Belated Birthday (Episode 16: A Lincoln Legend)

He doesn’t care. None of us care. Why would we?

Once me and Batesy get ourselves cleaned up, I spend the rest of the day taking over training. I work with Vickers on his 1-on-1 shot stopping, set up a few dribbling courses for Knott and Anderson and spend an hour working with Valerio on his finishing. Once he gets that part of his game up to scratch, I can see him pulling out the signature Robben move often. In fact, I spend most of the hour on that very move. Charge at your man, cut inside and shoot. Charge, cut, shoot.

Of course I don’t work the lads too hard as we have a game the next day. I decide to go for a rotational side against Crawley for two reasons:

  1. To rest our starters and key players for the Leicester FA Cup clash
  2. Our starters have been poor recently and I have confidence our bench players can get us back on track with a win.

Wharton and Long come in on the right side of defence with Freckles and Chapman sitting in front of them. We have a fresh attacking three with Stewart, Knott and Anderson playing behind Ellis.

Just 3 minutes in, Anderson is played in on the right of the 18 yard box. Evina misses his attempt at a sliding interception leaving Anderson to cross in for Knott who heads over from the penalty spot. We’re not disheartened though as a few minutes later, Stewart tries to heel chop away from Young after collecting a rebound and Young clumsy sticks a leg into the back of him. Easy decision for the ref as he points to the spot and brandishes a yellow card. Ellis steps up to take and smacks it towards the top left but the keeper is up and across to make a brilliant save. I can’t help but feel a distinct feeling of deja vu as it is an exact replica of Harrison’s penalty against Linz in the final of our pre-season tournament. Remembering how that game ended up, I encourage the lads to keep this attacking push going.

After quarter of an hiour, Chapman pings it into Stewart who plays it round the defence for Knott. Harrison is down holding his shoulder in the box and interrupts Knott’s run and can only hit an effort directly at the keeper. When the ball’s cleared, the ref stops play as it looks like Ellis is in some serious pain. He signals with his good arm that he has to come off. I wipe my hands down my face, dragging my cheeks down my face in a contained show of frustration before telling Matt to warm up and go in. We can’t deal with our two main strikers being injured before a major cup clash and a vital few games in the league to stay in contention for the title. When he comes off, he tells me that he tried to compete for a cross and fell awkwardly. Judging by the fact his shoulder blade is pointing in the wrong direction, I’m guessing it’s dislocated. He wanders off down with the physio as the ball is pinged up to Vickers from the drop ball.

In the 24th minute, Green plays Knott out wide and continues to bomb forward in support. Knott turns back on himself and plays perfect ball over for Green to watch as it drops over his shoulder and volley across his body into the side of the met. He’s taken that so well that my worries about my striker problems briefly evaporate into the Sussex air. 1-0.

Crawley almost reply instantly when Cox dribbles up the pitch and passes to Ahearne-Grant. He fakes away from Wilson and puts a low cross to the back post for Roberts to slide in and, luckily, put it way over the bar. We’ve been let off there so I tell the lads to go back to a more balanced style of play with less attacking prowess. For now.

Last chance of the half comes in the 39th minute when Stewart slots a perfect ball in for Green. Evina misses another sliding interception leaving Green with just the keeper to beat. He tries to chip the keeper the moment he starts rushing out but he makes an outstanding save, diving backwards to push the ball away from the face of goal. We’ve played well in this half and could have scored 2 or 3 but that doesn’t mean we can be complacent. Woody comes on for Chapman to bring some experience and engine size to the midfield.

There’s a couple decent changes for Green that are saved before the 60th minute, both of which are headers from Anderson early crosses. In the 62nd minute, Cox is the problem again as he takes it round Long way too easily and runs to whip a cross to the back post for Sanoh. He volleys it towards goal but Sam Ham is in front of him to deflect it onto the near post and out for a corner. That’s the last contribution from Sam Ham as I replace him for Gergo as I want him to be somewhat fit for the cup game.

