A New Page (Episode 21: A Lincoln Legend)

The epitome of unity and understanding.

A loss on the first day of the season means very little. In the bigger picture that is. If the team feels like getting their losses out of their system in the first month or two, that’s fine by me. That being said, I really won’t enjoy it if we lose two or, god forbid, three on the bounce.

To give me some encouragement about the season ahead, Rafael Barbosa decides to join up with the Imps for this season on the Monday after our loss to Blackpool. He claims the number 13 jersey which makes me ask whether he believes the number is unlucky. Of course, the bloke only speaks Portuguese so I have to whip out Translate on my phone for him to type an answer back. The emotionless, monotonic voice takes me by surprise.

“I believe that this number is unlucky as people think it is unlucky. I make my own luck.” I didn’t know it till he said it but that’s the right bloody answer. We share a mute handshake/hug combo before introducing him to the squad.

In an almost hilarious twist, James Wilson picks up a cut on his head which, according to my medical team, rules him out of selection for the Sheffield United game. Despite my protests and multiple attempts at calling him a wimp, the argument about the severity of cut and further potential damage prevails. Load of rubbish if you ask me.

I’m taking the cups, especially the Carabao and Checkatrade, as chances to try new formations, positions and personnel. For our game against the red half of Sheffield, Sam Walker starts in goal with Bostwick partnering Nelson as a centre back. Eardley replaces Gergo on the right but now is where it gets interesting. We’re playing a 4-1-2-1-2 wide with Woody holding as he loves to put on a show in the cup games. Barbosa gets his debut in a Lincoln shirt behind an Ivan Toney and Ellis Harrison strike partnership. Toney is going to play on the shoulder today and try to use his explosive speed to give us the upper hand.

Sheffield United on the other hand are playing a defensive 5-2-1-2 with Leon Clarke and Billy Sharp up front. Before the game starts, I turn to Batesy and cross my fingers.

“Let’s up those lads up top don’t sharpen the Blades today, ey mate?” He sighs and sits down with a disappointed look on his face. While my management is constantly praised, my sense of humour is being majorly underappreciated. My notice is being handed in unless this changes.

Just 4 minutes in, Rowe shows hes up for a battle today as he puts in a crunching yet fair tackle on Leonard before passing forward to Harrison. He lays the ball into the new lad Barbosa who waits for the run before giving it back to Ellis. He touches onto his right foot before striking across goal but a set of good hands push it away. Baldock is under pressure from Danny and clears for a throw in to avoid giving up possession in a dangerous position.

15 minutes later, Valerio intercepts a Stevens pass, starting a string of passes along the halfway line before Barbosa plays a through ball to Toney. He fakes outside before cutting back inside and finesses from the edge of the box but it’s a good height for Blackman to save. The ball remains in play but Harrison fouls Stevens chasing down the ball. The aerial battle from Blackman’s free kick is won by Clarke but the ball flies past Evans to Ellis Harrison. The ball finds it’s way out to Dickenson who plays Rowe in the middle first time. He flicks it on to Barbosa who feints past a flat footed Basham before lacing a shot a yard over the joining of the post and the crossbar. It’s very close to a splendid debut goal for the loanee.

In the 35th minute, Sheffield decide they want to play some football now with Stevens charging down the byline. He picks his pass between the right side of our team, Esposito and Eardley, to find Evans. He plays it to Clarke who turns Nelson too easily and threads it back to Evans. He hits it first time, looking for the far corner but Sam Walker plucks the ball calmly from it’s path mid-air. Brilliant stuff from him.

In the last minute of the half, Brook switches to Stevens who hops a Eardley challenge on the touchline. Nelson comes over to cover but consequently leaves Leon Clarke open to receive the pass. He works it back out to Stevens who hits a perfect driven ball in for Billy Sharp to run in and just clear Walker’s trailing leg with a sliding shot and make it 1-0. It really is one of the worst times to concede as I see multiple heads drop. I try my best to fire them back up at half-time but it could be a lost cause. I replace Esposito with Stewart as he’s ran himself senseless in the first half.

