A great side has to actually achieve something to be called great. You may have a team packed with wonderful ability, but in order to receive recognition from fans as a great side you need something to show for it. The level of success really depends on the club as well, so for instance a great Chelsea side may win the Champions League but if they qualified for the League Two play offs then the side couldn’t be considered as great. However for a success starved team like Lincoln City I think an appearance at a National Stadium qualifies that team to be classed as great.
That’s why I’d like to take a few minutes to discuss the last great Lincoln City side, that of Keith Alexander’s Play Off Finalists in 2005. Arguably the culmination of the hard work that Keith had put in, this season more than any represented a real chance to progress to League One, and to do so with the best Lincoln City squad for over two decades.
I’m not going to talk you through the season, I’m merely going to tell you why I believe this team was a truly magnificent Lincoln City side. I’d like to draw your attention to a particular date, Monday 28th March 2005, almost 11 years ago.
That damp evening we took on our near rivals Scunthorpe United live on Sky Sports. We took The Iron apart with an exquisite opener inside thirty seconds and then we put it to bed ten minutes before the end with a sublime chip that Eric Cantona would have been proud of. There’s no surprise we did though, because the starting eleven was one to really fear.
In the sticks that night was Alan Marriott, as he was for most of the years we competed in League Two’s upper echelons. He was a great servant to the club and despite being small he was also a very good goalkeeper. He first earned the song of England’s Number One from the Stacey West end and he really deserved to pick up the League Two Keeper of the Year award at least twice in his Imps career.
The defence was so ridiculously strong it beggars belief. That’s not to say we didn’t concede goals, but looking at the names on paper that started that evening you’ll find a who’s who of good quality defenders. Kevin Sandwith is perhaps one that won’t stand out, but he was a competent full back with a great free kick in his repertoire. His team mates that day however were of a very high calibre: Jamie McCombe, Gareth McCauley, Ben Futcher and Paul Morgan.
If you stood McCombe, Futcher and McAuley on each other’s shoulders they’d stand somewhere around nineteen feet high, and two of them went on to prove themselves at a higher level. We know McAuley and McCombe went on to bigger and better things, and although Futcher plied his trade around as many of our rivals as he could he has to be acknowledged as a good player for Lincoln. However at the time I feel captain Paul Morgan was more important than any one of them.
In his prime Paul Morgan was a terrific defender. He had pace and a tough uncompromising style that made up where he lacked in inches. After in excess of 200 appearances for Lincoln he never made the step up to the next level, but at that time in 2005 he was the jewel in the defensive crown. He could read a game like you’re reading this and tackled with the ferocity of an earthquake.
The midfield was made up of Richard Butcher and Peter Gain, a somewhat iconic pairing for connoisseurs of Imps history. With the style the side played they tried to get the full backs forward and often bypass the middle of the park, but whatever went through the midfield tended to be crafted with guile and speed of thought. Much has been said of Richard Butcher since his tragic passing and I think his legendary status with Imps fans now further cements my proposal that this was the last great Lincoln City side. However at the side of him Peter Gain proved himself as one of my all time favourite Imps with some skill and creativity that should have graced the Championship.
He also bagged over two hundred appearances at City, but struggled when he first arrived. Alan Buckley did his best to further his sons career at the expense of Gain on the left. In Buckleys first game Gain played a blinder against Mansfield, but suffered when left sided Adam Buckley came in and pinched his spot. That wasn’t all he pinched though, and soon Gain was able to command a regular place as Buckley trickled into obscurity. When Peter Gain was on song I don’t think there was ever a technically better player in a City shirt than him. He could drift around defenders and beat players with such wonderful grace. If he hit a ball properly then fifteen goalkeepers wouldn’t have kept it out. Like Butcher he was in his prime in 2005.
Up front that evening against the Iron was a certain Francis Green. He’d come in from Peterborough for a fee which pushed us out of the bracket of relegation fodder and cash strapped strugglers and into serious promotion contenders. He’d hit eight goals including winners against the university cities of Oxford and Cambridge away from home. However his strike partners had considerably more success.
