Domestic cup competitions can bring about delightful upsets, one of the various aspects that truly makes these tournaments so special. England’s FA Cup is certainly no exception, and one of the best recent moments was provided by Lincoln City and manager Danny Cowley.
Arriving after one season with fellow National League club Braintree Town, Cowley signed on to lead the Imps in the summer of 2016. Few would have guessed at the time of his hire how important the appointment would be, as Lincoln finished atop the table to earn a place back in the Football League for the first time in six years. Along the way, they enjoyed a spectacular run to the FA Cup quarter-finals.
As a non-league squad, their journey began before the first round, advancing past Guiseley in the qualifying rounds. Victories against Altrincham and Oldham Athletic had confidence growing and nervous energy at a high level, as supporters braced for a Third Round meeting with Championship side Ipswich Town.
A 2-2 draw required a replay, with Nathan Arnold’s thrilling late goal ultimately sending Lincoln through. Championship opposition awaited again in the form of Brighton & Hove Albion, but a 3-1 win at Sincil Bank sent fans into wild celebrations and placed them amongst the final 16 clubs in the FA Cup.
Lincoln would have to travel to Burnley in the fifth round, not exactly an easy task. The Premier League side had lost very few home games coming into the fixture, and Clarets manager Sean Dyche knows how to organise his line-up properly. Cowley needed his Lincoln players to give everything out on the pitch, and that is what guided them on that unforgettable February afternoon at Turf Moor.
Burnley forwards Andre Gray and Sam Vokes offered a difficult partnership up front for Lincoln to contain, with much of the responsibility falling to their defenders. Centre-backs Sean Raggett and Luke Waterfall kept the back-line in position throughout much of the first half, although Imps goalkeeper Paul Farman certainly did find himself tested.
Gray’s pace in the final third was proving to be an issue, as was the passing of Joey Barton. The Burnley midfielder created space with several accurate passes, and provided dangerous opportunities off free-kicks as well. Lincoln were not seeing joy in the attack, but they were keeping the match in front of them. One excellent chance for the visitors in the penalty area was unfortunately sent high over the crossbar by Jack Muldoon.
Despite the limited threats in the opposing half, Lincoln’s plan was working, and it could be seen in the body language of Burnley’s players. With each wide shot or critical save from Farman in goal, the frustration built up more and more. At the opposite end, positivity was forming for their opponent.
Several late substitutions saw Cowley tinker with the shape of his formation, but the tactics remained true to their initial defensive approach. Then, as suddenly as it was shocking, it happened.
A corner-kick in the 89th minute found its way to the head of Raggett, who was able to just get the ball over the line before it was cleared out by Burnley keeper Tom Heaton. It was their only shot on target in the match. Lincoln had a 1-0 lead and had set up several nervy minutes of stoppage-time for their travelling supporters.
The home side pushed forward in search of the equaliser, but it was not enough. With the victory, Lincoln became the first non-league club to reach the FA Cup quarter-finals in 103 years. It was a sensational moment for Cowley and the players, confirming the belief that they had in themselves prior to kick-off. Next up was a date at the Emirates with Arsenal. Even though the Gunners would triumph in a comfortable 5-0 win, something quite special had already been accomplished.
Boosted by that improbable run, Lincoln would capture the 2016/17 National League crown with two games in-hand, reclaiming their spot in the Football League. The next season displayed signs that all this was not due to luck. Lincoln would qualify for one of the play-off places in League Two, and lift the EFL Trophy at Wembley Stadium after defeating Shrewsbury Town in the final.
Success demanded maximum effort and focus from Lincoln City during their FA Cup tie at Burnley in 2017, and that is what fans witnessed as they made history in the tournament. The amazing part of it all is that Danny Cowley continues to get the most from his team each and every week.
By Roy Emanuel
Part of our Magic of the Cup series