces straight into the keepers hands. We go in after 45 minutes 1-0 up and I’d be happy if the scores stayed the same; but I’d be ecstatic if we managed to add a couple more and really put it to bed.

In the 51st minute, Rowe tackles Sheehan and lobs it over for Harrison on the right hand touchline. He waits for Pett to be in the right position before slotting a great ball in to him. He tries to finesse it round the onrushing keeper but a fingertip takes just enough momentum away from the ball for Mullins to slide in and clear off the line. It’s 2-0 if the keeper doesn’t get that touch so well played. Only a couple minutes later, Berry pushes up and gets the ball in behind Sam Ham who is flat-footed. Vickers comes out but Jervis manages to squeeze it round him from a tight angle and find the back of the net. It’s a cool, composed finish to bring the game level.

Similar to the first half, the game dies down for a while and while a draw isn’t a bad result, I obviously want the win to take us top. In the 80th, I switch to a 4-2-2-2 and make a triple sub with Anderson, Palmer and Wharton replacing Stewart, Pett and Eardley. Vasil goes into left back as I’ve seen him play there in training before and to be fair to him, he’s not that bad there.

5 minutes after my subs enter the game, Woody nicks the ball in the centre circle and passes up to Harrison. He taps it to Palmer who takes the line with him as he runs across it. Rowe darts in behind and Palmer plays him between two defenders. Rowe paces away from the defence into the box and unleashes a thunderous strike that richochets into the back of the net off the underside of the crossbar. Our dugout goes crazy, jumping round just as much as the away following in the opposite stand. He knee slides in front of them before being mobbed by his teammates. Even Vickers runs up to join the huddle. What a ridiculous finish to give us the lead and if we can hold on, we will be top of the league.

In the final minute of the game, Palmer heads a Wilson clearance on to Harrison. There’s only one defender in front of him so he holds it before knocking it over for Palmer. He gets it into the box and squares it in for Anderson who skies the chance a couple yards over. To be fair to him, he sprinted the length of the pitch to get there so his legs were probably knackered. Fortunately, it’s the last kick of the game as the game finishes 2-1 and we jump over our opponents into the top spot. Luton actually scored their only shot on target and with our chances, we could have finished this game earlier. But honestly, who the fuck cares? We’re top of the league and we’ve done it the footballing way: a late winner that will stay in minds for years to come.

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Dorrian holds a meeting with me the next day to talk about the targets he set me at the start of the season and how things have been going as well as plans for the next half of the season. Figures from the club shop show we’ve sold just over fourty thousand shirts which is amazing for a smaller club like us. The most popular players are unsurprisingly Harrison, Rowe and Woodyard. If we beat Sunderland on the weekend, we will have reached the Round of 32 as Bob asked and considering Bob wanted a mid table finish, it’s looking like we’re gonna be safe on that front. He had set a couple objectives regarding the youth players and the introduction of Esposito has helped us push closer to them. In general, Bob is very pleased with how I’ve handled the club and he thanks me for saving him for any grief he would have got from the fans for appointing me. My pleasure.

To celebrate, I get the green light to go after my big target for this window. Now my thought process is that this squad as it is has been working perfectly. We’ve won games, rotated well and battled through a bunch of injuries. So why change it in the middle of the season? Why not add for next season where it’s looking like League 1 football is a strong possibility?

Erhun Oztumer of Walsall is the main man on my radar. At just 5’3, he is a nightmare for defenders to contain with amazing balance and agility. He’s quick off the block and would offer something completely different to what we currently have. He is from a Turkish background but was born in Greenwich and spent 8 years of his younger life in Charlton’s academy. Hence he is a English player and doesn’t use another space in our foreign player allowance. His contract runs out at the end of this season so we can go straight for a deal to sign him on a free.

Now of course he’s hesitant at first. He’s a smart lad, he wants to know the plans. What if we get promoted, what if we don’t? Who will he compete with and who will he play with? We have a day of negotiations in which we meet all his finanical demands. He’s just unsure about Lincoln. So I bring in my secret weapon. Michael Bostwick and Oztumer played together for 2 years at Peterborough and have maintained a good friendship. I bring Bostwick in to convince him to sign. He finally agrees but knocks a year off his contract to make up for the risk he’s taking. He’ll receive 11 grand a week and walks away with a tidy 85k signing on fee. He’ll join up with us on the 1st of July.

