Next Saturday, Keith Alexander will be picking a team for the first of this season's play-off finals at the Millennium Stadium. On 5 May last year he was picking up the pieces of a club on the brink of extinction. With due respect to David Moyes, and to Sir Alex Ferguson, the man who has guided Lincoln City to the Third Division play-off final is the man whose name ought to be on the manager of the season trophy.
It is one thing managing a team blessed with a 17-year-old boy wonder and one with a £19m Dutch goal machine. It is quite another managing with not so much next to nothing as less than nothing.
Lincoln were in administration when Alexander was appointed as Alan Buckley's successor a year ago. "That's right," he reflected with a wistful smile in the wake of the 1-0 win at Scunthorpe that booked his side a play-off final date with Bournemouth. "We didn't get paid for eight weeks, I think it was. We didn't know how we were going to pay our bills."
The bills were eventually paid with the help of some £200,000 raised by Lincoln's supporters through their Save The Imps campaign. Alexander still had to scrape together a team on a shoestring budget, though. He signed eight players from non-League clubs to join the remnants of a side who had finished third from bottom of the League. None of the critics gave Alexander's ragtime band a hope of avoiding the two relegation spots, let alone of challenging for a place in the Second Division.
Their qualities were clear to see at Glandford Park last Wednesday night as they protected their 5-3 first-leg advantage with a supremely committed and adeptly organised display that restricted an increasingly frustrated Scunthorpe side to one and a half chances before Simon Yeo – Lincoln's very own David Fairclough – broke clear to score an excellent 88th-minute winner. It was a fourth goal in three matches as a substitute for Yeo, a former soldier who was working as a postman and playing in the UniBond League for Hyde United until Alexander signed him last summer.
Yeo was not the only non-League recruit who stood out for Lincoln at Scunthorpe. Simon Weaver (ex-Nuneaton) and Ben Futcher (ex-Doncaster, and son of Paul) both excelled at the heart of their defence, and Richard Butcher (ex-Kettering) was equally impressive in midfield.
"It means more to us, getting a break in the Football League, because we've come from other livelihoods," Yeo said. "It's come late for me. I'm 28, but I'm making the most of every minute." Alexander had the same hunger himself in his playing days. He worked as a boot fitter, a joiner and a draughtsman before he moved from Barnet into the professional ranks at Grimsby at the age of 29. A tall, rangy striker, he went on to play League football for Stockport and Lincoln too.
"There are a lot of good non-League players who need a chance," he said. "It takes a brave man to sign as many as we've had to, but that was due to financial circumstances. Some of them are only on £250 a week. Half of the players in the Conference wouldn't get out of bed for that.
"They've been absolutely magnificent. This team should win the team of the year award for what they've done this season. They haven't got the credit they deserve."
The same could be said of Alexander, a 44-year-old native of Nottingham, who earned his managerial stripes at non-League level with Kettering and Northwich – after an unhappy start at Sincil Bank. He was sacked after being given a chance at Lincoln in the 1993-94 season. Nine years later, he stands on the threshold of the greatest moment of his career – of his managerial career, that is. "I did score a goal at Wembley," Alexander pointed out. It set Stamford on the way to a 2-0 win against Guisborough Town in the 1980 FA Vase final.Reuse content