Michael Appleton is reflecting on what has been a tremendous season for Lincoln City before he has a slight chuckle to himself.
“Clive Nates, my chairman, has done a brilliant pitch for me”, he says. “He’s already told everyone that we’ve got a budget that’s in the lower half of the division.
“It’s been great for everybody. It’s now an opportunity over three games to try and get a place in the second tier of English football, which is something that our fans couldn’t have dreamt of two or three years ago.
“It’s a massive achievement for everyone at the football club, especially considering we’ve got the youngest team in the EFL.”
Not many would have expected Lincoln to be standing 270 minutes away from Championship football at the start of the season. The club are still very much in transition after a five-year rise up the footballing pyramid, and whilst it may not have been the short-term aim to win promotion this season, an exciting long-term plan is still very much in place.
Appleton has every right to be delighted with his young, vibrant side’s season, too. In 2020/21, Lincoln have the youngest squad across the three EFL divisions, with an average age of just 23.3.
Lewis Montsma and Conor McGrandles, 23 and 25, have both established themselves as key players since joining in the summer. Anthony Scully, 22, Brennan Johnson, 19 and Morgan Rogers, 18, have been key cogs in the final third, scoring 35 goals between them, and Jorge Grant, 26, is reaching his prime with 17 goals in 2020/21.
There has been a plethora of young talent on display this season, and if they went on to round off the season with promotion, it would place Alan Hansen’s ‘you can’t win anything with kids’ claims in further doubt.
But as those young gems continue to strut their stuff and express themselves freely, there is an older, wiser head who goes about his work quietly and helps to glue the jigsaw together.
At 32 years of age, Liam Bridcutt is no stranger to the big stage. The midfielder came through the ranks at Chelsea before helping Brighton win promotion from League One in 2010/11. He’s played for Sunderland in the Premier League, captained what was a sleeping Championship giant in Leeds United, played for another big club in Nottingham Forest, and even turned out twice for Scotland.
This stage, in comparison to his previous endeavours, is slightly smaller, but the importance remains just as high. Helping Lincoln City into the Championship would arguably rank amongst one of his biggest achievements in his distinguished career.
“I’ve said it before, but we’re ahead of schedule in terms of a two to three year goal, but we’ve come together and gelled a lot quicker than what we probably expected”, he says.
“We’re ahead of where we should be, but that’s not to say that we’re going to rest on our laurels now. We go again, keep working and look to get the job done.”
The Imps have thrived in Appleton’s fluid 4-3-3/4-2-3-1 formation this season, On Wednesday, they prepare to come up against Charlie Wyke, Sunderland’s 30-goal forward, with plenty of firepower of their own coming from each area of the pitch.
But not only is Bridcutt’s ability to hold the midfield and act as a lynchpin in front of the back four tactically beneficial – the role he has played in helping the younger players along with his knowledge and reading of the game has been just as influential.
“That’s the added bonus for me,” he adds. “The manager has given me a role to come in and use that experience to help the younger players.”
“I took that on quite naturally. It’s a joy to help the young players here. They are willing to learn, and that’s the main thing.”
“He’s been massive,” Appleton continues. “The times he’s been out of the team is when we’ve found it a little bit difficult.
“When he’s in the team, he has a massive influence on the group. He allows the players in front of him to go out and express themselves and get on with it.
“That’s a quality in itself, when you’re more than happy to be a stopper and make sure that you’re keeping some of the players organised and make sure other players free themselves up.”
Bridcutt’s selfless nature in the heart of midfield has been even more noticeable when he’s been unavailable through injury this season. On the 22 occasions where he has been absent from the matchday squad in League One, Lincoln have yielded only 11 wins and have failed to taste victory 11 times.
Thankfully for Appleton and his teammates, the combative midfielder is ready and raring to go out and do battle for the Imps against the Black Cats on Wednesday evening, as they look to make the most of 3,000 supporters returning to the LNER Stadium.
“They’ve got a lot of experience and they have been in similar situations in previous years,” Bridcutt adds, as he discusses his former employers.
“They have some very experienced players, but they have been inconsistent this season, but it’s a big game for everyone.
“It’s massive for the club to have fans back in too. We need it. We aren’t a massive club, but we rely on the fans and it’ll be good to get them back in.
“You get used to playing behind-closed-doors. We said at the start that it’s all about mentality in terms of putting a bit of pressure on ourselves to perform. There’s obviously no crowd there to push you on, so it’s down to our hard work and dedication to do that and put us in good stead.
“It’ll be brilliant when the fans get back in.”
To captain his side to Wembley and help the Imps turn a remarkable season into a truly memorable one would be the icing on the cake for Bridcutt, who has turned his fortunes around after a tough couple of years.
Injuries hampered his time at Nottingham Forest, to a point where Aitor Karanka and Martin O’Neill had overlooked him and left him isolated in the Under-23s’. His misfortunes weren’t to affect his infectious personality, though, as he was seen constantly motivating the youngsters, helping them along the conveyor belt at the Nigel Doughty Academy under Gary Brazil.
Nothing but admiration for Liam. when he played alongside the #nffc u23. His attitude and professionalism was top draw & helped all the for younger players. He’s been fantastic for #Imps great qualities & leadership this season and was hugely missed when he’s not on the field.
— David Johnson (@DavidJo05034174) May 14, 2021
After loan spells with Bolton and Lincoln last season, it has certainly been a similar state of affairs for Bridcutt since returning to Sincil Bank on a permanent deal in the summer.
“This is one of the reasons why I came here permanently,” Bridcutt concludes. “I’m happy.”
“I’m happy with the manager and the ambitions to go on and progress in his career. He wants to take this club to the next level, and that was a massive reason why I wanted to come.
“I’m happy with my football, and that’s shown in my performances, but I’m just happy with life on a day-to-day basis.”