2021 was a year like no other for Lincoln City, experiencing the highs of a play-off trip to Wembley, and the unfortunate hangover that comes after a defeat on English football’s most famous pitch.
The Imps actually started 2021 at the top of the League One table, having upset many pre-season odds and flying out the blocks to establish a lead over the competition.
The squad was strengthened in January with the loan signing of Morgan Rogers from Manchester City and the permanent capture of right back Regan Poole from MK Dons.
January was a great month, as a 2-1 away win at AFC Wimbledon was followed up by a hard fought point against promotion rivals Peterborough, before league victories over Northampton Town and Portsmouth put the Imps in a commanding position.
A surprise 1-0 home loss to Doncaster didn’t halt progress for too long, as in February, a penalty shoot-out win over Hull City secured Lincoln’s place in the semi-finals of the Papa John’s Trophy, and a comprehensive 3-0 win over Gillingham in League One followed.
A hectic schedule for the rest of the month saw Lincoln pick up nine points from six league games, and tragically miss out on a Wembley trip as they lost on penalties to Sunderland in the Papa John’s Trophy semi-final; a competition Sunderland would go on to win.
March saw City’s grip on automatic promotion loosen, as mixed results, including home losses to Fleetwood, Rochdale and Gillingham, and draws with Ipswich and Sunderland meant just five points from a possible 21 were collected.
If March was a wobble, then April certainly steadied the ship. Four wins and a draw from six league games kept feint hopes of a top two finish alive, and set up a huge clash with Peterborough at the start of May, in which Posh needed just a point to go up to the Championship.
The Imps raced into a 3-0 lead away from home, but a spirited fightback from Peterborough brought it back to 3-2 before a widely controversial penalty call gave Jonson Clarke-Harris a chance from the spot to secure promotion for Posh, which he took with open arms.
So, the play-offs it was for Lincoln. May continued with a loss away at Charlton and a 0-0 draw with AFC Wimbledon on the final day, setting up a play-off semi-final clash with Sunderland.
The first leg was to be played at the LNER Stadium, and it was the first game all season to have fans back in the stadium, as over 3,000 Imps fans roared their team on to a 2-0 victory, thanks to goals from Tom Hopper and Brennan Johnson.
The return leg at Sunderland’s Stadium of Light was an intense, nervous affair, with the Imps’ 2-0 lead nullified in the first half by their opponents.
2-0 down, Lincoln needed a response, and boy did they get one. Tom Hopper met Jorge Grant’s corner with a great header to score the all-important goal for the Imps, as they held on to book a place at Wembley for the play-off final.
May 30, 2021. Wembley Stadium. Blackpool vs Lincoln City in the League One play-off final, with the winner earning promotion to the Championship, a level the Imps haven’t played at for around 70 years.
Lincoln City took 4,000 fans to the capital for the grand occasion, and despite racing into an early lead, a Kenny Dougall brace meant that it would be Blackpool’s day, as they won 2-1.
Devastation. A sinking feeling after a season of unforgettable moments, incredible football and magnificent players. All eyes were on next season, but deep down we all knew it wouldn’t be the same.
After a stellar season, talisman and top creator Jorge Grant left the club to join newly promoted Peterborough United in the Championship, while loan stars Brennan Johnson, Morgan Rogers, TJ Eyoma, Alex Palmer and Callum Morton returned to their parent clubs.
New season, new beginnings. Harry Anderson, the last remaining player from the National League winning side, was released and ended up going to Bristol Rovers in League Two, and the recruitment drive had to start.
Before this, though, American-based investors the Jabara family became shareholders in the club, with legendary figure in U.S. soccer Landon Donovan joining as a strategic advisor. The future was looking very bright.
As for transfers, in came Lewis Fiorini on loan from Manchester City, Chris Maguire on a free transfer, Dan Nlundulu on loan from Southampton, Hakeeb Adelakun on a free, Ted Bishop from Ipswich Town, Josh Griffiths on loan from West Bromwich Albion, Lasse Sorensen from Stoke City, and a permanent return for TJ Eyoma from Tottenham Hotspur.
Deadline day saw Tayo Edun leave for Blackburn Rovers, replaced by Scottish full back Jamie Robson on the same day, but a proposed move for Swansea forward Morgan Whittaker collapsed at the eleventh hour.
It wasn’t just transfer business that was causing issues for Lincoln’s pre-season preparations. In July, manager Michael Appleton announced he would take a short break from duties after being diagnosed with testicular cancer.
It was a stark reminder to us all that these sporting figures we cherish and respect are human, they suffer like you and I, and some things are far bigger than football.
An operation to remove the tumour was successful, and just 13 days later the boss was back on the training pitch in time for the start of the League One season.
As for matters on the pitch, Lincoln picked up just one win in five league games in August to start the season, but responded with their finest performance of the campaign to date, a 5-1 away win at Cambridge United.
The biggest positive across the football pyramid was that the start of the 2021/22 season signalled the full return of fans, and regardless of what has happened on the pitch, it has been incredible to hear the Imps fans in full voice again.
One player who certainly didn’t start the season slowly was forward Anthony Scully, who has scored 11 goals in 19 games so far, but has featured just once since October 23. Is it an injury? Or is it an imminent move away? Only time will tell.
Fortunes didn’t change for the Imps after August, as more injuries and poor results heaped pressure on the new-look squad, crying out for the end product supplied by the likes of Johnson and Grant the season before.
Again moving off the pitch, in September the Imps drew up plans to add a second tier to the Stacey West Stand at the LNER Stadium and launched a crowdfunding operation to help get it over the line.
Costing over £2 million it would, when completed, increase capacity by around 1,500, as well as creating a new home for the club’s community work.
October was an improvement back on the field, losing just one league game despite tough away trips to Sheffield Wednesday and Wigan, as well as a home game with high-flying Plymouth Argyle.
A 1-0 win against FA Cup minnows Bowers & Pitsea kicked off November for the Imps, but that would turn out to be the last time they have won a game of football at the time of reporting.
Since then, the Imps have played seven times in three competitions, being knocked out of the FA Cup by League Two Hartlepool just four days after fellow League Two side Carlisle sent Lincoln out of the Papa John’s Trophy on penalties.
After looming fears that the Omicron variant was spiralling out of control, and with Doncaster Rovers, scheduled opponents for Saturday, December 18, reporting positive COVID-19 cases, the game was postponed, giving the Imps an extended break over Christmas.
They will return to action on Boxing Day, COVID permitting, facing MK Dons at home in search of that elusive first win in eight games in all competitions.
Lincoln round out the year with a trip to pace setters Rotherham on Wednesday, December 29, before starting 2022 with an away game at Ipswich on New Year’s Day.
It’s been a whirlwind 12 months for everyone associated with Lincoln City, and while Michael Appleton may be going through his most difficult time as Lincoln manager in terms of on the pitch matters, there’s a lot to look back on and celebrate.
We’ve seen time and time again the impact of a play-off final defeat on a squad. It can either galvanise and prompt a title surge, or leave a lingering hangover that results in following season disappointment.
In the case of Lincoln City, you add the heartbreak of Wembley to losing key players in the summer (Johnson, Grant, Rogers, Palmer, Edun), and it was always going to be an uphill battle.
From non-league to 90 minutes from the Championship in five years, that is something that must not be ignored, and with a surely busy January transfer window coming up for Lincoln City, you sense a turnaround could be on the horizon if the cards are played right.
In short, a lot can happen in 12 months, and Lincoln City are proof of that. The club are looking to become an established League One club before building towards something special, so let’s see what 2022 has to offer!