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A couple days later, I managed to agree another end of contract deal for Oxford centre back Curtis Nelson. With Wharton only being a loan player, Curtis is a perfect replacement for him. He’s only 24 years old so there’s room to improve on an already solid foundation. He’s deceivingly quick, lethal in the air and a strong unit with a massive engine. He will cost us significantly less than Erhun with receiving 3.8k a week and 50 grand for signing on. We’re gonna be a force to reckon with next year.

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In some positive news before we travel to Stadium of Light, Alex Woodyard is awarded the Player of the Month for December. This helps me break it to him that he’s not starting the game as I want him ready for the Tottenham game midweek. As much as I cannot lose away to Sunderland, I have to keep one eye on that game when selecting my team. Allsop and Wharton come into the side with Chapman taking Woody’s place. Knott plays behind Ollie Palmer with Rowe being on the bench so he is fit for the Spurs match.

Sunderland are fielding a relatively strong side. Well a strong side for them at least. Jack Rodwell can no longer steal a living in the reserves as he’s next to Lee Cattermole in the middle. McNair and Kone are a slightly daunting partnership when you’re joking about Palmer abusing John O’Shea all game. I tell the squad I will not forgive them if they lose this game before they head out. They laugh amongst themselves before looking back at my stone cold face. I’m serious lads. Don’t fucking lose.

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6 minutes in, we have the first chance when Palmer plays a give and go with Stewart before having his shot from distance deflected off McNair for a corner. It comes to nothing but we aren’t disheartened as in the 13th minute, Sunderland are unorganised after an attack. Shocking right? Stewart has the time to pick the pass over the top for Palmer who sets himself for the half volley. Lamine Kone barges his back the moment he strikes the ball so it’s an easy save for the keeper. No foul apparently.

Sunderland threaten our goal for the first time in the 20th minute when Brockie has a great shot from 20 yards hit the near post after some tight passing. The rebound falls for loanee Ashley Fletcher but Sam Ham dives in to make a brave block. Fletcher was in an offside position anyways but it doesn’t take away from how good that block was.

It takes 15 minutes for another Sunderland chance when Williams gets into our box but smashes it into the side netting. The final attempt of the half comes when Palmer almost flicks a near post header from a corner home but it’s headed off the line by Billy Jones. We go in with the scoreline 0-0 and the game for the taking.

10 minutes into the second half, Vasil wins the header from a Freckles corner but Robin Ruiter makes a great save down low. Shortly after, Knott crosses in to Palmer but he blasts his volley over the bar. In the 66th minute, Knott has space to run into when Anderson knocks the ball through for him. He runs it forward before chipping over to Palmer on the opposite of the box who volleys it from 20 yards out. It looks like it’s going over but it has an unreal amount of dip that brings it back down. As I’m about to scream so loud, dogs within a 5 mile radius shit themselves, it bounces off the post just as it hits the ground. I dramatically fall to my knees with my head in my hands. That would have been the best goal I’ve ever seen if it just found the bottom corner.

10 minutes later, I bring on Rowe for Stewart and give Gergo his first run out for almost 2 months. Eardley comes off but I’m hoping to get Lovrenscics back in the groove before the Spurs game as I think his overlapping runs could be vital against a high pressing side like Tottenham. In the 79th minute, Gergo shows people exactly what I’m talking about when he is played down the byline and whips an early cross into the box. Palmer rises to nod it over the keeper into the top left. Seriously, who else but him? I immediately signal Woody to warm up and replace Chapman before releasing a fist bump.

In the 84th minute, Woody plays it up for Knott but Kone comes to collect. He completely misreads the bounce which leaves Knott free 1-on-1. He runs into the box and aims for the bottom right but Rutier makes an amazing save with his leg. Rowe gathers the rebound and puts another ball in for Palmer to head home but again, Rutier denies him with a brilliant reflex save.

There’s only 2 minutes of added time which is brought to an end when Woody smashes the ball up the pitch. I’m over the moon to get one over the Mackems but the only negative is I’m now forever in debt to Ollie Palmer. What a bloke, what a game.

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Our first incoming bid of this window is when Barnet reignite their interest for Sam Ham with a 350k bid. It’s swiftly rejected as he’s such a solid player in the squad. I also complete another pre-contract deal for Sam Walker. At a towering height of 6’6, he’s an English keeper from Colchester who isn’t as strong a shot stopper as Vickers but is a more commanding figure. He agrees on 4.5k a week for 3 years with a 40 grand bonus for signing. He’ll join Oztumer and Nelson as the newbies come July.

