Sometimes historical precedent can be a little misleading. When the full-time whistle blew at Turf Moor yesterday afternoon marking Lincoln City’s progress into the quarters-finals of this year’s FA Cup, various years started showing up on social media in order to try and explain just how unprecedented this win was. When the history of the FA Cup is so convoluted, it is perhaps understandable that people should start to get their dates in the wrong order. The last time that a non-League football club made this stage of the competition was 1914, but football’s landscape was very different to that which we survey today.
The Football League only consisted of two divisions (a third division would be introduced in 1920 with a fourth – or a Third Division North – following a year later), and the teams of the Southern League would routinely challenge the authority of the Football League. Of the twenty teams in the First Division of the Southern League during the 1913/14, only one club – Merthyr Town – are not members of the Premier League or the Football League in 2017. Queens Park Rangers was the Southern League club that made the quarter-finals that season, beating Bristol City, Swansea Town and Birmingham City, before being beaten by two goals to one at Anfield in the quarter-finals.
To put it another way, it is possible that Lincoln City’s achievement in reaching the quarter-finals of the FA Cup in 2017 might be without precedent. It certainly is in living memory. Prior to the stat of this season, seven teams from the non-league game had reached the Fifth Round of the FA Cup, all falling at that hurdle. This season, two have made it this far, and the first of the two is already through to the next stage. And while the FA Cup may be insouciantly dismissed by those who seem to believe that the accumulation of money is more important than winning trophies, yesterday’s events in Lancashire have served as a timely reminder that romance in a sporting sense doesn’t necessarily have to be considered dead just yet.
The standard canard of under-strength teams didn’t necessarily apply in this case, either. Burnley may have made six changes from their last Premier League match, but this was no Klopp-esque fielding of a group of players who had only been introduced to each other, and Sean Dyche even threw the pantomime villain Joey Barton into proceedings, with the almost predictable result of Barton throwing himself to the ground in a fairly embarrassing attempt to get Lincoln’s Matthew Rhead sent off. After the match, Barton tweeted that he hadn’t been trying to get “the Big Man” sent off. It was a comment that seemed at odds with the evidence if the eyes of anybody who had seen it.
When the goal came, with two minutes left to play, it was also surrounded with a degree of uncertainty. Lincoln City had claimed a little luck in getting the corner from which it came in the first place, but they took full advantage of their roll of the dice. Luke Waterfall was left mysteriously unmarked at the far post to head the ball back across goal and Shaun Raggett bundled the ball over the line from a couple of yards out. It was a close – though not that close – thing, and on another day the goal may well have incorrectly not been awarded. But this time, after a couple of seconds during which it felt as though the linesman may well not have seen the ball clearly go in, the referee signalled the goal, leading to complete delirium amongst the 3,200 travelling Lincoln supporters behind the goal.
Amidst all of this excitement, the main aim for this season at Sincil Bank surely remains to return to the Football League following an absence of six years, and there was further good news for the club a little later in the afternoon back in the National League, where second placed Dagenham & Redbridge were beaten at home by struggling Guiseley and third placed Forest Green Rovers were beaten at Gateshead. These results leave Lincoln City three points clear at the top of the National League, with two games in hand on the two teams below them. If there is such a thing as a perfect day for a football supporter, it might well be winning an FA Cup match away to Premier League opposition and then finding that both of your most serious rivals for a league title have lost.
And perhaps, just perhaps, revenge is a dish best served cold. This May marks the thirtieth anniversary of the the first time that a Football League club was relegated automatically from the Fourth Division, following the abandonment of re-election and the introduction of automatic promotion and relegation from what was then called the GM Vauxhall Conference. All attention that day was focussed on Turf Moor, where Burnley needed a win against Orient to give themselves a chance of retaining their Football League place. A crowd of 15,696 turned out for the match – it had only been twenty-seven years since they’d been the champions of England and, of course, Burnley were one of the twelve founding members of the Football League, in 1888 – and their win meant that the first team to be automatically relegated from the Football League, a team that hadn’t been bottom of the table all season until full-time on the final day, was… Lincoln City.
Back in the present day, meanwhile, this FA Cup run has already secured the club’s financial future, a state of affairs that has been precarious in the past. The club has earned in the region of £1m from its run so far, and this amount will be set to rise with a place in the next round of the competition. When we talk of the benefits of a run in the FA Cup, it is worth remembering that this is a life-changing amount of money for a club the size of Lincoln City, and while it remains obvious that the best way to secure the future of all football clubs in this country would be a more even distribution of the money that flows through it, at least we can see the value of the FA Cup in ensuring this sort of income for those lucky enough to progress this far in it.
For the supporters of Lincoln City, however, such considerations might be somewhere near the bottom of the priority list as they nurse their hangovers this morning. Now ninety minutes from a trip to Wembley for an FA Cup semi-final, this season has become something of a dream for the supporters of a club that has underwhelmed for a full decade, now. Lincoln City finished last season in thirteenth place in the National League, and it has been a full decade since the club finished above halfway in any league table. And whilst that Wembley trip remains the most unlikely of conclusions to this extraordinary run, with each passing round it gets closer and closer. Unprecedented wouldn’t begin to describe it, if they could somehow manage that.
Do you like podcasts? About football? Right, you’ll be wanting to click here for our Twohundredpercent podcast from a couple of weeks ago, then, when we discussed whether Lincoln City could win this year’s FA Cup or not.
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