“The number-one objective was to survive the season,” explains Clive Nates. The Lincoln City chairman simply wanted to ensure that his club’s fantastic work over the last five years wasn’t all stripped away in a 2020-21 campaign blighted by Covid-19. With no crowds coming in to Sincil Bank, finances were hit massively and big cuts had to be made.
“When last season was called off and positions were determined on points per game, we then had to look at players whose contracts were coming to an end. We basically decided at that point there was too much uncertainty to renew any of their contracts. At that point it was very much survival.”
But Lincoln’s season had far more in store than anyone could have imagined, and on Sunday they face Blackpool in the League One play-off final for the chance to play in the second tier of English football for the first time in 60 years. Quite the turnaround for a club who, five years ago, had just ended their campaign in the bottom half of the National League for the fifth straight season.
“We brought Danny and Nicky Cowley in, and there’s no doubt one of the objectives was to try get back into the Football League,” Clive tells The Sportsman of the plans put in place back in the summer of 2016. “For 10 successive years the club finished in the bottom half of whatever league it had been in, plus it had had no cup runs, and that's why the fans just drifted away.”
The following season’s promotion as champions of the National League was just a small part of the massive strides made in that first 12 months though, with FA Cup victories over Ipswich Town, Brighton & Hove Albion and Premier League side Burnley teeing them up for a huge pay-day in the quarter-finals at Arsenal’s Emirates Stadium as the first non-league team to reach the last eight in over a century.
“We not only had an unbelievable cup run, but we also managed to get promoted and that started to bring fans back, once you had the momentum and you had ambitious management team. We just kept on trying to take advantage of that momentum but there’s no doubt that that FA Cup run and in particular beating Burnley in the fifth round and then being drawn against Arsenal in the quarter finals was a massive gamechanger for the club.
“We made about £2 million from that FA Cup run, and most of it came on the back of beating Burnley. I think it was about £250,000 in prize money, and we got about £1.3 million from the gate share from going to the Emirates, plus additional sponsorship was worth £250K.”
That financial boost helped the club build a new training facility, as well as continue to make massive strides on the playing side. By the summer of 2019, the Cowley brothers had led Lincoln to another promotion and were being courted by clubs higher up the pyramid. In September that year, they were snapped up by Huddersfield Town and the Imps quickly went about finding the right man to replace them thanks to a plan put in place three years earlier.
“Ever since Danny and Nicky joined we sort of decided to officially set up a manager succession committee that meets at least once a quarter. It's an ongoing process to scout managers, to see the type of managers that we would want to bring in if the existing manager left for any reason. It then helped give us a little bit of peace of mind and I think enabled us during a difficult spell because it was in the middle of the season. So we did quite well to find a new manager within 12 days in Michael Appleton.
“What is also important is that we recognised we had a decent budget in League Two. It was a top-four budget in the season that we got promoted, we were able to supplement whatever income came from the club through directors and investors, and put in enough money to give us a real chance to compete with the teams at the top of League Two.
“But we knew that we didn't have the capability to do that in League One, so it was always going to be a change in style, bringing in a younger team, to improve our academy, so that we could develop players.
“Michael did an incredible job in identifying players that enabled us to be competing at the top of the league when, overall for the season, we've had a playing budget that's been in the bottom half of teams in League One.”
Appleton’s ability to replicate his success at Oxford United, where he won promotion from League Two with a young squad playing good football, has been key to Lincoln’s surprise run to the play-offs this season. They even enjoyed a lengthy spell in the top two of a League One table featuring huge clubs such as Sunderland, Ipswich Town, Portsmouth and Hull City.
“That change in style and philosophy, and the recognition that the way we did it in League Two would have to change in League One led us to Michael Appleton, because he had done very similar at Oxford with a young team, developing players sold on for good money, and the other thing was he played very attractive football.
“Michael had already started that process with our recruitment department in changing the squad from more older players to younger players, and that started in the January transfer window of the previous season. But then Covid came around, the season was suspended in League One, and that was a negative for Michael because you had all these new players and there wasn't a chance to actually get them playing the way he wanted to. So when we started the new season again there was a lot of churn in players. In fact, we had the biggest turnover of players of any squad in League One, and together with that and also having the youngest squad not only in League One but of all 92 clubs in the Premier League and EFL, we thought it would take time for the team to gel.
“Probably, our target was try to get into the top half of the table, maybe be flirting with the promotion places, but the team started off extremely well and somehow we managed to be in the top six through most of the season.”
Whether defeat or victory is the destiny at Wembley on Sunday, Clive Nates and Lincoln City will continue to drive forward in the bid to make the club as successful as possible both on and off the pitch.
“I don't think you can stand still, because if that's your intention you’re ultimately going to go backwards. So whichever league we are in, it's continually trying to improve whatever we do. You can never take anything for granted in anything in life, but mostly in something like football. It's so easy to for things to go wrong, with injuries, a series of bad luck or whatever, you might lose your manager and not replace him with the right one… There's always risk, and you can never ever get complacent in this in this sort of industry.”
A fairy tale run up the leagues might well reach new heights this weekend. Lincoln City are on the verge of the Championship. With Michael Appleton pulling the strings and the board doing far more than simply ensuring survival, the future looks bright at Sincil Bank.