I’ve seen a few posts asking when we were last top at Christmas, so I thought I’d take the opportunity to do a quick blog exploring the last time we were top of the pile on December 25th.
The closest we have been in recent seasons was a decade ago in 2006/07. We weren’t top, granted, but we were experiencing arguably our best run of form for many a-year. When Keith’s sides battled into the play-off finals it was inevitably from a position of 5th or 6th, always fighting to get themselves up into the mix. John Schofield and John Deehan brought a different angle to our fight for promotion, we were amongst the front runners until a post-Christmas collapse saw us scrape in 5th, still our highest finish of the noughties.
In 23 games we had lost seven games, so the current season is outstripping that record already. It was the bigger spenders that we were battling with, MK Dons, Swindon and Walsall. It is ironic of course that in league football we were in an automatic promotion spot, but third is nowhere in our current league.
Going back to 1997/98 we find ourselves in the top three again, and one win away from the top spot. The day prior to this the table below coming out we’d travelled to Peterborough and surrendered a long unbeaten league run in emphatic fashion (lost 5-1), although defeats against Wigan (AWS) and Emley (FA Cup) had ended the actual unbeaten run in the weeks before. Those being picky might say the second match with Emley was technically a draw and we lost on penalties. I personally class it as a defeat, and an end to a 17 match unbeaten run. We did manage to remain in contention though, and third was where we eventually finished up, a position claimed in part by a revenge filled 3-0 win over Posh in the return fixture at Sincil Bank.
One suggestion I’d seen had us top in the GM Vauxhall Conference winning season, but proper aficionados’ of Lincoln City will know we only went top once that season, and that was on the final day, just like us only being bottom once the season before, again on the final day.
In 1987 promotion from the Conference did not look hopeful. Even back then good ol’ Barry Fry was a pain in our side, leading his Barnet side to a five point lead over us, and bagging a much better goal difference in the process. Third at Christmas might seem acceptable under some circumstances, but in 1987 there was only one promotion spot available, and it looked to be between Weymouth and Barnet.
By the 9th of January things were looking up. The gap at the top was goal difference alone, as both us and Barnet sat on 51 points, albeit with them holding a game in hand. Weymouth were down in sixth having had a winter of disruption, playing just two games. As it turned out games in hand are not worth as much as points on the board, and we all know the rest as a proud moment in Imps history.
So we delve further back, into the days when many of my readers were not even born (and many more were fighting for their skins in the Clanford End no doubt!). The year is 1982 and Christmas saw Lincoln City proudly top of the Third Division no less. Five points clear, two games in hand and beaten just four times all season. It was a winter disrupted by bad weather though, we’d played five games less than we have now, but nonetheless we looked to be running away with promotion, and a spot in Division Two, or what is now the Championship.
So what went wrong? The board were unwilling to invest in the playing squad, and the troubles made the national media. Colin Murphy had almost guided us to second tier football the season before, losing out to a John Beck inspired Fulham on the final day. In scenes reminiscent of 2006/07, the first half of the season saw us dismantle all in front of us.
The second half the season saw a collapse of epic proportions. The players enjoyed a mid season break to Majorca, but the pressures of such a small squad were taking their toll. Murph wanted to bring in a couple of players, the board did not want to spend the money. Things became heated, public and unpleasant. Chairman Gilbert Blades resigned following death threats and the resultant uncertainty was a catalyst for the small squad to implode.
We finished 6th in the end, outside of any end of season lottery back in 1983. The following season Ross Jack and John Thomas were signed, the two players Murph had needed to ensure our promotion push was maintained. However, since that wonderful Christmas of 1982 (I think I got Star Wars stuff, an AT-AT and a Luke Skywalker Jedi figure. Cracking) we have been on a downward trajectory, occasionally catching a hot air stream for a brief attempt at a climb, but inevitably always failing to maintain any consistency.
Hopefully that helps you understand the scale of our current achievement. For Lincoln City being top at Christmas is a once in four decades achievement, but it is prudent to remember nothing is ever won at Christmas. If it was we wouldn’t have been relegated in 1987 and 2011, nor would we have won promotion in 1988. A story is made of many chapters and at present the story of Danny, Nicky and the rejuvenated football club is only half told. Maybe it’s only a quarter told, who knows? That is the excitement of football.
If our previous Christmas positions tell us anything it is that nothing can be taken for granted. Good recruitment in January is critical to protect against burn-out in certain players. Investment is crucial to ensure momentum is maintained, although on the front I suspect we’re fairly secure.
The most crucial thing though is that the fans continue to back the side, even if we do lose a couple of games, even if our title push does falter at any stage. In 1982/83 there was a rift opening up amongst fans and the board, a rift that wasn’t really healed until that miserable summer of 2002 when we almost lost the club. When fans and team unite, and stay united then we really can achieve something.
To coin a phrase from the Welsh national team, ‘Together, we are stronger’