Football: Success comes before beauty

Fan's Eye View NO 235 Lincoln City
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Saturday 22 November 1997, 5.05pm or thereabouts. A car full of fans somewhere in Colchester.

The tension had been mounting ever since James Alexander Gordon had read out the results of Exeter City and Notts County. Both had drawn. Barely had he said Peterborough United than we knew by the tone of his voice that they had also drawn.

"We are top of the League, say we are top of the League," chorused five voices in unison. Such was the excitement that we missed our turning and paid an unscheduled visit to Colchester town centre. Never mind, because Lincoln City were top for the first time in several seasons.

Two seasons ago such a position at the head of the Third Division was unthinkable. On the pitch we were in a similar position to Doncaster Rovers, well adrift of the pack, but off it we had none of the problems that blight Rovers. After sacking two managers in 42 days, John Reames, the City chairman, turned to a man who had been out of the game since he was sacked by Preston North End after seven successive defeats - John Beck.

Beck is probably one of the most loathed managers in football - at least by fans at any clubs other than Cambridge and Preston. His appointment wasn't exactly greeted with enthusiasm by City fans, but he kept his promise to keep us in the League.

In his two years at Sincil Bank he has attracted controversy, but on the positive side he has brought to Sincil Bank a set of players who do not easily accept defeat and, interestingly for those who despise him, many of them have played for him in the past. If fans don't like him at least there is no shortage of players prepared to play under him at more than one stage in their careers.

Beck's game plan is simple. Every player is a team player who knows where every other player will be at any time. The ball is moved into the opposition's defensive third as quickly as possible with the aim of winning throw-ins, corners or creating a scoring chance. One loan signing this season failed to make an impact because he was an individual and wouldn't conform.

Some might say such a system produces players who are nothing more than robots, but the sale of Gareth Ainsworth to Port Vale for pounds 500,000 proves that individual talent can still shine in a disciplined set-up.

It doesn't always work and many times a long ball up field fails to find its target, or its intended target hasn't done his job and is out of position. The result is an endless chorus of boos and cries of "Play it to feet".

It isn't pretty to watch at times, but it is effective. Opposition managers and even City fans say it is so predictable, but if that is the case why do most teams struggle to cope with it?

This season the goals haven't flowed for City which is unusual for a Beck side. He keeps reminding us that at Cambridge he produced sides who were top scorers in the country for several seasons. Our paltry tally of 20 in 19 games (up to 22 November) is countered by a defensive record of conceding just 14 and keeping seven consecutive clean sheets away from home.

Being top in November, while very nice and far preferable to being bottom, will mean nothing in May. There is room for improvement, not least in scoring.

Many Lincoln fans will continue to moan about how City play and Beck will still be reviled by fans around the country, but if we are still singing "We are top of the League" in May then who really cares?