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Michael Appleton. Photo: PA

Michael Appleton. Photo: PA

Michael Appleton. Photo: PA

When, ahead of his side's Carabao Cup tie this evening, Jurgen Klopp sees the state of the pitch at Lincoln City's LNER stadium he would be forgiven for breaking into a wide smile.

For this is a surface so immaculate, so even, so smooth, it serves as the most welcome invitation for good football he can have encountered in years.

Long gone are the days when Lincoln's manager John Beck would instruct his groundsman to churn the topsoil up in order to frustrate ball-playing opponents. Instead, this is a pitch that suggests the home side are looking to out-play their illustrious visitors.

"That's probably unlikely," says the Lincoln manager Michael Appleton as he stands on the side of the billiard table surface.

"But we have players who want to pass. If you bring young talented lads in and then tell them to play on a cabbage patch, how do you expect to develop them and make money for the football club?"

What Klopp will quickly discover when he sends his team out onto the greensward is that the pitch is part of the wider plan Appleton has installed at the club.

His appointment last September after the Cowley brothers, Danny and Nicky, left for Huddersfield came with a business-like brief: reduce the wage bill, bring in young players, make them better and sell them on for a profit.

It was what he had done with some success at Oxford United, where he kick-started the careers of John Lundstram, now at Sheffield United, among others. In the year since he arrived in Lincoln, he has almost completely changed the team.

Out have gone the Cowleys' robust, straightforward core and in have come a collection of ball-playing youngsters.

"What we did really early is we decided to get on the front foot," says Appleton of his busy summer of recruitment.

Struggle

"We knew we'd struggle financially to compete, so we knew we had to do work early. We've been fortunate to get good players at the right time." Good players like Tom Hopper, the centre-forward from Southend and James Jones, the midfielder from Crewe. Hopper suggests the newcomers have all quickly bought into the Appleton way.

"You get a lot of turnover at this level, but we've really gelled straight off as a group," he says. "We're of similar age, similar ambition, we all want to do well. Everybody wants to improve. And when you're out on the training pitch, you can tell from the manager's demeanour that you have to knuckle down. He's not someone you challenge."

At Lincoln this is not the Crazy Gang, more the Aspiration Crew. Appleton has drawn in a bunch of committed, serious young players determined to better themselves.

As a plan, it has worked. As they sit in second place in the League One table, Lincoln are on a run of six successive victories.

And they play the kind of progressive, quick-witted, passing football that drew much attention when Appleton was in charge at Oxford. But now they face easily their biggest challenge.

Lincoln have not met Liverpool since they lost at home to the Merseysiders in a Division Two encounter in 1961. Nearly 50 years on, this is not a second-tier side they are hosting but the best club team in the world.

"Well, I wouldn't say that," smiles Appleton, unable to suppress his Manchester United past. "But what I will say is this is the best manager in the world."

Not that he can be sure of the personnel Klopp decides to use. Though he has been assiduously studying the possibilities.

"I've looked at teams he put out last year (in cup competitions). I know they have players who need minutes,

"I know he'll want to try out a couple of new signings. But one whatever the 11, the way they play and the way they set up are always the same. It'll be 4-3-3 and there are certain areas of pitch where the front players like to pick up the ball. We have to be aware enough to make sure we get there first."

And Appleton is determined to ensure his players do not shrink in the challenge.

"It's one of them, if it was a horse race God knows our odds. 100-1? Maybe 1,000-1. But we go into the game with belief. And not being passive.

"I see these games where teams go in with a good shape, but not really working the ball. I've spoken to the players about being aggressive. Don't just watch them play. Give them something to think about."

© Daily Telegraph, London

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