Fall from Grace (Episode 15: A Lincoln Legend)

Hands raised in a surrendering motion. “I’ll take a bloody point! Please!”

The Premier League champions. The next obstacle in our path and hopefully, the next big side I can tally off my chart. Yeah I have a chart. I want to beat every bloody team in this country and this chart to be covered in crosses. While some lesser sides might squeeze by in the league, this cup run has allowed us to play some amazing teams and give them a good fucking game at that. Brighton, Palace, United, Spurs, we’ve beat them all. I’m determined to squiggle my Sharpie over another one of the London based footballing giants.

I’ve regularly used the cup to try out different formations and tactics. Whether it’s Batesy’s 4-1-3-2 or going back to basics with a flat 4-4-2, they’ve normally worked. So why change that experiment now? After some thought and heavy internal conflict, I go for a 4-4-1-1 with Harrison behind Palmer. My thought process is try play central play and force the back three that Chelsea honed to perfection last season to press. With Conte probably wanting them to put relentless pressure on ourselves anyways, this should leave space for Pett and Rowe on the wings to make the inside runs. Now I’m not saying Danny and Tom are Sane and Salah but if they keep making those runs in behind and we utilise Ollie’s hold up play, we could cut these wide open. Our back five pretty much pick themselves with the usual suspects taking up the majority of the pitch.

Chelsea of course play a 5-2-3 with Willian and summer signing Mikel Oyarazbal supporting Oliver Giroud up top. It’s a star studded side with PFA Player of the Year Kante and the best wing back in the country in Marcos Alonso starting. I’d like to think the surreal feeling my players told me about when meeting United and Spurs has died down and that we’ve become used to the big names. But these are the champions of England. This is different. This is where history books can be re-written. The Lincoln side of 17/18 that lifted the FA Cup against all odds. Come on, you Imps.

We start on the front foot when 6 minutes in, Palmer and Rowe play it between themselves until Palmer manages to turn David Luiz and force a good save from Willy Caballero. Conte obviously isn’t happy that Ollie bested David Luiz and screams words of warning at him. Discontent is brewing.

Willian causes problems for the next 20 minutes. He gives Sam Ham a hell of a hard time trying to track him, both on and off the ball until the 27th minute when Wilson tackles him and passes up to Danny Rowe. Him, Ellis and Palmer change possession until Rowe plays Harrison through. His first touch is a heavy one to get away from Luiz and his second is a delicate one to the right to avoid a Marcos Alonso challenge. He just enters the box as he lets fly and almost squeezes it inside the near post but a strong hand pushes it round for a corner. Freckles crosses it in and David Luiz is at fault again as he loses Harrison who has the space to nod past Caballero. 1-0 up but this game is far from over yet.

Chelsea understandably come right back at us but it’s not until the 41st minute they get a clear chance. Marcos Alonso plays a ball from deep into Giroud who beats Wilson and heads it towards goal. Vickers parries and Sam Ham clears well upfield. Alonso is there again to collect and put it back in for Willian who tries to nod it past Vickers at waist height but it’s a yard wide.

We go in at half-time with a narrow 1-0 lead but we’ve played well and used our set-piece know-how to get us ahead before what’s going to be a difficult second half. Even more difficult than I first thought as I see Oyarazbal take a seat on the bench as the Chelsea lot come back out the dug-out. Gergo has his work cut out for him in the second half with Eden Hazard taking the field. I can’t believe we’ve hosted Pogba, Kane and now Hazard at Sincil Bank this season but no time to be starstruck.

In the 53rd minute, Rowe slides to keep a Harrison challenge in the boundaries and the ball rolls to Woody. He passes it central to Freckles on the half way line. Pett receives the ball but doesn’t want it for long as he plays a first time pass further up the pitch to Palmer. He controls and plays into the gap on the right of Azpilicueta for Ellis who just gets in to slide an effort over the keeper. It just about clears Caballero and Cahill can’t reach it before it trickles over the line. It’s a cheeky finish and a demoralising one at that to make it 2-0. Seeing the ball just edge over the line as you helplessly watch on is a horrible feeling which can make heads drop. I tell the lads to play on the counter and sit back slightly. We’re in control now.

