Many have questioned whether the magic of the cup has gone in recent years. Big teams field weakened teams, TV channels constantly pick the wrong game, and even teams lower down the Football League pyramid take it less seriously. But sometimes there are days that remind us what the cup is all about, and why the FA Cup is the best cup competition in the world.
Lincoln City have already performed miracles in the FA Cup this year. They dispatched Oldham Athletic in the second round with a 3-2 victory at Sincil Bank, before Nathan Arnold’s last minute winner against Ipswich Town in the replay sent the Imps to the fourth round. A 3-1 win over Brighton & Hove Albion was undoubtedly the biggest shock of lot, something many of us thought was about as good as it would get. A tie away at Burnley was almost a disappointment. Only 3,200 away fans would get tickets, it wasn’t one of the big games, and it’s one of the worst places to go away to and try to win.
I had managed to get my hands on a ticket for this game, but it’s fair to say I didn’t have too much hope of an Imps victory. Even trying to be optimistic, the most I hoped for was a draw so to take Burnley back to Sincil Bank for a replay. I got on the fans coach to this game, the first I had done so, and it was certainly a new experience. There was certainly a bit of a buzz for the whole journey, and when we turned off the M65 to be greeted by a police escort to the ground, you could certainly feel the excitement grow. We arrived at the ground about 10 minutes before fans were allowed in, and there were already hundreds of City fans waiting to go in.
Turf Moor is the smallest ground in the Premier League after Bournemouth’s Vitality Stadium, and it is certainly one of the oldest. The away end still has wooden seats, which I must say the club have to look at improving, especially given that they will almost certainly remain in the Premier League this season. Burnley had decided to split the David Fishwick stand between home and away supporters, which seemed a bit strange, given that there can’t have been more than 700 or 800 home fans there. There were over 1,000 empty seats in the ground, so it would have been much better to give Lincoln the whole stand and move everyone else elsewhere.
I must though mention that Burnley did keep prices very low for this game, at just £10 for adults, and £5 for concessions. This is fantastic for the FA Cup as it gives access to so many more fans, and it’s the sort of thing more clubs should do at this stage of the competition. There was no doubt that the Lincoln fans were up for the game. A majority had gathered in the stands at least 15 minutes before kick off, with deafening chants of “We are Imps” and “To the Football League, we’re on our way”.
It was a nice touch from Burnley for the players to walk out with the club’s oldest supporters, although I felt sorry for the one who had to walk out with Joey Barton. Sean Dyche had gone with a pretty strong side, with only a few differences from a full strength league side. He was certainly not disrespecting the cup. Danny Cowley had kept with a 4-4-2 formation that had proved him so well in this year’s FA Cup, with the only change from the usual cup side being Jack Muldoon replacing Theo Robinson, who left Lincoln on deadline day to join Southend United.
Lincoln actually started the better team, Nathan Arnold getting in behind before picking out Muldoon in the middle, only for him to curl well over the bar. Replays show that Tendayi Darikwa actually got a little touch on it to deny him a clean connection. Big Matt Rhead had been talked about a lot in the build up to the game, and he was quickly back in the spotlight after just eight minutes. With the ball dropping to Joey Barton, Rhead charged at him like a bull, totally wiping him out, leading to applause from the away end. It probably should have been a yellow card, but it was a moment that almost summed up what the FA Cup is all about. A former builder against a very unpopular Premier League footballer. There was only ever going to be one winner.
Burnley’s best chance of the half fell to Andre Gray, who got in behind the Lincoln defence, but couldn’t beat Imps ‘keeper Paul Farman from the edge of the box. Farman also kept out Barton, whose powerful volley from just outside the area was straight at him. Overall, Lincoln were pretty comfortable. Sean Raggett and Luke Waterfall won every header up against Gray and Sam Vokes, while Bradley Wood and Sam Habergham were dealing pretty well with the threat from the wide areas, despite the skilful George Boyd coming on to replace the injured Johann Berg Gudmundsson midway through the half.
The Clarets’ big chance came just after the resumption, when Barton’s free kick picking out Gray, only for the club’s top scorer to poke wide from ten yards out. It was shortly after this point that the game turned into a real battle. With the players lining up for Bradley Wood to hurl a long throw into the box, Barton retreated to a point where he could deliberately plant a little stamp on top of Rhead’s right foot. As Rhead pointed to the referee to complain, Barton ducked under his arm, just clipping his elbow, before throwing himself to the floor like he’d just been shot. It was a disgraceful, embarrassing act of sportsmanship by a man who simply does not deserve to play football at this level.
Barton was at it again just minutes later when players converged after Alex Woodyard went down in the box, with the former Rangers man clearly striking Terry Hawkridge across the face, before Jon Flanagan shoved him to the floor. It was another disgraceful act from Barton, who had firstly tried to get a non-league player sent off, then should have been given his own marching orders. I would discuss his tweets, but he really isn’t worth the extra words.
Cowley said that he would take the game in 15 minutes segments, and the first five had all gone as he would have wanted. From the 75th minute though, things certainly went the other way as Burnley lay siege to the Lincoln goal. Gray’s scuffed shot fell to Ashley Westwood, who was twice denied by the onrushing Farman. From the resulting corner, James Tarkowski arrived late at the back post, but could only head over. Both Gray and Scott Arfield also had chances, but on both occasions fired high, wide, and certainly not handsome.
Then the moment of magic. Habergham’s far post corner found Waterfall, who had found himself in oceans of room on the back post. Waterfall looped a header across, and it came to the back post where Raggett was positioned. The former Dover defender shoved team mate Dayle Southwell aside, before forcing a header over the line. Tom Heaton clawed it back, but after a second of uncertainty, the referee blew his whistle. Cue bedlam. For a second 3,200 away fans had held their breath, then it was pure joy, with a large proportion of disbelief. I have been to a lot of games, but I have never seen anything quite like it. It was unbelievable. It was almost beyond words.
Even then the dream was nearly shattered. A long ball from Heaton was flicked on by Michael Keane, before Gray was once again denied by the brilliant Farman. Every save was cheered, every clearance was cheered. Joe Ward gave away a free kick deep in Burnley territory, the Lincoln fans cheered. The final whistle saw more extraordinary scenes of joy and disbelief. The 3,200 Imps were incredible throughout. The noise level never dropped, and it was a quite extraordinary day. No non-league side has made it to the quarter finals of the FA Cup for 103 years, and those Lincoln heroes will go down in history. As the Dambusters celebration broke out with the players coming over to soak in the atmosphere, emotion got the better of some, with tears breaking out. It’s the Emirates and Arsenal next. Almost the perfect draw. Wenger, be very afraid.
Rating out of 10: A truly amazing day, an “I was there” moment. The atmosphere was superb, the prices were good, the food was pretty average though. 9.5/10