Gary Taylor Fletcher was another who played Premier League football in a successful career. He scored the second against Scunthorpe, a sumptuous chip from a tight angle. He set up the opener and generally had been in the sort of form that would later see him play for Leicester, Blackpool and Huddersfield. He’d scored in the first five games but suffered a little through inconsistency during the season. However he ended with 11 goals and despite the erratic form has gone on to prove himself a top footballer.
Leading scorer that season was Simon Yeo who not only opening the scoring on the night but also notched twenty three goals in total. He hit a hat trick away at Grimsby Town to give us county bragging rights, as well as scoring against Boston to ensure we earned the right to be called Pride of Lincolnshire that season.
We defeated Scunthorpe with ease that evening in a performance that epitomised many games that season. We didn’t win every game and it wasn’t always great, but results like that weren’t rare. It wasn’t all plain sailing, but with just two months of the season to go we were touted as potential automatic promotion candidates. The other side around us feared Lincoln City and knew with two years experience in playoff situations we’d be a tough opponent, and that was if we didn’t go up automatically.
Of course history will tell you we didn’t make it, and history will give you an indication as to why. In 1976 the all conquering Division 4 side didn’t go on to greater things because Taylor left with a couple of players. Colin Murphy’s side of the early 1980’s didn’t push on because of Gilbert Blades passion for book balancing. In 2005 I can point to on significant moment that I feel cost us a chance to climb the leagues.
In February of 2005 the Imps had a strong looking squad, as well as the players I’ve mentioned they also had midfielder Ciaran Toner and forward Marcus Richardson. Both were squad players but both knew the league and had plenty to offer the team. Both would have walked into seventy percent of our rivals teams as well, meaning a well balanced and finely tuned squad. However by the time we played Scunthorpe neither were with us, Toner was at Cambridge and Richardson at Rochdale. Something occurred on the training ground in 2005 that resulted in both being farmed out immediately no matter what the cost to the clubs success. Rumours involved vandalism and racism but the facts were guarded very closely. The club simply got rid.
Fast forward to May 2005 and the play off final against Southend. Perhaps with both players in the squad we’d not even be there having potentially won a couple of crucial games in between, but that day the squad needed to be complete. We’d battled hard in Cardiff, but options from the bench were limited. Instead of the cultured Toner or the imposing Richardson we brought on Matt Bloomer, Lee Beevers and Derek Asamoah. Aside perhaps from Asamoah we were never likely to create anything positive with substations like those.
So maybe if Toner and Richardson hadn’t had their coming together then we could have gone up that season. I firmly believe it is one of the best Lincoln City sides I’ve had the pleasure of watching. I also believe had we been promoted Keith Alexander may have got his wish of signing a few new players, with Aaron McClean, Craig Mackail Smith and George Boyd on his radar. Who knows what might have happened?
2005 also saw the arrival of Steff Wright as chairman, a man who in 2011 said he appointed John Schofield because “The fans wanted a better quality of football than had been played under Keith Alexander and appointing John was definitely the right thing to do at the time,”
I didn’t. I was perfectly happy with playoff finals and mesmerising players like Taylor Fletcher and Peter Gain. I was perfectly happy with the resurgence the club experienced under Rob Bradleys stewardship. I was perfectly happy in 2005 because deep down I knew I was watching one of the true great Lincoln City sides.
I confidently predict that the next great Lincoln City side will be the one that wins promotion from the Conference and gets back into the football league. I also confidently predict it will happen at some point in the next few years. The club has suffered a massive fall from grace since 2005, with successive toothless play off failures and then successively bad seasons culminating in relegation. It’s been a long hard ride, but when I look back to 2005 I can’t help but think that when the good times do come back, they’re worth every second of suffering in between.
So why not visit YouTube, find the match I’m talking about and watch 6,000 fans witnessing a great Imps side dominating and taking apart their county rivals. Watch the true Pride of Lincolnshire that season score two great goals. Watch it again and again and remember that no matter how bad it has been, something like that may just be around the corner again.