From the get go, Sheffield are throwing players forward to try and grab an early second but, like many decisions in football, it can either pay off or you can be made to pay. Rowe collects the ball in the 62nd minute after blocking a pass and smashes it up to Barbosa. He sweeps it to Toney who plays an open Stewart down the right. Stearman catches him as he enters the 18 yard box so Cameron turns back on himself and passes to Barbosa inside the D. He puts it into space on the right hand side of the box for Rowe to run in and put a floating low ball in for Harrison to delicately direct into the bottom left past the hopeless Blackman. 1-1 and we’re right back in it. Rowe’s legs are looking a bit heavy however so I bring on Pett for the rest of the game.

10 minutes after our equaliser, Stewart tries to heads a Baldock cross clear but instead heads it at Sharp. There’s a tussle in the box between them both before Sharp swings at the ball but Walker is down quickly to push round the post for corner. A few minutes pass before Sheffield have another corner which is whipped in to the unmarked Basham who volleys towards the top right corner but an insane reaction save from Walker keeps the score’s even again. What a game he’s having.

With 5 minutes to go, Pett gives away a free kick and picks up a yellow card but I decide to make use of the break in play. I bring on Ollie Palmer for Barbosa who gets a warm reception from the away fans. He’s done really well today considering it’s his first proper run in English football. Harrison drops back behind Ollie. The free kick is whipped in but it’s headed out to Toney by Bostwick. He passes it up to Harrison who only has the one man to beat but decides to wait for the Palmer overlap to his right before advancing too far forward. Ollie gets into the box and turns Baldock inside out with some neat footwork before curling a shot into the bottom left. That’s if a outstanding full stretch save from Jamal Blackman hadn’t pushed it just round the post.

The regulation time comes to a close with the scoreline still even so added time is needed to find a victor. We have used all our subs so the team remains as it is for the next half an hour.

Shortly after the game gets back underway, Stewart steals the ball from Stearman after pressuring Baldock to make a pass. He runs into the box and is hacked down by Stearman just as he swings his foot back to shoot. No red card but a yellow and penalty is rightly given. I don’t know why but I agree to let Ellis Harrison take the penalty, against every fibre in my body telling me not to. He runs up and hits it low to the right but of course Blackman dives the right way and palms it out for a corner. What the fuck is with this spot kick voodoo?

We’re not made to mull over missed chances or saved penalties for too long when in the 98th minute, Stewart heads a Nelson knock down out to Woody. He just beats Lafferty to the ball and passes it to Harrison. He plays it sideways to Stewart who runs at an angle before pulling out a ridiculous one legged roulette to completely eliminate Leonard from the game and the rest of his footballing career. He looks up and spots Toney who is playing perfectly on Coutts shoulder. The ball bounces up off his left foot awkwardly but Ivan adjusts his body to smoothly sidefoot a volley home with his right into the bottom right. It’s an amazing bit of play and it gets a standing ovation from the away end. I’m truthfully a bit hot under the collar after seeing that skill from Stewart. 2-1.

Half-time comes and the lads are feeling a lot more confident than the previous half time. They want to push for another so I tell them to do so with caution.

In the 108th minute, Pett darts inside and plays a gorgeous ball over Lafferty for Stewart on the far side. He half volleys the ball into the front post where Palmer connects with a half volley of his own that flies into the back of the net. A two goal lead with 10 minutes left? Sounds like park the bus to me.

The 120 minutes finish and a unintentionally smug grin is plastered across my face. Today was a real show of grit and hard graft to battle through added time and win comfortably. The subs really helped turn the game, don’t get me wrong but everyone else held their own and didn’t look out place compared to their fresher compatriots. A great performance all round.

During that game, Tom Pett picked up a yellow card which apparently earns him a suspension. I’m not sure why but I wasn’t planning on playing him anyways so I don’t appeal the decision.

Similar to last season, I turn my attention over the next few days to tying some of our important players as a lot of them have less than a year left on their current deals. After a couple days of non-stop meetings with agents and players, I get most people to commit to the club for at least another 2 years. Details below:

  • Josh Vickers till 2021 (£3’000 wage increase)
  • Gergo till 2020 (£500 wage increase)
  • Eardley till 2021 (£1’200 wage increase)
  • Habergham till 2021 (£350 wage increase)
  • Woody till 2021 (£800 wage increase)
  • Captain Bostwick till 2020 (£100 wage increase w/£20’000 bonus for 15 appearances)
  • Esposito till 2024 (£2’600 wage increase w/£300’000 bonus for 25 goals)
  • Palmer till 2021 (No wage increase and suggests to be a sporadic player due to new signings, another reason I love this bloke)

Bozhikov was the only player to reject new terms but it wasn’t done with any haste or anger. I’ll try again later into the year to keep him around for another year or two.

