Lincoln City secured a fifth straight season in League One with an 11th placed finish in 2022/23 – a campaign which saw a new Imps era take shape, woven in between famous wins, a lot of draws, and a few nervy times.
Not many would have been bold enough to predict the fate of Lincoln City this season, as change was the word of summer 2022 at the LNER Stadium.
After a difficult 2021/22 season, which ultimately saw the Imps secure safety from relegation, Michael Appleton departed the club and was replaced by former Republic of Ireland international Mark Kennedy.
Kennedy joined Lincoln on a four-year contract, in what is just his second job in first team management, following a brief spell with cash-strapped Macclesfield Town in 2020.
Speaking ahead of the season, Mark Kennedy was full of praise for the well-documented structure of the football club, saying the way it is run sets managers up for success and progress right away – though patience was still required in his first full season in charge of a senior football team.
With this change in coaching staff, came changes to on-field personnel. In came the likes of Paudie O’Connor and Charles Vernam from Bradford City, Danny Mandriou from Shamrock Rovers; and Matty Virtue, Tashan Oakley-Boothe and Carl Rushworth on respective season-long loans.
New coaching staff, new players, new optimism – but would that translate to wins when the white line was crossed on a Saturday?
League One’s draw kings – unbeatable against the top half, weak against the bottom half
A story of Lincoln’s season came from the team’s ability to pick up massive results against some of the division’s best sides, while in the same breath struggling to beat the teams below them in the table.
Take, for example, the Imps’ record against the top three sides in the league this season. Against champions Plymouth, Lincoln picked up four points. They also picked up four points against 2nd placed side Ipswich Town, and held Sheffield Wednesday to two draws.
In fact, only Peterborough in 6th managed to finish above Lincoln while also beating them in both games, all other top ten sides were either held to a draw or beaten at least once by the Imps in 22/23.
Unfortunately, Lincoln stuttered against the teams you’d typically expect them to beat – such is the unpredictable brilliance of League One football.
Of the four relegated sides this season, Lincoln managed two draws with MK Dons, a win and a loss against Morecambe, a win and draw with Accrington Stanley and two draws with basement club Forest Green Rovers.
That is just 11 points from a possible 24 against the four worst teams in League One this season, and it is surely something Mark Kennedy and his staff will work on improving over the summer.
This combination saw Lincoln amass 20 draws across the season, more than any side in England’s top four leagues, alongside 14 wins and 12 losses.
47 goals scored and 47 conceded left the Imps on a level 0 for goal difference, which again speaks volumes for how the season went for Lincoln.
Cup competitions – Both sides of an upset
It was a mixed bag for the Imps in cup competitions this season. Impressive progress through the Carabao Cup saw Lincoln topple Championship side Bristol City in the third round, before just coming up short against Premier League outfit Southampton in the last 16.
Lincoln made it through to the quarter final stages of the Papa Johns Trophy, but were denied further progress via a penalty shootout defeat to Accrington Stanley, and the Imps’ FA Cup journey ended before it really began.
Drawn away to non-league Chippenham Town in round one, Lincoln received a taste of their own underdog medicine, as they were beaten 1-0 by the sixth tier side in a major cup upset.
The course of this season allowed for multiple players to take up shining roles in this Lincoln City team, with standout performers appearing all over the pitch for Mark Kennedy’s side.
Loanees Carl Rushworth and Matty Virtue provided a touch of class to the team throughout the campaign, with the Imps showing keen interest in signing the latter permanently from Blackpool this summer.
Paudie O’Connor was named the club’s Player of the Year for his impressive defensive displays in his first season at the LNER Stadium, forming a strong partnership with Regan Poole at the back.
Another contender for that award was Ben House, the centre forward who took his game to the next level in 2022/23.
House, 23, fired in 12 League One goals to be the Imps’ top scorer this season, and his relentless energy chasing down defenders and running channels has seen multiple Championship clubs express interest in the former Eastleigh striker.
Yet again Regan Poole was a key player for Lincoln this season, and with his contract expiring in the summer it looks like now may finally be the time that fans say goodbye to the defender, who is surely Championship bound at this stage in his career.
Another player worth a mention is Lasse Sorensen, who adopted a new marauding wing back role in the second half of the season to great effect – and he even scored from inside his own half away at Wycombe to become viral news.
A word must also go to Ethan Erhahon, the Scottish midfielder who joined the Imps from St Mirren in January. The 22-year-old offered a calmness and quality to the midfield area that was desperately needed, and in a matter of months he has become an integral part of the football club’s future plans.
Mark Kennedy – Learning on the job but thriving as a result
The Lincoln City head coach has made no secret of his growth as a manager over the course of this season. He himself has openly admitted to learning from mistakes and taking some time to be fully prepared for whatever challenges League One can throw at you.
For his first full season in management to end in guiding one of the EFL’s youngest squads to a top half finish, there should be nothing but praise sent the way of Kennedy and all his backroom staff.
It has been turbulent at times, with genuine relegation fears making themselves known around Christmastime and some fans questioning tactics during periods where goals were not flying.
However, Mark Kennedy’s focus and philosophy has not shifted and all we have seen in recent months is a growing togetherness within the squad – translating to impressive results on the pitch.
There have been games where Lincoln are too wide open at the back, followed by games where they were too compact and unable to get up the pitch.
What has been the most impressive aspect of Mark Kennedy’s coaching this season has been the way he adapts his sides when these poor performances happen – the response to a disappointment has often been impressive in 22/23.
Summary – Uneventful finish, but is that a bad thing?
Football is about drama, those heightened moments of tension where the entire pendulum can swing in the blink of an eye. Take, for instance, Mansfield Town in League Two, who missed out on the play-offs because their goal difference was one less than the team in 7th.
Lincoln had no such worries, they were cast adrift from the chasing play-off pack, and secured relegation with games to spare – so many felt the season ended with a bit of a damp squib, particularly given the drama Imps fans have witnessed in recent seasons.
Comfortably securing a place in League One for the fifth consecutive season might not be the most glamorous of campaign reviews, but considering where Lincoln City have come from in the last decade, it should be gratefully received.
The fact is that this is Lincoln’s second best league position since their return to the third tier, and the foundations are now in place for an exciting future for this young squad and young manager.
Such is the ruthless nature of football, questions will still be asked about the style of play and results, because fans want nothing but the best and that is to be understood.
However, with Lincoln’s stature now evolving into that of an established League One side, can an assault now be launched on those play-off places? Dare Imps fans dream of a return to Wembley, hopefully this time with a better outcome?
Lincoln City are a settled third tier team now, preparing for a fifth season at the level. Who would have thought that in the National League days? It’s been quite a journey, and this now feels like the next chapter of the Imps’ remarkable ascension.
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