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?”

The European Continental Shield (Episode 19: A Lincoln Legend)

I don’t say it lightly; at least a bombing run would have livened this game up.

Even though I gave Batesy some stick about it last season, the pre-season tournament really set us up to have a good season. It helped me know who to pick, whether my system was actually going to work and in general, there were some good games of football. I mean who can forget Freckles’ thunderbolt? With the overlooking eye of a somewhat smug assistant manager, I review the three invitations to tournaments we received. The choice isn’t that hard as I want to play English teams and the only tournament that could tick that box is the European Continental Shield. Bolton are attending the tournament held over in Germany and in what’s some better news, we are drawn in the same group as our English counterparts. Of course, Ellis won’t be available for selection as he’s over in Russia representing his country.

Now while Bolton need no introduction, the other two teams that make up our group most likely need one. Duisburg are a 2.Bundesliga side that have really yo-yo’d up and down the top three tiers of German football. Since the start of the millennium, they’ve had 2 seasons in the Bundesliga, 3 in the 3.Liga and 13 in the 2.Bundesliga. They reached the final of the DFB Pokal in 2011 but they were battered 5-0 by Schalke. They are a very middle of the road team but then again, so are we.

Our other opponents are Sint-Truiden, an Belgian Pro League side. They have been in the highest division of Belgian football since the 14/15 season in which they were promoted as champions and have managed to solidify themselves in the league since. Sint-Truiden as a city is only small with around 50’000 people living there but has a very rich history. While it has history in it’s own respects, it was also where the infamous Heinz-Wolfgang Schnaufer was posted during World War 2. I’ll avoid the history lesson but he was a night pilot for the Luftwaffe and remains the highest scoring night flying ace to exist with over 120 aerial victories. But we don’t care about clinical Nazi pilots, we care about clinical footballers. And with Arsenal loanee Chuba Akpom returning to London a few days prior, I know nobody in this side. But I know everybody in my side. And that’s all that matters.

Even though we’re in Germany just a couple days into the window, there’s already been a big signing which is unusual for this early in a window. Alejandro Gomez joins Italian giants Juventus for £46’000’000. As if they needed any more attacking talent. In a somewhat frustrating set of events, I get a panicked phone call from the Bulgarian national team head coach Petar Hubchev requesting Vasil be called up to international duty after a defender suffered an injury. It’s annoying as I really wanted to rotate in this tournament, especially round the back with a couple new defenders joining the squad but I suppose it gives Nelson a chance to prove his worth.

In our first game of the new season against German host Duisberg, Curtis starts alongside his fellow newbies Sam Walker and Brennan Dickenson at the back. Oztumer also starts either side of Valerio and Stewart with Ollie Palmer up top. Joel Cooper’s on the bench today with the intention of getting half an hour of game time. If he impresses me, he may be in the starting eleven for our next match.

It takes fourteen minutes of football before we craft our first chance of the season and it’s an unlikely one to say the least. Oztumer has a free header from the penalty spot after a Stewart cross in but it’s too central and caught easily by the keeper. You can’t really blame him for not practising his headers, he’s the smallest player on the pitch by half a foot.

Just three minutes later, Valerio shows why he’s one of my favourite players as he tracks his man across the pitch before sealing out Frode brilliantly. He immediately passes forward to Erhun who spins to face goal. Bolmeyer drags out to cover but leaves the gap for a pass in to Palmer. He lets it run through his legs to juke his man and while his effort is well hit, it’s always serving wide of the far post.

We do get a reward for our first half dominance in the 36th minute when Valerio gets it out wide and drills a ball into Oztumer. He threads a pass behind for Ollie who cuts back and rolls into space for Oztumer to collect unchallenged. He opens his body to curl a shot effortlessly into the top left. It’s a great debut goal from the man who’s shone brightly so far. We go in 1-0 up at half time.

It takes a while for the second half to get going. To be honest, it doesn’t actually get going at all. It just meanders along at a steady pace. There’s not a chance until the 71st minute when Dickenson comes in with a sweeping tackle and plays a little chip over for Stewart to counter. Palmer runs down the left and holds off Bolmeyer to get a run into box. He knocks into Oztumer who has his shot blocked and slips trying to react to the rebound. Maurer takes a poor touch when collecting the ball and has to slide to kick the ball away from Lincoln players and  to avoid a corner. Unfortunately for him, this puts it right back in the box. The keeper dives to try and push further away with his foot but it falls neatly to an open Valerio Esposito to half volley into the net and make it 2-0. I push Gergo forward into midfield with Esposito and Stewart going off for Anderson and Eardley. I also bring on Joel Cooper who’s rocking the number 18 as it’s the age he’ll turn this season. Each to their own I suppose.

I make another sub with 10 minutes left as Woody comes on for Freckles who is turning 33 soon. His fitness will naturally start declining and as a result, he won’t be completing many games this season. He’s still a massive player but it might be an idea to look for a fresher holding midfielder for the future.

The second half ends as it began: with absolutely nothing happening. It’s a very solid performance from Lincoln with new signing Erhun awarded the Man of the Match on his debut. It’s well deserved in what was a very promising start from him. Our defensive recruitments were not called on often but did their jobs when they were needed. I’m a happy manager as I take a deep inhale of the German industrial air. Here we go again.

I’m even more of a happy manager when I find out that Bolton lose 2-1 to our Belgian opponents Sint-Truiden. While I always want English teams to do well in any competition, bar Manchester United, that result means that a win against Sint-Truiden would basically confirm our progression out of the group stage. The prize money would also help reimburse a healthy amount of funding back into the transfer kitty after Bob’s thai-bride esque purchase of a scout.

The few days between our opening and second game in the tournament are hectic. The first incoming bid of the window comes in and it’s for Sam Ham. I reject £400’000 as he’s definitely worth more but with 3 wing backs and Vasil able to play out wide, I could be tempted to part ways for the right price.

That same night, just before lights out, Matt Green comes to my room door and asks to leave as he wants regular football. I’m taken back somewhat as he was injured for a lot of the season but I can understand where he’s coming from. His two challengers are the club’s player of the season and the club’s record signing. He’s obviously going to be playing third fiddle, if that’s even a saying, to Palmer and Harrison and with his 32nd birthday approaching, it might be the right time to cash in. I tell him he’ll be on the transfer list by tomorrow and begin eyeing up a replacement for a sub striker.  A couple Premier League players on loan come to mind and would certainly bolster our attacking options. I send a group text to all my scouts to look for a new striker that could slot right into our starting eleven.

The day before the Sint-Truiden match, an Ipswich representative flies over with who else but Danny Rowe to continue negotiations on a permanent deal. We agreed in principle on a staggering £860’000 with 10% of any sell on fee. While it’s a lot of money, he’s already proved his worth to the squad and bringing him back into the mix would be a thing of perfection.

Now while Danny is tempted to play hard ball, it’s hard to ignore how keen he is to rejoin Lincoln. He wouldn’t have flown over here himself if he wasn’t. It doesn’t take long for us to find a middle ground and put pen to paper. We meet on a 2 year deal for £11’500 a week which is only a £500 increase from his current wage and a nice £100’000 fee for signing on. He was pushing to keep his same wage but take a 200k bonus after he scored 10 goals but it’s easier to pay an extra £500 a week across a couple seasons. I surprise the lads with his arrival as I didn’t tell anyone about my intent to bring him back permanently. Everybody is very pleased to have him back in the dressing room and when I’m expecting him to ask for his loaned number of 26, he picks the number 14 from the list. A new number for a new chapter. Welcome back, Danny.

There is a bit of a fuss trying to get him signed on in time to enter the competition but luckily, the tournament board is quite lenient and has let other teams bring transfers in. He gets his first start on the left hand side with Knott replacing Oztumer as Billy was a bit annoyed he didn’t start the last match. I bring in Eardley over Gergo with Vickers flaunting his number #1 inbetween the posts.

It doesn’t take long for Rowe to show why I was desperate to bring him back. 2 minutes in, he runs down the touchline before chopping onto his right and whipping a cross to the edge of the box. Valerio rises to nod over to Knott who volleys elegantly into the bottom right to give us the lead. It’s a goal that’s easy on the eye to take us 1-0 up.

In the 16th minute, Dickenson plays Rowe down the touchline who puts a dangerous low ball into Palmer at the front post. Goutas slides in to divert a tap in away but the loose ball rolls to Valerio at the back post who can only hit the side netting with his wild swing. 5 minutes later, Knott is fed down the right hand side by the man on a mission, Danny Rowe. He tries to run it inside but Teixeira gets in well with a tackle. The ball rolls to Woody to retain possession. He knocks it back to Rowe who is much further forward now. He stretches to play the ball into space for Valerio. A defender comes to close him down but he digs his foot into the ground to play a lofted ball back to Rowe. He jumps well but his header bounces off the near post out for a goal kick. He was inches away from kick-starting his Lincoln career.

The last chance of the half goes to the Belgian outfit when Dickenson fails to deal with a back post cross, leaving Abraham’s scissor kick to really test Vickers. He palms it out for a corner and deals with said corner coolly. I don’t change anything at half-time because there’s nothing that needs changing. Don’t fix what isn’t broke.