In what proves a controversial decision with Batesy, I accept a loan offer from Doncaster for Ellis Chapman. He is a good player but I just think we need someone who can help cover Freckles with the same ability as him right now. Ellis is a player for the future but we need to bring in a defensive midfielder for reinforcements sooner rather than later.

In what’s a uncanny Carabao Cup draw, we are hosting Bristol City in the second round. Just days after we play their locacl rivals and Ellis’ old team Bristol Rovers. Asides from that, it’s a good home draw where we’ve avoided some of the huge teams but still have a tough game that will sell tickets.

In just our first away game of the season, we have the infamous trip to Burton Albion. They have some solid players and are not to be underestimated but I really want a win to get us back on track.

Vickers is back in goal with Wilson starting after his tragic head cut has miraculously healed. Bostwick and Woody are together in the middle with Barbosa starting out on the right and Oztumer returning behind Ollie Palmer. It would be a huge first win away against one of the relegated sides if we can pull it off today.

For the first half hour, both teams are pushing and playing decent football but with no end result. There’s been a couple desperate swings and frustrated shots from ourselves and Burton but to no avail. In the 35th minute, Rowe challenges for a ball after a Burton throw and manages to get a pass to Bostwick. It’s driven to Barbosa’s feet who lays it off to Palmer. Ollie pulls off a cheeky heel chop pass to give it just enough for Oztumer to take in his stride and smash it past the keeper, just inside the near post. It’s a lovely assist from Ollie and a venomous finish from Erhun. A no prisoner mindset could really open this game up cause god knows it needs it.

Half time comes and goes and it’s not until the 57th minute when another chance arises. A Bostwick switch is read and cut out by Qalinge who brings it down and hits it to Liam Boyce. He controls before shocking everyone inside the Pirelli Stadium by unleashing a screamer from 25 yards that swerves inwards then back out into the very top right corner. There’s nothing Vickers could do about that as it’s an unstoppable strike to bring the scores level. Where the fucks he pulled that from?

In the 64th minute, Rowe passes inside to Palmer who lets it roll to Barbosa. He spins his man in a flash and hits a powerful strike but a strong save denies him a first Lincoln goal. 10 minutes pass and with fifteen minutes left, I ask the team to push for a winner. And they do just that. Not even a minute after my instruction gets out, Bostwick heads a Flanagan clearance down to Oztumer. He spreads the play out wide to Barbosa. Ollie leaves his marker to come short and slots a return ball between the defence. Barbosa runs into the box and puts a low ball into the danger zone where Oztumer pips Mcfadzean to the ball and slides home past Bywater’s foot. A brace from him today and we’ve restored our lead. I bring on Anderson and Toney for Barbosa and Rowe.

I make a defensive change with Sam coming on for Dickenson in the 80th minute and we manage to hold on throught a panicked finale to claim our first win in League One. Oztumer will grab all the headlines and rightly so but the team worked well today. The last goal is a perfect example of that. The epitome of unity and understanding.

Chapman rejects the opportunity to join Doncaster on loan as he doesn’t feel ready to leave his home town just yet. He is only 17 to be fair to him but a loan move would have done him a world of good. In a arguably more exciting bid for a Lincoln player, Derby County offer £1’200’000 for Harry Anderson. While he’s been pushed down the ranks by Rowe, Valerio and Stewart, he’s going to get a lot more playing time as the season kicks on. He will be a vital part of the busy periods this season so Derby’s offer is rejected. Plus, he’s still at the tender age of 21 with his best years ahead of him. A bigger price is needed for a player of his promise.

Looking forward into the not-so-distant future, we’re going to have a busy and tough week ahead. After hosting both Bristol clubs in the league and the cup, we travel to Rotherham who will be looking for an early push towards promotion after missing out on the play-offs last season. That’s just the day after the transfer window slams shut too. Not a lot of people know it but I am still eyeing up one more deal before midnight on the 31st. And whilst it won’t be doomsday if I don’t get somebody in, who doesn’t love a deadline day deal?

