Sunday, 18 September 2011

Lincoln City: Victims of Progress

The Football Front's Lower League expert, Matt Bruce, writes an article on the life and times of Lincoln City.

On the final day of last season, scenes of ecstatic celebration were beamed across the nation from Barnet's Underhill Stadium as the Bees remarkably escaped relegation from the Football League, with an unlikely victory over Port Vale. The jubilant celebrations in Barnet were accompanied by desolate scenes 120 miles north in Lincoln. Lincoln City were the victims of Barnet's great escape. Despite spending most of the season above the relegation zone, Lincoln slipped through the trap door on the final day.

The pain of relegation was particularly intense for Lincoln fans because they've suffered this fate before, in similar circumstances. The Imps were the first club to suffer the ignominy of automatic relegation from the Football League back in 1987. A catastrophic collapse in the latter part of the season saw Lincoln slide to the bottom of the table guessed it, the last day of the season.

Prior to the introduction of automatic promotion and relegation between the Conference and the bottom tier of the Football League, the Fourth Division was stagnant. The league was populated by unambitious clubs content to tread water, safe in the knowledge that they were always likely to be re-elected if they suffered another poor season. Only six new clubs were elected into the Football League between 1961 and 1986. Automatic promotion and relegation was introduced to shake up the stale Fourth Division, to clear the 'dead wood' from the league and motivate clubs who had been treading water at the bottom to up their game. Lincoln City were not a club that had spent years struggling at the bottom of the Football League, but were suffering from the shock of the events at Valley Parade in 1985, when fire killed 56 people, two of whom were Lincoln supporters. They were relegated from the Third Division the following season and despite being among the favourites to win promotion straight back the club had failed to recover and suffered a second successive relegation, this time out of the Football League entirely.

Lincoln entered the Conference with all the trappings of a Football League club. They were a full-time professional club in a division of part-timers. As a result, it was perhaps unsurprising that they won promotion back to the Football League at the first attempt. The season was not, however, without its ups and downs and Lincoln were chased hard by an expensively-assembled Barnet side, who beat the Imps 4-2 on the opening day of the season. The events of last season could be seen as Barnet's revenge for what happened in 1987-88, as that year Lincoln snatched the title (and, with it, promotion) from Barnet right at the death, replacing them at the top of the table in the penultimate match of the season.

Fast-forward 24 years and Lincoln can only dream of making such a quick return to the Football League. They currently lie 22nd in the Conference and have won just once so far this season, amongst growing unrest from the club's supporters. Targets of their fury include manager Steve Tilson, chairman Bob Dorrian and captain Josh Gowling. Rumblings of discontent turned into paroxysms of anger from Lincoln's fans following defeat at Braintree, but a gutless 2-0 home defeat to fellow strugglers Kettering proved too much for the Sincil Bank faithful to stomach. Calls for Tilson's head have grown louder and more forceful, with fans venting their anger at the board after the final whistle. Meanwhile, crowds are down by almost a thousand on last season and relegation to the Conference deprives the club of approximately £500,000 for every season they spend outside the Football League. A summer clearout of the players who had failed them last season appeared to be a positive move, but the new players have not yet found form.

Lincoln’s struggles so far this season demonstrate just how much the Conference has changed since their last stint in the division. During Lincoln's temporary stay during the 1987-88 season, being full-time gave them a genuine competitive advantage over their part-time opponents, who were unable to compete with a club of Lincoln's size. In 2011 the Conference is a rather different beast and part-time clubs are now in the minority. Lincoln are far from being the league's big name club, as around half the clubs in this year's Conference are former League clubs. 24 years ago, clubs that were relegated from the Football League rarely struggled to win promotion back, and both Lincoln City and Darlington (another club who have now found themselves sucked back into the Conference) were promoted at the first attempt. Things are not so simple for relegated teams now, and the Conference currently resembles a graveyard for former Football League clubs. One bad season in the Football League is far more costly now, and relegated clubs can no longer expect to win promotion back at the first attempt, as supporters of Luton (now in their third season), Wrexham (fourth season), Cambridge (seventh season) and York (eighth season) can testify.

These clubs, many of which find themselves in the Conference as a result of financial mismanagement during their Football League years, have now been leapfrogged by a new breed of forward-thinking, professional and well-run club, such as Morecambe, Burton Albion and Stevenage. In the years since automatic promotion and relegation was introduced, the Conference has been transformed from a sleepy footballing backwater to a bottleneck of competitive teams fighting for that elusive place in the Football League. Traditionally, non-league clubs with ambition have caught up with (and surpassed) many poorly-run clubs who have lost their place in the Football League. Contrary to what their history and fanbase would suggest, clubs like Lincoln are in danger of being left behind by 'the likes of' Gateshead and Braintree. As clubs at the top of the non-league game get stronger, Lincoln may find themselves the victims of progress, as the line between the bottom of the Football League and the top of the non-league pyramid becomes more blurred each season.

This piece was written by Matt Bruce, you can follow him on his Twitter - @tbfuth, You can find Matt’s blog here too: theboysfromupthehill

All of Matt's work can be found here.

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