A Leader Returns (Episode 14: A Lincoln Legend)

Welcome back, el capitano.

My slightly explosive rant has been covered massively by the media. It was heavily featured in an article on Sky Sports, it’s been shared on Twitter a fair bit. So when I get a call from Bob Dorrian, I’m expected to get a bollocking after the praise he heaped on me at the meeting not that long ago. But in fact, it’s the complete opposite. He loves the attention it’s brought to Lincoln and our rise. I’ve helped stamp out some of the ‘Prem snobbery’ and shined a light on the lower leagues, especially ourselves. Bob is a scary guy because he’s so erratic. You never know whether he’s gonna pull you put the way of the bus or push you in front of it. But I have to give it to him, he’s a passionate man who wants the best for their club. Somewhat a rarity in club owners *cough* Mike Ashley *cough*.

A couple days before the game, I tie Knott down with a 2 year extension with an extra grand a week wage increase. He’s been a very solid squad player and been so important during Green’s absence. He’s definitely earned his place in the squad for another couple years.  I also offer Sean Long another year to keep him until the end of next season but he wants a 3 year extension to keep him here for a while. I try and talk him down but he’s wanted a long term commitment which I just can’t offer him. He’s played okay when he’s been called up but there’s definitely better, younger wing backs I can sign in the summer to improve the squad. I put Sean on the transfer list to see if I can get a bit of money for him before the window closes.

I decide to bring back a somewhat dying formation for the home leg of our Carabao Cup tie by playing a flat 4-4-2. I know, it’s not exciting but against Spurs, we don’t need exciting play. We need solidarity and I’ll be damned if 4-4-2 doesn’t scream that. Esposito and Rowe are out wide with both been given full permission to get forward. It’s essentially our strongest side to try and overcome Spurs. We really can’t conceed as need to keep our away goal advantage as that’s pretty much the only card we can play. Spurs play our usual formation, coming out in a 4-2-3-1. It’s a very similar side to the first leg with the one exception of Pablo De Blasis, their new signing from Mainz, making his debut on the left wing. Pochettino sticks his head in before the game and shakes hands with every player and offers us the best of the luck. A true gent of the game. I emphasise to the team to enjoy themselves. It’s an occasion that can easily overwhelm some players but not my Lincoln boys. We’re grounded, we’re strong. We are ready.

12 minutes in,  Eriksen and Sissoko play a 1-2 with the latter having an open goal. Vickers slides in to make crucial save and put it out for a corner. It’s a truly awful corner from Eriksen as he tries to play a low ball to the edge of the box. This lets Palmer steal the ball from Sanchez and start a counter. Harrison gives the ball straight back to Palmer after getting it to his feet. Ollie plays the first time ball over the remaining defenders to leave Harrison 1 on 1 with Michael Vorm. He runs all the way and goes for power over placement, making it easy for Vorm to push over the bar from a pretty central position. It’s a stupid decision considering how vital that chance could have been. As I’m ranting to Kev about how I’m gonna throttle Ellis at half time, Wilson saves his bacon as he climbs to power a signature header over Vorm’s head to give us the lead. It’s an amazing goal the really gets Sincil Bank bouncing. Another goal and we are right back in the tie.

Six minutes later, Harrison wins a header from a Freckles ball forward and sets Palmer on his way. With Sanchez battling, he can’t get a strong enough shot past Vorm. Tottenham slow the game down for quarter of an hour but we really start pushing for the aggregate equaliser in the 30th minute. Valerio plays a perfectly weighted through ball for Ollie Palmer. He runs into the box but with Sanchez rapidly catching, he has to rush his shot and Vorm makes a decent save at his near post.