In the 83rd minute, a silly tackle from Wharton in an position that isn’t even threatening earns him a straight dismissal. He’ll be out of the match-day squad until the Morecambe game now so we have to hope we have no defensive injuries and that McCombe steps up to the plate. I move Freckles back into his space and we do a good job of absorbing the inevitable pressure for the next 10 minutes to see out our first league win in a while. We really needed three points today to boost morale.

Unfortunately, my suspicions about Harrison’s shoulder were correct and he has dislocated it. He’s predicted to miss three weeks of football which takes us into April but he should be able to make a couple appearances before then. In better news, Ollie is back in training and available for selection against Leicester.

In a unbelieveable stroke of luck, Jamie Vardy is ruled out for a month with an injury picked up in a Monday night game. With Okazaki already out for another 5 weeks and Slimani on loan to Newcastle, there are without any main strikers.

I have an early morning training session on Saturday and watch the Saturday quarter finals with a few of the players. Huddersfield beat Carabao Cup finalists Bournemouth 2-1, the same scoreline in the final a few weeks back when Pochettino finally picked up some of the silverware that’s eluded him during his time at Spurs. In the later kick-off, Burnley pull off a shock win against Liverpool at Anfield with Ashley Barnes scoring the only goal of the game.

We are the first match on the Sunday with the massive game between Manchester United and Carabao Cup winners Tottenham following our game in the late afternoon. With Liverpool out the picture, only one top 6 team is left for the semi-finals so if we get past Leicester, we have a very good chance of taking on either of Saturday’s winners and getting a result.

Being limited to one fit striker means that my experimental options are also limited so I stick with our trusty 4-2-3-1 for the first time in a while when it comes to cup competetions. Green starts up front with Palmer taking a place on the bench. He begs to start but I have to look after his well-being and he’s still not been given the all clear from the medical staff. I don’t want to risk him being out for any longer than he has already as he’s arguably our most important player. Esposito starts out on the right with pretty much our best side (on paper) filling up the rest of the pitch.

Leicester are also playing our formation but with more of a shadow striker role. They have a intimidating midfield partnership of N’Didi and Iborra and Kasper Schmeichel in goal. No Vardy or Okazaki means they start Admiral Muskwe just behind Fousseni Diabate. The Zimbabwe and Malian internationals are tasked with scoring the goals today and while we’ve been lucky to avoid Vardy, these lads aren’t to be taken lightly either. They’ve got something to prove to the people watching today. As do Lincoln City. Wembley, let’s hope we meet again.

The first 10 minutes are a cautious affair with both teams just feeling each other out before committing to a style of play. We get the first chance however when Rowe’s run is found by Pett in the 12th minute. He knocks it further down the line to Valerio who puts a low ball into the box for Green. Dragovic comes in with a last ditch block to clear it for a corner. I can’t pump up the lads however as when Rowe climbs to win the corner, he falls down directly on his ankle and stays down. The game stops. Not another one. He’s clearly in discomfort and Anderson is already warming up. First Ollie, then Ellis and now Danny. All my favourites are dropping like flies. By the sounds of it, he could be out for the rest of the season as he explains the pain as ‘exactly like when he broke his ankle when he was younger.’ Brilliant.

Things go from bad to worse in the 18th minute when Barnes skins Gergo with a couple cheeky touches who plays Diabate. He does the exact same thing to Vasil before squaring it to an open Muskwe who places it into the open goal from 15 yards. It’s a poor goal to concede but alas, we’re 1-0 down. There’s still 70 minutes of football to go so it’s far from over yet.

In the 23rd minute, we show we’re not going to lie down when Sam Ham threads Anderson in. He cuts back across the six yard box and has his effort well blocked by Harry Maguire. On the hour hour mark, Valerio uses his acceleration to burst past Fuchs. He manages to catch up on the edge of the box but Esposito just turns inside of him before playing a tidy ball into Pett. He takes a touch and drills it hard and low towards the bottom right but Kasper makes a great save with his right foot, turning it out for another corner.

