YJA Away Days: Arsenal – Lincoln City
What an incredible journey it has been for Lincoln City this season – nothing short of breath-taking.
While it proved a 5-0 bludgeoning that saw the fairy-tale come to an end, it won’t serve to undermine what will continue to be seen as both a historical and magical achievement. After all, for a team plying their trade in the fifth division of English football, to rise to the quarter finals of the FA Cup is something to be truly proud of. Arsenal may have ended that voyage, but Lincoln bowed out to rapturous applause, unparalleled respect and amid the sickening effort that got them there in the first place.
Thankfully, given the anarchic scramble to grab tickets, I was one of the lucky 9,000 to reserve themselves a seat at the Emirates Stadium. One of 40+ coaches travelling down to north London proved my mode of transport and the atmosphere down the A1 was certainly special. The fact it took a brain-sapping four hours and 40 minutes proved a petty detail when you consider the voices of some were sore before we left Lincolnshire. I still feel sorry for our Sleafordian driver, mind you.
We arrived in London just after 2 o’clock and the Imps supporters had long been livening up the streets of the capital. Covent Garden tube station was closed over safety fears with hundreds of City fans gathering for a pre-match pint and few pubs being truly void of Imps paraphernalia. For a National League team to drum up such an aura across no other than London is just incredible and proved scenes that will go down in club history. Budweiser also deserve props for dishing out free beers at the freshly dubbed and newly located Lincoln Imp pub.
My admission for an under 18 in the lower tier came in at a very reasonable £11.25, by Arsenal’s standards anyway. Considering the Gunners usually rinse over £50 out of adults for Premier League games, I felt like I might as well have broken into the ground in getting in for such a low fee. Then again, it is the FA Cup. Had Arsenal charged anymore from the fans of a history-making National League side then it would have been nothing short of criminal.
Onto the food and for a club of this size, I was somewhat disappointed. Having been told that I had taken the last ‘Gunners pie’, a group of my friends were left with no less than a 15 minute wait for their equivalent to arrive. However, I promptly joined that queue when it turned out that I was sinking my fork into a ‘Bombay vegetable pie’. In the end though, my steak-filled snack proved rather tasty and the woman behind the till’s horrific maths left me with change I really shouldn’t have had.
Nothing beat the walk out of the concourse and into the stand, however. Having been touring absolute shells of stadiums on my travels with Yeovil Town over the past few seasons, it felt like the mother of all treats to take in the Emirates Stadium. The sheer fact that all four sides melted into one bowl-like construction was hilariously novel for me. That’s not to mention the fact there was more than one tier. Astonishing.
The Emirates really is a cracking football stadium and I’m not just saying that because they’re my favoured Premier League side. They have, hands down, the comfiest seats of any football ground I’ve been to, a superb view of the pitch and I was bathing in acres of leg room. The sight of almost half of the Clock End being consumed by Lincoln City supporters chanting up to an hour before kick-off was a memory that won’t leave me for some time. It was also rather surreal for Ian Wright to casually strut past and have a quick word with the travelling supporters – a nice touch.
Ultimately though, this was an FA Cup quarter final and the chance to make it to Wembley and, consequently, Arsenal weren’t taking any prisoners. Olivier Giroud, Granit Xhaka, Petr Cech, Laurent Koscielny and the small matter of Alexis Sanchez all got the nod. Meanwhile, Lincoln City stuck with what had worked so well at Burnley and remained unchanged with Matt Rhead and Jack Muldoon leading the line.
The first-half proved a surprisingly and pleasingly tight affair. Lincoln continued to frustrate their Premier League opponents and in spite of the quality disparity, limited them to just two shots on target before the break. Paul Farman tipped one of those efforts brilliantly onto the post with Theo Walcott coming inches from scoring. Giroud should have done better with the rebound.
Just after the half hour mark and the fairytale moment looked imminent with Nathan Arnold shapeshifting into Lionel Messi down the right flank. Having outpaced Hector Bellerin and chinked past Koscielny, the ex-Grimsby Town man bared down on goal. However, with the ball caught in his feet, Arnold could only shovel out a left-footed shot that Cech could claw away from goal. It was the moment and one that the Imps came inches away from taking.
While the brilliantly noisy away supporters didn’t seem to mind, it proved a turning point in the game and Arsenal eventually broke the deadlock. Making it to halftime at 0-0 would have been a fantastic achievement for Lincoln and something that could have descended the Gunners into frustration. Yet it wasn’t to be as Kieran Gibbs teed up Walcott in the area with his deflected effort bobbling its way into the bottom corner.
With their tails up and Lincoln now realising that they had to score at least once at the Emirates, the game swayed violently in favour of the home outfit. Giroud forced Farman into another brilliant save early in the second-half and Gibbs somehow headed over from the proceeding phase of play.
The Imps weren’t so lucky in the 53rd minute, though, as Arsene Wenger’s men displayed their Champions League quality. As part of a scarily meticulous passing move, all within the confines of the penalty area, Bellerin was able to cross the ball on a plate for Giroud and a 2-0 lead. Five minutes later too and it proved a similar scenario. This time it was Gibbs providing the ammunition and Luke Waterfall proved the Imp unlucky enough to turn the ball into this own net.
At this point, of course, the result was plain and clear. Nevertheless, the players and supporters never lost their appreciation for the occasion and overall achievement. Every Arsenal attack was met with a bellow of ‘We are Imps, we are Imps,’ with the home fans being put to shame. As I witnessed at Everton earlier in the season, Premier League teams seem utterly devoid of passion and any vague capability of mustering anything in the way of a decibel.
Sanchez was the next man to write his name on the scoresheet and in emphatic fashion. The Chilean slalomed his way past a rash challenge from Bradley Wood and beat Farman from 20-yards with a surgically placed side-footed finish. Aaron Ramsey then joined the riot in the 78th minute as he latched onto a Sanchez cross that took the entire Lincoln defence out of the game. Waltzing around the goalkeeper, the Welshman walked it home for just his second goal of the season.
Lincoln, perhaps fittingly, proved the side to finish with the bit between their teeth nonetheless. Alan Power garnered a second shot on target for the National League outfit with Cech diving well to his left to deflect it away. Nevertheless, the final whistle brought the curtains down on a 5-0 victory for Arsenal. That being said, the game finished amid partisan cheers from the buoyant Imps and nothing but a murmured clap from the other four corners of the ground.
Beautifully wrapping up an immense FA Cup journey, all the players and the Cowley brothers came over to the 9,000 supporters that had been so integral to their run to the quarter finals. Even after half the Gooners in the ground had filtered out the exits, Imps scarves continued to be waved and chants screamed until voices burnt. Simply put, the result was irrelevant. Arnold could have sent us into dreamland but come on; it had been 103-years since a non-league team last reached the quarter finals. Really, Lincoln were the true victors.
A horrifically long day, but the chance to be part of history and an electric atmosphere rustled up by 9,000 of Lincoln City’s most passionate patrons. There may have been shenanigans with the food and the ticket price were steep for the FA Cup, but all that is mere detail. The Imps did English football proud and it was a pleasure to see their final hoorah at no other than the Emirates. Memories well and truly made.
Kobe Tong, YJA Senior Correspondent