When Barnet, the last surviving non-league team left in this season’s FA Cup, were beaten by Brentford in a fourth round replay, I have to admit that I allowed myself a small smile, safe in the knowledge that Lincoln City’s remarkable achievement remains intact for another season.
It is two years since Lincoln became the first non-league side to reach the FA Cup quarter-finals in 103 years, redefining how we think of this storied competition in the 21st century. How can one say that the magic of the cup is dead when history is still being written?
Lincoln’s run to the last eight was achieved in the most romantic of ways, each tie imbued with some sparkling of gold dust. Against Oldham in the second round, a sea of phone lights filled Sincil Bank as foggy conditions settled late on, guiding the way home to a 3-2 win against their League One opponents.
The third round replay against Ipswich was an emotional occasion following the recent passing of Lincoln legend Graham Taylor, who must have been smiling down as Nathan Arnold’s last minute winner booked a fourth round tie with Championship leaders Brighton.
Lincoln’s longest-serving stalwart Alan Power converted the penalty which launched a comeback against the Seagulls on the way to a 3-1 victory. Finally a Premier League opponent came out of the hat in round five, but many were disappointed. It could have been Manchester United, Chelsea, Arsenal or Tottenham. Instead, it’s Burnley.
When has anything magical ever happened in Burnley?
Miracle at Turf Moor
Over 3,000 make the trip to Turf Moor on 18 February 2017, more out of hope than expectation. Burnley are having a good season in the Premier League, and Sean Dyche seems like exactly the sort of manager who won’t allow any complacency from his players. He’s been here before, part of the Chesterfield team which reached the semi-finals in 1998.
In the week before the match, Danny Cowley get his players into a siege mentality by playing 15-minute games in training. He’s expecting a high tempo start from the hosts, but it’s Lincoln who should score first, with Jack Muldoon missing from about 12 yards with the goal gaping.
Burnley try to respond, but Andre Gray and Joey Barton shoot straight at Paul Farman. The first three of Cowley’s 15-minute games finish goalless, but Burnley nearly make Lincoln pay for a lapse of concentration early in the second half as Gray awkwardly toe-pokes wide. That aside, there are very few chances being created. Lincoln don’t appear to be tiring.
Lincoln striker Matt Rhead – described by the Telegraph the following day as ‘a lovable, terrifying nuclear chimney of a man’ – is clearly unlike anything the Burnley defenders have faced before. His physical presence sends them scattering like bowling pins, and every decision given against him is vociferously contested.
“Rheady, Rheady,” the travelling hordes chant, clearly enjoying Burnley’s discomfort. He’s one of those players that you love if he’s on your team but you hate otherwise, like a non-league Diego Costa, except with the manoeuvrability of a tank and the first touch of one too.
One Burnley player in particular is starting to get wound up by the big man’s antics: Joey Barton has found a player he can’t bully. Rhead is no stranger to the dark arts himself, but there’s uproar when Barton goes down claiming an elbow. He later gets a yellow card for pushing Terry Hawkridge in the face as tempers boil over.
When Lincoln win a corner a minute from time, it’s Burnley’s turn to switch off. Nobody is marking Luke Waterfall, who peels away to the back post and heads across goal, where his defensive partner Sean Raggett is waiting with purposeful header. Heaton pushes it away, but Raggett wheels away, certain that he’s scored, looking at the referee, imploring him.
An eternity passes as Graham Scott looks at his watch, then points to the halfway line.
Bedlam. Deafening noise, joy unbridled. Even Raggett doesn’t know what to do, running in one direction and then another before slumping in the goal mouth, where his teammates pile on. The calmest man in the stadium is Danny Cowley, who picks out experienced defender Jamie McCombe and tells him to get stripped.
Rhead is the man replaced, to the biggest ovation of his career, and Lincoln go five at the back – but still there’s nearly heartbreak at the death. Gray eludes Bradley Wood’s challenge, but Farman is there to deny him.
The full time whistle goes. Some people are crying, others can’t stand up. History has been made before their eyes. “Who do we want in the next round?” someone asks. “Who cares!” comes the response. Turns out Burnley wasn’t such a bad draw after all.
To say that Lincoln had no FA Cup pedigree before their heroics two years ago would be an understatement. The Imps had reached the third round just once in the 21st century, and eventually they started to regard it in the same way that Premier League teams do. A nuisance, a distraction, not worth the effort.
Danny and Nicky Cowley changed that attitude. Refreshingly, they saw the cup competitions not as a distraction, but as a way of building momentum for the National League run-in. Lincoln played 61 games that season, also reaching the FA Trophy semi-finals. It didn’t seem to do them any harm, as they won the National League with two games to spare.
Of course, there are other reasons for a non-league team to value a FA Cup run. The money has allowed Lincoln to build a new training ground, and a team which currently leads League Two. Memories are great, but they’re not an accepted form of currency in the transfer market.
For Premier League managers, the boot is on the other foot. Finishing higher in the league is much more profitable than a cup run, and that is reflected in the teams they put out. It draws criticism, but it would be naive to do otherwise. Until things change, that will remain the case.
That doesn’t mean the magic of the FA Cup is dead, it just means you have to look harder to find it. AFC Wimbledon and Newport are providing the great stories of this year’s competition, and next year there will be more teams defying the odds, writing the next chapter of FA Cup history.