In the final minute of the half, some electric one touch passing leads to Anderson being free on the left flank. He runs down, cuts in and shoots but Schmeichel makes yet another world class save to deny him. Valerio can’t get his head to the rebound as it flies past him and out for a throw. We come in at half time 1-0 down but I’m not worried. The goal was a concentration lapse mixed with a bit of quality and we’ve been a menace since we went down. We’re very much in this game so there’s no changes, no real instruction. Just keep doing what we’re doing and it will come.

The first chance of the second half is in the 61st minute when Valerio gets played out wide from Green. He darts back inside and passes to Pett who hits a shot from just inside the box over the crossbar.  I turn to my bench and simply nod. It could to be absolutely anyone but everybody knows. Ollie Palmer takes his jacket off and stretches on the side of the pitch in preparation to take to the field. We change to a 4-2-2-2 with Anderson coming off. Ollie: save the day.

In the 73rd minute, I make my final sub with Stewart coming on for Valerio. I get the message out to really attack Leicester as time is running out.

80th minute. Green takes the ball from Simpson deep in their half and takes it down the left. He crosses it to Palmer to beat Dragovic in the air and head it top left. Schmeichel pulls out a ridiculous reflex save to keep their lead in tact. Almost.

86th minute. Palmer gets the ball and wrongfoots Maguire before unleashing a thunderbolt across goal that ricochets the far post and must leave a nasty dent in it too. Almost.

3 minutes added time. The 92nd minute. Stewart clears it all the way to Green who nods it down to Palmer. He holds before giving it to Bostwick who’s making the run from a left back position. He plays a first time sideways pass to Woody who plays it once more for Stewart who’s now in their half. He pings it forward to Palmer who flicks it round to Green. This is it, the last chance. Make or break. Green gives it back to Palmer who knocks it to his right slightly. He looks up and spots Stewart’s darting run into the box. Ollie nutmegs Dragovic with his ball in. Sincil Bank falls silent. It’s only a couple yards but it lasts for minutes. Stewart slides in to beat Schmeichel to the ball and squeezes it round him to equalise at the very death. The stadium erupts and limbs are flying all over the place. Including my own as I lead the subs in a sprint across the pitch to the pile on at the far end of the pitch. An unlikely hero steps up the plate, running from one box to the other, starting and finishing the exact same move. I’m so taken in by the moment, I grab Kev’s head and plant a kiss on his balding top. It’s awkward but I couldn’t give a shit. As soon as they pass back from kick-off, the ref blows for full time. Extra time it is.

We really deserved another crack at these. Leicester didn’t have a single shot in the second half and they looked like the League Two side trying to defend a narrow lead, not the Premier League team that should be pushing to put the game to bed. All of our defenders are shattered apart from Vasil but with no remaining subs, we’re going to need extra bodies back and play on the counter. My heart is virtually beating out of my chest as Sincil Bank breaks out in a deafening roar the moment Ollie passes the ball backwards to start the next half hour of football. Wembley, here we come.

Understandably, it’s not the most enthralling first half of added time as people are tired and afraid to commit. The only chance comes in the 103rd minute when Gergo wins a throw in. He throws it to Stewart who plays an outstanding ball right behind the high Leicester line to Green. He controls it brilliantly and Schmeichel rushes out to close the angle down. He could shoot but he squares across the centre backs to Ollie Palmer to finish. I’m basically celebrating already as the ball rolls across to him but he somehow miskicks the ball off of his standing foot and it goes out for goal kick. A golden chance wasted by the most clinical giant in football. I can’t quite believe it.

There’s so many tired legs at half time of extra time but I can only tell them to stay strong. I’d ideally want to avoid penalties considering our record is dreadful but I have total belief we can win before then.

In the 109th minute, Barnes miscontrols a simple pass from Fuchs but Wilson has committed to where the ball normally would go. He has space to cross into the gap over Vasil and Gergo for Adrien Silva to volley a sidefooted effort off the near post. The collective sigh of relief is following up by booming shouts and applause. We were so, so close to losing the game there but maybe our luck is turning.