5 minutes from the restart, a Rowe cross is headed upwards then punched out by the keeper. Knott headers to Valerio from the edge of the box who controls and tries to lash home from a tight angle. It’s blocked by Teixeira but the rebound falls for Knott to hit on the spin with a lot of power. It flies past the keeper who didn’t even have time to think about saving it. Billy looks over at me with a chuffed grin. Yeah you’ve grabbed your brace but I’m not going to drop Erhun on one game mate.

In the 61st minute, an Eardley throw in leaves Woody open to unleash a sweet strike from 30 yards but an acrobatic fingertip save denies him a replica of Freckles goal last year. 10 minutes later, I pull out a rare triple change with Anderson, Oztumer and Sam Ham all coming on to finish the game.

There’s one last chance in the 89th minute when Oztumer weights a through ball in for Palmer but his shot is well saved by the keeper. The game ends not long after and it’s another comfortable 2-0 from the lads. I could get used to this.

The other game in our group between Bolton and Duisburg was a stalemate as it finished 2-2. That means we are guaranteed to advance through to the knockout stage regardless of the result in our final game against Bolton. While they’ve only took a couple points from their games, they’re still a solid side that sit higher up the English football hierarchy than us so it’s a game I’m taking seriously.

Sam Ham and Walker are drafted back into the side with Freckles taking the role as captain for the day. Stewart’s been complaining about the lack of football he got at the end of last season so I bring him in on the left. Matt Green starts up front despite his transfer request as I want to keep him fit in case he doesn’t move.

It’s a very slow start from the attackers and it doesn’t help that both defences are standing strong. It takes half an hour beofre either team can break through their other’s back line when Alnwick puts a free kick to the pitch and Freckles win the header. Oztumer gets his foot up to take it away from Henry but the ball spins away, luckily to Green. He waits to play it back to Oztumer who cuts inside of Brockbank and curls past the keeper into the far side of the goal. It’s another great shimmer of talent from the new man to push us closer to a 100% record so far.

In the 43rd minute, Nelson boots the ball clear and Green flicks a header out wide for Stewart to run onto. He performs a couple of stepovers before cutting inside and passing into Green. He inches it on for Woody to try and score but Alnwick saves well from close range. We come in 1-0 up at the break and I bring on Anderson in Rowe’s place for the second half as Danny’s run himself ragged.

In the 49th minute, Woody is played down the right hand side and passes inside to Green. He pings it out to Anderson who gives Oztumer a bit of a suicide pass. However, he does extremely well with some clever footwork to get the ball out of his feet and shoot with his preferred left foot but it’s a yard wide.

Another 15 minutes pass until I play Bostwick at centre back with Gergo moving up the pitch to make room for Eardley at right back. No impact on the game whatsoever so with 10 minutes later, I bring on Cooper for the goalscorer Erhun. Again, no impact at all as we see out the game against some hard Bolton pressure. That’s three wins out of three to get our season off to a flying start.

After checking with Bob that a few hundred thousand pounds has went into the club, our semi final is set up against the other German side in the competition, Dynamo Dresden. Steering clear of another World War 2 history moment, Dresden is a large city housing close to 600’000 people. The football team is not to be underestimated either as they are one of the more successful sides in German history. They have fell down the pecking order in recent years with their most recent piece of silverware being the 3.Liga title in 2016.

I want to start the season off with my first piece of silverware as a manager, even if it is some pre-season cup. I know it means nothing to Arsenal who win that bloody Emirates cup every other season but it means a lot to little Lincoln. That’s why I field what I would say is our best side to ensure a place in final.

Now when I say this, I don’t say it lightly; at least a bombing run would have livened this game up. I flash back to the period of games in late March/April and think how lucky I was to watch us steal a 1-0 win with the third chance of the game. I’m not exaggerating when I say literally not a thing happened. Even a double sub at the interval was uninspiring. Batesy even fell asleep for some of the second half. Before you know it, penalties are upon us. I’ll save the time of spending any more time on this game than it deserves. Benatelli steps up after Esposito takes our 5th penalty and blasts it off the post. We’re through to the final, which is all that matters but by god was it boring.

*Meta-Note: This game was genuinely so boring, I forgot to screenshot the full time result. I was so eager to leave that game ASAP.*

Already looking forward to the final to keep that bore-fest in the past, St Truiden will meet us again after a 1-0 victory in their game. We’ve already beat them once but we need to go out and win big. The trophy is dangling in front of us now but we need to get that killer instinct I talked about and take it back to England with us.

It’s hard to avoid keeping an eye on the World Cup as it’s such an amazing spectacle. However, there’s no time for anything except woe as England and Ireland are knocked out in the quarter finals by Brazil and Germany retrospectively. I’m not too keen to rush Harrison or Vasil home, both of which finished 3rd in their groups. On the last day before our final, Italy are knocked out by Belgium in the semi’s so we’re guaranteed an intriguing final nonetheless. I watch the Belgium game myself and it gets me thinking about international management. It would be a great experience if I was given the chance to take over a national side but for now, my focus is Lincoln City.

The next morning, the League One fixtures are announced with Blackpool being our guests on the opening day of the season. We play the relegated Burton Albion the following week with us playing hosts to Bostwick’s and Oztumer’s old side, Peterborough on the final day. We also draw the red side of Sheffield away from home in the first round of the Carabao Cup which will be a difficult game to say the least.

I’m strangely relaxed when naming the team sheet as I’m quietly confident. Walker starts in goal with Palmer back up front being the main inclusions since our last match. The rest of the selection is pretty standard. I’m normally shouting and pacing when giving a team talk in a game like this but I’m subconsciously trying a different approach.

“Let’s go win a trophy.”

10 minutes in, Bostwick plays the overlapping Dickenson down the left who puts a peach of a ball to the near post for the Surrey-born giant Ollie Palmer to power a header into the top left. 1-0 and Ollie’s opened his account for the 18/19 season with a trademark finish.

We adopt a Mourinho style of football to try and cool Truiden pressure. We win the ball, pass it sideways and slowly build forwards before sprinting back into shape again. It’s not our type of game however and it gets thrown out the window in the 38th minute. It’s the same passage of play with a Dickenson cross from a Bostwick through ball finding Palmer but this time round, he can only head it into the side netting. Half time comes before you know it and we’re doing pretty well with a goal advantage.

In the 53rd minute, Palmer holds up play following a Bostwick pass and slots a ball through to Erhun. He manages to get a shot off but it’s saved down low with the rebound going straight to Stewart facing an open goal but Dussaut slides in heroically to stop a certain Lincoln second.

In the 65th minute, I bring on Esposito and Knott for Rowe and Oztumer who’ve been quiet today. To be fair to them, any forward football has been down the left hand side. With 15 minutes left, I make a formation change to a narrow 4-1-2-1-2 with a diamond in midfield. Chapman replaces Stewart in the middle with Valerio getting the nod to finish the game up front next to Ollie. I also replace a tired Dickenson with Neal Eardley as he’s earned a rest.

5 minute after the changes, Chapman receives the ball from a throw and passes to Woody. He hits it inside for Valerio who fakes one way before passing out to Gergo. It’s a little ball over the defender that sets Woody to volley a cross into the path of an open Ellis Chapman who has a whole goal to nod the ball home. It’s a truly gorgeous bit of play that Guardiola would be proud of. 2-0.

In the 86th minute, the game is dead and buried. Woody plays a 1-2 with Valerio and threads the ball behind for Knott. He puts an early cross to the back post for Palmer to half volley into the ground and seal the trophy. Truiden do get a constellation goal when Gergo accidentally trips Teixeira in the box for a penalty. Sam Walker dives the right way but Boli’s strike just squeezes under his right arm. His clean sheet is gone but it really doesn’t matter.

Bob is ringing within moments of the full time whistle to congratulate myself and the squad. I get my medal after some brief celebrations but all I care about is that trophy. You’d think the European Continental Shield would have a shield but they go for a standard trophy bizarrely. They really missed a trick there. Seeing the lads lift it, champagne spraying the lot of them. That’s the takeaway moment from our couple weeks in Germany. But now, I’m hungry for more. Everybody is.

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.”

Season One Review (Episode 18.5: A Lincoln Legend)

The truest definition of a win-win. The joy.

There’s been very few sides that have ever accumulated 100+ points in a season. Teams like Celtic, Barcelona and Real Madrid have managed it. The highest European point tally in history is held by Barry Town F.C, a Welsh side that got 104 and 105 points in back to back seasons back in the 90’s. But what’s the difference between all of their seasons and our season? They won the league.

I’m off on holiday. Management has well and truly sucked me dry this year and while it has been stressful, packing is on a whole different level. To help me de-stress, I decide to answer a question that’s been niggling in my head since the game the other day. I open my laptop and do a bit of research. As far as I can see, we’re the only team in recorded history to finish a season with over 100 points while not winning any silverware at the end of it. Yes, it was only a point but we really could have wrapped the league up. Teams like Newport, Morecambe and fucking Coventry are the teams that separated us from a brilliant season and a godlike season. Then again, we’ve already had offers from a few sports media companies to cover our story this season in a mini-documentary but it does feel like it will be focused on our lack of luck rather than our lack of killer instinct. I close my laptop with my arms slightly trembling out of frustration. I don’t know why I finding that fact out would even de-stress me as I start literally throwing my clothes into the bag. Get me some sun and a lime-pierced bottle of Corona ASAP.

