3 May ~ Most older Lincoln City fans are still scarred by the events of May 9, 1987, when Torquay United's injury-time goal at home to Crewe Alexandra sent the Imps down to non-League football in the closing seconds of the season. It was the first time all year they'd been bottom, and for me the first time in 17 years of supporting the team that I could recall them having been in Division Four's 24th place. The shock was as great as the timing was poor – they touched the nadir at the very second when automatic relegation from the Football League kicked in for the first time ever.
This coming Saturday will invite Lincoln's fans to relive the trauma. Only a win at home to Aldershot will guarantee safety, but if Lincoln draw or lose, while Barnet overcome a visiting Port Vale side, then they will return to English football's fifth tier. There's a certain symmetry in Barnet being our co-fighters for League status. When Lincoln came straight back up from relegation in 1988, it was thanks to a late slip-up from the north London side at the end of a season when there was little pleasantry between the clubs. The two teams have continued level-pegging ever since.
Including their season in what was then the Vauxhall Conference, the teams have met 30 times in league matches. Lincoln have won 14 of those games, Barnet 13 and there have been three draws. One of Barnet's first ever League games was at Sincil Bank in 1991, where they took revenge for the Conference season by winning 6-0. City eventually laid that humiliation to rest with a 5-0 victory at Underhill in 2006. But the intense rivalry of that Conference season diminished thanks to geographical distance, and the realisation that both teams were perennial fourth-tier strugglers – both on the field and financially – with a few play-off campaigns and the odd short-lived foray to Division 3 thrown in. Barnet have already been down once to non-League and back again. No matter what a few short-brained fans on the fringe might exclaim, solidarity in suffering has become close to the norm at this level, and it would be a heartless follower who crowed at seeing the other team go down.
Lincoln's history includes three earlier occasions when they came straight back up to the Football League after finishing last. In 1909 and 1912 they rejoined the League after one-year absences thanks to re-election. In 1921 they took the Midland League title a year after being voted out, and joined the newly formed Division Three (North). But there are certain records you'd rather not see challenged. The statistics of historical precedent are among the most meaningless in the game, and while the 1987-88 season in the Conference reinvigorated the club with a sense of its worth within the city, there's no guarantee that relegation this year, followed by a poor start next season, won't see a further slump given that home crowds have regularly sunk below 3,000.
The fifth tier looks an altogether tougher place to escape from than it did in 1987, when Lincoln opted to stay professional in a division of relatively obscure part-timers. Now there are numerous ex-League names like Luton, Wrexham, Grimsby, Mansfield, Darlington and York to contend with. All have been or continue to go through their own crises of form and hardship, and meeting them in the sub-League basement will be like film stars running in to fellow celebrities when they show up in rehab. "Don't worry, I'm not planning to stay long," the new arrival might say, and the long-term residents all burst into cynical laughter.
Plenty of teams like Colchester, Shrewsbury, Torquay and Carlisle followed Lincoln's lead by making swift returns to the League, but that's little consolation at a moment when relegation stares at you from up close and the sword of bad form seems irredeemably stuck in a hard, unyielding stone of despair (sorry, this time of year tends to drive a fan to melodrama). Lincoln have taken two points out of a possible 30 in their last ten matches, and have lost all four of their home fixtures in that abominable run. You feel that the only way they'll stay up is if Barnet fail to beat Port Vale. Even that would hardly be a triumph, and would certainly be tempered by empathy for our erstwhile rivals.
At the age of 21, I coped with losing League status by taking a late-afternoon bath and drinking two cans of Red Stripe, a vile drink that suited my mood, but which I haven't touched since. This time I'm better prepared, having already more or less convinced myself that we're going down. Maybe instead of seeking temporary oblivion, I'll take a long walk in the woods while shunning all human contact. And during that time I'll manage to convince myself that next year Lincoln will go straight back up. Because we always do, don't we? Ian Plenderleith