For Lincoln City, regular reminders of what a dazzling team performance looks like are never too far away. Overhead, in fact, with the club’s training base across the road from RAF Scampton, home of the Red Arrows. “New signings come in the building and think it is amazing, so you have the normal little joke with them: ‘Yeah, because you’re a new signing we asked them to go up and show you what they are about,’” says manager Michael Appleton. “But they do become a bit of a nuisance because when you are trying to get a point across the players cannot hear a bloody word you are saying.”
On the day the defender Lewis Montsma arrived at the training ground last summer, the Hawk jets were busy practising loop-the-loops. The Dutchman, a free transfer, has been one of several shrewd signings at Lincoln, who have made a mockery of a bottom-half budget to reach Sunday’s League One play-off final, one game from the Championship, four years after promotion from non-league and that memorable run to the FA Cup quarter-finals, which galvanised the city and paid for the club’s £1.8m elite performance centre.
Lincoln are almost unrecognisable from the team that gave Brighton and Burnley bloody noses or won promotion from League Two under Danny Cowley two years ago. Gone are the days of them flicking between training at a secondary school PE field and Sobraon Barracks, which did not have a full-size pitch.
Only Harry Anderson remains from that title-winning team, with Appleton transforming the squad’s profile and philosophy. “To reduce the average age of the playing squad from 30 to 23 clearly takes a lot of effort,” he says. “The style of play was a big thing because the reality is all of a sudden all the top clubs are really keen to loan their players out to Lincoln.”
Last summer Appleton leaned on his web of contacts to land the twinkled-toed Morgan Rogers on loan from Manchester City, the Wales forward Brennan Johnson from Nottingham Forest, Timothy Eyoma from Tottenham and the West Brom pair Alex Palmer and Callum Morton. The permanent signings of players with Premier League pedigree – Regan Poole, Tayo Edun and Anthony Scully – have created a vibrant blend.
Before taking the job, Appleton went for a coffee with Sir Alex Ferguson, his manager at Manchester United, who previously gave him a rollicking for not doing his homework and taking jobs in trying circumstances at Portsmouth and Blackpool, Lincoln’s opponents at Wembley on Sunday. “We spoke about coming into a club where they’d had a bit of short-term success,” says Appleton. “It was a club that a lot of people were talking about being big boots to fill with Danny and Nicky [Cowley] being here previously. That did not worry me too much because I went in at Oxford after Chris Wilder who did a very good job at getting them promoted from the Conference into League Two.”
How different are Blackpool now to the club Appleton left behind after 65 days in 2013? “Chalk and cheese,” he replies, instantly. “My time there working with the Oystons was as difficult as any. I didn’t enjoy it at all. But the reality is it’s a fantastic club with good fans that have been loyal and stuck by the club through difficult times and made a stance. When they stayed away from the club, they weren’t doing that to harm any of the players, it was because they felt so strongly about the owners and, ultimately, it’s paid off for them.
“I remember going to watch a game after the Oystons had left and the atmosphere was completely different. It was very welcoming, the fans were getting behind the players and now they’re in a real good place, a good side, good management staff and looking one way really, and that’s up.”
Lincoln, too, are upwardly mobile under Appleton, a progressive coach who has crafted the youngest squad in the Football League. At half-time last weekend his side trailed 2-0 at Sunderland on the day but Tom Hopper’s second-half header made it 3-2 on aggregate. “They could’ve caved in a little bit. We had to rally around, make a couple of changes, wake one or two up. Well, five or six of them up.” Was it the hairdryer? “It was close to it.”
Appleton is 45 but has been in management for more than a decade. While in charge at Oxford he enrolled on a master’s in sport directorship – “a lot of 3am and 4am reading to hit deadlines” – with a view to taking a role upstairs later in his career. He has learned lessons, via a ticking-off from Fergie, and while he is not one to get carried away – his wife, Jess, nicknamed him “flatline” because he can be tricky to read – the sense of occasion is not lost on him.
“She used to joke when I was at Oxford that she would not know whether I had won, drawn or lost,” he says of his post-game demeanour. “It has got a funny way of slapping you around the face when you think you have conquered it. There will be no ‘flatline’ if we win on Sunday. If the result goes our way, I can assure you there will be a few celebrations and you might get a smile out of me.”