As I start rearranging the newly creased items in my bag, I think about the documentaries. Either way, it’s some well deserved publicity for what has been an amazing season for an amazing squad. I mean the stats speak for themselves. Palmer claimed the golden boot with a whopping 26 goals and considering I spent over half of our budget in the summer on a striker, you think it was a waste of money but far from it. Harrison contributed massively to our season, racking up double figures in both his goal and assist tallies. Danny Rowe, who’s still recovering from his injury, was the only other player to score 10+ goals this season but we had a good amount of players with 8 or 9 to their name too.

Vickers actually tied for the golden glove with the Luton keeper Stech. They both managed 20 clean sheets but Josh walks away with the award as he conceded less goals across the season. You might be thinking that the awards have finally started to come to their rightful owners, we’re finally getting the recognition we deserve? Don’t be so naive.

Mansfield striker Hemmings is named Player of the Season. Now don’t get me wrong, 17 goals and 8 assists to help your team clinch promotion is something that normally would be worthy of the award. But when Ollie Palmer is sat there with nine more goals and an extra assist, you have to question who makes these decisions. To put the cherry on top, not one Lincoln City player is deemed worthy to be in the League Two Team of the Season either despite having statistically the best striker, goalkeeper and back four in the league. Couple that with finishing 2nd with over 100+ points and there’s only one conclusion: the award board is fixed. Not that I’m bitter at all.

At the bottom of the table, Port Vale and Accrington are relegated down into the National League with our final day opponents Yeovil just remaining in the elite crew of 92. Crewe and Wycombe just scrape into the play offs on the final day with the latter getting in on just goal difference. To be fair, there is a 14 goal gap between them and Colchester but it’s still too close for comfort. They join Cambridge and Notts County in the battle to be the fourth team to play League One football next season.

An interesting stat when looking at a squad report filed by Batesy is that Anderson and Stewart are tied for most capped player of the season with them both taking to the pitch 56 times. Of course, that includes substitute appearances but it’s still surprises me that they are up that high. Most of what you’d call the regulars have somewhere between 35 and 45 appearances with players who had spells like Chapman and Pett are a little lower.

I hate airports. I know that’s not exactly a groundbreaking statement but I do. They’re too big yet somehow, you always feel cramped. They are full of people who are either too happy to be going on holiday or people who are depressed to be home from one. The environment is just a toxic place to be in. To try and exclude myself from the crowds, I find a seat at my gate and have a look around the world of football. I’ve barely had time to take note of other leagues as I’ve been so indulged in my own team.

At the top of the English footballing pyramid, two of the promoted sides are bouncing straight back down. Bournemouth join Brighton and Huddersfield as the trio of relegated sides with my boys Newcastle surviving pretty comfortably in 13th. There was massive drama at the other end of the table as Chelsea pipped United to the title with a +6 goal difference after winning their final game of the season to become the first team in 10 years to retain the Premier League. Summer signing Alvaro Morata definitely filled the hole left by Diego Costa’s depature as he scored 27 goals. City and Liverpool finish in 3rd and 4th to confirm Champions League football for next season. Tottenham’s domestic cup success meant their league form took a major hit as they finished all the way down in 7th place. They go into the Europa League with North London rivals Arsenal somewhat spitefully cheering them on to win the FA Cup. After ending the season in front of Everton, who take the league allocated route to Europe by surprisingly finishing 5th, Tottenham lifting the cup would mean they have a Europa League spot to spare. Oh, the irony.

*Meta-Note: Forgot to capture the Prem table before I started the next season, whoops!*

Going down a tier to the Championship, Norwich were clear champions as they ended the season 6 points clear of 2nd place Wolves. However, they were also comfortably above any other team in the remaining promotion spot. Cardiff, Reading, Fulham and Sheffield Wednesday are the sides in the play offs with the final two just pushing Leeds away from a chance for a long-awaited return to the Prem on goal difference. Barnsley, Burton and a team we came up against in the league cup, Preston North End have been relegated to play ourselves in League One next season.

Looking at who’s lucky enough to miss out on playing us this season, Wigan go into the Championship as champions with Blackburn following them up. Portsmouth deserve a special mention as they’re sitting pretty in the playoffs after winning the League Two title last season. I’d love to have a similar season to them next year but let’s not get ahead of ourselves. MK Dons are unlucky to miss out on a chance for a Championship return via the play-off’s by just 1 goal difference. Fleetwood, Wimbledon. Oldham and Northampton Town are the four teams that Lincoln along with Luton, Mansfield and another undecided team will leapfrog into League One.

I check my watch and see that only 17 minutes have passed since I typed ‘Premier League table’ into Google. As I’m a man of culture, I decide to have a look at some football from around the world. Well, Europe specifically because nothing else really matters in my eyes.

Luis Enrique’s Barcelona follow suit by retaining the La Liga title. In what’s perhaps the real shock of the division is Real Madrid finishing in 3rd behind underdog title contenders Sevilla. Atletico disappointingly miss out on Champions League football with Villarreal taking the final spot. Over in the Netherlands, Ajax won their 34th Dutch league title in style, 16 points clear of their nearest ‘challengers’ PSV. In shocking news, both Juventus and Bayern Munich also retained their respective league titles with the German outfit a staggering 19 points clear of 2nd place Bayer Leverkusen. Borussia Dortmund will disappointed with a third place finish and a sizable gap between themselves and 2nd place. There’s no need to even mention who won the league in France.

I spend the next hour just wasting time of the Internet, something I haven’t had much time to do since taking over at Lincoln. With about 25 minutes until my plane is due to leave, my phone starts to ring. It’s Joel Cooper, our young attacking midfielder prodigy.

“Hi gaffer, I just wanted to ring and tell you I’m thinking about leaving the academy. I’ve had a few offers to join other teams as a first team player and if you’re not willing to give me that opportunity soon, I’d like to know that.” Well shit. He’s not quite at the point I’d like him to be at but he’s a good little talent, I’ve seen him play a couple times and there’s no denying his potential. I sigh loudly as he waits for an answer down the phone.

“Listen Joel, I’m off on holiday for a week but Batesy is handling stuff while I’m gone. I’ll drop him a text with your number and get a contract drafted for you.” He thanks me profusely and puts down the phone. I send Kev a text with the number and asking him to deal with it. I don’t care about football anymore. At least for a week.

While I’m away, I’m only taking calls from my right hand man. And to be fair to him, I only get the one phone call. He gets us tickets to the FA Cup Final, courtesy of Mauricio Pochettino nonetheless. Apparently, he was very impressed with my Lincoln side that faced him in the Carabao Cup and wanted to congratulate me in some way. Who knew this manager malarkey had it perks? I fly straight into London the night before the final and meet Batesy to watch Tottenham lift their second piece of silverware after a 1-0 win thanks to a Harry Kane header in the first half. I spend the rest of the day trying to find Arsenal fans and watch their heads spontaneously combust due to the situation they’ve just been placed in. The truest definition of a win-win. The joy.

After I’ve got past my jet lag and walk into my office on the Monday morning, my phone starts ringing the moment my arse hits the seat. My arse pretty much falls out the seat when I hear the voice.

“Hi Mr Shep, it’s Ryan Giggs. Just ringing to let you know I’ll be naming Ellis Harrison in my World Cup squad.”

Well I’ll be damned.

Cat and Mouse (Episode 18: A Lincoln Legend)

We’re only half an hour away from immortality.

*Meta-Note: Sorry about the wait for the next episode, I have had a couple rough weeks and needed time to myself. Thanks for your patience, I know some of you guys are really into this series. Enjoy the return and end to the season!*

In football, it’s easy to get carried away with yourself. Your team wins the first three games of the season and you’re already thinking about the captain scoring the title winner on the last day of the season. No matter how many times you hear an overachieving manager say the words “We’re taking it one game at a time”, they never are. They are thinking of the glory, the reputation, the status they’ll receive.

Before our second trip to Wembley this season, we have a task of keeping the pressure on Luton’s heels with a win away to Port Vale. Luton play Crewe at home and should be expecting something from that game. Most probably a win as Crewe are down the bottom half of the table so we need to keep pace.

Allsop gets a go in goal with Eardley and Sam Ham as our two wide defenders. Anderson plays over Valerio on the right. Palmer is up front today and he’s currently tied top scorer on 23 goals now so he’ll be eager to get back in front. Whitehouse starts in the middle for Port Vale today and before the game, we have a good little chat. He seems very happy with his transfer and the game time he’s getting under his belt as a result of it. He comes in to our changing room and has a joke with the lads about us bottling the title. It’s obviously meant to be a bit of light hearted banter but I can see some smiles get lost when he leaves the room. We’re riled up now.

7 minutes have passed before Lainton claims a corner confidently before kicking to Barnett. He nods into Kay who brings it down before playing Fabiano in behind Eardley. He runs until he’s level with the 6 yard box and cuts back. Eardley slips slightly which gives him time to set himself and shoot. It’s a easy angle to cover but there’s plenty of power behind the shot so Allsop can only parry it to edge of box where Elliott Whitehouse volleys a yard of two wide. The miss is met with wild cheers of sarcasm from the away fans.

