Winning, as successful managers are wont to say at moments of extreme hubris, is a habit. If there is anything to this theory – and whether we should be taking what managers say during times of success at face value is, of course, a matter for conjecture in itself – then we can probably assume that losing can become a habit, and there are few clubs that have developed as much of a habit over the course of 2011 as Lincoln City. At the start of this year, they seemed likely to finish somewhere around middle to lower reaches of League Two, but suddenly – and at precisely the wrong time of the season – Lincoln’s form collapsed, and nine defeats in their final ten matches of the season led to the club dropping out of the Football League and into the Blue Square Premier.
The trauma of such a collapse, for supporters, can be offset against the optimism that comes with starting afresh in a new division. At a lower level, they may well rationalise, they will get the opportunity to find their level and, with a little luck, get back into the habit of winning again. This, however, isn’t always the way that things work out and Lincoln City are finding out the hard way that the Blue Square Premier can be considerably more competitive than some give it credit for. After fourteen matches of this season, the Imps have managed just three league wins, and a 4-0 defeat at Tamworth yesterday punctured the bubble of optimism that may have started to inflate itself after last week’s home win against bottom of the table Bath City. This, Lincoln supporters may be reflecting as they look mournfully at a Blue Square Premier table that sees their team sitting just two places above the relegation places with almost one-third of the season played.
So, where are things going wrong this season? Manager Steve Tilson celebrated – if such a word is appropriate under the circumstances – his first anniversary in charge at Sincil Bank last week but the supporters have clearly lost faith in him, with criticism of both his tactics and team selection. Simply replacing the manager, though, may not be the panacea for the club’s ills that it may seem to be on the surface. Quite asides from the ever-thorny question of who would replace Tilson – or, perhaps more pointedly, who would want to replace Tilson with the club at the point of possibly being sucked into a battle to avoid relegation from the Blue Square Premier – there is the small matter of cost.
Sacking the manager would cost money, both in terms of hiring a replacement and paying Tilson off, and Lincoln City are hardly flush at the moment. Relegation and poor form have meant a fall in crowds to what may realistically be considered a rump of around 2,200 people and, without cashflow readily pouring through the club, the element of gamble that is inherent in any decision to replace such a senior member of staff isn’t one that seems likely to be taken likely. Results on the pitch, however, seem to be making Tilson’s position untenable. Barrow, Kettering Town and Braintree Town are amongst the clubs that have beaten Lincoln City already this season, and clubs such as these are the clubs that anyone hoping to push for a promotion or play-off place should be aiming to beat. It would be less than surprising to see him go in the near future, but times are tough and a new job wouldn’t necessarily be easy for Tilson to come by. He may well need to be pushed rather than jumping, though only time will tell on that matter for now.
As is familiar from so many other clubs, Lincoln’s recent decline has been accompanied by wrangling at the boardroom level. During the summer, two of the club’s share-holders, Keith Roe and Paul Wilson, added a resolution to an EGM with the intention of changing the management structure at the top of the club, to reinstate former vice-chairman Chris Travers to the board of directors. Travers had resigned his position due to work commitments in June, and perhaps the most surprising aspect of the attempt to reinstate him to the board was that Roe and Wilson had neglected to tell Travers of their intentions. He, perhaps, unsurprisingly, seemed less than impressed with this, describing Roe and Wilson as “discourteous” and, while he retains his position as one of the club’s largest share-holders, he did not re-take his place on the club’s board of directors.
An uneasy state of detente seems in place at present, but a planned supporters protest before the team’s next home match against Fleetwood Town on Friday night may bring other, unresolved tensions back to the surface. It will be certainly be revealing to see what form any protest takes, how many people turn out or it and how effective it is. If Lincoln City is a club in decline, then a show of unity from thee supporters may prove to be something that focusses a few minds at boardroom level, especially when we consider that the television cameras of Premier Sports will be at Sincil Bank on Friday night. There is, however, a possibility that plans for a demonstration could be overtaken by events elsewhere. Lincoln have a trip to fellow strugglers Alfreton Town on Tuesday night. A win there may ameliorate some of those that are already in two minds over protesting on Friday night. A defeat, on the other hand, might prove to be the step too far for Steve Tilson.
What we can say with a degree of certainty is that this is an absolutely critical week for Lincoln City Football Club. There were no mitigating circumstances for yesterday’s defeat at Tamworth. Lincoln City were comprehensively out-played, and this is the core of the challenge that the club faces in the Blue Square Premier this season. Plenty of clubs have been relegated into this division and found it considerably more difficult to get out of than it was to fall into. Perhaps after the start to the season that the club has had, the best that Lincoln City supporters could hope for this time around might be a slow ascent towards a more comfortable mid-table position. After their last home match against Bath City, it may have felt as if a corner had been turned. Yesterday, though, everybody at the club was given a sharp reminder that sometimes corners only lead to new cul-de-sacs. In the meantime, there is a losing habit at Sincil Bank which needs to be broken, and on Tuesday night at Alfreton, Lincoln supporters may find out then whether they can look forward to some sort of improvement, or whether their annus horribilis will last the full twelve months of 2011.
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