Straight from kick off, Kante shows why he was voted Player of the Year as he collects the pass from the centre spot and just runs. N’Golo is such a slippy player to catch and dispossess, especially when he gets moving. He takes the ball through our whole team, weaving in and out of the midfield majestically. He plays a 1-2 with Giroud and blasts his shot from the edge of the box into the side netting. The one weakness is Kante’s game is his shooting ability and I thank God for that.

The maddest five minutes of my career finish in the 58th minute as Pett knocks it inside to Harrison who gives it to Palmer. He fakes left before going right, straight past David Luiz and hits it across his body into the goal to make it 3-0. I hold my head in my heads like The Scream. I can’t believe the score line as the stadium is well and truly bouncing. David Luiz is the culprit again and truthfully, I’m surprised Conte didn’t replace him at half time.

We don’t look like stopping anytime soon as Harrison switches to Pett in the 62nd minute. He flicks it over his Azpi’s head brilliantly and passes through to Sam Ham. A first time cross to the back post for Harrison is volleyed well but Caballero just gets a touch with his knee to send it over the bar. Esposito comes on for Pett on the left hand side before the corner but it is cleared and the attack filters out.

We come back for even more in the 68th minute as Palmer plays it out to Valerio on the counter. He runs into their half before playing ball through for Harrison. He lets it run through his legs and round the side of David Luiz who’s had a shocking game and doesn’t react quick enough. Ellis is 1 on 1 with Willy and he calmly slots it just round him to confirm his first Lincoln hat-trick against Premier League champions. What a massive day for him. This is exactly the reason I bought him, to score lots of goals and fine goals at that. The way he let the ball run was quality. Wharton and Anderson come on to rest Wilson and Rowe seeing as we have a comfortable 4-0 lead.

The game finally calms down for a while. It calms down until the final minute in fact. Kante, who has been a nuisance all day with his runs from the middle of the park, evades Woody and Valerio before playing it to Morata. He hits a finessed shot first time but a great save from Vickers retains his clean sheet. He’s been unexpectedly idle today but he’s done very well there.

When the full-time whistle blows, a ear-piercing roar follows. This is probably one of our best performances as a team but Ellis chipped in with his best individual showing by far. He was a nightmare for David Luiz, scored a hat trick and even got the assist for the other goal. All of which earns him a perfect 10 rating. I really thought we would struggle with Kante’s runs and Alonso crosses in the first half but we really fought hard and came out with my best result as Lincoln manager to date. Who wants some next?

Obviously Dickenson was watching the match as he rings me a few hours after the match to tell me he’s happy to sign for the club. The way we’re going right now, who wouldn’t?

Over the next few days, our odds for the FA Cup shoot up. If we can beat Chelsea, why can’t we beat anyone else who gets in our way? The draw isn’t for another week or two so our focus until then is the league. Our next game is Newport County in which we held a bore draw against last time out in Wales. I’m excited to go out and try to get a win over them today in front of the Lincoln faithful.

We go back to the 4-2-3-1 and Matt Green returns to the starting line-up as the lone striker in what is his first start since his injury some three months ago. Wharton and Esposito are back in line up too with a pretty standard Lincoln side surrounding them.

12 minutes in, the first chance comes as Valerio collects a Sam Ham clearance and plays Green over the top. He seals out the defender so he can run into box but he’s obviously a little rusty as he shoots a yard or two wide. 10 minutes later, Pett intercepts a ball inside the Newport half and passes out to Valerio. He uses his low centre of gravity to turn Tozer and tries to curl an effort from 25 yards but it’s just wide of the far post. Good start so far.

We keep it up when Sam Ham is played through on the overlap by Danny Rowe. He crosses it early to Pett who almost loops a diving header up into the top right but it clips the post and goes out for a goal kick. This seems to jolt Newport into gear as they come forward in numbers. Collins gets the ball and waits before slotting a perfect ball into Nouble. He rounds Vickers but hits the near post with his first effort. His second try is heading straight in but Vasil slides in heroically to block at the last second. While Newport set up for the corner, everybody is around patting his back and ruffling his head. Outstanding, body on the line defending from him there.

We win a corner 5 minutes before half time which Rowe whips in. Green climbs to nod it towards the bottom right but the keeper makes a brilliant full stretch save to push it away. The chance isn’t dead as Bostwick shields before getting space to cross it back into the mix. Pett is relatively open to volley but it’s blocked and cleared comfortably. We head in with the same scoreline in our last meeting. 0-0.