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Elsewhere in the world, Barcelona continue their mission to buy every piece of attacking talent in the world with a 52 million deal for Dries Mertens. There’s preparing for Lionel Messi to retire but someone needs to tell them you can’t just mush three very good players together to make another Messi.

The trip to Wembley is a tense one. There’s mixed emotions on the bus as some are nervous while other’s are just happy to be here. As I have done throughout this run, our cup formation is played with Gergo starting for the first time since his injury. Rowe and Stewart are on the wings with Ollie and Ellis up front. We go defensive for the start and try to get a vital away goal. I’d be over the moon with a score draw.

Harry Kane is starting up front with Alderweireld and Davison Sanchez at the other end. A strong couple centre backs complete a very strong Spurs side. As I have a chat with Pochettino, I can’t help the immense feeling of pride seeing my lads shake the hands with the current Premier League leaders. This is an amazing feat no matter the result.

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It looks like it’s going to be a busy day for the back four as Eriksen takes on two men before testing Allsop in the first minute. Stewart picks up a yellow within the first five minutes for swiping out Moussa Sissoko which makes me secretly happy. A great save from Allsop is the only thing to stop a top corner free kick from Eriksen opening the scoresheet.

In the 17th minute, Eriksen is making problems again as he collects a poor touch from Freckles. He jumps over two slide tackles from Woody and Vasil before lashing it into the top left from the edge of the D. An unstoppable strike makes the score 1-0. We’re far from dead and buried yet.

10 minutes later, Kane cuts inside of Wilson before striking a deadly accurate shot at the top left. Vickers leaps out and gets a hand to it in what is an outstanding save to keep us in the game. He’s the difference today and I bet that felt good for him. Just before half time, Son tries to whip the ball round into the top left from 16 yards but it wraps round the post. We survive until half-time in what has been our hardest game by a mile. We haven’t necessarily played bad but we’re just struggling to get the final pass in to Palmer or Harrison to get a goal scoring chance. We haven’t even had a shot whereas Spurs have had 11. I bring Pett on for Stewart to try inject some pace on the left as Aurier looks like the weak link in their defence.

From kick-off,  Rowe bombs down the right and plays Palmer inside. He tries to cut past Sanchez but he sticks a foot out to dispossess him. Woody beats Eriksen to the loose ball and smashes a shot past Vorm from the edge of the box to make it 1-1. A brilliant start to second half and we’ve got our away goal. Woody again showing his worth in the cup but now we just need to limit Spurs as much as possible.

We don’t exactly do that as in the 53rd minute, Kane plays a ball past Gergo to Son who finesses into the far side of the goal. Luckily, Son was offside so the goal is disallowed. Not long after, Dembele receives a switch and plays it into Eriksen. Wilson cannot close him down quick enough as he hits a upper 90 strike from just inside the box. It’s another fierce finish from the Dane to make it 2-1.

We go from the kick off again and pass it around well until Rowe has his shot blocked by Sanchez. Harrison swings at the rebound but Aurier blocks and clears for a throw. In the 62nd minute, Rowe does well to take it past Ben Chilwell, Spurs new January signing, and crosses to Harrison who can’t direct his header goalwards.

In the 68th minute, things go from okay to very bad when Woody mistimes a challenge on Dembele. Now don’t get me wrong, it’s a harsh tackle but it’s not malicious. The referee decides to show a straight red and I absolutely erupt on the touchline. He’s committed no prior fouls and I’m in pure disbelief. We’re down to 10 men for last 20 mins at Wembley away to Spurs. I take off Palmer and bring on Knott so we have two men in midfield. I play Knott a little further forward to avoid Harrison being isolated up front. We have to hold on to a one goal loss and hope to get a result at home now.

In the 80th minute, Valerio replaces Rowe after Son puts a decent chance well over the bar. In the final minute, all our hard work over the last 20 minutes is undone when the defence has no structure. Wanyama threads Eriksen through who confirms his hat-trick with a simple finish into the bottom right. We very nearly get another away goal when Esposito puts a great cross in for Harrison to nod home but Vorm somehow gets a hand to it. 3-2 would have been a great scoreline but unfortunately, it ends 3-1. Spurs dominated today with Eriksen making the difference collecting the match ball. I’m still angry with the red card decision at it means Woody will miss two huge games in Notts County and the second leg as well as a game against Barnet in between. 3-0 second leg anyone?