And we’re going to need it as the 120 minutes finishes as a 1-1 stalemate. Penalty shootout it is. We arguably deserve a win but that doesn’t matter.

“Right lads, who wants to go first?” Everybody awkwardly shuffles and looks to the ground.

“I will gaffer.” Matt Green it is. Our wing backs are decent at penalties so Sam Ham and Gergo will follow with the main man Palmer taking the fourth penalty. It’s a free-for-all after that.

We win the coin toss and decide to go first. Green sets the ball down, takes a couple steps back before hitting a strong shot to the bottom left. Schmeichel dives the right way but palms it into his own net. Luck is really turning today. Adrien Silva is Leicester’s first choice. He runs up and hits it to the bottom right. Vickers dives the right way but it just slots under his ribs into the goal. And the luck’s gone again.

Sam Ham tucks a cool penalty into the bottom left which puts pressure on Fuchs to respond. Vickers dances around in goal in an attempt to put him off. He laces a shot at a good height for Vickers to dive and push round his left hand post. I jump and fist pump the air violently. As Obi-Wan once said, I have the high ground.

It’s Gergo’s turn, next and he looks confident stepping up but it’s a very poor penalty. It’s a good job Schmeichel dives to his right and it has all the goal to casually roll into. 3-1 up now and captain Dragovic has to convert the keep them in it.

He takes a few steps back to just outside the D before running up and calmly sidefooting it into the bottom right. Vickers went the wrong way which leaves Ollie Palmer to score and make the next Leicester pen vital. He takes one step backwards and one more central. He begins his run up and blasts his penalty onto the right hand post. No Ollie, not now. I crouch down with my head in my hands and begin imagining the heart break as George Thomas begins the walk towards the penalty spot.

The 20 year old looks very nervous as he runs up and scuffs it a yard wide of left post. Vickers had committed the opposite side so as long as he hit the target, it’s in. Cameron Stewart steps up next. The man who rescued our chances of advancing could be an even bigger hero if he puts the penalty away. He runs up, stutters slighlty before he tries to be cheeky and paneka it down the middle. Kasper Schmeichel stands still and catches it with ease as Cameron screams in frustration. Not there kid, just put your laces through it.

We need Vickers to pull it out the bag now to avoid sudden death here. Diabate is the man responsible as he places it down on the spot. He takes a deep breath as Batesy turns away, unable to watch. He lashes it to the right for Vickers to stretch and touch it onto the post and away. Absolute scenes. He runs over to the far stand and belly slides as we all run over to start the celebrations. What a fucking day. We’re going to Wembley for our second time in our second cup semi final. Stewart is deservedly awarded Man of the Match for saving the game. He’s unlucky about the penalty as he would have been a cult hero if that floated into the back of the net. A Lincoln folk lore story none the less. And he doesn’t care. None of us care. Why would we?

While we out celebrating and covering Lincoln in streams of champagne, Tottenham beat Man United so we’ll either face Spurs, Huddersfield or Burnley in the semi final at Wembley. The draw is actually that same night. We take a break from our celebrations to watch the draw. First name out the pot: Lincoln City. Breath is held. The ball is removed from the pot and held to the camera: Sean Dyche’s Burnley. April 22nd. Wembley Stadium. We can fucking do this.

I actually feel sorry for Danny Rowe as I’d completely forgotten about him and his injury due to my jubilation after the win. As he hinted towards, he’s actually broke his ankle which means he’ll be out for 3 months. He might be available for the final game of the season against Yeovil but that’s not even two months away so it’s hit and miss. That means the brief 12 minute spell against Leicester is probably his last game for us during his loan spell. I’m definitely going to try and get a permanent deal done in the summer but we’ll have to deal without Danny for the remainder of the season and potentially, deal without him in a FA Cup final. You’ll be greatly missed mate. Every point dropped, every shot missed, every wayward pass. Danny Rowe would have done better.

