Matt Scrafton column: Having a foot in both camps for Blackpool-Lincoln City play-off final
When the final whistle blew at the Stadium of Light last weekend, I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry.
As it transpires, I did both.
It now puts me in the somewhat awkward position of covering a play-off final which pits Lincoln City, my hometown club and the team I support, against Blackpool, the side that I have covered and built up a great deal of affection for over the last five years.
When I moved to the North West in 2016 to take up this role at The Gazette, the Imps were still a non-league side.
They hadn’t even finished in the top half of the table in a decade.
So the idea that, just five years on, they would be one game away from the Championship – a level of football they haven’t played at since 1961 – is something I’m still struggling to get my head around.
For the majority of my lifetime, Lincoln have floated around the bottom echelons of England’s professional pyramid, often playing in front of gates of 2,000 or 3,000.
Unlike most football supporters, I have no recollection of my first visit to Sincil Bank – but it will have been in 1995 or 1996, when I was just five or six years old.
I do remember standing in the Stacey-West Stand – named after the two Imps killed in the Bradford fire tragedy – before it was converted into blue seating.
Why it was blue and not red, I’ve no idea.
I do, however, remember being wowed by the wizardry of Darren Huckerby and Gareth Ainsworth, before having to endure the ugly and somewhat agricultural, albeit effective, football of John Beck.
A couple of years later, I would sign for the club’s centre of excellence, where I played in the same age group as Sam Clucas.
I was never going to make it, granted, and I was released at 15, but it was still an immense source of pride.
I vaguely recall storming onto the pitch to celebrate Lincoln’s promotion from the old Fourth Division in 1998, as former Pool youngster Lee Thorpe scored during a final-day, 2-1 win over Brighton.
Until 2017, it was the only promotion Lincoln had achieved during my lifetime.
Between 2002 and 2007, now a teenager, I travelled home and away as the Imps somehow managed to conspire to lose in the play-offs in five consecutive seasons.
The losing run remains a competition record and, as play-off records go, it’s the complete opposite of Blackpool, who are chasing a sixth promotion via the play-offs from their ninth campaign.
The turnaround at Sincil Bank in recent years has been remarkable. On Sunday, they’re going for their third promotion in just five seasons.
It’s somewhat ironic that in 2011, when my beloved Imps dropped out of the Football League, I wasn’t there to witness it as I had moved away to Norwich to study at university.
Instead, I sobbed as I listened to the radio commentary from my bedroom.
In 2017, when the Imps finally returned thanks to the magic of the Cowleys, again, I wasn’t there.
Instead, I was covering a promotion of my own, as Gary Bowyer led the Seasiders back to League One at the first attempt, against all the odds amid the backdrop of fan discontent.
It was in April 2017, before Pool claimed a vital 3-0 win against Cheltenham in their bid to finish in the League Two play-offs, that I had to lock myself in the press box toilets at Bloomfield Road to calm down and compose myself. Lincoln had beaten Macclesfield in the early kick-off to win the National League title.
Sunderland, meanwhile, the side that Lincoln beat to reach this weekend’s final, were still in the Premier League at the time.
Not being there to witness promotion was heart-wrenching, as it was a couple of months earlier when little Lincoln shocked Premier League Burnley to reach the quarter-finals of the FA Cup. Things like that just don’t happen to my team.
To think they could potentially be mixing it up with clubs like Nottingham Forest and Derby County next season – teams on our East Midland doorstep that dwarf Lincoln in size – and playing one level above Sunderland and Sheffield Wednesday, is frankly insane.
To do so, they must get past the mighty Seasiders – the play-off kings – which is easier said than done.
As I touched upon previously, I have a great deal of affection for the club and have built up friendships with a number of people working at Bloomfield Road over the years.
You don’t cover a football club day in, day out, for five years – especially one as unique as Blackpool, who have enjoyed the highest of highs and endured the lowest of lows – and not take them to your heart.
Many have said it’s a win-win situation for me.
Blackpool win and I get to watch the Seasiders in the Championship, a level I’ve never covered before. Lincoln win and my team are promoted.
In all honesty, I don’t know how I feel about Sunday’s game. I’m still struggling to get to grips with it.
Either way, irrespective of what happens, it promises to be emotional.
I’ll be there to do my job as normal, in as professional a manner as possible.
This is the fifth time I’ve covered a game between the two sides, so it isn’t as if it’s a new experience.
Albeit, what’s at stake makes it quite the unique occasion.
What I’m basically trying to say is that Lincoln are my team. I can’t change that and nor would I want to.
I think it would be churlish to suggest otherwise and, quite frankly, the majority of you would see through it.
While I’m not a huge fan of the idea of having a ‘second team’, if I did, Blackpool would certainly be it.
Let the best team win, I suppose.
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