The late action of the first half doesn’t carry over as the first 20 minutes are somewhat tedious. In the 65th minute, Rowe uses a Cruyff turn to get past his marker before cutting inside and making the keeper work for his clean sheet with a clean strike. It’s parried away from the far post well. Not long after, Rowe passes it to Green who’s definitely livened up since his miss in the first half. He controls and backheels a pass into Pett who, of course, blasts it wide from 15 yards. He’s starting to get on my last wick but I know what he’s capable of. I sub him off with Valerio and bring on Knott and Anderson for an inject of pace.

In the 77th minute, I bring on Harrison for Rowe and change to a 4-2-2-2 with an attacking focus. We need a win here. The final chance of the game comes in the 89th minute when Woody wins the header from a clearance and heads it to Green. He flicks it on for Harrison who puts it onto his left before having his deflected shot saved for a corner. Unfortunately, it comes to nothing and our second meeting with Newport County ends 0-0. These lot feel like one of those teams you just can’t beat. Not because you’re outplayed or unlucky. We just cancel each other out.

Our next 4 fixtures are against half of the League 2 sides that begin with C: Crewe, Coventry, Crawley and Chesterfield in that order. Looking at these fixtures and their respective league standings, we should really be getting a minimum of 8 points. We shouldn’t be losing to any of these.

Crewe is first up in the league and my experimental mood has carried over from the cup victory as I decide to try the 4-4-2 in the league. It worked well against Spurs and if it works against them, surely it can work against Crewe. Allsop is in goal for the first time in a few games with Long in for Sam Ham. Freckles and Bostwick make up the two in the middle with Palmer and Harrison up top. I want attacking mindsets from the get go.

Right from kick off, Rowe gets it and threads Palmer in behind a sleepy Crewe defence. He smashes it a yard or two over but it’s a good little move that hopefully sets the tone for the rest of the game.

You can hope all you want in football but very rarely is it enough. With 5 minutes gone, Dagnall twists in and out to get space from Vasil before Allsop has to make a good save at his near post. The next 40 mins is all Crewe. They apply so much pressure that just refuses to cease with multiple saves from Allsop and a clearance off the line from Long.

We finally get what we deserve in added time when Ainley loses Long and crosses to the back post for Dagnall to meet with a diving header. It hits Allsops hip and then the post before going in and while it’s not the luckiest string of play, we thoroughly deserve to be losing . We have been atrocious. We almost nick a goal against the run of play with a Freckles long shot but it’s just wide. To make matters worse, Palmer comes in complaining about his knee so I change to a 4-4-1-1 with Stewart coming on behind Harrison. So much for this experiment. I’m almost disgusted as I tell the lads to get out there and make amends for what is the worst half of football I’ve ever seen. And I’m a Newcastle fan for fuck sake.

It’s the same story in the second half as we’re still being battered. We do limit them to half chances for the large majority which keeps us in the game. In the 73rd minute, I bring on Espositio and Woody to try and spur more of an attacking threat in the last 15 minutes. Valerio goes straight over to take a corner that Harrison flicks past the keeper at the near post. Our only shot on target all day has went in.

“I’ll take a point!” exclaims Batesy, hands raised in the surrendering motion. “I’ll take a bloody point! Please!”

Well Batesy, by some force of nature, your wish is granted. We actually push for what would be the most undeserved winner in history but we can’t get through the Crewe defensive set up. A draw is complementing our performance massively as we were dreadful today but the best teams get something out of a bad game. And we are one of the best teams, after all. Even if we didn’t show it today.

In what is the saddest I’ve felt since watching Bostwick be taken off in a stretcher over in Denmark, Ollie Palmer has sprained his knee and will be out 3 weeks. I understand it could be far worse but knowing that Ollie isn’t available to take a game by the scruff of it’s neck and win it himself is daunting. It’s bad timing too as we’re in a bit of a slump and I would have liked him to come bang a couple past those cunts down in Coventry. Not that I’m still bitter since we last met.

An even bigger problem is that he’ll miss the FA Cup quarter-final which pits us against another recent Premier League winning side: Leicester City. In a strange way, I’m more afraid of them than I was afraid of Manchester United or Chelsea. They’re a completely different breed. Jamie Vardy is the perfect example of that. I’m gutted Ollie won’t get to compete for who’s the best rattler in the football leagues but I’m undoubtedly more worried about handling him.

