2020/21 Preview – Lincoln City

The new league season countdown continues, host of Express FM’s Football Hour and Pompey Live pundit, Jake Smith takes a look at Lincoln City as part of his club-by-club preview.

Intro: Lincoln City FC was formed as an amateur football association in 1984, following the disbandment of Lincoln Rovers. Football has been popular in the city of Lincoln since the 1860s, though supporters have yet to taste dominance at the top of the English pyramid, spending the best-part of their 136-year history as Lincoln City in the 3rd and 4th tiers.

The club turned professional in 1891 and went on to help form what was then known as the Second Division in 1892/93. The Imps used to play at The John O’Gaunts ground, owned by popular local brewer Robert Dawber, but moved to Sincil Bank in 1895 following Dawber’s death.

The nickname of the club is The Imps, which came about in the early days of the club’s formation and derives from the local legend of the Lincoln Imp, a grotesque on a wall inside the Lincoln Cathedral – the Imp has acted as the symbol of the city for centuries.

In more recent history, Lincoln City rose from the ashes of non-league football in 2017, obtaining 99 points in 2016/17 and winning the National League title as a result. They then went on to win the EFL Trophy in their first season back in the Football League and won promotion from League Two the following campaign, finishing strong in 7th-place on their return.

All of this happened under the guidance of the Cowley Brothers – Danny and his assistant Nicky. The Cowley’s guided Lincoln City to National League, EFL Trophy and League Two success in the space of just three seasons, earning them a big money move to Championship side Huddersfield Town.

Home Ground: Sincil Bank (Also known as LNER Stadium for sponsorship purposes), Lincoln (Lincolnshire), 217 miles (by car) from Fratton Park – Capacity: 10,120

2019/20 Table Position: 16th (League One) – 42 points after 35 games with an average of 1.20 points per-game.

Overall Head-To-Head Record: Lincoln City Wins: 5 – Draws: 5 – Portsmouth Wins: 10

Previous Meeting With Pompey: Lincoln City 0-2 Portsmouth, 28th January 2020, League One

2020/21 Fixture Dates:

Tuesday 3rd November, 2020 – Sincil Bank

Tuesday 26th January, 2021 – Fratton Park

Manager: In the dugout at Sincil Bank is former Blues boss Michael Appleton, who began his managerial career at Fratton Park in 2011.

The 44-year-old operated as a midfielder during his short playing career, which spanned nine years between 1994 and 2003. Appleton was born in Salford in 1975 and came through the youth ranks at Old Trafford, signing his first pro contract at the age of 18, however never played for the senior team.

Three years later the Mancunian made a permanent switch to Preston North End, after useful loans at Wimbledon, current club Lincoln City and also Grimsby Town.

Appleton had his playing career taken away from him prematurely owing to a devastating knee injury he suffered whilst at West Bromwich Albion, which is where he retired in 2003 at the age of just 27.

He remained at The Hawthorns in a coaching capacity until 2011, taken up roles such as youth coach, assistant manager and even caretaker boss in his final season at the club – taking over on a temporary basis from Roberto di Matteo, who was sacked on February 6th, 2011.

As caretaker manager, Appleton took charge of just one match, which ended in a 3-3 draw at home to West Ham United despite his side being 3-0 up at half-time.

The tatted-up gaffer was unveiled as Pompey boss in the November of the same year, with the Blues struggling in the Championship and enduring tough financial difficulties.

Appleton vowed to stick with Portsmouth when the club entered administration mid-way through the campaign and stuck to his word too, however his side was inevitably relegated to League One.

Blackpool was his next destination, with clubs including Blackburn Rovers, Oxford United and Leicester City (assistant and caretaker) following in the period between 2013 and 2017.

Appleton spent a month back at West Brom between August and September 2019, acting as the coach of the Under-23s before switching back to permanent senior management with Lincoln City from September 23rd, 2019.

During the year he has so far spent in Lincolnshire, Appleton has secured just 9 victories from his 29 games in charge.

One To Watch: 25-year-old midfielder and graduate of the Nottingham Forest academy Jorge Grant is likely to be one of names dominating headlines for Lincoln next season.