League One (Episode 20: A Lincoln Legend)

Little Lincoln City are not to be pushed around.

Spirits are at an all time high after our return from Germany. Danny Rowe is back where he belongs for the foreseeable future, we’ve won back to back promotions and our trophy cabinet has the first contribution from yours truly. Life is good.

In world football, my good mood rises even higher as Belgium beat their European neighbours Germany in a thrilling 3-2 World Cup final. Germany took the lead through Toni Kroos while a double of set pieces from Eden Hazard, a penalty followed by a free kick, gave them the upper hand. Germany equalised with 15 minutes left through Leroy Sane. It was in dramatic fashion that Belgium confirmed their status as champions of the world through a Vincent Kompany header in the 2nd minute of added time. It’s nice to see this generation of Belgian talent coming to fruition on the big stage while knocking the Germans down a peg too.

Moving back to matters at hand however, Charlton offer £730’000 for Billy Knott which I seriously consider. He is a good impact player and he had his moments last season but with that sale and the winnings from the tournament, I could bring in a bigger and better improvement. I have a conference call with some reps at Charlton and negotiate the price tag up to £860’000. The ball is firmly left in Billy’s court now as to what he decides to do from here. Either way, I still have Oztumer, Pett and even Joel Cooper who are capable of taking his position. Bolton boss Phil Parkinson decides to take up on my offer in Germany to ‘keep in touch’, with a £570’000 bid for Gergo. I swiftly decline as I have no intention of selling either of my free agent revelations.

In a piece of business I’m happy to do, I accept £230’000 for want-away Matt Green from Crewe. I leave him to talk with the club and he seems happy that there’s clubs interested in him so I hope it goes through for his sake.

Now there’s time in your career as a manager where you’ll be taken aback by something. Whether it’s your star player handing in a transfer request or your main striker missing a sitter. On the 26th of July, I was gobsmacked by Fulham’s bid for Josh Vickers. £1’800’000. It’s huge, huge money which I actually laugh at when I first hear the figure. I bring Josh in to talk about the offer and he seems happy whatever way this goes. He’s comfortable building with Lincoln but wouldn’t complain if I took the money and ran as he’d be a big London club with at least another 10 years of football ahead of him. I decide to stand my ground and show little Lincoln City aren’t to be pushed around. We’re not a selling club.

On the 31st of July, to close what has been a crazy month, Matt Green officially departs for Crewe. The lads seem quite upset that he’s left and to be honest, so am I. I actually trained with Matt for a couple sessions when he joined Darlington on loan for a month years ago so I’m sad to see him go. But I make it my mission to reassure the lads that a new signing will come. Very soon in fact as I have a meeting the next day with a manager to finalise some details.

In a brightly lit high street restaurant, I meet up with none other than Champions League winning and, more importantly, Newcastle United manager Rafa Benitez for dinner to discuss loan move for Ivan Toney. I originally wanted Adam Armstrong in but Rafa seemed certain that after a positive season with Blackburn, he was going to get a chance with the main team. After a casual chat and a drink or two with our food, we come to an agreement on a one year loan with the wages being split right down the middle. This will cost us 14.5k a week, making him one of the highest paid players in the club but he has the experience of this league and could be a huge second string player for us. We just have to wait for Ivan to decide if he wants another season in League One or whether he can chance his arm higher.

On the 1st of August, Dorrian meets me to tell me his objectives for this upcoming season in further detail. He thinks that a mid table finish is possible but he isn’t expecting another cup run like last season with a obtainable Round of 32 stage the target for the FA Cup. Looking past the short term projections, he’s wanting to see an increase in season ticket holders over the next 3 seasons which is entirely possible if we play the way we did last season.

Bolton decide they want more and come back in another bid, this time for our captain Michael Bostwick. £420’000 is rejected and as I’m about to leave the office, I strangely get a phone call from a Hellas Verona representative inquiring about taking Harrison on loan? He’s obviously turned a few heads internationally at the World Cup but it’s still an abnormal request. The following day, Billy Knott departs for Charlton but passes the inbound Ivan Toney on the way out. He happily takes the available number 10 left by Matt Green for his year spell at the club.

