The Imps top the National League and face Ipswich tonight in an FA Cup replay, but the real challenge is sustaining their increased crowds
17 January ~ In the latest issue of WSC, I wrote about coping with the unfamiliar success that's overwhelmed Lincoln City this season. The team are currently top of the National League, have reached the last 16 of the FA Trophy, and a victory in tonight's sold-out FA Cup third round replay at Sincil Bank against Ipswich Town (BBC1, 8.05pm) will see them in the fourth round for the first time since 1976.
Inevitably, dormant fans and Johnny-come-latelies are suddenly interested in a team who for the past several seasons either suffered relegation from League Two, or have finished in the bottom half of the fifth tier. These fans are more than welcome – everyone loves a full ground and higher revenues, despite some grumblings about the unfamiliar faces with their suspiciously pristine red-and-white scarves. But how can a team like Lincoln hold on to these fans if or when results take a turn for the worse? Is it possible to create, say, a “cult” fan experience along the lines of St Pauli or, say, Dulwich Hamlet, where people turn up for the experience of the game as much as for the game itself?
Gary Hutchinson, author of the Stacey West blog, sees the development of fan culture as "purely organic, nothing more. Dulwich Hamlet may be creating a cult, but it is not something (in my opinion) that is sustainable or authentic. St Pauli are a little different, but that cult has been born from politics and taking a stand against everything that was wrong with German football. Neither club capitalised on success as such, and there isn't anything Lincoln City can really do to directly push a concept."
Having said that, he thinks that the “Team Lincoln” initiative, which has seen the club prominently out in the city and the county, "may be commonplace these days, but it is vital to strengthen ties between club and community”. Simple things like the attitude of staff on match day can also help, as well as the club projecting a generally positive attitude, but he thinks fans will be sceptical if they think they're being manipulated by marketing ploys. "If the experience is real," he says, "if the club do behave differently and make it part of the culture, not a marketing scheme, then perhaps they can sustain some of the newer fans."
Football writer and City fan Alan Johnson sees the key to retaining fans in the club's ticket prices. For tonight's game and the tie against Oldham in the previous round tickets were just £10, and a fiver for concessions. Although a regular National League ticket costs £18, a Junior Imp (14 and under) can get in for free with up to two accompanying adults paying only £10 each – a scheme that's regularly bringing in 900 fans per game. Students from the increasingly popular university in the city can get in for £7. "The success of the offer is clearly evident in and around the city," says Johnson, with the number of kids wearing Lincoln shirts and hats now competing with big red clubs from the Premier League.
He lauds the previous manager, Chris Moyses, for "getting the club back out to the people", but the new management team of Danny and Nicky Cowley "have taken [this] to a new level. Whether that be visiting the schools, the factories, the club's sponsors – all are vital, because if the management and players show an interest in you, you'll show an interest in them. It isn't hard to hook a child for life, and if that child is made to feel special, say by meeting a player, they will return again and again."
Looking ahead, should a bigger club poach the Cowley brothers – who last week signed new contracts until 2021 – Johnson believes that "success this season and recent investment should ensure that the club have money in the bank to attract decent candidates next time the need arises”. In that regard, club director Roger Bates – a former editor of the Deranged Ferret fanzine in the late 1980s – concedes: "We will inevitably get approaches [for the Cowleys] from higher level clubs – we have already. You can prepare financially for that by ensuring adequate levels of compensation in contracts, but it is more difficult to manage the impact on the pitch. See Alex Ferguson.” Nevertheless, he and fellow director Clive Nates "are doing a lot of work on succession planning: both in terms of the 'DNA' of the type of manager we want, and also specific names to keep an eye on”.
Ultimately, though, nothing can guarantee that fans will stay around when results take a dive. Hutchinson likens following a club to "surfing a massive wave. Eventually, whatever you do, the wave is going to end. The trick is to get back on the board and hope that you've learned enough lessons to catch another one." And maybe hope that the previous wave wasn't so overwhelming that it left behind nothing but wasteland and destruction. Ian Plenderleith