In some slightly better news, Wilson is recalled to the Wales squad but there’s no Gergo for Hungary this time around. Eardley also rejoins training before the  Grimsby game so he should be fit for last couple games of the month and hopefully for the important run in towards the end of the season. Grimsby are currently 4 points outside of the play offs so they  will be really pushing for a result today. Luton are now 11 points clear at the top but we could easily make up 9 of those points in our games in hand so winning every game from here on out is crucial.

With a game against Mansfield in a few days time, we can’t afford to picking up any injuries, suspensions or playing too many of our strongest players. Mansfield are 3rd, 8 points behind us in 2nd so we need to win to stay away from the uncertainty of the play-offs.

I bring in Knott, who’s slowly becoming my preferred option over Pett, Freckles and Long to replace Gergo, Pett and Woody. The rest of team is in as it’s still a vital game for our promotion push. Every game is a vital game from now on.

The game takes a while to get going, especially our lads, but it’s worth the wait. In the 26th minute, Knott switches to Long who plays a first time ball down to Anderson on the right flank. It’s crossed in, slightly behind the defenders for Palmer to drop off and power a header home into the bottom right from 16 yards. It’s a exquisite header and from that distance, it has to be to even challenge the keeper. 1-0.

In the 33rd minute, we’re well and truly in gear. Bostwick runs the ball into their half and passes to Stewart out on the left. He plays it inside to Knott who stops it dead and dinks a lovely return ball back over to Stewart who watches it and volleys a bullet up into the top right to make it 2-0. I have brief flashbacks of my first ever goal in the league which was also a beaut of a Stewart volley.

In the final minute of the first half, a Freckles corner to the front post is headed backwards by a diving Bostwick and it very nearly sneaks in at the near post. It’s the last action of the half in what has been our best half of football since our second half against Chelsea. In terms of league football, it’s our best half since the introduction of Valerio all that time ago. I’m a very happy manager at half time and leave the dressing room confident we can get a win.

The game isn’t as active in the second half with the first real point of notice is Gergo and Valerio replacing Sam Ham and Stewart in the 63rd minute. Cameron gets applauded loudly as the fans have a new found love from him after the Leicester performance and his goal today. He’s smiling ear-to-ear as he takes a seat on the bench. Take it in.

In the 71st minute, Freckles picks up the ball after a few bounces in the middle following a goal kick and plays Gergo down the right. He puts a great back post cross in to Valerio who volleys it perfectly towards the  bottom right. A strong hand stops the ball from tucking neatly into the corner but the rebound falls to Palmer who swings at it. It’s blocked by Clarke’s foot who just about turns it over the crossbar. The goal wouldn’t have counted anyways as a foul is given on Knott from just inside the box so it’s a Grimsby free kick.

Just a few minutes later, Bostwick plays a ball over for Valerio who has his effort from range blocked but manages to win the rebound header to Palmer. He knocks it into space on the right hand side of the box for Anderson to cross back in where Ollie is there to volley it awkwardly into the ground to the right of the keepers feet. Due to the awkwardness of the bounce, he can’t stop it from finding the back of the net and Ollie grabbing a brace to give us a three goal lead. With that being his 19th of the season, Palmer is now tied top goal scorer unless Alessandra has scored today. His goals, along with Notts County’s points, have dried up though so with Ollie’s form, things are looking good for him.

In the 78th minute, things look even better for Palmer when a early cross from Long is headed out by Clarke to Valerio who is open to knock it forward to Palmer. He holds off Berrett who is almost a whole foot smaller than him and hits on the turn through both Berrett’s and the keeper’s legs to get his hat-trick. 20 goals so far this season with no signs of stopping anytime soon. Jamie McCombe gets a cameo for Wilson in what is his first appearance since our first Coventry match when he actually scored.

In the final moments, Bostwick picks up a second yellow card for what is a weak challenge. I can’t argue with it as even though that exact tackle wasn’t worthy of a yellow, he’s been testing his luck all game since picking up the first yellow early on. As it’s a second yellow, he’ll only miss the Mansfield game which I can deal with.

