Chris Sumpter blog: If you think you've just watched a bad game, you should have seen Lincoln City play Dartford
I’VE seen my fair share of awful football during my time as a fan and journalist, but last Saturday just about took the biscuit.
That’s not a reflection on the Iron’s victory over Crawley (though from what I’m told that was a match best remembered for the result than the performance), but an insight into what 1,700 frozen souls were subjected too at Lincoln City.
Sincil Bank is not a place I’ve held much desire to return to – look at Scunthorpe’s record there and you’ll understand why – but I was on a stag do in the capital of the Imp county, with a group including current and former Scunthorpe Telegraph colleagues, so we gave it a go.
Lincoln, flirting with the relegation zone in the Blue Square Premier League, an amazing thought when you think of their time as the bridesmaids of League Two (the Imps possess a pitiful play-off record to rival that of the Iron’s), were taking on Dartford, the side 10th in the table and through to the semi-finals of the FA Trophy – where, if you didn’t know, they tackle another of the area’s non-league minnows (ha), Grimsby Town.
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I’ll try to stick to the football, though first I must get off my chest my sheer fury about the pretentious title given to this competition since betting company Blue Square became its sponsors.
There is nothing ‘Premier League’ about the Blue Square Premier League, except maybe the price to entertainment ratio of tickets - £18 to watch as part of the travelling Dartford fans is equally as out of proportion as the preposterous, and well-publicised, £62 fans of Manchester City had to part with to watch the Premier League champions take on Arsenal, a mid-table top-flight outfit.
You can change the make-up, give it television exposure (the under-subscribed Premier Sports channel screens 30 games a season to one man and his dog) but plain and simple, this is the Conference.
And the standard is not very good if Lincoln v Dartford is anything to go by.
I last sat in the away section of the imposing Co-op Stand at Sincil Bank 10 years ago, when United lost to a solitary goal from Ben Futcher.
I remember two things about that day. One was a shocking tackle on United defender James Cotterill, which left the young centre-back with a broken leg, that amazingly went unpunished. The other was the emphasis, admittedly to furiously good effect, the Imps had put on set pieces.
Saturday’s visit was like a trip back in time. Albeit Lincoln were nowhere near as effective as that famous, if wholly impure side pieced together on a pittance by Keith Alexander.
That air raid siren still brings me out in a cold sweat!
I have to admit to having preconceptions about the non-league stereotype – aimless long balls intended for a bruising front man who would use his head or his strength to maintain possession - as I queued for a ticket.
Unfortunately, the game lived up to all the wrong expectations.
Lincoln scored after about five or six minutes. Somehow. Bosh, a ball from deep came arrowing down in the penalty area and Imps strike duo Vadaine Oliver and Colin Larkin sandwiched Dartford keeper Marcus Bettinelli, with the former getting the decisive touch.
Only the decisive touch wasn’t the thud of the ball hitting his head, more the arm in the visiting custodian’s face.
Like on quite a few occasions that afternoon though, the referee Ross Joyce got it woefully wrong and a goal was given – much to the amazement of the vociferous Dartford fans.
There were just the two noteworthy moments of entertainment, one from Lincoln’s Colin Larkin - when he hit the bar twice in succession, the second time from a brilliant clip with his heel – the other the equalising goal from the Darts’ Lee Noble, which curled into the bottom corner.
The Imps had been reduced to 10 men in the first half, when Jake Sheridan flew into a challenge with Noble. It was hard, but fair. Never a red.
Somehow Sheridan was not even given a reprieve following an appeal to the FA. It seems some of the problems that blight the Football League have also frittered lower down the ladder.
Joyce also, and this, like my other observations, is only my opinion, came up short for what proved to be a match-winning penalty a minute from time, wrongly awarded to the hosts but converted by Larkin.
Lincoln were the better side, for the most part. Their best player was a midfielder called Alan Power. He didn’t really have the power, but he had drive and the ability to play a pass along the floor.
It was hard to note any Darts player that particularly stood out, other than for being average.
In that category, on that afternoon Bettinelli, who flapped at almost every ball returning to earth from orbit (via the Imps’ two centre-backs), and a striker called Jacob Ermskine, who managed to play 57 minutes without barely touching the ball, excelled.
At least the game made my return to the Glanford Park press box on Tuesday night a welcome one. And it made the match that followed seem almost akin to the quality Real Madrid and Manchester United produced 24 hours later.
While there are a few sarcastic observations above – and yes I know it’s the lowest form of wit - I will though praise the fans of both clubs, who actually created a decent atmosphere (the drone of a lone drummer aside).
The Darts lot we sat with were thoroughly decent people. The ones who remained until the final whistle, daft, but hugely dedicated.
At least after leaving Sincil Bank, the night that followed the afternoon proved much more entertaining.
Rule of stag though, naturally, ensures those details will not be divulged.