So it’s come to the time when I have my last proper away day of the year. Fortunately this isn’t the final Away Days report, as I still have two games left, though this is the only one I will be in the away end for.
This was also my first ever non-league away game. I have been to a few non-league grounds before, notably Solihull Moors this season, but the less said about that one the better. As I am from Lincoln, it only felt right to head up north to Gateshead for the game where the Imps could have secured the title. Albeit they needed a favour from Guiseley, it could have been a memorable day for the club, six years after being relegated from the Football League. I have been to the last three games at Sincil Bank, with over 9,000 present to witness a brilliant City comeback in the last five minutes to beat Torquay on Easter Friday.
The Gateshead International Stadium is perhaps the biggest ground I have been to in terms of area covered, though this is unfortunately because it isn’t a football stadium. It is simply an athletics ground with a football pitch in the middle. This is the first time I have sampled a ground like this, and I must say I won’t be rushing back. There is nothing wrong with the facilities. The food is alright, at £7 for students the prices were good, the foot room is satisfactory and it can fit nearly 12,000 people. But you are miles away from the pitch. There’s the obvious issue of the athletics track, but then there’s another 10 yards either side of the running track. If there was something taking place right on the other side of the pitch, you wouldn’t be too sure what was going on.
Official statistics show that 2,486 Lincoln fans had made the journey up to Newcastle, with another 1,300 home fans. This is the first time I have been to a game where the away fans outnumbered the home fans, and I think the difference between them was probably greater than the statistics suggest. I didn’t think that there were anywhere near 1,300 home fans, and by the looks of things, there were probably closer to 3,000 away fans. This was in fact Gateshead’s highest attendance at the ground, which it seems shows something about the club’s fan base.
Even with half an hour still to go till kick off, the atmosphere among the away fans was building. Danny Cowley’s men had been in good form and were five points clear at the top of the table despite this being their 58th game of a long and hard season. And during the opening exchanges it was clear that this was getting to the players. This isn’t the biggest squad, and it was being stretched to the limit thanks to City’s exploits in the FA Cup and FA Trophy. In particular Alex Woodyard, Nathan Arnold and Matt Rhead have played an awful lot of football over the last few months and seemed to be running on empty.
The first chance of the game fell to City’s Elliott Whitehouse, whose effort from range was well kept out by ‘keeper Dan Hanford. Gateshead however started the game the better of the two sides, and while it was a bit of a scrappy affair, they were causing Lincoln more problems than they were causing them. This control paid off after 29 minutes, when Luke Hannant cut in from the right and was hacked down by Sean Raggett just inside the penalty area. Despite what it seemed like from the first viewing, it was a clear penalty, and with Raggett already on a yellow card, he was lucky to remain on the field. Paddy McLaughlin stepped up and confidently sent Farman the wrong way.
The goal almost woke Lincoln up, and they started playing more after that. Sam Habergham, who produced a fantastic 88th minute free kick to beat Torquay on the Friday, delivered a couple of dangerous crosses which came to little, and Lee Angol fired straight at Hanford from the edge of the area. The big chance in the half fell to Arnold though, with his volley from the penalty spot brilliantly kept out by the finger tips of Hanford. Just before the end of the half the roar from the Lincoln fans made it clear that Guiseley had taken the lead against Tranmere, a result which would secure the title for Lincoln if they won.
What was clear though, even more when the second half began, was the support that kept coming from the Lincoln fans, just as it had all season. Danny Cowley has said how in the last two home games the fans have been the difference between the teams, and during last Tuesday’s match with Chester, that felt like the case when Alan Power was sent off. Lincoln were certainly on top in the second half, but there seemed a lack of quality. There were a number of aimless passes over the top, and on the few occasions that they did get into dangerous positions, they failed to find the right pass to make the most of it.
They weren’t helped out by perhaps the worst piece of officiating I have ever witnessed. From a throw just inside his own half, Habergham launched it over the top into substitute Adam Marriott who had cleverly run in behind the defence, only to see the linesman raise his flag and give offside. From a throw in. Officials make bad decisions, but they should at least know the rules. The Lincoln fans weren’t going to let him forget it. Chants of “offside, from a throw in” and “you’re getting sacked in the morning” went on for a while, and every time there was a throw in, fans would shout things like “watch the line lino” and “get your flag ready”. When the announcement came over the PA system that fans could vote for their man of the match, it felt like the whole away stand just bellowed “lino” together.
There were a few decent chances, but nothing of any real note. Luke Waterfall and Rhead both headed straight at Hanford from good positions as Lincoln continued to launch crosses into the box to pick out the big man Rhead. There was a clear frustration growing amongst the Lincoln fans, and that only grew stronger with the news that Tranmere had turned it around to lead at Guiseley. Raggett almost changed that mood when he turned and hit an instinctive volley in the box, only to see it brush past the post.
And just as it seemed that it wasn’t going to happen for Lincoln, the ball fell to Josh Ginnelly, who played a clever ball in behind to Sean Long, whose cross was blocked by the outstretched arm of Jamal Fyfield. A stonewall penalty. As the tribal like chants of “Rheady” came from the away fans, the big man stepped up and fired the ball past Hanford as the clock ticked past 90 minutes. The Imps looked to have earned a point that they probably didn’t deserve.
And suddenly, almost miraculously, one point became three. Farman’s long clearance was flicked on by Rhead to Arnold, who took it on his chest, swivelled, and smashed in an unstoppable left footed volley to send the travelling fans into delirium. Lincoln players piled over to the supporters, a number of whom climbed over the barriers to join in the celebrations. On Easter Monday, Lincoln had pulled off a comeback Jesus himself would have been proud of. It was a win that Lincoln didn’t deserve, but their character and will to win had shone through.
The celebrations at the end of the match seemed to show that they knew that the title was as good as won, even though they will need two points at home to Macclesfield on Saturday to secure a return to the Football League. The couple of thousand of away fans remained behind for at least 15 minutes after the full time whistle to salute the players for their mammoth effort. Despite the result, it was well worth the trip up north just for those unforgettable last few minutes.
I will be back on Saturday, but not at Sincil Bank for the Macclesfield game, as I will be at Wembley for the FA Cup semi-final between Chelsea and Tottenham. I know I said that my FA Cup journey was over this year, but that has obviously changed and I will expand more on that when the Away Days for that game is published.
Rating out of 10: In terms of memorable moments on the field, there isn’t much more to ask for. An individual moment of brilliance in the 92nd minute winning the game. But I’m afraid the ground really is an issue and the view is clearly a problem. 8/10