Elsewhere in the transfer market, Manchester City have splashed the cash yet again in what many are calling the David Silva replacement. Koke signs for £56’500’000 and I can really see him settling in at Manchester with Silva’s veteran guidance. Over in Germany, Bayern Munich have signed Benfica wing back Alex Telles for £37’000’000 to further strengthen their back line which will now be: Alaba, Boateng, Hummels and Telles. Scary.

While I’ve said multiple times I’m a man of my word, I’m also a tight Northern bastard. Hence why I’ve delved into the loan market again for Billy Knott’s replacement instead of splashing the cash. On cue, welcome Rafael Barbosa, a 22 year old Portuguese attacking midfielder playing in his home country for Sporting Lisbon. I can only haggle for another 50/50 wage split but it’ll only put us another £5’000 a week out of pocket which will keep Dorrian very happy. He stands at 5’8 but he’s very fast, agile and overall an exciting little player to watch. Plus, he has an afro so you can’t ask for much more in a signing. He wants to take time to think about moving away from home as he’s actually never left Portugal which I understand. He says he’ll have an answer for us after our opening game of the season.

There’s been another couple huge deals in the world of transfers with Nainggolan joining Atletico Madrid to replace Koke for virtually the same amount of money, take a couple million pounds. Pedro gets one last big move not long after his 31st birthday when he jets over to Turin to join Italian giants Juventus for £35’000’000 which is a lot of money for a winger who’s over 30. He is also a part of a transfer domino chain as he is dubbed Cuadrado’s replacement who also joined Atletico for just under 23 million.

By the time the Blackpool game arrives, Sincil Bank has completely sold out. Blackpool have finally got a new owner to take over who has invested a fair bit of money into the squad. Hopefully, the seasiders finally get their club back on track but not today. Not against us.

Rowe, Oztumer and Dickenson all start to claim their professional Lincoln debuts. Nelson and Toney aren’t so lucky as they take a seat on the bench. I start Harrison up top over Palmer as I want pace. A quick start to this season to get us up and running. Michael Bostwick comes to see me before the game in a pretty emotional state to tell me how thankful he is. He never thought he’d get a chance to lead a team out to a game in League One after leaving Peterborough but all that matters is he’s got the chance today. The smell of freshly cut grass pierces my nostrils as chants do the same to my eardrums. Let’s get started.

The first shot we experience in  League One is one of our own when a Valerio long shot stings the palms of the keeper 9 minutes in. We don’t seem like we’re all there when Clayton plays the rapid Dolly Menga in behind 10 minutes later. Luckily, his first touch is too big and gives Vickers times to close him down. He does manage to slot the ball round him but it’s a good couple yards wide of the far post.

The rest of our first half in the third tier is eventless. Cautious is the word I’d use to describe the football so far so I tell the lads to apply some pressure to Blackpool and make them the team for the taking before they do the same.

In the 59th minute, some slow build up play finishes with Valerio passing it in to Harrison. He knocks a simple backheel to Oztumer who messes up his first touch but gets a shot off. It’s not troubling the keeper however as it’s nowhere near either corner of the goal. Dolly Menga is the man causing problems today when Turton spots his run down the right in the 67th minute. Vasil isn’t able to close him down quick enough as he whips a cross to the front post for Vassell to climb and lob a header over Vickers to score. It’s hard to deal with a man who that’s quick but I bring on Anderson and Toney for Rowe and Valerio in an attempt to bring some fresh pace to the game ourselves.

With fifteen minutes left, Bostwick picks up a frustrated yellow card so I bring on Freckles to avoid any further punishment. I want everyone attacking from now. The last chance of the game comes in the 87th minute when Freckles heads a goal kick up to fellow sub Anderson. He switches to Oztumer who plays Harrison into the box. He turns back and puts it square on a plate for Ivan Toney but he lashes it off the post. He really should have scored there and announced himself to the Lincoln following. The game finishes 1-0 and we start our new league campaign with a demoralising loss after some positive signs in pre-season.

As a wise footballing god once told me: “It’s only up from here, right gaffer?”