We have to wait another 20 minutes before we get our first real chance when two brilliant back to back blocks from Sam Ham and Wilson enable us to start a counter. Bostwick passes short to Stewart who pings it up pitch for Palmer to chase. Abdullah chests it down straight to Ollie who calmly passes sideways to Pett. The return pass is spot on from Tom and Palmer’s first effort is blocked but his second bite of the apple is a powerful half volley at the keeper. He can’t hold it but it’s cleared quickly.

In the 38th minute, some delightful Stewart trickery down the left hand side is followed by a cross to Bostwick who heads to Palmer inside the 6 yard box. There’s too much power to control it properly and it bounces off his chest for a goal kick. We stay level until half time whereas Luton are 1-0 in their match at the break. I move our boys up front around with Valerio replacing Pett for the remaining half, Anderson swapping wings and Stewart going central. Esposito’s debut was against Port Vale and he was truly unplayable that day so it’s only fair to give him a chance to light this game up and unlock what’s been a solid Port Vale defence.

3 minutes after the restart, Anderson knocks a Sam Ham pass across to Stewart. He plays it up to Palmer who pushes a pass with the outside of his left boot into space for Anderson to outpace Whitehouse and shoot. A good low save across goal kills the chance but Stewart keeps pressing and wins the ball from a weak challenging Knops. He wastes no time in crossing into Valerio but Raglan both wins the header and clears in one motion as he falls to the ground.

10 minutes later, a poor Palmer pass from a Eardley clearance is collected by Whitehouse. He kicks it up to Barnett who rolls it into Whitefield. He hits a curling effort to Allsop’s near post and Ryan needs to reach full extension to save. In the 65th minute, I make a double sub with Stewart and Anderson making way for Green and Lovrencsics. Valerio moves over to the left with Gergo up on the right. I tell Green to play right behind Palmer as a second striker while dropping deep to make things happen.

My tactical nous is evident after just four minutes when a goal kick is passed short to Eardley. Woody makes himself an option and immediately lays it to Gergo. He plays it into Palmer’s feet who exposes the Port Vale captain Middleton with a simple reverse ball to Green. Matt runs into the box and lashes it home at the near post. It’s awful goalkeeping as he really should have that angle on lock but I’m not going to complain at him. 1-0.

In the 77th minute, some saliva-inducing one touch passing finds Gergo on the half way line. Port Vale are putting pressure on the ball holders so he only has a short amount of time to play it into their half for Palmer but he manages it. A perfectly weighted ball from him leaves Valerio with a half chance but still a lot to do. He flicks inside with his first touch before faking a shot back outside, completely bamboozling his flat-footed opponent, and smashes across goal to make it 2-0. It’s brilliant composure from the Italian which should confirm another 3 points for us. 2 goals and 8 assists in just half a season in outstanding for a winger and that’s just in the league too. Lest we forget his goal against Manchester United, just days after his debut.

With 5 minutes to go, Port Vale have bodies forward as Bostwick blocks a Whitehouse strike and gives it to Green. He passes it up to Palmer and even though it’s slightly weak, Ollie does well to hold off his man and play it back to Green on the right. Smith commits to a slide tackle leaving Green with the whole right hand side of the pitch to run into. He stops the ball dead on the edge of the box to get rid of the covering centre back and takes a couple touches inside. He plays a tiny pass to Palmer who continues to amaze me still. He controls, pulls off a tidy drag back to baffle Middleton and takes a couple small touches before hitting from the edge of box across into the left hand side of the goal. Of course he had to get his goal today. it wouldn’t be a Lincoln romp without one. Game over.

Matt Green is given Man of the Match despite Ollie’s goal and 2 assists but it’s actually a decision I can’t argue with. He completely changed the game once he came on and has gave me some major food for thought before our FA Cup game next week.

Unfortunately, Luton scored another in added time to win their match 2-0 so we still sit a point behind. Palmer is back at the top of goal scorer charts however with a healthy 8 assists to his name too. Surely he is the player of the season. Knott and Harrison are both tied first in the assist table with 9 so far. Vickers is just 1 clean sheet behind Stech of Luton so I promise to give him back his spot in goal to try and win the golden glove.

In some more good news, Harrison is back in training but it’s another 2 weeks before he’s fully fit. I cannot risk him for the Burnley game which, understandably, really upsets him. It’s almost comical how much he persists throughout the week to ask for a place in the team. He even goes to get notes from the medical staff stating he’s okay to play. I can only push him away for so long so I compromise. I’ll put him on the bench and promise he will come on regardless of the score. In the other semi-final, Tottenham pummel Huddersfield 4-0 to reach their second domestic cup final this season which has clearly affected their league form. They were really challenging for the title only a few months ago but now they aren’t even in the top four.

Focusing attention back on us, this is undoubtedly our biggest, yet winnable, game of the season so far. It’ll probably remain like that all season depending on if the league goes our way. Vickers comes back in goal with our strongest back four supporting him. Batesy’s 4-1-3-2 is the formation of choice with Bostwick sitting in front of the defenders while Woody covers the park. Esposito and Stewart are on the wings with Green and Palmer up front. It’s the first time Matt and Ollie have been strike partners since the start of my tenure so I’m really going out on a limb by starting them now.

The Lincoln fans are down in force today and it’s not hard to comprehend why. It’s not the usual Northern/Midland teams this far in the cup but Wembley will always fill in the FA Cup. Burnley line up with a simple 4-4-2. The Italian Acerbi partners Tarkowski to complete an intimidating defence. Robbie Brady is playing right back which actually scares me even more. Why is he there? What don’t I know about this Irishman?

Tottenham loanee Nkoudou is out wide with the Icelandic Gudmundsson on the opposite side. My dream striker partnership of Callum Wilson and Chris Wood are up top. It’s time to see if my prediction in the summer about Callum being the ‘steal of the window’ is correct first hand. Please prove me wrong.

Things look grim as just 3 minutes in, Gergo’s sloppy control of a Eardley switch lets Nkoudou steal and play Wood down the left. He times his ball to perfection as he just misses James Wilson’s jockeying foot in order to find Callum Wilson who laces a bullet off the inside of the near post and across the goal out for a goal kick. It’s a massive warning sign so while Vickers checks for a dent in his goalframe, I tell lads to calm it down, keep it low and sit back slightly. I look to Batesy who raises his eyebrows and blows out his mouth in a exasperated manner. We’re in for a bumpy ride.

But all bumps have peaks. Four minutes later, Stewart wins a throw on the far side. Palmer comes short to receive and drills a ball into Bostwick who passes to Valerio. He shows some great agile dribbling to maneuver Jack Cork and hits a sizzling effort round. It’s only an inch wide of the post but it’s a great reply. We fire back.

It’s end to end stuff as Cork holds Woody at bay in the 11th minute and plays Jeff Hendrick. Bostwick tries to block him from shooting but he hits a shot destined for top left if not for a borderline orgasmic fingertip save from Vickers. Another performance like the Spurs game at Wembley would be appreciated hugely. Just without conceding the 3 goals.

The game is calm for the next 20 minutes until Tarkowski clears our corner up to Wilson. He uses his blistering pace to evade a Woody tackle and leave Vasil for dead on the left. He plays it inside to Nkoudou who taps it on once more to Hendrick who has half a goal to aim at but scuffs his shot a yard wide. To be fair to him, it was under his feet slightly but a Premier League player should finish them all day long. We got off lucky there.

We go in at half-time with the scoreline somehow still 0-0. While it’s been a great first half for a neutral, I’ve already had two heart attack’s and a seizure. No shots on target for us yet which is disappointing but on the other hand, we’ve had our even share of possession and a few shots in general. We’re still very much in the game.

We don’t exactly get off to a great start when five minutes in, Wilson comes to collect a ball at the half way line and bursts away. He plays a 1-2 with Gudmundsson to give him a free shot inside the box but he rattles the crossbar. We really have to be more careful with him as he’s proving a real handful for our two centre backs. I push our two wing backs in slightly and tell Eardley to refrain from getting forward so we always have at least three men behind the ball.

Similar to the first half, the pace dies down after the first couple exchanges of possession. Burnley have the majority of the ball during this period but in the 71st minute, some simple, short, across the pitch passing leaves Gergo with acres to run into. He takes it right up to edge of box before playing into Woody who tries to open his body and finesse with his left but he miskicks it off his standing foot straight to the keeper. I throw on Anderson and Sam Ham for Stewart and Esposito while pushing Gergo forward again onto the right of midfield.

5 minutes later, Gudmundsson plays a ball behind for Wilson on the right. He’s definitely offside but no flag is raised despite heavy protests from myself and the fans. A dangerous ball to the back post finds Nkoudou but it’s fast and bouncing up to waist height. He manages to get a toe to it but puts it a few inches wide. Again, we ride our luck. Just as I’m about to sub on Freckles for Woody, Harrison starts kicking off. I really want some defensive energy but I am a man of my word. To stop a fight with our number 9, I put Gergo into the middle next to Bostwick and change to our usual 4-2-3-1. Harrison comes onto the left hand side with Green playing as our attacking midfielder. Just before  he takes to the pitch, I grab his shoulder and yank him back, “Don’t make me regret it Ellis.”

With 7 minutes remaining, Eardley is played wide with the Burnley players caught ball watching. Anderson has all the space in the world to receive the ball and spur on the attack. He has Acerbi for pace and puts a perfect cross in between the two centre backs for Palmer to rise… and head a tame shot straight into Heaton’s hands. Anywhere but there Ollie and you’re the hero. Neither team really push for a winner in the final minutes so extra time is required again. We have no subs left so we have to stick with the lads we’ve got. I want us to play on the counter with the ball and defend for our lives without it. We’re only half an hour away from immortality.