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Clearly a red card doesn’t put teams off Woody as Sheffield United offer 700k for him which I decline. Elsewhere in the market, Martial and Firmino have made 45 million pound moves to Real Madrid and Juventus retrospectively.

As I see the Notts County line-up, I’m a little bit upset that Whitehouse didn’t in fact hospitalise Lewis Alessandra but I suppose I can’t hold that against him. He’s currently sitting on 18 in 27 games with his partner Forte just entering double figures himself. Two massive threats up front isn’t ideal as Luton have leapfrogged us again into 1st place while we were busy in the cups. Palmer and Esposito are starting with Chapman looking like he’s gonna have a small run of games in Woody’s enforced absence. Sam Ham replaces Eardley at LB.

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8 minutes in, O’Connor tackles Pett and pumps it up to Hawkridge. Rowe tussles but a pass finds Alessandra who beats Vasil with his first touch and has an open goal. He uncharacteristically hits the post before it’s cleared away. As we pass the quarter of an hour mark, Chapman is carded for a challenge on Hawkridge. O’Connor plays the free kick up for Forte and Chapman to battle for. Chapman is victorious but heads it straight down into the ground. Forte volleys it over his head as he falls backwards but it clips the outside of the near post.

We finally get a chance of our own in the 35th minute as Valerio runs across the pitch, from right to left, and gives it to Rowe. He fashions a great opportunity for Palmer with a reverse ball. Ollie takes it well in his stride but smashes the crossbar with a left footed effort. Right before half time, Freckles intercepts a pass in the middle of the pitch and plays it out to Rowe. He plays it first time to Pett who lays it off for Palmer. He turns and spots Espositio’s down the right and passes it through the two defenders. He puts it onto to his stronger foot before opening his body and curling a shot into the top left. Cool as a cucumber.

We look like we’re gonna take the game by the scruff of it’s neck as we control position from the start of the second half. In the 58th minute, Chapman picks up a poor Tootle pass and gives to Palmer. He strokes it up to Pett who brings it inside and plays Chapman through in the box. He has to stretch to connect but he can’t beat the keeper who has closed down well for his first senior goal. He looks at me with a defeated look on his face. Don’t worry son, it’ll come.

Five minutes pass before Freckles puts the ball down the left for Palmer. He cuts back with his first touch and runs inside before he wraps a shot off far post. Knott comes in for Pett behind him to try help Palmer finish the game off.

In the 73rd minute, we win a throw in that’s in-line with the 18 yard box which Gergo takes. Valerio picks it up and passes back to Chapman. He sets himself from about 25 yards and hits a bullet that curls away from the keeper and flies into the top left. What a goal to open your account. He sprints straight over to me and gives me a man hug before the rest of the team dive on top of him. Stewart and Anderson replace the tired legs of Esposito and Rowe with Valerio’s chant ringing around. A goal and an assist should wrap up another Man of the Match award for him.

A sloppy pass out from Walker goes straight to Palmer who can play a ball through for Knott just three minutes after we make it 2-0. He keeps Duffy at bay and slots it past the keeper with a lovely bottom right finish. 3-0, game over. Well Chapman almost grabs a brace in the dying moments with a leaping header that’s just wide. But after that, it’s game over. It’s a great performance as we managed to keep a clean sheet against a high scoring side as well as pick up the 3 points. Happy days.

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With that result, we’re now 8 points clear with a game in hand on 3rd place Cambridge. Notts have fell off slightly as they are down in 6th now but it is tight between the 6 teams below us to be fair to them. I don’t have time to organise our usual routine of watching the cup draw together as I’m at a charity dinner the night of the draw. I get a phone call from Batesy as soon as our number has came out the pot however.

“Palace at Sincil Bank mate. We don’t get a break do we?”

The next day, Ethan Lewis comes to tell his slightly hungover senior manager that he’s leaving the academy. Despite me thinking there would be some clause in his youth contract that states permission has to be granted by the club first, he’s been nabbed by Bolton’s academy. This leaves Joel Cooper as our only youth player. Hearing Bolton’s name intrigues me to take a look at the other leagues as, god forbid, I’ve been so indulged in my own league.