First of July (Episode 18.5.5: A Lincoln Legend)

I need to put my money where my mouth is.

The first of July signals the beginning of a whole new season. The transfer window opens, pre-season matches get underway. It’s a great time to be a football fan as after a couple months of football deprived heat, it all comes flooding back. But as a football manager, it’s a different feeling. The butterflies in your stomach feel more like tubs of actual butter bouncing around your insides. The thrill of transfer rumours feel like everybody is talking behind your back. It’s scary.

On the first of July, Bob Dorrian wants a one-to-one meeting to see in the new season. It’s a pretty standard affair. He acknowledges that we’ve been overachieving and doesn’t expect any miracles. In fact, his exact words are “Just don’t get relegated.” He always had a way with words.

When I dare to bring up the topic of spending power following our promotion, Bob surprises me. We’ve actually got a decent size budget to spend on players with around £3-3.5 million pounds in the kitty for the summer.

One thing about Bob is he is erratic. While he tries to sell you every choice he makes as extremely tactical and well thought out, the way he presents it conveys the opposite. So when he tells me we’ve partnered with the A-League’s Newcastle Jets, I’m not sure what he wants. Do I go and watch some games, do I go and cut a ribbon, do I go buy a crate of Fosters to celebrate? Bob’s not so crazy that he’d subject anyone to drinking a can of that Aussie piss.

Youth. Youth is the way forward. Bob wants us to bring through some Australian talent with the help of the Newcastle Jets. It’s actually a clever move from Bob as he’s played on my love of Newcastle and combined it with worldwide advertisement. And while the real thing has retired, who’s to say we won’t find the next Tim Cahill over there? We agree that George Kelly can go on a well earned holiday for the season as a job/thank you for Esposito’s discovery. As he stands up to leave, he spits out one more sentence upon his departure.

“I signed us a new scout. Swedish bloke, really good. It’s out the transfer budget so just take a million out of it.”

“A MILLION QUID?” I shout out the office door. “No fucking scout is worth a million quid, what a fucking jo…” You know those moments when you’re talking about someone and they’re right behind them? I didn’t. Until right then. An awkward smiling silence is broken by the Swede.

“Stefan Axelsson. It’s um, nice to meet you. Boss.” Kill me. Kill me now. I reluctantly sit down and brief Stefan on his assignment. Republic of Ireland is his location for the season. I wouldn’t blame the bloke if he just took the money and went on a nine month piss up in Belfast but he seems professional. If Bob gives him a third of our transfer budget, he fucking better be.

In what’s probably the best hour of the day, we officially welcome our four new signings: Erhun Oztumer, Curtis Nelson, Sam Walker and Brennan Dickenson. The local press is all over it and it’s hard to argue why. Two League One players and two high quality League Two players all joining together. It could backfire completely, the lads could hate them. But just standing Erhun next to Sam Walker would make anyone love them. How can you not love a 5’3 to 6’6 comparison?

They all claim shirt numbers that are now vacant. Nelson and Dickenson will sport the number 2 and number 6 retrospectively while Oztumer takes the number 11. Walker had his heart set on the number 1 jersey but that has went to our number 1 keeper. For the time being at least. Sam has to settle for the number 20.

As the players are signing shirts and completing interviews, I catch a blond haired man hobbling to the passenger side of a Range Rover in the corner of my eye. I sprint over to stop him from opening the door.

“Danny mate, where are you going? You’re still injured, you shouldn’t be walking about” I plead. “Come on, get yourself back inside.”

He pulls his arm out of my grasp and chuckles sympathetically. “Gaffer, you’re not my gaffer anymore.” I knew it but it hurts to hear it out loud. “I’ve got to go back, plus my ankle’s very nearly sorted I just need to avoid too much pressure on it.” I want to hug him and never let go. I give him my best puppy eyes and quiver my bottom lip but he just laughs.

“If you want me to back here for the start of the season, you’ll have to have a word with someone. I mean after the season I’ve had, you’ll need to empty your pockets!” Rowe says in a completely sarcastic manner but he’s right. I need to put my money where my mouth is.

“I promise you mate, the next time I see you will be sporting a red and white shirt. Not a blue one.” He gives me a small smile.

“Blue was never my colour anyways.”