With the FA Cup game taking place on the second weekend of the month, our run of games against ‘C’ teams is interrupted. We have a lot of games this month, especially the last couple weeks as the Chesterfield game has been moved to the last Tuesday of the month.

Coventry is our first game of March and I choose Chapman and Bostwick to make up a battling midfield with a joint height of 12 foot 7. If we dominate the middle of the park, we will win this game. Valerio Esposito, who’s really proved George Kelly to be a knowledgeable man, is in great form so he replaces Anderson on the wing. I can’t stress enough how important this game is. Not only is it important to bounce back from our worst performance yet with a strong one but Luton are actually starting to pull away, even with our games in hand. A win is vital.

11 minutes in, Chapman wins the ball before passing up to Pett. Harrison runs into space on the right and paces away with the ball. The keeper just gets a hand to his low shot to stop us taking the lead early on. 15 minutes later, Coventry come forward as Grimmer threads Beavon into the box. He puts a first time cross in for Clarke-Harris to neatly volley home from 8 yards. 1-0 down isn’t how I planned this to go.

In the 35th minute, Valerio displays a moment of brilliance as he manoeuvres his man, cuts past another onto his strong foot and finesses a shot round the defenders that hits back off the far post before being cleared, That was almost exactly what we needed to get back into this game. A few minutes before half time, Rowe puts a ball into the middle for Valerio to meet with a diving header. It’s blocked but it bounces back off his heel as he falls and startles the keeper into a low save.

We definitely came back into the game towards the end of that half and we carry over our new found momentum into the second half. 51 minutes in, Gergo and Valerio play a 1-2  which leaves the latter to run into box and cross but Rowe can’t quite direct his back post header in. 10 minutes later, Valerio is involved yet again when he releases Harrison in behind. He could easily shoot himself but he tries to square across for Pett to tap into an open goal. McDonald has other plans as he just gets a toe to the pass which places it perfectly inbetween Pett’s studs and the keepers fingertips before rolling out for a corner.

We make nothing of that set-piece but when we win a free kick from 35 yards out in the 70th minute, we don’t make the same mistake. Valerio makes way for Anderson before Gergo passes it to the edge for Pett. He lays it across the 18 yard line to Chapman who knocks it into the gap for Rowe to latch onto and slot home from just outside the 6 yard box. It’s a beautiful routine to watch unfold and it worked to perfection.

The game is back and forth for the next 20 minutes until Coventry patiently knock the ball round our box. Clarke-Harris has half a yard to set himself before whipping a shot round the arched back of Kelly and into the top left. Of course, water bottles fly and clipboards snap. I can’t fucking believe we’ve threw away another game against these fuckers. We try to push for an equaliser in the few remaining seconds left but to no avail. While we played well enough to get something today, I can’t help but think a certain 6’5 demi-god would have saved this game.

The day before our next game against Crawley, I’m met bright and early by a panicked Batesy pacing up and down my office.

“Oh Shep, you’re not gonna believe it. It’s Ollie, he’s fell dodgy on his leg this morning having a kick about with Stewart and Freckles. We think he’s broke his ankle” No, no, no.

“Where is he, where’s the lads?” Kev points out the door to the left towards the meeting room. We jog down and as I burst through the door, I’m basically clotheslined by a thick wall of clingfilm strung across the doorway. Before I can even think about what the fuck’s just happened, the entire squad jump up from the darkness and Batesy flicks the light on.

“Happy birthday gaffer!”

The fuckers have pranked me on my birthday. There’s a few nervous faces on how I’ll take it but as I gather myself and get back to my feet, I see Bostwick walk round the corner with a cake as a chorus of ‘Happy Birthday’ rings out the conference room and out into the hallway. When they finally stop signing and I exhaustedingly manage to rid the final candle of it’s flame, I ask who came up with the idea. The squad all point in unison to Batesy.

“Cheers Kev, it means a lot. Come cut the first slice with me mate.” As he sets down the knife after photogenically cutting the cake for the camera, I grab his head and push it down into the rest of the cake. He chases me down the hallway with all the lads cheering and jeering after us. This is why I’m not scared about our dip in form. We’re a unit and we’ll do it together. We’ll drag each other out the gutter, we’ll drag each other out of the firing line. We’ll drag each other over the finish line and into League One. Whether that’s as champions, automatically or fighting through the play-offs.

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