In the 100th minute, Green picks up a headed clearance and cleverley backheels to Bostwick. He gives it back to Green who dinks a ball over for Harrison who tries to replicate the 2014 World Cup Final goal with a chest down and scissor kick but it sails just over the bar. You’re not quite Mario Gotze yet. With a minute of this half left, a deep ball from Westwood is ‘dealt with’ in a sarcastically relaxed manner from Wilson. His sidefooted pass catches Vasil out, allowing Callum Wilson to nip in and play Tarkowski through. He beats Vickers but connects with the outside of the near post. Thank fuck it was him as neither Chris Wood or Callum Wilson would have missed that.

When I said we play on the counter, we play on the counter. Straight from that woodwork deflection, Sam Ham seals out Wilson and hoofs forward to Palmer who has a slight knock but has to play through the pain. He seems relatively unfazed as he heads it onto Green who runs across the Burnley back line before giving it back to Ollie. An outstanding take on the spin gets him past Brady and provides him with an open run to goal. He gets into the box with Tarkowski chasing and hammers it across his body. It’s a good height for Heaton to save and the rebound bounces just over the open head of Harrison before it’s cleared all the way back to Vickers. The ref blows his whistle not long after and penalties is looking extremely possible yet again. I want us to park the bus and actually play for penalties here as everybody is way too tired to push for a winner. I’d never thought I’d say that but penalties is our best shout at a cup final.

In the 114th minute, Gergo’s pressure on Westwood causes a poor pass in which he can intercept. He knocks it inside to Palmer who play a first time return ball over the top. Gergo puts a great cross in for Ollie who watches it drop over his shoulder as he leaps up to bicycle kick the ball off the crossbar. The shout/groan is almost deafening as Anderson dives in for the rebound header but Heaton gets down to stop the ball finding the bottom right. So, so close to a dramatic winner but no. There’s not another chance and the weight of a shootout hangs over Lincoln’s shoulders once more. It’s been undoubtedly even so penalties is probably deserved.

Green is taking first again with Harrison second. Gergo and Ollie will follow with Sam Ham given the 5th spot. We win the coin toss and Burnley will take first with Chris Wood placing the ball down. He takes three strides back before starting his run up. Vickers steps to the left and then dives up to the top right corner to save brilliantly. A great start to say the least, we just need to capatilise.

Green steps up and confidently sends the keeper the wrong way with a tidy penalty into the bottom right. 1-0 up and we’re got the upper hand now. Sam Vokes, the quiet subsitute has to reply. He steps to the left once before putting it in the same corner as Matt. Vickers went the right way but not the right height as he went to the same top right as last time. He very nearly saves it with his trailing foot but it squeezes through.

Ellis Harrison: his record with pens is awful. Whether they’re top left, bottom right or down the middle, he cannot score one. So putting him second is a huge risk. He seems composed before he runs up and hits a good pen to the bottom left but Heaton dives down and pushes it round the post. You couldn’t write his luck. I can’t help but feel my heart burst as the claret half of the stadium erupts. Not because we missed. Because he missed.

Callum Wilson is up next and he’s the first to stutter his run up slightly. Vickers steps right but dives to the very bottom left and palms away. It’s an amazing save that somehow stitches the bits of my heart back together. We need Gergo to pull one out of the bag for us now. After the ref blows his whistle, he steps back once before rifling a penalty into the side netting with Heaton diving the wrong way. A great penalty from the Hungarian.

Robbie Brady, the transformative wing back, is up as the first left footer. If he misses, it’s all on Ollie Palmer to take us through. The Lincoln fans behind the goal are jumping and shouting to put him off. The raucous distractions must work as Vickers dives right but Robbie goes left. Too far left. An inch wide of the post left.

Ollie looks over to me as he places the ball onto the spot. I don’t move anything. I remain motionless. I can’t celebrate yet. He waits a second before running up, swinging his foot back lacing it to the top right. Ping. The ball flies back past Ollie’s head after smashing the crossbar as Sean Dyche fist pumps in elation. Fucking Ollie Palmer jeopardising the shootout again. Acerbi has to score and he does so with a great penalty into the top left. It’s going to happen isn’t it? Sam Ham could be the hero as he takes a step to his right…runs up…hits it bottom left but a finger tip pushes it away. Sudden death it is. Batesy’s nearly in tears, biting down on his entire fist.

Aaron Lennon is up next. Vickers jumps to his right but Aaaron cheekily rolls it straight down the middle. Neal Eardley is the man to keep us in it which he does with a simple pen into the right hand side of goal. Heaton went left. Jack Cork is up to reply and he also goes down the middle but in much more style as he twats it into the roof of the net.

Captain Bostwick is up now and he wastes no time in running up and smashing it into the net past a static Tom Heaton. Phil Bardsley is next up. Vickers dives left but he goes right…and hits the post! I nearly bite my tongue off in excitement. James Wilson with the chance to win it. He walks back to outside the box but hits an awful penalty just to the left of Heaton which is easily saved. Oh no, oh no, oh no.

Westwood follows suit with the central penalty theme as Vickers dives to his right. The score is currently 5-4 and Anderson is tasked with keeping cup final hopes alive. He sidefoots a penalty perfectly into the bottom right but Heaton dives early and gets a hand to it. Heads immediately drop with most of the team collapsing collectively. My head falls into hands as I drop onto my back and don’t get up. The distant cheers echo all around me. A good two minutes have passed before I get back up with tears in eyes. We rode our luck for large parts of this game, we could have stole it a couple times and we should have won it in the shootout. Fuck this game.

That result obviously sets up a Tottenham – Burnley final. Dorrian is upset but tells me that we’ve received over 2 million pounds in TV money for that game alone. I’m upset myself but looking back, alone with a glass of whiskey, I’ve succeeded so far. I really have but I can’t help but I feel I need the title to confirm our greatness this season. Luton won their league fixture while we were preparing for Wembley so we need to win our next game otherwise, the season is over with a game spare.

Our now game in hand is against the already relegated Accrington. While we should beat these, they are not to be taken for granted as they can play any style they want, they’re relegated. Also, morale is really low after we had one hand on the FA Cup twice so Accrington could really kick us while we’re down. Then again, a win would fire us all up for the final day of the season in a couple days time.

Sam Ham and Wharton slot into our defence for Eardley and Bozhikov. Harrison plays behind Palmer as a shadow striker with Anderson and Valerio on the wings. I only ask the lads to do one thing for me today: get the job done.

We seem like we’re going to do just that when 6 minutes in, Palmer tests the waters with a shot from outside the box but it’s deflected over for corner. It’s whipped in to the penalty spot where Wharton climbs to head goalwards but it’s caught nicely by the goalkeeper.

Five minutes later, Gergo tackles Conneely and plays it  up to Harrison. He flicks it forward to Palmer who controls with the the instep of his left foot, rolls the ball back round Rodgers and hits an exquisite strike with what those two cringey football blokes on Youtube call ‘swaz’ into the far side netting. It’s an amazing goal from an amazing footballer for his 25th of the season. Not only is that a vital goal but it’s an instant morale boost.

In the 19th minute, Gergo is down the right touchline again before playing it up to Valerio. He cheekily flicks the ball inside and chips a ball over for Harrison. The keeper rushes out to put him off but he coolly places it over the keeper. However, it clips off the underside of the bar and bounces on the goal line before a defender gets in to smack clear. It’s Barcelona-esque from the lads and it really deserved a goal.

10 minutes later. a rapid counter attack starts as Ellis plays over to Woody. A complacent touch from Hughes lets Woody get the ball and shoot on the edge of the box but a reflex save from the keeper pushes it past the post for a corner. We’ve been electric so far. The corner is put in by Valerio and cleared poorly. It’s passed around until Valerio has space on same side as the corner. He Cruyff turns Clark and releases a great shot on his weaker foot but hits the near post. It bounces out to Anderson to tap home the rebound but celebrations are cut short by the linesman’s flag. Correctly offside.

In the 33rd minute, Palmer flicks a Sam Ham ball on for Harrison who tries to curl an effort home but it’s parried out for another corner. It comes to nothing but we keep pushing for another goal. Five minutes later, Gergo starts the move again with a dedicated interception and a lovely curling ball round for Palmer. He cuts it back to Ellis who uses some great footwork to avoid a tackle and play to Anderson. Wilson gets a slight touch on the pass which is enough to mess up Anderson’s plans as he blasts it into the arms of the keeper.

We really should be two, three, maybe even four goals up in a half of football we have dominated. We’ve had 13 shots compared to a single striker from Accrington. Luton are currently 2-0 up against Forest Green so we need to finish more of the chances to avoid an undeserved upset.

We start with intent as a string of give and go passes from Ellis and Ollie accumulate with Palmer trying to place a shot into the bottom left from 8 yards out but it’s saved and cleared for a throw. He should have just put his laces through it but he’s not made to dwell on that mistake for too long. In the 52nd minute, Woody seizes the ball from a Bostwick header down and passes out to Esposito. He lays it back for Harrison to power into Ollie’s feet. He passes sideways to Valerio and rolls his man to claim the return pass. He tries to shoot through the keepers legs but it hits his leg and bounces up kindly. Ollie gets back up and beats Hughes to the ball to tap home from a yard out. Hughes was blocked by his keeper getting back to his feet but I don’t think there was much he could have done without a team-mate to hurdle either. 2-0.

