Defying the odds to stand within a chance of making history: The lowdown on Blackpool's play-off final opponents Lincoln City
Blackpool must get past a Lincoln City side that took four points from them during the regular season if they’re to secure a return back to the Championship.
While it’s been a remarkable season for the Seasiders, the same can be also said for the Imps, who defied the odds to challenge for promotion throughout the campaign.
Led by former Pool boss Michael Appleton Lincoln were in the top two for much of the season, only to briefly drop away after suffering injuries to key first-team players and a Covid outbreak.
A promotion to the second tier of English football would cap off a remarkable rise for the Lincolnshire outfit, who haven’t played at that level since 1961.
Just five years ago, the Imps were playing in non-league, before their revival was started by the Cowley brothers.
The Gazette caught up with Lincolnshire Live’s Lincoln City reporter Mark Whiley to get the lowdown on Blackpool’s play-off final opponents.
Michael Appleton is obviously a manager Blackpool fans know all about, although his tenure at Bloomfield Road was only a brief one. Just how well has he done this season to get Lincoln into the play-offs?
It’s an outstanding achievement. Most people, including Appleton himself, would have been happy with a mid-table finish after a transitional first season in League One. I predicted 11th.
He had big shoes to fill when he replaced the Cowleys but he’s taken the team to another level. It’s widely regarded as the best Lincoln team since the early 1980s - at least.
The transfer model has changed, with the club looking to bring in young players who can be developed, then sold on for a profit. That suits Appleton, who is an expert at bringing young players through.
He also has fantastic relationships with Premier League and Championships clubs which has led to great loan signings like Alex Palmer (West Brom), TJ Eyoma (Tottenham), Brennan Johnson (Forest) and Morgan Rogers (Man City). All four have Premier League potential.
And they haven’t just reached the play-offs, they’ve done in style, playing some brilliant, attacking football. At their best, they’re almost unstoppable, but also possess plenty of resilience, demonstrated in the second leg against Sunderland.
Is there a feeling of ‘what if?’ given the Imps were in the top two for much of the season?
Not really. Yes, they were in the top two for a long time but they were always going to have a dip at some point and it finally happened in February/March time.
That dip also coincided with injuries to their most important players, the likes of Joe Walsh, Liam Bridcutt, Jorge Grant and Tom Hopper, the spine of the team.
Then there was a Covid outbreak which led to two matches being postponed.
How frustrating was it to pick up those injuries and Covid cases when they did?
It was but then every team has been affected by Covid and injuries this season so it can’t be an excuse. If anything, the Covid break gave them a chance to recharge mentally.
After they returned to action, against Blackpool, they were excellent and almost forced their way back into top-two contention.
They would have taken it into the final week had it not been for an outrageous penalty given against them at Peterborough.
Is it fair to say that, of the four teams that finished in the play-offs, the least pressure to get promoted is on Lincoln?
Yes, probably. We all know about the pressure Sunderland are under while Oxford lost in the final last season.
There’s probably a little bit more pressure on Blackpool as they finished higher and are no strangers to the Championship. But it’s been a great season for both sides whatever happens.
Who are the standout players Blackpool should watch out for?
Wide players Brennan Johnson and Morgan Rogers are incredibly dangerous with their pace, trickery and directness. They can frustrate at times – understandable given their ages – but they’re capable of moments of brilliance.
Playmaker Jorge Grant has been the player of the season, although he was quiet in the two play-off games. A free-kick specialist.
Main striker Tom Hopper is in form after scoring in both legs against Sunderland.
How are Lincoln looking on the fitness front, any injury concerns? And what’s your predicted line-up?
Central defender Adam Jackson (calf) is a doubt after coming off in the first leg against Sunderland.
But Joe Walsh – the club’s best defender – came on at half-time in the second leg and was instrumental as they turned the game around. The club will be wrapping him in cotton wool this week. I can see it being the team that finished against Sunderland.
Predicted XI: Palmer; Poole, Eyoma, Walsh, Edun; Bridcutt, McGrandles, Grant; Johnson, Hopper, Rogers.
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