Frayed nerves and manic gestures in last-day fight for League survival
BBC presenter John Inverdale is in for a tense day as his beloved Lincoln face the prospect of becoming a 'non' club
Saturday 07 May 2011
It's the word 'non' that does it. Non-League. With all due respect to the quality of some of the football and the size of some of the crowds further down the footballing pyramid, it's the prospect of dropping out of the "club" that is the Football League, that horrifies the fans and officials of Lincoln City and Barnet this afternoon.
If your club is "non" League, there's no differentiation between a purpose-built 10,000-seater stadium and a bumpy pitch adjacent to an A-road that doubles up as a communal dog toilet and exercise ground. And at just before five today, either Lincoln or Barnet will slip out of League Two and join their ranks. Perhaps for ever.
It will be a tense afternoon at Sincil Bank and Underhill, but not in the way that it used to be. The last time Lincoln suffered this same fate in 1987, the local radio station BBC Radio Lincolnshire was the only way to follow the fortunes of other sides in the relegation mix. You had to take a tranny to the game, and pass the news on in Chinese whispers to those further down the terracing. Rumour and counter-rumour. "I heard it was 1-0." "No it's 1-1." Players on the field distracted by random cheers that might have meant a goal had been scored elsewhere, or equally might not. Today will be all about iPhones and BlackBerries. Lincoln's recent form of two points from a possible 30 is so bleak that even though they host an Aldershot side with absolutely nothing to play for, there's no guarantee of the Imps picking up anything from what is potentially a last-hurrah.
So everyone at Sincil Bank will not so much be looking at the pitch, but looking at their phones. Barnet play Port Vale, who probably need to score at least 10 goals to give themselves an outside chance of a play-off place. Or in other words have nothing to play for. The League Two app will flash. Have Barnet scored? The rumour chain of a generation ago, replaced by hard electronic fact in your hand.
Lincoln's garden leave in the non-League was brief last time. A swift return to the fourth tier of the game in 1988 has been followed by season after season of mid-table mediocrity punctuated by the occasional relegation scare and one year in the old Second Division when Manchester City were beaten at Sincil Bank. But at least they've been part of it. The Football League. The results are always in thick bold ink in the papers. Not tucked away as an afterthought alongside the ice hockey scores. The nagging fear this time is that if the worst happens, it might not be so easy to get back. The Blue Square Premier is full of ambitious clubs, some, most importantly, with money. Once your club is on the slide, how easy is it to arrest that decline? Today is about frayed nerves in the stands, manic gestures in the dugouts, but most importantly cool and determined heads on the pitch.
As a Lincoln City supporter, today I cast my alternative vote for Port Vale, and ask their players for one last big effort before heading for the sun and the sangria. Because for all the promotion and relegation drama elsewhere, nobody else faces the prospect of being a "non" club by tea-time.
Ups and downs
Champions: Queen's Park Rangers
Promoted: Norwich City
Play-offs: Cardiff, Swansea and Reading. Nottingham Forest will join them if they get a point at Crystal Palace today; anything else could let in Leeds.
Relegated: Sheffield United, Scunthorpe United and Preston North End.
Champions: Brighton & Hove Albion
Promoted: Southampton need a point at home to Walsall to go up, although it would take a 17-goal swing in Huddersfield's favour to deny Saints.
Play-offs: Southampton/Huddersfield, Peterborough, MK Dons, Bournemouth.
Relegated: Plymouth and Swindon, plus two of Notts County, Walsall, Dagenham & Redbridge and Bristol Rovers. Anything but a win at Colchester would relegate Bristol Rovers, while Dagenham & Redbridge need a point at Peterborough and for Walsall to lose at Southampton.
Champions: Chesterfield need a point against Gillingham, otherwise promoted Bury could take top spot.
Play-offs: Wycombe/Shrewsbury, Accrington and two from Torquay, Stevenage, Gillingham and Port Vale
Relegated: Lincoln/Barnet and Stockport. Barnet go down unless they win and Lincoln fail to do so.
Blue Square: Premier
Champions: Crawley Town
Play-offs: Luton or Wrexham will meet Wimbledon or Fleetwood in the final.
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