I’m thinking if we can hold on until half time, I can motivate the lads, bring on some fresh legs and really have a go but in the 35th minute, that all goes to pot. Vickers makes a strong near post save to stop Eriksen scoring his 5th goal in the cup and his 4th goal against us. Palmer wins the clearance header but it’s passed right back up to Kane who spins Wilson before pile-driving a shot across goal and in off the far post. My head drops as I know we can’t stop that. That’s just what Harry Kane does, day in and day out. We now need 2 unanswered goals just for extra time. We go in 4-2 on aggregate and drawing 1-1 after 45 minutes. It’s not a bad showing at all and we really deserve to be winning but one moment of world class quality has punished us. I make sure that they keep going as they are because they haven’t put a foot wrong all game.

In the 59th minute, the moment after I call on us to attack more, Palmer threads Rowe down the wing. He puts it to the back post where an open Freckles who nods it bottom right but somehow, Vorm gets across his goal and down to deny us a good chance at coming back into this tie. 10 minutes later, I bring on Knott and Anderson after Kane puts a shot from outside the box a yard wide. I switch to a 4-2-4 and tell everyone to push even harder for a goal.

In the 77th minute, Aurier and Son exchange passes until Aurier puts a low cross near post for Kane to direct goalwards off the underside of the bar. For some reason, the ref pulls it back for a Spurs free kick out wide for a late Sam Ham challange but the ball was  actually over the line. The scoreline should be 2-1 to Spurs and 5-2 on aggregate but we’ve got off there. Thank god for no VAR. With three minutes of normal time left. Eardley pings it up for Palmer who flicks a header over the defence and into the run of Harrison. He touches and completely miskicks the ball but Vorm has already dived out the way expecting a better connection. It bounces up and over a helpless keeper into the back of the net. We need one more for extra-time. If we manage it, I might just cry.

In the final few seconds of the match, Chapman smacks the ball up for Harrison to run onto who just can’t reach it and it goes out for a throw. A throw that isn’t taken as the full time whistle blows and we’re officially out the cup with an aggregate scoreline of 4-3. I’m not disappointed though. Well, a little bit but we were nothing short of valiant across the two ties, especially tonight. We won the game tonight and with our chances early in the game, we could have capitalised and took the game to them. I’m not too bothered though, I’m not going to beat myself up about it. We’ve done amazingly well and maybe, the dream has to come to an end at some point.

In the other semi-final, Bournemouth beat Newcastle 3-0 on aggregate with a 1-0 win at St James confirming their cup final with Tottenham. I would have loved Newcastle to get in and smash them all over but never mind.

I completely forgot about the window until we receive a 700k bid from Bolton for Woody. They’ve already stole a youth player and now they want to buy a star player. A quick no is an easy decision. Our previous opponents sell Heung-Min Son to Real Madrid for 52 million pounds which is a strange move as they only just bought Marital. Maybe they’re taking a leaf out of Barcelona’s book? In the most bizarre piece of business I’ve seen for a long time, Middlesbrough who are currently battling relegation remember, loan out Adama Traore to Liga NOS side Maritimo.

I don’t rack my brain about Tony Pulis’ transfer policy for too long however as we have another Premier League opponent in Crystal Palace next. I would have liked to be away from home as Selhurst has the best atmosphere of any London club by miles. Beggars can’t be choosers so we play host today. As our game is a Monday night match, it’s the last Round of 32 fixture bar any replays.

We welcome Woody back to the side after serving his 3 game suspension. We go with a 4 triple 2 with Esposito and Rowe behind Palmer and Harrison. Wharton plays over Wilson at the back as I want to see how he does against the big boys. Palace are fielding a pretty decent team in the same formation as ourselves. Milojevic is sat next to Riedewald in the middle with Connor Wickham and Sergi Enrich up top. I have a good talk with Roy Hodgson who I praise very highly. Apart from the blip of managing England, he’s had an outstanding career and deserves respect for his achievements.

The first chance falls to Palace 4 minutes in when Riedewald plays it wide to Valcarce who easily beats Valerio. Wharton slides in brilliantly just before the shot however and Sam Ham clears. I knew it was the right decision throwing him in today.

