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Wednesday, October 20, 2010

City Stickers

With the appointment of Steve Tilson as their new manager, Nobes looks at whether Lincoln City can finally move onwards and upwards.

Steve Tilson gained back-to-back promotions at Southend United

There's a new league in town. With Rochdale's promotion and Darlington dropping into the Conference, the two longest serving members of League Two both departed
last term.

Step forward a new club. After 12 consecutive seasons - and 22 of the last 23 campaigns - spent
in the fourth tier, say hello to the Lincoln Division.

It's hard to say whether it's a desirable tag or not. After all, while the Imps have floundered in the basement division, they've seen themselves passed by smaller clubs with much less history.

Equally, however, they've seen the likes of Oxford and Luton - clubs who competed in the top flight and both won the League Cup during the '80s - drop into the Conference.

Maybe there's something to be said for consistency. Consistency is something City fans know all too much about though.

They set a new Football League record in 2006 when they became the first club to lose out in four successive play offs. Twelve months later, and they made it five on the spin.

However, if the play offs really are a lottery, it seems in recent years that they've stopped buying tickets at Sincil Bank. Since defeat over two legs to Bristol Rovers in 2007, they haven't finished in the top half of League Two.

It's a big fall for a set of fans who became accustomed to enjoying an extension to their season under the management of the late Keith Alexander.

In truth 'Big Keef' raised expectations at Sincil Bank to a level not seen for many years. After coming so close to going out of business in 2002 after the collapse of ITV Digital, the club seemed to be re-born.

Reaching the Millennium Stadium in 2003 for the play off final was one of the great achievements of lower league football. Alexander had built a squad of cast-offs and Non League punts that had taken the division by surprise.

The fact he managed to repeat the trick - albeit steadily improving and refining his team as his budget steadily increased - for the next three years, too, was a performance never truly given the credit it deserved.

However, over-achievement led to higher demands. His successor, Jon Schofield, also guided the Imps into the play offs but a poor start the next year cost him his job.

Indeed, the club appear to be decline ever since their fifth play off loss with recent seasons seeing them struggle towards the bottom and battling to avoid relegation.

For a generation brought up on the success under Alexander, recent managerial incumbents - the experienced Peter Jackson followed by rookie Chris Sutton - were never going to be given much time from the terraces to get things right.

Now the mantle falls to Steve Tilson - whose Southend side beat Lincoln in the 2005 play off final - to try and bring better times to the Cathedral City.

Tilson was always the front-runner in an extensive hunt for a replacement for Sutton that included former boss Steve Thompson, Dave Penney, and Accrington's John Coleman.

The latter eventually signed a long-term deal to remain in Lancashire, but spoke about the potential of City's fan base as "massive."

Lincoln have the potential for bigger crowds at Sincil Bank

It's an interesting point. The city and area around it has a population of around 250,000. The university, established in the '90s, is providing an historic city with a modern and dynamic future.

Unlike smaller clubs in areas like the North West, Yorkshire, or London, too, Lincoln are not surrounded by a whole host of much bigger clubs playing at the highest levels. There are fans out there for them to attract.

During the good times under Alexander they attracted crowds around the 5,000 mark. That's now down to just under 3,000 - with the economic situation as well as the team's poor form not helping to fill the stands at the Bank.

However, it's clear that, if the team is successful, the potential is there for Lincoln to pull in crowds good enough to sustain a higher level of football.

Imps supporters could also be excused for a few envious glances up the road to Scunthorpe - currently enjoying life in the Championship and in their third season out of four in the second tier.

Also, despite now being in the Conference, Grimsby enjoyed a prolonged spell in the Championship during the '90s and early Noughties.

Of Lincolnshire's three senior clubs, it seems as though City are the poor relation. If their county rivals can do it, then why not them? Tilson must attempt to finally realise that potential.

Certainly his credentials are impressive. He took over at Southend in similar circumstances to the ones he finds Lincoln in - stuck in a rut and struggling towards the foot of League Two.

However, after keeping them up, he led them to promotion in his first full season. A year later, and they had returned to the Championship as League One champions.

It was a spectacular turnaround in fortunes - achieved through a stylish brand of football and inspired by the goals of Non League bargain buy Freddie Eastwood.

Although he failed to keep them in the Championship, Tilson had marked his card as a promising young manager and was linked to bigger jobs including the regularly vacant hot seat at Norwich.

Financial problems ultimately saw Southend tumble out of League One last term and - although it seemed harsh to blame a manager working with his hands tied - he left the Essex outfit during the summer.

With a play off finish in League One
also achieved during his time at Roots Hall, the 44-year-old probably felt he'd get back into the game at a higher level. Instead, he must now play the resurrection game again - both for himself and City.

Working on a budget will be a challenge he is familiar with.

However, for someone who likes to play a footballing game, he must also find a way to bring success to a club who, ever since the days of Graham Taylor in the 1970s, have only ever prospered under long ball managers.

It's time to change the record all round - but it will take time and patience.

Club Chairman Bob Dorrian spoke in the summer about ambitions of making it into the Championship. They now have a manager in place who has done it. The question is - can Lincoln?

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