This has been a season unlike any other for Lincoln City; but despite the obstacles put in their way, the Imps secured their League One status for the third consecutive year and look forward to another campaign in the third tier.
The 2021/22 season came with huge expectations and anticipation for Lincoln City, who were looking to avenge the demons of last season, in which the Imps upset the odds to reach the League One play-off final, before a dramatic Wembley defeat to Blackpool.
Fans were dreaming of another promotion charge this season, but it didn’t take long for realism to set in. Brennan Johnson and Morgan Rogers, both heroic in their efforts to get Lincoln to the play-offs, returned to their parent clubs after the loan spells expired, while star player Jorge Grant was sold to Peterborough United and Tayo Edun joined Blackburn Rovers.
Four of the Imps’ major factors of success the previous year were no longer here, so replacements were vital. In through the door came Lewis Fiorini, the Manchester City loanee tasked with filling the creative void left behind by Grant.
He was joined at the club by Hakeeb Adelakun, Ted Bishop, Lasse Sorensen, Chris Maguire, a returning TJ Eyoma (this time on a permanent deal), Dan Nlundulu on a season-long loan from Southampton, Jamie Robson and goalkeepers Josh Griffiths and Archie Mair, both on loan.
An incredibly busy summer of transfer deals suggested Lincoln were recruiting a big squad capable of competing at the top end of the table, but off the pitch there was a much bigger issue on the mind of manager Michael Appleton.
In July 2021, the Imps boss announced he would take a short break from his duties, to undergo treatment for testicular cancer, though such is the determination of the man, he was back taking training sessions less than two weeks later.
The season started on rocky terms for the Imps, picking up just one league win in five games in August, but a 5-1 away win at Cambridge on September 11 proved to be one of the highlights of the whole campaign.
Lincoln’s indifferent form saw them lose at home to AFC Wimbledon – a team eventually relegated this season – on October 19, but then pick up four points away at Sheffield Wednesday and champions Wigan just days later. If that doesn’t sum up the season I’m not sure what will.
Following that Wigan game came seven league matches without victory, a 3-0 humbling at home to Danny Cowley’s Portsmouth, an FA Cup 2nd round exit to League Two Hartlepool, and genuine fears of relegation would creep in.
A common theme was unfortunately beginning to emerge for Lincoln. They would control possession and territory in games, but offer little to no goal threat, before conceding a sloppy goal the other end and throwing away the points.
It hasn’t been without its flashpoints, though. Chris Maguire’s finest performance was a memorable hattrick during a 3-1 away win against Sunderland, celebrating in the face of Lee Johnson, the manager who released him from the North East club last summer.
January couldn’t come quick enough, and changes were made to the club to address the difficult state of affairs. Dan Nlundulu and Archie Mair were sent back from their loan spells, and a whole host of names came through the door.
Swansea allowed for duo Morgan Whittaker and Liam Cullen to join the Imps on loan, while two non-league strikers in the form of Ben House and Charley Kendall were also signed – though Kendall went back out on loan until the end of the season.
Goalkeeper Jordan Wright came in from Nottingham Forest, an unsung hero of the season for his performances since arriving, and a real dose of quality was added in the form of Arsenal loanee Brooke Norton-Cuffy – perhaps the only Lincoln player to attract attention from Barcelona and Real Madrid.
As if that wasn’t enough, a deal was struck to bring in experienced League One goalscorer John Marquis on a short-term contract. Ultimately his goals early on in his Lincoln career helped steer the Imps out of major relegation trouble.
Other memorable occasions this season came at Plymouth on January 22, where a dramatic 2-1 away win was sealed by an injury time winner from Max Melbourne, as well as the 3-1 victory at home to Sheffield Wednesday in March.
No matter how you feel about the season, Imps fans can take solace in knowing Sunderland and Sheffield Wednesday, perhaps the two biggest sides in the division, couldn’t beat little old Lincoln this campaign.
Safety was secured on Monday, April 18 after a 3-0 victory at home to Cheltenham Town, and the season rounded off with a 2-1 win at home to Crewe on the final day, securing a 17th place finish. That result was marred by the departure of Michael Appleton, just moments after the full-time whistle.
Lincoln City won just seven of their 23 home games in the league this season, the 19th best record of the 24 teams in League One. Their struggles at the LNER Stadium were well documented, and the team collected as many points away from home (26) as they did at their own ground.
So why did this happen? How can a side go from the play-off final to battling relegation for most of the next campaign? Well, despite the divisive opinions of the fanbase at times, it really is quite simple in hindsight.
Brennan Johnson recently won the EFL Championship Young Player of the Year, he is the best player in a Nottingham Forest side on the verge of promotion to the Premier League, and he was at Lincoln City in League One last season.
He won games by himself at times. Take that, along with your top creator (Jorge Grant), most direct runner (Morgan Rogers) and consistent full back (Tayo Edun) out of your team and what do you get? That’s right, a bordering on irreplaceable gap.
That’s without mentioning the horrendous injury crisis Lincoln have dealt with this season. Lewis Montsma is out until Christmas with a cruciate ligament injury, Adam Jackson suffered three concussions in one campaign, Joe Walsh could not play consistently, Liam Bridcutt has been missing for 75% of it, Tom Hopper also.
It’s been a nightmare at times, with makeshift backlines and midfielders at full back (for what it’s worth Ted Bishop, you have been excellent wherever you play).
And what about the fact the manager had the horror of a cancer diagnosis on his mind before a ball was even kicked? Some things are bigger than football, and your life and health is absolutely one of those things.
Despite all this, Michael Appleton performed with both hands tied behind his back at times and kept the club stable. It is just the second time since the Second World War Lincoln City will spend four years in the third tier, never forget that statistic.
Regan Poole was voted Player of the Season and Player’s Player of the Season at the club awards, and it’s very difficult to argue against him. The defender has been a sensation at the back, showing glimpses of why he was so highly thought of at Manchester United.
Anthony Scully won the top scorer award for the second year running, and despite tailing off with form and injuries at times, he was a constant threat going forward and must be someone the next manager builds the side around.
As for whoever comes next, they have a big job on their hands, but this is a club that is run brilliantly in the hands of Clive Nates and Liam Scully. It has intensely passionate fans that sell out most weeks, and a talented bunch of players who just need to be reminded of how good they are.