Grant, formerly of the Nike Academy, signed for The Imps on a permanent basis on July 5th, 2019 for an undisclosed fee from Nottingham Forest. He made just 17 first-team appearances at the City Ground during a five-year period up until 2019, being shipped out to Notts County (twice), Luton Town and Mansfield Town during that time – making his professional debut as an 87th-minute substitute in a 1-0 League Cup win over Tranmere Rovers on August 12th, 2014.

During his time at Lincoln, Grant has scored twice in 38 appearances across all competitions, being hailed as a “gamechanger” in the middle of the park by supporters of the club, who have since grown fond of him.

Grant wears the No. 18 shirt for Lincoln City.

Signing of the Summer (So Far): Scottish midfielder Conor McGrandles is another name to look out for in the forthcoming campaign.

The 24-year-old Falkirk-born stands at 6 feet tall and made the switch to Sincil Bank on July 27th, following the termination of his contract at Milton Keynes Dons just weeks before. McGrandles scored MK Dons’ second goal against Pompey in their 3-1 victory over the Blues at Stadium MK on the final matchday of 2019.

A 16-year-old Conor McGrandles burst on to the scene at his local club, Falkirk, in Scotland back in 2012, going on to make 66 first-team appearances during two years as a pro at the club.

He then moved to England where Norwich City awaited him, though he managed just one appearance in three years. This was not helped, however, by a double break in his right leg which he suffered halfway through the 2015/16 season, whilst on-loan back at Falkirk.

His career was revived, fortunately, in 2017 when MK Dons came knocking for his services. McGrandles recovered from the devastating injury which COULD have ended his career and agreed to a two-year-deal in Buckinghamshire, which was later extended to cover an extra year.

The midfield-man kickstarted his Football League in Milton Keynes, catching the eye of Imps boss Michael Appleton having made 75 competitive appearances for the franchise club between 2017 and 2020.

Whilst he is still young, McGrandles has a decent amount of EFL experience and has proven that he is more than capable of performing at this level on a regular basis, further proving that he has the potential to grow into a solid midfielder IF given the right amount of game-time.

Season Expectation: Having been promoted into League One in 2019, it’s fair to say that Lincoln City are still finding their feet in the division.

The Imps ended the last campaign in 16th, middle of the bottom-half of the table, however started the campaign strongly, showing the rest of the league what they are capable of on their day.

Unfortunately for the loyal fans of the club, the inconsistencies of Lincoln’s performances and results ensured they would not secure a top-half finish in their first campaign in the third-tier since 1998/99.

Boss Michael Appleton can be encouraged by the presence of some strong players within his team, including names like Jorge Grant, Conor McGrandles and captain Liam Bridcutt, and opposition fans know of the threat posed by his side when facing them on their own turf. Before the 2019/20 campaign was curtailed, Lincoln recorded 10 victories, 3 draws and 4 defeats at Sincil Bank, let down in the long-run by a woeful away record which returned a measly 2 wins and 13 losses in 18 matches on the road.

The Imps have the potential, the capability and the backing to consider a strong top-half finish a realistic target, but will need to rectify the issues on their travels before they can even think about pushing to those heights.

From what I have gathered, the target for Lincoln fans this season is to break into the top-half and certify themselves as a force to be reckoned with, especially at home, as well as providing more of a challenge in away fixtures.

My Predicted Finish: 14th

Are Lincoln Ready to Grow Up? Verdict from the Stacey West

Gary Hutchinson is a lifelong supporter of Lincoln City. He has joined in with the chants from the stands on a weekly basis, disguised himself as club mascot ‘Poacher the Imp’ for 16-years, has written a book entitled ‘Suited and Booted’ about his experiences and now runs popular Lincoln fansite staceywest.net. On top of all of this, Gary co-hosts the podcast of the same as the fansite and also sits on the Supporters’ Board at the club – to say that he is a diehard fan would be a massive understatement!

Upon investigating The Imps ahead of the new league season, I came across Gary’s thoughts on his side’s chances and what needs to change in order to improve on last term’s 16th-place finish: “We lost our manager last year after three historic seasons and his replacement was left trying to do a job with another man’s tools.

“Over the summer, Michael Appleton has been able to remodel the squad with his own players, as well as put in valuable work on the training ground. Last year, we started well but we had an ageing squad and plenty of disruption.” – Gary continued, emphasising the importance of his manager having faith shown in him by the board.

“If we are to improve on our position of 16th, which most felt was decent, then we’ll need to see the new faces gel quickly. I suppose replacing the goals of Tyler Walker will be hugely important too.” – He went on to say.