Spurs sit 5 points clear of Chelsea just shy of the halfway point of the season. Going down a divison, Derby and Villa are tied at the top of the Championship but Fulham aren’t far behind. It looks like there is going to be a tight play off battle too. Burton are 19 points away from safety so they’re basically already relegated. Sunderland and Middlesbrough are both flirting with relegation too with it looking likely we’ll face one of them next season in League One. Speaking of League One, there’s a 3 horse race between Wigan, Blackburn and Charlton up at the top of the table.

In an amazing piece of news, Michael Bostwick is back in training for the last session before the Barnet game which gives everybody a big morale boost. It’s great to see him back on the pitch again. The physios say he should be ready to start the Swindon game at the beginning of February. I ask about Matt Green but he’s still another month away from being back in the picture.

Wharton asked to start the Barnet game in the middle of the week which aligns with my plans to rest Vasil for the Spurs second leg. Anderson comes into the side with Palmer leading the line. Allsop is back in goal.

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In the 10th minute, Anderson is free to shoot but the keeper saves well before it’s cleared for a throw. It’s passed around on the touchline until Gergo gets a cross into the box. Rowe climbs but can only nod it wide of the far post. 10 minutes later, Rowe intercepts the headed pass from a goal kick and gives it Anderson. He finds Palmer who threads a pass through the eye of a needle for Pett to control and tuck home. I scream my appreciation to Pett as his head has dropped recently along with his form. He looks and holds a thumb up while walking back to the centre spot.

The rest of the first half goes by without any more chances with both defensive lines cancelling out the other’s attack. The second half starts in a similar fashion until the 54th minute. A Anderson and Pett 1-2 leaves Anderson free on goal but his shot is weak. The clearance goes out for a throw which is worked to Freckles who has a long shot blocked. We play it around until Chapman flicks a header onto Pett. He knocks it on for Palmer who does well to run across and avoid the impending challenge of Almeida-Santos and hit across his body… just over the bar.

As we enter the final half hour, a goal kick is miscontrolled by Johnson and Anderson nips in to take it away. He crosses it in for Palmer but his close range volley is amazingly saved by the trailing hand of Craig Ross to deny Ollie his 13th league goal.

In the 72nd minute, a double sub of Knott and Stewart are introduced to the game when Bover puts a dangerous ball into the box from a wide free kick. Coulthirst nods it towards the left and Allsop gets across to stop with a strong hand. The resulting corner is put to the front post and Akinde gets in front of Freckles. He heads it down awkwardly for our defence as it bounces up onto the crossbar before Wharton laces it out.

In the 78th minute, Wharton nods a cross out and up to Palmer who only has Nelson to beat. It’s neck and neck all the way until the 18 yard box when Palmer shoulders him off before curling it into the back of the net. Ollie did so well to keep Nelson at bay and make it 2-0. Sam Ham comes on as a holding midfielder to replace Freckles. In the last minute, a looping far post header from Palmer nearly sneaks under the crossbar but it’s just pushed over for a corner. The game ends when the corner is cleared. Another solid win before a massive game on Wednesday.

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The press come out in force for a conference the day after the game. There’s a lot questions about the league and the cup run but none about the task at hand exactly. Until a fairly attractive woman steps up.

“Mr Shep, it feels like everybody is beating around the bush at the moment when it comes to the upcoming game. You’re 3-1 down on aggregate but with an away goal. Do you believe your squad has the ability to make one of the greatest comebacks of all time and, at the very least, score 2 goals with no answer from the leaders of the Premier League?”

The press room falls pretty silent about from the sounds of camera shutters flashing. I rearrange myself on my chair and clear my throat.

“People have said to me that we’ve already had our ‘luck’. That we’ve already had our fairytale story. That our dream has to come to an end soon. I ask today: why?” The reporters look side to side unaware of where this is really going. I’m not sure I know myself.

“Why does it have to stop? Is there some law in the FA rule book that states we’re not allowed to deny a Premier League side of a domestic double? Is there a footballing prophet that preached about how Tottenham must reach the final? We’ve fought so well, knocked out Manchester United without conceeding and people still want to act like we don’t deserve to be here or at least we aren’t entitled to a cup final as much as Tottenham, Newcastle or Bournemouth are. It’s disrespectful to our quality and our hard work. We can do it. Anybody could have done it. But they haven’t. We still can and my lads are the only people who I’d want to lead into battle tomorrow. In fact, this Lincoln team are the best team to do it. Tottenham should be afraid. Bring it on.”

I’m not going to pretend like I myself even believed the majority of what I said. But when I head to the team meeting straight after, my presence sends the room into a roar of eagerness. I love my job.

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