We have a little flurry a few minutes later when Palmer is released down the left before playing it back to Freckles. He knocks it sideways to Woody who hits a swerving strike that Hennessey over-dramatically for a corner. One for the cameras. We’re back again just minutes later when Harrison tackles Van Aanholt and passes it to Espositio. He pings it into Palmer’s feet who knocks Harrison through on the right. A neat ball to the back post finds Rowe with Fosu-Mensah nowhere to be found but Danny heads it wide from 8 yards out. It’s a poor header and we should be 1-0 up.

It takes another 20 minutes before a chance comes along and it’s Valerio involved again. He takes the ball off Fosu-Mensah and runs into their half. He switches it to Rowe who calmly sidefoots a lobbed ball over for Harrison who’s only got the keeper to beat now. He composes himself before curling round the keeper but the woodwork denies him a goal on his 24th birthday. Palace don’t sympathise with Ellis as they go right up the other end with Valcerce puts a dangerous ball in. Vickers does well to punch away and Riedewald smashes the volley wide.

In the 41st minute, Enrich crosses and Freckles collides with Sako in the air. It bounces kindly to Wickham who volleys it but the ball curls just round the post. A minute before half time, Rowe bombs down the touchline and his cross is blocked by Fosu-Mensah. Esposito takes an outswinging corner in which Vasil beats both Scott Dann and Milojevic to head home. It’s a good feeling knowing you have threats from set pieces so when you see Vasil and Wilson up for corners, you always feel like you’re gonna score. The score as we come in at half-time is 1-0.

The first 25 minutes of  the second half is like groundhog day. I sit watching Valerio do great defensive work, constantly dispossessing Fosu-Mensah and Sako, and the final pass of our moves just not quite come off. In the 73rd minute, we work it nicely to give Valerio space to cross. It’s punched out to Woody who scuffs his volley from 25 yards but it very nearly dips in. Wayne Hennessey has to catch on the line and just about keeps it the right side of the goalline. Stewart and Anderson come on out wide to give us some fresh pace on the counter.

However, they don’t get a chance to use that pace as the rest of the game is like a pretty standard defensive drill. They keep trying to break us down with the only threatening chance coming in the 86th minute when Wickham is open to head a cross home but can’t quite jump high enough to get any real touch on it. We advance to the Round of 16 after a solid perfomance that wasn’t a very entertaining match for a neutral, particularly the second half. Palace were well and truly silenced.

As all of my transfer business was done within the first couple weeks, we have another quiet transfer deadline day. Nobody leaves as, not to blow my own trumpet, nobody wants to leave. I do get in touch with agent of Tim Cahill and enquire about his availability but I’m told he’s already made the decision to retire at the end of this season which is a shame. Having someone with his experience and footballing brain could have been a real boost in the dressing room. And who wouldn’t want him in the box when a cross comes in? The guy’s got springs in his legs for fuck sake; But I digress. The only Lincoln news on the 31st of January is that Matt Green returns to training and is almost injury clear.

However, there’s another couple weird transfers away from Lincoln on deadline day. Anthony Knockaert must have been lighting up the Premier League as he completes a £10’000’000 move to Atletico Madrid of all places. Jozy Altidore returns to Europe by joining Bundesliga side Hoffenheim.

In some more higher profile signings, Shinji Kagawa joins PSG for £27’000’000 while Albanian wing back Elseid Hysaj leaves Napoli to join Premier League holders Chelsea for the same amount. The last couple hours throw up some more interesting deals such as Alberto Moreno joining West Ham. Ryan Fraser of Bournemouth and Ben Mee of Burnley continue the summer trend of ‘Brits Abroad’ when Mee joins Sampdoria in Italy and Fraser joins, wait for it, Clube Atletico Minerio in the south west of Brazil. I suppose if you want a long holiday, the best way is to disguise it as work but I hope he does well over there. I’ll definitely keep an eye on how he does.