Speaking of his expectations in 2020/21, the blogger highlighted the main aim on the forefront of fan’s minds – survival: “Most fans think there are four teams worse than us, whilst the so-called big guns are struggling. The likes of Ipswich and Sunderland don’t impress me and of the relegated clubs, there seems to be some turmoil surrounding all three, so the real contenders are likely to be last year’s three play-off sides and Peterborough.

“It’s hugely unpredictable but as long as we’re competitive, fans will be happy. With a little bit of luck, we want to be pushing towards the top-half of the table.” – Gary added.

“I’m going out on a limb and saying 12th – that would be a successful season and would give us that top-half finish.” – he predicted.

Amongst the mass amount of signings made thus far by Michael Appleton, who has secured the signatures of NINE different players, Gary picks out proven midfielder and leader Liam Bridcutt as the most notable: “He is now the club captain and his experience at Leeds United, Brighton & Hove Albion, Sunderland, Nottingham Forest and Chelsea will be valuable for us.”

The 31-year-old defensive-minded central midfielder joined Lincoln on a permanent deal last month, following the expiration of his contract at Nottingham Forest at the end of the last season. He spent the second-half of the campaign on-loan at Sincil Bank, making five appearances and replacing Jason Shackell, who was dropped from the squad just three weeks after Bridcutt signed, as club captain. Lincoln City acts as the 10th club in which Liam Bridcutt has represented during his 13-year senior career.

Other signings made this summer include James Jones (Crewe Alexandra), Lewis Montsma (FC Dordrecht), Ethan Ross (Colchester United), Conor McGrandles (MK Dons), Adam Jackson (Hibernian), Joe Walsh (MK Dons), Theo Archibald (Macclesfield Town) and TJ Eyoma (On-loan from Tottenham Hotspur).

So, with all of these additions, how has the newly-imposed salary cap impacted business at Lincoln City? Gary provided a simple, yet effective answer: “It hasn’t, not seriously. Obviously to an extent, everyone has been affected, but as we released 11 players, as well as allowing three more under contract to leave, we started with something very close to a clean slate.

“I think in terms of squad churn, we have the highest in the division, which probably means we’re now getting more bang for our buck than many with established squads.”

Gary then proceeded to pick out 17-year-old Sean Roughan as one to watch out for next season: “He’s only a youngster but has just penned his first full-time deal. He might not get 20 games, but he’s versatile, strong and will stand out if he gets the chance. He is a centre-back by trade but has played left-back in recent friendlies.”

The first-half of the new season is likely to be played behind closed doors, with fans not expected to return at full capacity until the New Year at the very earliest. The published Imps author pinpoints how important the presence of supporters are at games and how they can change the outcome of matches in certain scenarios: “I think COVID will be a big leveller and that works against the likes of Lincoln and Portsmouth, who both have passionate fanbases.

“Take our first game, Oxford at home as an example – the atmosphere would have been red-hot and perhaps given us an edge, but pound-for-pound they are likely to have a better starting eleven and therefore, with no fans in attendance, the edge. Home advantage is taken away. For Pompey, it is even tougher because away games are like home games.” – Gary included, further complimenting the Blues’ travelling support.

“Your (Portsmouth’s) support was genuinely the best I have ever seen and, at our ground last season, it undoubtedly spurred you on in what was otherwise a rather average game. Take what away and it’s a different ball game. Only the manager and players can win games now and I know Kenny Jackett isn’t known for taking advantage of the great home support you have, in a tactical sense. I hope, and believe, Michael Appleton will be.”

What does the future hold for Lincoln City? Supporter Gary is aiming for more promotions in the future, but remains grounded with his hopes and dreams: “The glass ceiling is growing beyond the Premier League and, to succeed in the second-tier, you need big crowds and money. Let’s be honest, Wycombe will come straight back down this season and both Coventry and Rotherham will struggle.

“Whoever goes up is likely to struggle and therefore I think the best a side like us can hope for is to become the new Rotherham, yo-yoing between divisions and always having something to play for. It’s a way ahead for us, but if the plan of developing young players and selling them on works, we might be able to fund a top-six tilt in a year or two.”

You can follow Gary’s blog account on Twitter – @Staceywestblog    

Photo: Daniel Chesterton

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