13 April ~ If football is meant to be an escape from the harsh realities of life, how does any apparently sane individual remain a fan of a perpetually struggling team like Lincoln City? When your side is conceding an average of exactly two goals per game, what can motivate you to head to the ground in the knowledge that you will almost certainly have to endure the sight of your goalkeeper plucking the ball out from below and behind the crossbar? Twice. If life is shit, and leisure is shit too, wouldn't you be better off spending an afternoon in thrall to the stained glass windows of the cathedral?
On the plus side, the depressing news headlines about the latest bloodshed, bombings and economic downturns are the best possible preparation for when you turn to the sports pages of the Lincolnshire Echo. That your team responded to a 6-0 home loss at the feet of Rotherham with nothing better than a 4-0 home defeat against Gillingham may not lighten your mood, but at least it steals you for whatever misfortune the fates, or mankind, might be cooking up next. There may be no respite from bad news, but a durable layer of down-mouthed stoicism wards off any foolish ventures into the fickle territory of self-deceiving optimism.
Even that's no guarantee, however. Teams like Lincoln are not kind enough to be consistently crap. Just occasionally, they put together a run that's good enough to wake you up and answer that knock on the door. Who could be calling so late on such a dark, cold night? Why, it's Hope, and she's brought a bunch of flowers and a bottle of wine. Let her in! She also brought a heady, five-win fortnight that ecstatically straddled the normally grey months of January and February, and included four successive away victories. After looking like relegation certainties since kick-off, we were suddenly safe and warm in mid-table.
"And who knows?" whispered the canny, comely Hope, popping open that bottle as you arranged the flowers in a vase, overcome from all sides by the transitory scents of promise. "If you keep playing like this, and winning all those games in hand, you could challenge for a play-off spot!" We drank and drank and toasted the future, convinced that Hope had something special in store for us. And the next thing we knew it was morning, our skulls were throbbing, the flowers had wilted and we were 5-1 down at home to Shrewsbury. Hope had not only left the building, she ransacked the flat and robbed us of all our dignity and self-worth, laughing in the knowledge that next time we'd almost certainly let her back in to do it all over again.
And now, with five games to go, Lincoln are freefalling back to the drop zone. The best news we had this month was that Martin Allen had left the resurgent Barnet, and so that might just stall their recovery. Plus, Northampton Town and Burton Albion appear determined to be just as shite as we are. That's not so much hope as clutching at straws, which happens to be the special skill of "search and rescue" manager Steve Tilson. Steve says that if we can just claw our way to 50 points, we'll be safe. And if we can just stop conceding the first goal, the young players in the team won't be too discouraged to keep fighting.
And if the fans just keep traipsing along and putting up with our tradition of doing just enough to survive another day, we'll all be grateful for the chance to spend another season wallowing in a slough of mediocrity, fuelled with the occasional shot of Hope. My English teacher once told our class: "You're in school to learn, not have fun." Great preparation for life, and all that. Except that we never do learn, do we? And we don't have much fun either. Ian Plenderleith