In some slightly saddening news, Neal Eardley tears his quad in training and will miss around two months of football. It’s a bit of a blow as he’s been one of our most consistent players, doing his job relatively under the radar.

George Kelly manages to cheer me up a bit when he comes back to my office for his monthly report to tell me a local lad who’s been tearing up the 8th tier of English football, the Northern Premier League Division One South. For who else but our local counterparts, Lincoln United F.C. 16 year old Sam Watson is not the tallest lad at just 5’7 and with both his parents only being 5’6 themselves, most of his growing is probably done. He’s very fast and good with the ball which is something we lack in the striker position if I’m brutally honest. I sign him on a youth contract and decide to loan him back out to Lincoln for the foreseeable future. I even offer them Joel Cooper free of charge for the rest of the season as I want him to get some game time. George only has until the end of the season to find me some more youth talents in England as I think I’m going to send him out abroad over the summer.

Ibehre of Cambridge is the League 2 Player of the Month for January while the managerial equivalent goes to caretaker manager Joe Dunne. I’ve come to the conclusion that the awards are fixed and they have some sort of agenda against me. I’ve beaten two promotion rivals and we were unbeaten for the month in the league. I don’t know who decides but they don’t have a clue.

It’s reassuring seeing Bostwick sitting on the bench with the intention of coming on. I tell him he will get some game time but the length of his game time depends on the scoreline. Anderson and Rowe are out wide while Wilson returns next to our cup hero Bozhikov. It’s a snowy day which we managed to avoid in January but couldn’t manage it again in February. The bright yellow Mitre ball is out as a consequence. Poor blokes.

Just 5 minutes in, Vasil nods a Preston clearance to Anderson who flicks it on to Pett. He knocks a pass through the gap to Palmer who turns and gives it to Rowe. Robertson misjudges his touch and leaves Rowe space to give us the lead with a neat finish. 1-0.

In the 11th minute, Vickers does well to hold on to a shot from the edge and starts a counter. Anderson flicks a header on for Gergo who crosses to Palmer. The cross is plucked right off Ollie’s head by the keeper. It takes another 15 minutes of midfield battling until Rowe wins us a throw in on the left hand side. Palmer wins it and heads it back for Freckles. He puts it into acres of space in front of Gergo. He runs onto it and lashes a low grasscutter towards the goal. It’s always swerving back towards the keeper who parries it away but you have to appreciate the technique to get that much power on a shot and keep it down.

Last chance of the half comes in the 40th minute when Vickers comes out to gather a through ball and throws a powerful low ball to Gergo. Hussey comes to close him down but in doing so, he leaves Anderson open to receive a first time ball up the field. He takes it brilliantly on the turn away from Preston and plays an outside of the foot ball into Palmer. He knocks it forwards past Lancashire and turns onto his left foot before sliding it into the bottom left to make it 2-0. We haven’t countered as well as that for a while now, it only took us 8 seconds to get from our keeper into the back of the net. Bloody lethal attacking play and we go in at the break 2 goals to the good.

We come out swinging in the second half when Sam Ham, Rowe and Palmer exchange passes in that order and then back again. Sam Ham places an early cross right onto the diving header of Pett but it’s held well down to the keepers left. Rowe has picked up a little niggle so Stewart comes on to avoid any further aggravation. In the 66th minute, Swindon show they’re not finished yet when Banks spots a Purniss run on the near side and plays a quality 50 yard ping over the park. He chips a ball into the 6 yard box for Norris to volley but it’s straight into Vickers chest and out for a corner that’s easily collected by the man in goal.

In the 73rd minute, an Anderson throw in that’s deep into our own half is misread by Woody and picked up by Swindon’s Anderson. McDermott does so well to drag it away and past Vasil and shoots just before Wilson’s slide comes in. Vickers gets a fingertip to it but not enough to turn it away. 2-1. I change us to a 4-3-3 and bring on Bostwick for Anderson. He gets an amazing reception and Frecklington instantly hands over the armband when he joins him in the midfield. Palmer is playing very much as a centre forward now as he’s slightly further back. We can try and use his strength and hold up play for the wingers. Wharton also replaces Vasil.

