So my FA Cup journey has made it to the quarter finals. Last year I only it made it as far as the fourth round, but I’ve got all the way to last eight this year. This journey has taken me to the ABAX Stadium (London Road for most of us), Sincil Bank, Portman Road, Turf Moor and now the Emirates. This was undoubtedly the biggest game I’d been to. For the first time in 103 years a non-league side had made it to the quarter finals of the FA Cup, and they’d been given the dream tie away at Arsenal.
This was the first time since the stadium opened in 2006 that a non-league side has played at the Emirates, and I doubt they’ll be too many more occasions like this in the future. Lincoln had however sold almost 9,000 tickets for the game, making it the biggest away following at the Emirates. To put that into perspective, the Imps have sold out their last two FA Cup games at Sincil Bank, and have had less than 9,000 fans because of away allocations. Some people were still frustrated with this however, because none of the tickets went on general sale. It is harsh to blame this on Lincoln, because Arsenal didn’t allow any tickets to go on general sale, which seems a little strange in a situation like this.
Given that Lincoln may not play another game of this magnitude anytime in the near future, it felt right to make a day of it. It seems this was an opinion shared with most Lincoln fans. Some had planned to meet at Trafalgar Square, while others had planned to convene just outside the stadium. On the day, it seemed that most of the fans were going to pubs in Covent Garden, and when we got there at around 1:00pm, there were probably a couple of hundred fans there. By the time we left around an hour and a half later, there were probably nearly a thousand fans there chanting and letting off flairs. This was obviously getting in the way of quite a few tourists, but you can’t begrudge the fans. Lincoln have had very little success in recent years, and they don’t get many chances to celebrate like this.
I made it to the ground a good 90 minutes before kick off, and there were already a good number of Imps gathering inside the ground. The Emirates is probably the best ground in the Premier League; it may be smaller than Old Trafford, but in terms of quality and facilities, I don’t think anything else comes close. The cushioned seats are certainly an improvement on the wooden ones found at Turf Moor, and there’s a good view from almost every seat in the ground. Lincoln had been given most of the section at the Clock End of the ground, and it pretty much filled up well before the game started.
In the opening 20 minutes or so, it would have been difficult to tell that Lincoln were a non league side. They easily matched Arsenal, looking strong defensively, and were not afraid to go long to big Matt Rhead if the situation required. It took just three minutes for Rhead to leave his mark on Shkodran Mustafi, with a strong challenge on the German leaving him on the deck. A former builder up against a World Cup winner, this is what the FA Cup is all about. Arsenal still had chances though, with goalkeeper Farman reacting well to keep out Theo Walcott, and Aaron Ramsey passing the ball wide of the post. The best chance though did fall for Lincoln, with Nathan Arnold going on a mazy run into the box, before being brilliantly kept out by Petr Cech. It was certainly the Imps’ “what if” moment.
Unfortunately Lincoln’s strong resistance was broken just minutes before the break. The first time they failed to win the second ball from a cross into the box, it landed at the feet of Theo Walcott, who played a quick one-two with Kieran Gibbs before finding the net via a deflection from Sam Habergham. Would it have been saved without the deflection? Probably. It was a horrible time for Lincoln to concede, as they’d defended so well, and it would have completely changed both sides’ team talks. Lincoln had played well, but given that Arsene Wenger had put out his strongest XI, something only strengthened by the fact he sent on Mesut Ozil for the injured Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, it seemed like it would be a mountain to climb, even with just the one goal.
The mountain grew even taller early in the second half when the Gunners doubled their lead. Lincoln failed to close down Ozil on the corner of the box, who crossed came to Bellerin, who after a quick one-two with Sanchez squared to Olivier Giroud to crash it home. It was obvious that Arsenal’s vastly superior fitness was starting to come through, and although Lincoln are considered the fittest side in the National League, they were a long way off Arsenal. And two soon became three, as a long passing move by the Gunners ended up with Kieran Gibbs’ ball across being unfortunately turned into his own net by Lincoln skipper Luke Waterfall.
Danny Cowley soon turned to his bench to replace cult hero Rhead with Jonny Margetts. It simply wasn’t Rhead’s day, but he was still given a standing ovation by the Lincoln fans, with even some of the Arsenal supporters joining in. It summed up the incredible support from the 9,000 Imps all day, who were never quiet, even immediately after conceding.
When a lower league team plays a team as good as Arsenal, all the fans want to see the big name players in the opposition side, and in Alexis Sanchez and Mesut Ozil, they got it. Sanchez produced what was probably the one moment of pure brilliance after 70 minutes, escaping the attentions of Bradley Wood before brilliantly curling a strike into the far corner. It seemed inevitable where the ball would end up even before he took the shot.
The Gunners still weren’t finished and bought up their fifth just a few minutes later. It was Sanchez at the heart of things again, this time picking out Ramsey to slam home from under a yard out. In all fairness, it was probably the only way that Ramsey was going to score all evening. 5-0 was definitely harsh on Lincoln. Although they were totally outclassed on the day, they gave a good account of themselves, especially in the first half where they almost matched Arsenal.
Wenger’s side almost took pity on Lincoln after that point, dropping deep, allowing them to push forward for the goal that the fans craved for. Substitute Adam Marriott struck a free kick comfortably over the bar, before Sanchez showed him how he should have done it, curling a wicked free kick against the crossbar. Despite sarcastic Lincoln chants of “We’re gonna win 6-5”, that was that. To their credit, Francis Coquelin, Theo Walcott and Petr Cech all took the time to applaud the 9,000 travelling Imps, who were still chanting as if they’d won the whole competition.
The Lincoln players deserved the ovation they got from their fans. Despite their defeat, they had still achieved something historic, and they deserve all the plaudits coming their way. In all fairness, Arsenal’s fans, who had been pretty poor all day, stayed behind to applaud the Lincoln players off, obviously in recognition of their achievements until this point in the season. It was a superb day, and even though you can’t be happy when the team you were supporting lose, this was a once in a lifetime game, and certainly an unforgettable experience.
On the way out I saw the embarrassment that is Arsenal Fan TV being filmed. Some people say that this is entertainment, and I agree, a lot people enjoy the circus. In my view, it’s just a bunch of idiots pretending that they know what they’re talking about.
Rating out of 10: An incredible atmosphere in the away end, very reasonable pricing, and a truly unforgettable experience, just a shame about the result. 9/10