The game finishes 4-0 with Ollie Palmer putting in a similar performance today to Ellis’ against Chelsea. Not just because of the hat-trick but everything went through him and he played it well. Batesy tells me that the Notts County game was a 0-0 draw which means 1 thing: Ollie Palmer is officially the League 2 top goal scorer. Happy, happy days.

As I mentioned, our next game is Mansfield with their two strikers, Kane Hemmings and Danny Rose, tallying up a combined 29 goals between them this season. I also mentioned that Mansfield are 3rd in the league so a win would really put us in pole position for promotion. Well not pole position exactly but a very close second.

We have some big misses today with Harrison and Rowe out injured, Wilson away with Wales and Wharton serving the final game of his suspension. However, there is a sliver lining as Eardley has been in training for a couple days and feels comfortable enough to be on the bench.

McCombe gets a start today as he’s our only other available CB with Wharton and Wilson unavailable. Freckles comes in for the suspended Bostwick with Green and Valerio starting over Palmer and Anderson. Ollie seems a tad annoyed that he’s not starting but he’s actually lucky, I’d prefer him to be in a cocoon of bubble wrap if he’s not 100% fit for a game to avoid any further injuries. He could be the difference between a league title and FA Cup triumph or a play-off place and just a day out at Wembley.

Our absences are not sorely missed as just 3 minutes in, Gergo cuts back after an overlapping run down the touchline and passes back to Woody. His first time ball behind for Valerio is controlled and put onto his left before shooting. It’s blocked by White after the keeper has already dived towards the top left and Green reacts quickly to volley into the top right to make it 1-0. Here we go again.

We pretty much dominate for the next half hour, winning multiple corners and breaking down any Mansfield attack until the 34th minute when Woody gets the ball and runs 50 yards into their half. He knocks it to Green who flicks it round White but can only hit it just wide of the post.

A few minutes pass before Valerio has another shot blocked. Sam Ham collects and lays it to Woody. He smashes a shot from 30 yards that the keeper parries out for a corner. It’s a great strike but it’s a decent height for the keeper. Right before half time, Gergo plays the ball down the right for Green. He takes it in his stride perfectly but smashes his shot over the bar. I make one change at half-time giving Rochdale loanee Jordan Williams a half of footbal to impress me. He’s never played bad and actually puts in good performances when he has been involved but he’s been unlucky in that we have solid wide midfield options.

5 minutes of the second half pass before we double our advantage. Sam Ham wins an aerial battle following a keeper punch clear and nods it down to Freckles. He passes sideways to Woody who clearly hasn’t been put off shooting from distance after his effort in the first half as hits a perfect shot that whips round into the top right. An amazing strike to make it 2-0 and funnily enough, that’s actually Woodyard’s first goal in the league. One of those stats that doesn’t amaze you or anything. Just makes you go ‘huh’.

In the 67th minute, Chapman and Anderson are on for the shattered duo of Esposito and Freckles. Chapman’s physical presence makes an impact instantly as he heads a Mansfield corner clear to Williams. He springs into life and sprints the length of the pitch before playing it across to Green. He can’t capitalise on it however as he volleys it down into the goalkeeper’s shin.

With 10 minutes to go, Byron plays a ball forward from the halfway line right between our two centre backs for Rose. He takes it forward but one touch too many means Vickers can come to claim with ease. The scoreline stays the same until the final whistle with Woody picking up Man of the Match. He deserves it for his strike alone but he’s really proving to be an integral part of this team. On both offence and defence, he’s crucial to making this Lincoln side tick.

Matt Green takes me aside before he leaves training the next day to thank me for picking him. After his injury, he thought his time with Lincoln was over. I honestly thought the same but he’s came back and made an impact. I smile and tell him it’s no bother to me but I can’t help think that he’s almost 32. He’s gonna start to decline from now on and with promising youth prospects waiting for their chance and a summer window rapidly approaching, he could be on his way out this. But he doesn’t need to know that. Smile and nod Shep. Smile and nod.

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