There’s deafening shouts and applause when Bostwick touches the ball. He’s spurred on and plays a nice move with Freckles who mishits his shot over. From the goal kick, Woody heads it to Bostwick who’s feeling confident as he bombs forward from the halfway line. He gets to the edge of the box before backheeling to Freckles. He controls and passes sideways to Woody. He slowly walks into the box waiting for Palmer to drag back onside. Lancashire comes to tackle him and Woody calmly passes through his legs where Ollie is waiting to sidefoot home for his brace. 3-1.

With a couple minutes left, Palmer nods it back to Bostwick who hits a beautiful ball on the half volley over for Pett. He cheekily flicks it over his man and passes it back to Bostwick. The ear-piercing screams of ‘shoot’ encourage him to have a crack but it’s 10 yards wide and 10 yards over. It’s a dreadful shot but I really can’t blame him for trying. The game finishes 3-1 which is a good result but seeing Bostwick back on the pitch is the main positive from this game. Welcome back, el captaino.

With a Luton draw and 3 of the 4 teams below us losing, we are now 7 points clear of 3rd place Cambridge who coincidentally we play next. We’re also only a point behind Luton with 2 games in hand so if we win both of those, we’ll be 5 points clear with automatic promotion almost nailed on.

As it felt way too weird not watching the draw with the team last time, I make sure my schedule is free but only half the squad can make it this time round. There’s still lower league sides in the cup such as Oxford and Brentford but our name is the first one out the pot for another home draw. Who else comes out next but the reigning Premier League champions and 2016/17 FA Cup runners up: Chelsea. We really can’t get a break in the cup draws but you have to beat the best to be the best. We’ve already beat United and Spurs, albeit just the one leg, before it’s definitely doable. Looking ahead, we have another nine games in the next month which could turn to 10 if we advance in the FA Cup and league fixtures aren’t moved around too much. No rest for the wicked.

This game gives us a big chance to push the teams below us even further away as we play Cambridge away from home. Bostwick starts for the first time in a competitive game under my management. It’s worth noting he kept his face clean shaven for the duration of his injury so of course, the armband levitates back to him. I thank Lee, Eardley and Wilson for their leadership while Bostwick’s been gone. Knott and Stewart accompany Rowe behind Palmer leading the line today.

It’s very much back and forth for the first 25 minutes until Vasil seals out Dunk and starts the counter. It’s worked up to Knott who plays a ball over the top for Palmer. Legges stretches and just gets a touch but he knocks it further in front of him. The keeper comes out and Palmer delicately chips the ball over him as it bounces just before the goalline and rolls in. He runs over the Lincoln crowd and kisses the badge.1-0.

In the 33rd minute, Halliday comes into the back of Knott and wins a free kick that Bostwick claims. I’ve never seen him take a set piece before but he point blank refuses to give it to anyone. It’s slightly to the right of centre and around 25 yards out so it’s a decent position. I put concerns to the side and convince myself that he must know something. He has to. The ref blows his whistle, he steps up and hits it over the head of the two players to the right hand side of the wall and straight into the top right. I jump up in a mixture of excitement and disbelief. What a goal to announce your return as captain and double our lead.

Just as it looks like we’re gonna run away with this game,Ibehre beats Palmer to the ball in the 37th minute and passes to Ikpeazu. He spots Dunk’s run and Sam Ham just can’t intercept the pass which leaves Dunk open to find the back of the net. Vickers gets a very minor touch to it but it barely changes the path of the ball into the bottom left. 2-1.

On the stroke of half time, another Vasil tackles starts another counter as Woody plays the loose ball up to Rowe. The defenders are too focused on covering Palmer which gives Rowe time to run to the edge of box and twat it into the top left from just inside the box. Everything is going in today but that doesn’t take away from Danny’s finish. The scoreline at half time is 3-1. Another Forest Green game on our hands?

