It is an oft-quoted statistic in these parts that the largest attendance ever to watch Lincoln City – 61,231 – came in the Second Division game at Everton on 16 April 1954. Goodison’s largest league crowd for three years strolled up expecting to see the promotion-chasing home team steamroller their lowly visitors, who were still not mathematically safe from relegation. The record books show a comfortable 3-1 win for the Toffees courtesy of goals from Peter Farrell, Wally Fielding and reserve striker Gwyn Lewis, but it certainly did not go entirely their own way. An eighteenth-minute cracker from Johnny Garvie gave City the lead at half time against an Everton side missing top scorer John Willie Parker and clearly suffering from promotion jitters. However, the home side pulled it together in the second half to send City home a well-beaten side. Interestingly, the reporter for the Liverpool Daily Post referred to Lincoln’s defence as ‘big and ponderous’, although he did rather grudgingly give credit to the skill of Graver and Garvie. Some things never change.
A 4-0 win at Oldham thirteen days later took Everton back to the First Division, where they have remained ever since. That means Lincoln have never returned to Goodison on Football League duty in sixty-five seasons since that sunny Good Friday afternoon, and the two clubs have certainly followed very different paths during that subsequent period. Lincoln fell straight from the Second Division to the Fourth Division at the start of the Sixties and, apart from the occasional promotion and relegation, have been there ever since. Everton have added a number of trophies to their glittering history during the same period including four league championships, three FA Cups, seven Charity Shields and the European Cup Winners’ Cup. A tiny disparity between the two clubs there.
City will be hoping that history and reputation count for nothing of course, but unfortunately Everton have a pretty good record against lower division sides in the FA Cup. If City are to pull off a shock on Saturday, they will have to do something that no team from the fourth tier has ever done: knock Everton out of the FA Cup on their own ground. Indeed, Everton have only once been beaten by a fourth tier side – a 2-1 defeat at Shrewsbury on 4 January 2003. That was particularly embarrassing because Shrewsbury finished bottom of the Football League that season and were relegated to the Conference.
Taking a look at the respective squads and style of play is almost irrelevant because this is the FA Cup and anything can happen, in theory at least. Although the FA Cup can be a great leveller, it cannot be ignored that Everton are no mugs despite lagging considerably behind the top clubs in the Premier League. Common sense suggests that they should ease past their League Two opponents without too much trouble, but that does depend to a certain extent on the team that manager Marco Silva decides to field. The reality is that the Everton first team would present an almost insurmountable obstacle for Lincoln: it would be a shock of seismic proportions if Lincoln were to win under those circumstances.
However, it is very unlikely that Silva will start with more than six or seven of his first choice eleven, and that presents Lincoln with a chink of light. An early goal from the Imps could prove extremely interesting, as we saw at Ipswich in particular. And if Silva takes Lincoln too lightly and fields a reserve side, Lincoln are certainly good enough to surprise Everton. Lincoln have scored an impressive sixty-one goals in all competitions, and that is a powerful tool despite the sixty league places standing between them. They do not have a typical League Two squad by any means: Danny Cowley has often stated his desire to have players of Championship or League One standard, and to a certain extent that is what he has. Furthermore, the likes of Jason Shackell and Neal Eardley have experience of the Premier League. And when their four full internationals are brought into the equation, we may conclude that Lincoln are no mugs either.
What Lincoln do have is a very clever management team who will conduct their usual in-depth analysis on Everton. The uncertainty surrounding which team they are likely to face makes that task a little harder, but the Cowleys will certainly have identified Everton’s strengths and weaknesses. There will be a definite game plan in place, with a Plan B in reserve. Whether or not the players will be good enough or fit enough to implement that plan effectively is another question entirely, but the homework will have been done. And that is really all a team from the lower divisions can do.
There is no question that to return from Goodison with anything at all on Saturday is a very tall order. And yet 5,500 Imps will make the journey with optimism and almost a sense of expectation. The reason for that is the 2016-17 season, which changed football’s perception of the FA Cup and what can be achieved. To reach the FA Cup quarter-finals as a non-league club is virtually impossible. It will never be done again and should not have happened at all. Yet it did, and that is what keeps us travelling to games such as this in the hope of seeing something rare and something very special.
Perhaps it will come down to the less tangible variables, and City supporters have a huge role to play here. We are frequently told that the atmosphere at the majority of Premier League grounds is poor, and that Goodison Park is no different. Remember the morgue at Arsenal? On the other hand, do you remember the way we dominated at Portman Road? The atmosphere that prevails during a game is very often generated long before kick-off, and that can be intimidating for a home club unused to noisy visiting supporters. Ipswich supporters looked bemused, as did their players. Noise works.
We are travelling to Goodison in big numbers, and no one needs reminding of the wall of noise we can create. And that is where our role lies. We must sing and shout and scream from the moment we take our seats. If you have never joined in with the singing before, now is the time to start. Feel self-conscious about doing so? Forget that immediately, because no one is remotely bothered. There is a very slim chance we can win this game, and the players will be giving all they have: we must do nothing less in return.
Danny and Nicky Cowley have already created some magnificent memories for us, and will create more before they are done. Will this be one of them?
— Vital Lincoln City (@VitalLincoln) January 3, 2019