Whilst League Two has been the main priority so far for Lincoln City this season, the FA Cup will always hold a special place in their hearts.
The 16/17 campaign saw the then National League side go all the way to the Emirates after beating the likes of Burnley and Brighton earlier in the competition.
Of course, they’d eventually lose to Arsenal but the prize-money and gate receipts generated from the run has allowed the club to reinvest and improve as they look for promotion from League Two.
Yesterday, the Imps officially opened their new £1.3m training facility that will allow them to develop current and new players both in the senior side and coming from the academy.
It’s a reminder of what the competition can still do for clubs like Lincoln who are striving for big things in the coming years and the news that the FA has doubled the prize fund for clubs competing in it to £30.2m should only see more developments like this fall for clubs that go on a run.
It’s a big step forward for the Imps, then, and the importance of it was underlined by manager Danny Cowley who spoke to us yesterday:
“For us, it’s a long time coming and it’s so important for the football club moving forward.
“I don’t think it would have been possible without the cup run we had back in 16/17.
“The prize money and the gate receipts we generated at the Emirates have played a huge part in this and I have to credit the chairman and the board of directors for the vision and for understanding the importance of putting the money back into the club.
“We didn’t want that cup run just to be a great moment in the club’s history, we wanted it to be more than that. We wanted it to provide a legacy and a platform on which we can hopefully build.”
Certainly, with the Imps currently top of League Two and one of the long-standing favourites for promotion, it’s a very exciting time to be involved with the club.
Cowley explains that, thanks to this new facility, the men from Sincil Bank should only head one way:
“It’s so important for us if we want to be successful to have a new training ground.
“Previously we were working out of an army barracks and a school playing field so to have our own purpose built training ground is going to be really important to develop players both individually and collectively.
“Our academy is only a stone’s throw away and as well as that I think it’ll be really important in terms of recruiting new players because this will be a wonderful place to come and do your work.”
The FA Cup returns this weekend for EFL sides like Lincoln, then, and with the opening of their new training ground in mind, they’ll obviously be looking to embark on another strong run in the competition.
They face a Northampton Town side that has seriously picked up form in recent weeks under Keith Curle, though, and the toughness of the task ahead is not lost on Cowley:
“It’ll be a tough game. We thought they were excellent when we played them on the first game of the season.
“We won 1-0 but we were realistic enough to know that we rode our luck a bit on the day and they’ve got really good players. They’ve won a number of games on the spin now it’ll be a really tough game but we love being at Sincil Bank and we love the FA Cup so here’s hoping.”
For sure, the Cobblers are looking strong right now but no side is higher than the Imps in the current standings in the fourth tier.
It’ll be interesting, then, to see how they manage the demands of any potential cup run and a title challenge and for Cowley going well in both is certainly the aim – taking each game as it comes:
“I think for us the priority is always the next game.
“When we had the cup run in 2016/17 a lot of people said it would be a distraction and that it would get in the way of us getting promoted to the Football League but we didn’t see it like that.
“We saw it as a great opportunity and certainly when we had the successes that we did we gained confidence.
“We beat Championship and Premier League teams and that allowed us to gain confidence and then you can take that back into the league.
“Furthermore, when you play against the top teams you get so much feedback and you learn so much about your players and your team and we were able to use that learning and move forward.”
Make no mistake, though, whilst the Imps obviously want to do well in both competitions, getting promotion after such a good start in the division is the club’s priority as they look to build on two brilliant campaigns:
“We’ve had two really good seasons in the FA Cup run and winning the National League and then last year we made the play-offs and won the Checkatrade Trophy in what was the club’s first trip to Wembley in our history, so you are always trying to follow it up and improve.
“We felt last year we prioritised the Checkatrade Trophy because it was the only cup competition realistically we could win whereas this time around we’re prioritising the league.
“We’re trying to get promoted but we’re very respectful of how tough it is and we’re well aware of how many good teams there are in the division.
“We’ve had a good start but that is all it is we want to keep pushing on but we’re really proud of what we’ve achieved so far and ultimately we’re not getting away with ourselves.
“I think we’re lucky because we’ve just got an honest, hard-working group and a lot of our players have come from the lower levels so as a consequence of that and of the journey they have been on they’re not the type that will get ahead of themselves.”
The fourth tier is looking as competitive as usual, though, and there’s plenty of other sides going for those precious spots that get you into League One.
For Cowley, around a third of the division could realistically get an automatic spot:
“I think we’re one of about seven or eight teams that could win this division or get an automatic promotion spot this season.
“There’s very little between the teams, there might be two or three teams in front of us in terms of their journey and we’re aware of that and understand that but we’re trying to work really hard on a daily basis to try and close that gap.”
And, with that gap in mind, it’s apparent that, typically, hard-work is going on behind the scenes right now ahead of the January transfer window:
“We’ve got a recruitment strategy in place and we’re pretty clear on where we need to improve.
“At the moment we’re a side with about 16 or 17 senior players and then there are quite a few young players around the periphery of that so we’re clear on the areas we need to improve in.
“For us, recruitment is so important. If you want to keep improving, you’ve got to add to your playing squad to keep competition for places up. You’ve got to try and find players and people that can add to what you’re doing.”
Clearly, the Imps are on an upward trajectory right now.
A new facility that will get the best out of everyone at the club is only the latest milestone in a recent journey that has gathered pace in the right direction.
It’s a club full of hard-working, honest professionals that do things in the right way and, without doubt, you get the feeling that the success off, and on, the pitch is far from over right now.
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