Sunday 25 February 2018

Able Lincoln make Cup history

Burnley 0 Lincoln 1

The Lincoln players enjoy the dressing-room celebrations after their determined display. Photo: Getty Images
The Lincoln players enjoy the dressing-room celebrations after their determined display. Photo: Getty Images

Jonathan Liew

There was a breathless hush as Sean Raggett's header floated towards goal. An excruciating few seconds as the technology calculated whether it had crossed the line. Then, finally, a whistle and a raised arm. And then pandemonium. Improbably, impossibly, little Lincoln had won the day. The last eight of the FA Cup will have its first non-League representatives since 1914.

You would call it magic, but magic is rarely as brutal as this. Quite aside from the result, it was an utterly enthralling cup tie: rugged and passionate, concussive and ill-tempered, off-kilter and off-colour, intensely physical and unashamedly English. Lincoln successfully drew their Premier League opposition - a side that manager Danny Cowley described as "a really, really good version of us" - into a scrap.

Lincoln City's Sean Raggett scores his side's sole goal of the game Photo: Martin Rickett/PA Wire
Lincoln City's Sean Raggett scores his side's sole goal of the game Photo: Martin Rickett/PA Wire

This was no wild fluke, then, but the result of a meticulous plan ruthlessly executed. Lincoln hassled and hounded, they put their necks on their line, a foot in the tackle, a sneaky elbow in the ribs if needed. They defended outstandingly, and when their chance came late on, they took it.

In essence, Burnley were Burnleyed. Lincoln did to them what they have done to so many Premier League sides this season: sat deep, dug their heels in and turned it into a scrap. Startled by Lincoln's lack of decorum, bewildered by the novelty of enjoying 60 per cent possession, Burnley simply rolled their sleeves up, turned down the quality dial, and fought dire with dire.

Not much 'romance of the Cup' here, then, at any rate. Romance is always a funny way of describing these occasions, anyway. This was not so much a candlelit dinner as a sloppy breakfast, not so much a tender smooch as a large, hairy man shouting: "Have it".

At least there was plenty of serenading, most notably from the 3,000 Lincoln fans who never let the noise level drop, from the moment they arrived in Burnley in coach convoy, thumping ferally on the windows, to the phenomenal din at the moment of victory.

Burnley's Andre Gray looks dejected Photo: Reuters / Jason Cairnduff
Burnley's Andre Gray looks dejected Photo: Reuters / Jason Cairnduff

So, how did Lincoln pull it off? How did they do what only Swansea, Arsenal and Manchester City have done this season, and conquer Turf Moor? "We broke the game into six 15-minute periods," Cowley said. "They're such an organised team without the ball, so we knew it would be different for them."

Impeccably organised at the back, thoroughly briefed using the latest video analysis and possibly the fittest side outside the Football League, Lincoln adhered magnificently to their plan. They succeeded in ruffling Burnley's players, none more so than Joey Barton.

A confrontation between Barton and Lincoln striker Matt Rhead had been brewing. Rhead is one of those players that only non-league football could produce: a lovable, terrifying, nuclear chimney of a man with a giant bald patch and an indomitable physical presence.

Barton had clearly decided to take him down a peg or two. On the hour, Barton pathetically tried to win a free-kick by ducking into Rhead's arm and collapsing to the ground, holding his face.

A few minutes later, the blood pumping, Barton stepped on Rhead as the pair tussled on the floor. In the ensuing melee, Barton shoved midfielder Terry Hawkridge in the face and was lucky to stay on the pitch.

Burnley were still struggling to create the clear opportunity that might have settled the game. Lincoln were beginning to flag, and when they won a brace of corners late in the game, it seemed like little more than a welcome breather before the next wave.

Instead, Lincoln decided to crown the game in their own glory. Sam Habergham swung the ball in from the right, Luke Waterfall headed it back into the danger area, and Raggett - a £50,000 signing from Dover - got the final touch, nodding it over the line.

"Thank God for goal-line technology," Cowley's brother and assistant manager Nick said. "We don't have it in our league."

Lincoln held out, and now they are in virgin territory. One game from Wembley. Two from Europe. While the bruises and knocks will fade within hours, the memories they forged here will last forever. Not that they are willing to dwell on them just yet. As he left his press conference, Danny Cowley requested the latest Conference scores, his phone battery having long since capitulated under the weight of messages. "Forest Green are losing?" he said. "Get in!"

Telegraph

Telegraph.co.uk

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