Accrington come back on the hour mark and show they aren’t going to just lie down when Kee has a close range attempt blocked by Vickers. Woody passes it out to Bostwick but he’s tackled from behind. The ball rolls back to Kee to have a second chance from just inside the box and finds the bottom left nicely. I bring on Stewart for Anderson as Harry’s panting a bit.

I use my last two subs in the 78th minute with Knott and Eardley coming on for Anderson and Gergo. I switch our attention to defensive duties to see out the victory. Just a couple minutes later, Bostwick gives away a free kick from the middle of our half which Kee puts up into the box.  Harrison thumps a clearance header all the way up to Knott who has nobody in front of him except the keeper. He sprints forward into the box before squaring across to fellow sub Stewart to smack into an open goal. 3-1, done and dusted.

Or so you’d think. In the last minute of the match, Kee puts a low ball across the face of goal which Sam Ham slides in to stop Jackson tapping in. Unfortunately, it falls to Accrington sub Francis to punt home over the head of Wilson. We kick it all the way back to the keeper from kick off and the full time whistle releases the anxiety as Vickers boots it clear. It could have been very nervy at the end there with another couple minutes but we were by far the better team today. 3-2 is a very flattering scoreline for the losing side today but all that matters is we get another three points on the board.

While we’re storming on towards the 100 point tally, Luton aren’t showing signs of pulling up any time soon either. They won their game 3-1 meaning they are still 4 points ahead. Our last two games of the season are both at home and if we beat Colchester on Wednesday, they’ll be one point in it with one game left. If not, our title push is as good as over.

Our captain gets himself concussed in training the day before the game so he’ll be out of the squad for Colchester but back for Yeovil on the weekend. In a more positive light, Vasil Bozhikov picks up the award for April Player of the Month which I’m over the moon about. Him and Gergo would have been amazing signings for, dare I say, a million pounds each but we got them both for just under 20 grand a week. Envious eyes are all over these league as our squad picks up award after award. Just not the manager of the month award.

Taking a look at the league table, things are still very close in both the relegation and play off spots. Up the top of the table, it’s between Notts County and Mansfield as to who gets the remaining promotion spot. A Notts County win takes them through but a draw or loss with a Mansfield win sees them drop into the play offs. Cambridge are guaranteed a fifth place finish so their last game doesn’t have too much importance. With regards to the play-off spots, it’s a battle between Crewe, Wycombe and our next opponents Colchester for 6th and 7th place. Colchester need to win their game in hand, against us, to confirm their play off spot so there’s a lot on the line for both teams today.

Wharton comes in for what will be his last start during his spell at Lincoln unless there’s an injury to Vasil or Wilson . Freckles is captain in Bostwick’s absence with Green playing behind Palmer, who’s looking to confirm his golden boot today.

The stakes are high in this game and it’s obvious as tackles from both teams are flying in. In the 9th minute, Valerio gives a free kick away which our new summer signing Dickenson takes. It’s a short lofted ball to Mandeville who chests it down then tees Wright for a shot. It’s well blocked by Vasil and out for a corner. It’s a poor corner that Vickers claims at the back post before pelting a throw quickly up to Green. He nods it out wide right for Esposito to ping a powerful pass to Palmer who holds off Jackson with ease and plays Freckles on overlap. He evades an Eastman slide with a good change of direction and holds up to return to Palmer but his strike is saved down low and cleared for a throw which doesn’t become much more than just a throw.

The game becomes a bit tedious until half an hour has passed. A cheeky Gergo backheel gives Valerio the space to cross but he puts it just behind Palmer. Green swoops in to beat the defender to control but hits a wild swing yard wide of top right. We’re not disheartened as Stewart and Palmer play a 1-2 in the 36th minute. Ollie makes a run to the near post to volley home but Inniss swipes his legs before he can connect with the ball to give away a clear penalty. Gergo wants to take it at first which I’m happy with but Ollie is determined to show me he can take a good penalty. There’s not much debate from either me or the team so Gergo hands over the ball. However, I wish he hadn’t as it’s a poor shin height penalty right down the middle which the keeper catches easily. How can he score 20+ goals from open play but not score from the spot?

In the last few minutes on the first half, Gergo continues his rediscovery of form with a bombing run down the right before passing inside to Green. He has to really stretch to win the ball over the opposition and passes first time. He’s fouled in the process but the ref plays the advantage as Gergo gives it to Palmer. He wrong foots Jackson and forces a strong save across goal from our other future signing, Sam Walker. Stewart has to hit a rebound volley at an awkward height and angle but can only direct it a yard over

The ref is walking around with a whistle in his mouth when Palmer is fouled after trying to bring down a Green header. Green takes it quickly and passes back and forth until Ollie spots Esposito’s run into the box. He blasts it towards the roof of the net but a big hand from Walker keeps it out and keeps the game level at the break. It’s a similar story to the Accrington match as we’ve had eleven shots compared to their one but we haven’t even scored yet. I’m confident we’ll win if we carry on as we are but I bring on Tom Pett for Valerio before the game restarts.

It takes 15 minutes before either team has a chance and it’s a rare one from Colchester. Mandeville cuts past Stewart and waits before playing in Wright. He takes the ball delightfully on the spin and hits it low to the near post. Vickers just gets a toe to it to push out for a corner in whats a world class save. Palmer hasn’t been on form today so I signal to Harrison to warm up. After the corner is cleared, I make the change which angers Ollie a fair bit. He sulks a little on the bench but he knows he hasn’t been up to scratch today.

With 20 minutes of the 90 left, we demonstrate some neat passing which finishes with a Woody, Green 1-2. Green tries to curl home from 20 yards but it’s about a yard wide. Anderson comes on as a attacking fullback for Gergo as we need further focus on attacking to keep ourselves in the title race. Walker plays a short goal kick to Eastman who has to pass to Kent quickly due to Harrison’s pressure. It’s a hard pass from a short distance which means a poor touch. Ellis pounces, takes the ball forward and waits until Walker comes out of his goal slightly before curling a beauty into the top right. Thank fuck for that and thank fuck for Ellis Harrison. That goal could be worth his £600’000 price tag alone.

In the 85th minute, Colchester are really pushing to confirm their play-off spot so when we win possession, Pett uses his fresh legs to pace away on the counter. He plays a little ball into the box for Harrison who volleys over his shoulder but it’s another good save from Walker. It’s been a promising display from our future goalkeeper but we still need a win so another goal would be ideal. An Eastman header in the final minute threatens but it’s headed away by Wharton.

The game ends shortly after which confirms one thing. The final game of the season will decide the champions of League Two.

As long as we win on Sunday, we’ve done our part. But whilst we play relegation candidates Yeovil Town, Luton visit 3rd place Notts County. We’ve got the upper hand despite the point difference. I’d never thought I’d say this but I hope Lewis Alessandra finds his shooting boots and bangs a hat-trick past them.

However, Yeovil are currently 20th with only three points between 19th and 23rd so all the teams down there will be up for a fight. Including our final opponents of the season. Notts County are currently two points clear in 3rd place and follow us as the other promoted side as long as they don’t lose. Luckily for us, that’s exactly what we need as a Luton win means they go up as champions. A win isn’t a necessity as if Luton lose and we draw, goal difference will take us top of the table. But where’s the fun in that?

In what’s a very risky call, I go with a brand new formation today: 4-1-3-2. Loanee Allsop gets the nod in goal before returning to his parent club. He has served us really well when he’s been called upon, the highlight of his time being his lone assist. Bostwick is back in front of the defence with Palmer and Harrison up front together for the first time in months. Batesy will sit with earphones in listening to Luton match. Come on Notts County, do us a favour.

The crowd are against the referee early on when he gives a couple questionable fouls against us in the first five minutes. Palmer decides the best way to avoid fouls is take the ball yourself. He takes it right into their box on his own and squares to Knott. The first shot is blocked and his second attempt is volleyed way over the crossbar but it gets Sincil Bank excited.

The excitement slowly filters to worry when the football becomes very cagey. Misplaced passes, hard tackles, dodgy bounces. There’s not some actual football until the 39th minute when Harrison plays the ball down the line for Palmer but it’s a tad overshot. Ollie manages to bully Donnellan off the ball and run it into the middle. The keeper is closing him down so he tries to chip it over him but it hits his chest and goes to a Yeovil teammate.

It’s been a quiet half in our game but far from it in the Luton match. They’re 2-1 up at half time which means they are currently champions. We need to win to at least show we did all we could on the day.

There’s nothing happening in the first 10 minutes of the half and while I’m usually calm, this is the time to be impatient. We can’t wait for a chance, we have to force one. We switch to our usual 4-2-3-1 formation with Valerio and Sam Ham coming on. I can’t shout attack much more as we really need a goal incase Luton slip up.

5 minutes after the changes, Sam Ham shows he’s up for it with an outstanding challenge to block a cross. The loose ball however is crossed with no problems by Fisher. Gobern lashes a close range volley towards goal but an amazing reflex save from Allsop holds back the tears. He gets up quickly to jump back down on the ball to rid of any rebound opportunity. I scream my appreciation to Ryan who gives me a cool thumbs up before booting upfield.

