Defining a Season : Part 4 : 2003/4
By Nathan Jackson
June 1 2006
2003/4 was arguably the best Imps' side out that Keith had in his 4 years at Sincil Bank and City came close to going up. It was a year where several great players were brought in and City always looked capable of winning any game but inevitably, a mistake from McCombe cost City's promotion
City’s start to the 2003/4 season had been very slow, very few players signed during the summer and the Imps only had 1 points from their first 4 games. The second games of those 4 saw the Imps travel to Torquay and new signing, Gary Fletcher made his debut, coming on as a late substitute. 2 games later, the Imps travelled to Bury on Bank Holiday Monday and Fletcher, broke through on goal, rounded goalkeeper, Glyn Garner and put the ball into the net for the Imps first goal of the season. Fletcher’s impact on the entire season was immense and eventually ended up with 18 goals including some memorable ones, which we’ll get to later.
Nothing else major happened until November, manager Keith Alexander had been linked with the manager’s position at Peterborough and in the home game in the FA Cup against Brighton, Imps fans made it known to Keith how much they loved him and wanted him to stay, however, days later that all changed. Tuesday morning was a morning like no other as an Imps fan, every Imps fans woke up to the news that Keith had collapsed overnight and was in a very critical condition in a hospital in Sheffield. Get well wishes flooded in from all corners of the country, even Premiership managers who had probably never heard of Keith Alexander, sent him messages. Keith had died 3 times during surgery and was on the road to recovery. Finally, he returned to the home game with Boston.
About 3 weeks after Keith’s collapse, assistant manager, Gary Simpson took the team to Mansfield Town. With only 2 away wins all season and going to a team with only 1 home defeat to that point, we weren’t optimistic about the game. Mansfield were amongst the top scorers in the division. Anyway, the game kicked off and 3 minutes in, Ricky Butcher had won the ball in midfield and took an optimistic shot, the ball travelled 35 yards at lightning speed and sailed past Mansfield keeper, Kevin Pilkington for arguably the best goal in Lincoln’s history.
A few weeks after arguably the best, came arguably the cheekiest goal scored in Imps history. City were against Cambridge United, a midtable side who ALWAYS drew with the Imps. 6 minutes in, a long ball was played forward to Fletch but it fell behind him so he back heeled the ball (when it was still in midair) and it sailed towards goal and went into the back of the net.
An extremely cold Friday night at the end of January saw the Imps travel to league leaders, Doncaster Rovers, the game also saw the first away game to be attended by recovering Keith Alexander. Like the Mansfield game, no-one really expected City to win and ironically, their only home loss up until that point, had come against Yeovil (the only team to win at Mansfield before Lincoln). In all fairness, Doncaster dominated the game and should have won by a mile but an own goal from Tim Ryan and a controversial goal by Gary Fletcher gave the Imps a 2-0 win.
Anyone who tells you this next moment wasn’t the most controversial moment in 2003/4, or arguably Lincoln’s history, either hasn’t seen it, or is lying. City were drawing 1-1 at Huddersfield when an Efe Sodje header was flicked towards the Imps goal and Huddersfield striker, Pawell Abbott got the ball 20 yards outside of goal despite being in an offside position and rounded Marriott and put the ball in the net. Pawell had been flagged offside like before that and must have been at least 25/30 yards offside before referee, George Cain ran towards the linesman and they started getting into a little discussion before players of both teams surrounded them both and George Cain could be seen pointing towards the centre spot meaning a goal had been given. Now obviously it was a goal and makes no difference now but Cain based the decision to let the goal stand was based on the ball coming off Imps defender, Paul Morgan. This however was the opposite of Fifa’s official rule on offside which stated that “If a player is in an offside position once the ball is played forward, if he plays the ball, he is considered offside despite if it takes a deflection off an opposition player.”
Probably the toughest game out of any in the final few months was the home game to Mansfield. Keith Curle’s men were still fighting for an automatic promotion place at this point. City dominated the first half although Iseyden Christie did have a goal disallowed for the visitors. City had been in firm control when diving diverson, Liam Lawrence ran behind Gary Fletcher and fell over. The referee pointed to the spot and Diver put it away to make it a very undeserved 1-0 lead for the visitors. The second half truly showed City’s spirit during the 2003/4 season as the Imps soon found themselves level after a goalmouth scramble saw the ball fall for Gary Fletcher who smashed it into the back of the net. Around the 70 minute mark, Fletch ran at the Mansfield defence before eventually shooting from 25 yards and the ball sailing onto the post and into the goal for 2-1. Within a minute it was 3-1 when Green evaded his marker after a long ball forward and neatly chipped the ball over Kevin Pilkington. Simon Yeo rounded off the scoring by getting in between 5 (FIVE) defenders and lofting the ball over Pilkington and into the net.
A week later saw the type of goal that made Fletch special that season. The Imps travelled to Leyton Orient, the side they’d brought Fletcher off and within 3 minutes, he’d put the Imps into the lead but 5 minutes into the second half saw him pick the ball up at the half way line and started running towards goal. He was surrounded by Orient shirts all the way along, running between 5 Orient players along the way, Fletch broke through them all the smashed the ball past the Orient keeper. The goal was greeted by a applause from Orient fans and when Fletch was substituted minutes later, he was given a stand ovation from all 4 sides of the ground.
With only 4 games left, City travelled to Carlisle. The Cumbrian’s had only gained 5 points by Christmas and had spent the entire season in the relegation zone. However, due to a miraculous recovery, a win against the Imps would, with other results going their way, see them climb outside of the relegation zone for the first time. However, heading into the last minute, City were 1-0 up thanks to a goal from Peter Gain. Carlisle had won a free and keeper, Matt Glennon had gone up for it. However, the ball was cleared to Richardson, who passed to Bailey who just smashed it upfield. 72 yards later, the ball had bounced a few times but had found it’s way into the goal. 72 (SEVENTY TWO) YARDS, MARK BAILEY HAD JUST SCORED FROM 72 YARDS. However, this goal was in the last Imps win of the season.
The playoff semi finals, second leg, at Huddersfield. City were 2-1 down from the first leg and needed to win to take it to at least extra time. 37 minutes had gone by with City relatively controlling the game, Huddersfield had been very poor and a mistake between goalkeeper, Rachubka and Efe Sodje say the ball fall to Richard Butcher who chipped the ball with the outside of his foot into the net and it was 2-2 and the celebrations in the Lincoln end were immence, we were back in the game. 66 seconds later, Marcus Richardson had passed to Mark Bailey who dinked the ball past a Huddersfield defender before shooting past Rachubka to make it 2-0 on the night and 3-2 on aggregate and the away end was like a mosh pit, 3,100 people going absolutely mental. The pure ecstasy that Lincoln fans found themselves in was just too unreal to describe. A minute later, Yeo burst through and we were thinking, nah, it can’t be, surely not and it wasn’t, Yeo sent his shot into the sky but City should have been long gone by then. The game finished 2-2 and 4-3 to Huddersfield on aggregate and so ended probably our best chance of promotion under Keith Alexander.
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