The action looks like it’s going to continue when a Gergo cross is unconvincingly cleared in the 48th minute. It falls to Bostwick who smashes an ambitious volley from the edge just over the bar. I tell the lads to sit back and try to play the possession game from here on out and they do just that. So well in fact, it’s like watching Southgate’s England with all the backwards and sideways passes. In the 78th minute, I make a triple sub with Anderson, Esposito and Long coming on.

With 4 minutes to go, Anderson and Knott trade the ball for Anderson plays a curling ball across the line into Valerio. He runs into the D and plays a reverse ball into Palmer who hits a low driven shot into the bottom left to tie the game up in a nice bow. The game ends at 4-1 with Bostwick picking up the Man of the Match. It’s well deservedly as he really played great and offered something we’ve been missing in the middle of midfield with his dominating presence. Ollie’s brace takes him up to 17 goals, only 3 behind the leader so the chase is well and truly on.

I’ve tried to keep grounded for a very long time but we really are playing some top notch football and picking up result after result. We’ve already scored 7 goals in the league this month and with more results like that, the EFL board can’t ignore me for much longer.

We host Cheltenham next in our last fixture before the Chelsea game. I bring in Wharton and Long in to rest our normal right side of defence. Freckles replaces Woody next to Bostwick with Esposito starting.

We have a knack for early pressure and in the 5th minute, that’s evident. Pett loses the ball to Winchester but he battles to win it back on the left hand side. He puts a cross to near post; Harrison manages to get in front of Boyle and heads it in off the post. Lovely little finish from the Welshman to make it 1-0.

In the 16th minute, Freckles intercepts a pass and plays it to Pett. Bostwick is forward so he gets it on the right and knocks it through for Harrison but his weak shot goes well wide of the far post. It takes 20 minutes before another chance as Harrison gets the ball to feet and turns his man too fast for himself. He stumbles off balance and swings a boot at it but it’s unsurprisingly a couple yards over.

We come out into the second half a little bit complacent when Atangawa plays Lisa on the far side. Bostwick is covering for Long who is out of position but he can’t get back in time to stop the cross. Morrell exactly replicates Harrison’s goal by getting in front of Wharton and flicking a header in via the near post. 1-1.

In the 58th minute, Anderson slots ball into Ellis who has a gap to cut onto his right past Boyle but decides to go onto his left and finesses it into the side netting. Nothing really happens for the reminder of the game apart from another triple sub by yours truly. Cheltenham really push for a winner in the final 10 minutes but we sit back and deny them any clear cut chances. It finishes 1-1 and while a win before Chelsea would have been ideal, I can deal with a draw.

I’ve had my eye on another transfer target which we could wrap up on another contract expiration. Colchester wing back Brennan Dickenson is a 24 year old pacy left wing back. With Long looking like he’s leaving at the end of the season, I’d ideally like someone else to come in who’s a big improvement and he would make a great attacking wingback option on the opposite of Gergo if we ever decided to try out a formation with 5 at the back.

It’s some seriously hard negotiating as he Brennan wants a fair bit of money to join the team and considering we didn’t really pull in any money during the window, we can’t submit to what he wants. He originally wants 300k for 15 clean sheets which almost makes me bork. After some back and forth offers, he stalls on 8 grand a week with a 70k signing on fee. As far as I know, nobody else is in for him so we have to wait and see if he signs. A win against Chelsea might just persuade him so there’s even more riding on this game now.

I rally the lads together the night before the game for a ‘motivational’ meeting. Once all the lads are present, I show them a Powerpoint presentation which is just 3 slides long. The first is a picture of the scoreboard against United, the second the scoreboard against Spurs. The final slide is the league as we stand. We’re overachieving as much as a baby that walks itself out the womb but we deserve everything we’ve got.

“Let’s claim another scalp ey lads?”

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