In the 71st minute, just as I’m starting to really panic, Sam Ham clears a corner up to Harrison who flicks it to Anderson. His first time ball to Palmer is spot on. Ollie shields and runs back on himself to play the overlapping Anderson. He passes into Harrison who holds off Smith, turns and hammers past the face of the keeper to make it 1-0. What a time to score and it’s the Welsh number 9 being piled on after a vital goal again. Wharton comes in for Vasil to help defend our lead with some fresh legs.

5 minutes later,  Knott switches play to Gergo who passes inside to Harrison. He rolls it behind to Palmer who touches with his right, flicks it on with his left for Anderson to latch on and tuck home from close range. 2-0 up and that should confirm that we’ve done our part. If Shola Ameobi ever had to score a goal, it’d be right now. Forgot about the derby’s, forget about the winning goals off the bench. Snatch a point for me Shola.

In the 83rd minute, a Palmer header sets Harrison off. He gets himself into the box but smashes wide from a position where he really should be scoring. As I look down in disappointment, Batesy jumps up and almost knocks himself out on the dugout roof. He takes a while to get to his feet but runs out of the dugout to face the fans.

“It’s 2-2! Luton are bottling it!”

I honestly couldn’t tell you what happened in the last 10 minutes of our game. I’m occupied. Eyes fixated of Batesy, waiting for anything. A noise, a face, anything. In the last 30 seconds of our game, he slowly unplugs his earphones and looks at me with heartbreak in his eyes. He can’t even say it. He just mouths it over the loud cheers of a stadium full of clueless Lincoln fans.

“3-2 gaffer. Luton’s 3-2.”

Moving On Up (Episode 17: A Lincoln Legend)

I don’t know who the fuck you lot are but you’re not my team.

I don’t tell anyone about my dream the other night. They don’t need to know I’m scared. I can’t help but think that it was some sort of sign but I’m confident in this side and our position suggests we’ve already got one foot in League One but when you support Newcastle, it’s easy to become a football pessimist. I’ve already had meetings about our plans for next season, which revolve around remaining in the third tier. Everybody is expecting. That’s why I’m scared.

Valerio asks to start against Morecambe which I happily agree as he’s really found his footing this last month. Wharton is also starting as he’s back from serving his three game suspension. Knott is behind Palmer to complete what is a pretty strong Lincoln City side.

After two very satisfying games of football, we were due some boring and frustrating time on the pitch. The first 25 minutes are exactly that. Both teams fire a couple warning shots but nothing of real note until Morecambe have the ball on the edge of the D with Thompson. He’s double marked by Sam Ham and Bostwick with the latter sticking a foot in to tackle. Morecambe get a very lucky bounce through to Campbell who easily sweeps it past Vickers. It’s a disgusting goal to concede as it’s complete luck but a goal’s a goal and we’re 1-0 down.

We do come back looking for an equaliser before half time as we have a throw in on the far side in the 33rd minute. Sam Ham flicks it over his head to Bostwick who pings it to Valerio. He takes a good touch to set himself but his curling effort is a yard wide.

With five minutes to go, a clearance from a Morecambe cross lets Stewart release Palmer down the left. He tries to cross after his run down the wing back to Stewart but Old clears with a diving header. It only goes as far as Palmer who lays it off for Knott to hit a great shot from the edge of the box into the top right. It’s a great time to bring the score level as we go in tied at half time. Anderson replaces Valerio in the second half as he’s really tired. He got the start he wanted but I don’t want him to pull up and miss the final few games of the season.

10 minutes into the second half, Stewart and Palmer play a 1-2 once and yet again. Stewart finishes the move with a short ball over for Ollie to flick on with his head but it’s saved well by the keeper. The rebound is put back in by Knott straight to the head of Palmer who mistimes his leap and just misses the ball. We should be up there.

In the 68th minute, Wharton wins the header from a clearance but it goes to the Morecambe left back Conlan. Anderson tackles him and passes to Knott. A lovely body feint tricks his marker but his awful shot is well well wide and over. Pett comes on for Stewart and Eardley makes his return to the away fans audible delight with Sam Ham coming off.

Neal picks up from where he left off when Anderson passes for him to flick on brilliantly up to Pett. He plays it delicately into Palmer who changes direction quickly for a big man but can’t get his shot on target. There’s no further action apart from a yellow card and Morecambe get away with another point from us and there is no tick next to their name as of yet. It wasn’t a good performance but it wasn’t a bad one either. Shades of mediocre.

Confirming what we’ve known for sometime now, we’re officially guaranteed at least a play off spot so even if we lose every game from this point onwards, we’ll still have a crack at promotion. This gives us a new focus on competing for the league and catching Luton.

Speaking of which, we’re 4 points behind Luton after our draw with Morecambe but before we can play again on the weekend, they draw with Barnet on Thursday night which means we haven’t gave them a cushion at the top yet.

James Hugo comes to me on Friday asking for more game time and even though I say I’ll try to fit him in, I really can’t afford to be putting him in ahead of established players who have done us so well this season. A white lie never hurt anyone.

Big rotation is needed for our next game away to Chesterfield. They are down in 21st place, fighting against relegation so we have to be careful. They’re really gonna be up for this.

Eardley is back in the starting eleven at left back with Sean Long on the opposite side. Wilson also returns after his duty for the Welsh national team. Freckles is the captain today next to Woody and Jordan Williams also starts. Ollie Palmer leads the way with one eye on that golden boot.

Just 4 minutes in, Williams intercepts a pass inside the Chesterfield half and passes up to Pett. Tom plays Palmer in who does very well to get a shot off from under his feet but it’s straight at keeper and cleared out for a throw. I decide to go attacking to get an early goal and build on this pressure.

We have a couple chances in the space of two minutes with the first coming in the 11th minute. A counter attack leaves Palmer open after another Pett ball behind. He jumps to volley a shot midair and the keeper has to get across his goal well to make the save. Ollie was offside anyways but we come back just a minute later when Williams turns his man before toe-punting a ball to Palmer. He sees Valerio’s run inside and finds him with a neat pass but Esposito can’t finish with the keeper getting a strong hand to his shot and stopping it hitting the roof of the net. The resulting corner is easily claimed by the keeper.

In the 24th minute, Pett is released by Williams and tries to square across to Palmer. A vital touch by Hird takes it to Maguire who clears as far as Williams. He lays it back to Freckles who, obviously competitive with his midfield partner that has a few goals in his locker, lets fly from distance and rattles the far post. It’s very close to a screamer and a brilliant way to break the deadlock.

For the rest of half, we dominate Chesterfield in every area of the park but we are unable to grab a goal. They’ve had no shots to our 8 and I rightly tell them that a goal will come if we keep it up in the second half. As well as actually trying to score, we’ve been passing at a more accurate rate, we’ve won multiple corners. We’re the side in control here. Palmer is looking dangerous and making the right runs so I tell him to keep his head up. I replicate my sub from the previous game with Anderson on for Valerio.

The intensity doesn’t carry over into the second half so in the 58th minute, I bring on Knott for Pett in an attempt to inspire something. It does work in the 63rd minute when Palmer and Knott exchange possession. Ollie is open after to cut onto his right past Maguire but can’t wrap his foot round the ball properly, sending his effort a few yards wide.

The last chance of the match comes in the 78th minute when Palmer gets the ball to his feet after we pass it round the edge of the box. He taps it round the right back but his shot is easily saved by the keeper. Williams is beaten to the rebound which is booted out for a throw just in our own half. Palmer is tired so Green replaces but fails to make an impact as the game ends 0-0. We should have buried this game in the first half but it just wasn’t our day. Two poor draws when you’re chasing the title isn’t good enough.

Our next game is Exeter, a team who sit just outside the playoffs and with the 6-7 teams involved in that battle, they will be desperate for a win to give them the edge. In regards to our own league position, we’ve finally caught up in terms of games played. Every team has played 39 games, leaving 7 games for each team in the league. We’re 4 points behind Luton which isn’t bad but considering the ground we had on them at one point and their recent results, I can’t help but feel this has been a chance wasted.

For the Exeter match, Bostwick is back captaining the side next to Woody. Our main back line returns and I give Allsop a now rare start in goal. Green starts as the lone striker today. There’s no Matt Rhead in the Exeter 18 today as he’s recovering from a dislocated knee.

In what is far from a bright start, both Stewart and Pett pick up silly yellow cards within the first 6 minutes. With our squad finally returning to somewhat full strength, another suspension wouldn’t be welcomed with open arms to say the least.

The power of the first 10 minutes seem to take the wind out of both teams as it’s the 32rd minute before any real opportunity surfaces. Pett makes a great run into their box and puts the ball up for Stewart. He leaps to nod it down but it’s well held by the keeper. It’s the only chance of the first 45 in what is the third back to back half of mind-numbingly boring football. It’s totally unlike the team I’ve came to know and love in the prior 37 games. I bring on Valerio and Knott for Pett and Anderson to try and bring some spice to the second half.

It miserably backfires as we don’t see anything from either side until we win a free kick from 30 yards out with 20 minutes to go. It’s passed to Gergo who plays it over to Stewart on the opposite side of the box. He scoop turns the approaching defender gracefully but can’t whip it round into the far side of the night. I change to 4-2-2-2 and take Stewart off for Ollie Palmer.

In the dying embers of the match, Green steals it from a docile defender and bombs forward. He crosses it into the pocket of space where Valerio is waiting to flick a header just past the far post. It’s another bore draw from the Lincoln lads as the whistle blows once the goal kick is taken. If I wasn’t getting paid to watch this game, I would have left at half-time.

Luton lost to Colchester so we did gain something, just three points away now with 6 games left. Luton offically confirm their promotion to League One despite their loss so congratulations to them. Even though, they’ve been our main rivals this season, there’s no taking away from their achievement. However, just three points behind them, we could also confirm promotion in our next game if results go our way. That thought is echoed throughout the training ground plenty to give the lads encouragement.

Alessandra finally found his shooting boots again after not scoring for almost 10 games as he picked up a brace. This puts him back in pole position for the golden boot with 21 goals. Ollie Palmer hasn’t scored since his hat-trick against local rivals Grimsby and he’s visibly frustrated by that. Every time he finds the back of the net in training, he’s emotionless.

McDermott from Swindon Town picks up the March Player of the Month so he can join Luton in the line of congratulations. To finish the trio of acknowledgement, Harrison’s former side Bristol Rovers lifted the Checkatrade Trophy after a 2-1 win at Wembley over Portsmouth. Still being in touch with Darrell Clarke after buying Ellis in the summer, I give him a quick phone call to say well done which he appreciates highly.

Carlisle away is the game that could see us into League One football today so I want as strong a team as possible. Wilson asks to be rested and considering he hasn’t had a rest since before international break, I start Blackburn loanee Wharton. Eardley and Gergo are out in the wing back positions together for what I think is the first time since Gergo was injured. Anderson replaces Valerio with Palmer up top trying to break his duck. My final words before they head out: “Let’s try and score this time, ey lads?”

I’ve never seen a team so blantantly ignore their manager as we literally have no chances in the entire first half.  Neither do Carlisle but still, we should be at least threatening? When everyone gets into the dressing room, I break the silence with a simple question.

“What the fuck has happened to us?” No answer. “I don’t know who the fuck you lot are but you’re not my team. Attack. Press. Sort it out. Now.” I storm out the dressing room to headbutt a wall for the remaining 13 minutes of half-time.

Nothing. A whole fuck ton of absolutely nothing. Even our away fans are walking out early. In the 77th minute, I bring Knott, Williams and Esposito on in a triple sub to try and make something happen.

The fourth assistant holds up his board with 2 minutes of added time to a stadium that’s not even a quarter as full as it was at the start of the match. Carlisle have to push for winner to keep themselves in the play-off scrap. A low cross is cleared upfield by Gergo deep into our opponents half. Palmer seals out Parkes who falls over as Ollie touches the ball down. He runs into the box and lashes across goal into the top right. I breath a massive sigh of relief with a composed shake of my head. 1-0 and the main man has to save us from another bore draw. Thank fuck for that.

Luton also won their game 1-0 so no ground gained on the top spot. We’re also not yet promoted with our next game being a fitting tie to hopefully see us up: my first competitive opponents Wycombe. We are at home and with our recent form, attendances have dropped massively so I’m hoping the momentum of the win brings a big crowd back to Sincil Bank.

We have a week rest before the Wycombe match for the first time in a while which is both good and bad. It’s good because we obviously need a rest; our performances have dropped and everybody is tired. It’s bad however as we finally win to get back on track and we have to wait a week to play again. It also means we can start a big team so Knott behind Palmer and Sam Ham over Eardley are the only notable changes as it’s our best side otherwise. Akinfenwa isn’t selected today but I’m not complaining. Let’s go clinch promotion.

5 minutes have passed  when Palmer tests the keeper with a skimmer across the pitch but it’s pushed into the ground and up into the air. Anderson tries a rebound volley  but it’s a awkward height and angle for him so he can’t direct it anywhere but wide of the goal.

It”s looking like it’s gonna be another trademark boring half of football until Cowan-Hill is played down the left on the half hour mark. Gergo is well out of position so he has time to get into the box and cut it back for Carvallo who scuffs his shot wide of a open goal. We’ve been massively let off and we shouldn’t take that for granted.

With a couple minutes before the break, Bostwick passes up to Knott who does a 360 spin to keep his man at bay before passing to Palmer. He touches and hits a strike off the near post which is followed by an irked exhale around the stadium. Ollie makes up for it right before half time as he nutmegs Anthony Stewart with a pass for Bostwick. He knocks a simple return pass to a now unmarked Palmer who controls and blasts it into the top right for his 22nd goal of the season. 1-0 at half-time and Ollie back to scoring in continuous games again. This is more like it.

We come out fired up and on the hunt for a second when a Sam Ham early cross is headed down at the far post by Woody but the keeper gets down at his near post to push it out for a corner. It’s put into the area for Vasil to leap high and nod across goal but it’s blocked by the man on the post before being cleared.

In the 65th minute, we finally double our advantage and put League One in sight when O’Nein’s awful touch from an overhit Anderson pass lets Knott nip in to steal. He sprints at the keeper before squaring back to Palmer to slot past the defender on the line into the bottom right. It’s a calm finish from our star striker. Anderson’s questionable pass is his last input of the day as Pett replaces him before the restart.

In the final 10 minutes, I bring on Eardley and Stewart for Gergo and Esposito. With chants of ‘we are going up’ booming round the ground, a Stewart clearance is flicked on by Palmer to leave Knott with an entire half to run unchallenged into. He gets within 15 yards before deciding to shoot but puts it a yard wide. It doesn’t matter in the slightest as the ref brings the game to a close and confirms our second promotion in as many years. It’s a magical moment as fans flood the pitch to celebrate their first time in the third division of English football since the turn of the millennium. I don’t rush on myself, I just watch the fans burst past the stewards who in all honestly aren’t even trying. Some even join in the celebrations and run on themselves. I shake hands with Gareth Ainsworth and watch as 10’000 fans flood onto the turf. This is football at it’s finest. And with Luton drawing 1-1 away to Yeovil, we are only 1 little point behind them.

Michael Bostwick pulls a speakerphone out of nowhere and begins a chant that repeats for almost an hour until we’re forced off the pitch.

“We’re coming for you. We’re coming for you. Luton Town, we’re coming for you.”

Jimmy Link (Episode 16.5: A Lincoln Legend)

If you live in constant fear, you cannot enjoy living.

I’m sat in a seat around half way down The Selenity Stand. Just looking out at the pitch, the Lincolnshire Cooperative Stand entering my peripherals as I scan the pitch. Completely vacant apart from the groundsmen, patiently mowing the grass. I realised that on my first couple days, there was a couple people absent who I just haven’t had time to speak to. The groundsman is one of them. As I’m losing my track of thought, his wave snaps me out of my trance-like state. I awkwardly wave back before he summons me with his index finger, curling it back towards himself before extending it again to repeat.

As I walk down the steps, I can’t help but feel emotional. This stadium has seen us mount a title charge, beat Man United, Spurs, Chelsea, Palace. You name them, we’ve beat them. Well not literally, my chart isn’t even 20% complete yet but you know what I mean. I step down onto the playing field and walk round the freshly cut area of the pitch. As I approach, he lifts his flat cap up and turns off the strangely soothing sound of his lawnmower.

“You’re scared aren’t you?” croaks a raspy ageing voice. I’m not sure if he means scared of the future or scared of him. Either way, the answer remains the same. I nod my head clunkily.

“I know you are. I can read people, I can tell. Jimmy Link.” His arm held out. I grasp his hand firmly, which is alarmingly warm, and shake.

“I’ve worked here for years and let me to tell you: the buzz on a match day with you in charge is different. It’s a different kind of excitement.” He carries on.

“There is no reason to be scared this season. You are overachieving. Punching above your weight. The football is the best played at this pitch for as long as I can remember. Even if you get knocked out of the cup, even if we drop into the play-off places, you are safe. You’re a hero.” I sympathetically smile at his attempts to calm me as we begin walking to the other half of the pitch.

“Let me ask you something. Do you think you’ve done a good job?” It’s not a hard question to answer.

“Of course.”

“Ah, so you do speak?” he chuckles to himself. “If you feel successful, then why are you scared of failing so much?”

I stop walking as does Jimmy. “Because the job isn’t finished yet.” He opens his mouth to speak but stops himself before continuing to walk forward. We walk in silence for a minute until he come to a half once more.

“If the job isn’t finished, you will always be scared.” I look inquisitively, turning my head like a confused puppy.

“This job isn’t for a season. Unless you’re Sam Allardyce. This job is for the next 5, 10, maybe even 15 years. If you live in constant fear, you cannot enjoy living.” Before I can even question how philosophical a statement just came out the mouth of a bloke who cuts grass for a living, the floodlights all simultaneously turn off leaving darkness to engulf the stadium. The lights are only off for a second or two but when they flicker back on, Jimmy is gone. I turn around looking for him but there’s no sign of him. It’s almost like he disappeared, taken by the momentary blackness.

I turn back to face the Cooperative Stand and see the white seats filtered in amongst the sea of red seats no longer spell ‘Lincoln City’. Instead, they spell three words.

‘Just wake up’. So I do.

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.

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.