After six years away, Lincoln City have returned to the Football League.
A goal from Terry Hawkridge either side of half time took the Imps to their insurmountable tally of 97 National League points for the season as City came from behind to win for the third game in a row, this time 2-1 against Macclesfield Town.
The triumph spearheaded by Danny and Nicky Cowley comes at the end of a season beyond the wildest dreams of even the most optimistic Lincoln fan, and sparked jubilant scenes and a pitch invasion at full time.
Before the game, the Imps’ main concern was around the fitness of Lee Angol but he recovered from his knock in time to partner Matt Rhead up front.
The three changes from the side that beat Gateshead saw returns to the starting eleven for Bradley Wood, Elliott Whitehouse and Terry Hawkridge.
Backed by nearly 10,000 vocal supporters, the Imps came forward brightly early on and the sides exchanged half chances as they both felt their way into the game. For the Silkmen, Chris Holroyd sliced wide from 25 yards before Angol’s free kick from the edge of the box was held by Scott Flinders.
Then, Luke Summerfield saw his bobbling 20 yard curler tipped around the post by Paul Farman but in truth, there was little goalmouth action in the opening quarter of the game.
But 22 minutes in, the game burst into life. At one end, Rhead headed a right wing cross against the angle of post and bar, and Whitehouse hooked the rebound over the bar as Lincoln sought the opener.
As it was, the deadlock was broken at the other end as Mitch Hancox was allowed too much room to cut inside from the right and bend a low effort beyond Farman’s reach.
It was an opening goal that stunned the majority of Sincil Bank into silence and the party atmosphere was killed for a moment – but the silence wasn’t to last.
Just five minutes later, the ground erupted. Rhead and Nathan Arnold were involved in setting up Angol, whose powerful effort wasn’t held and in rushed Hawkridge to convert the close range rebound and restore both parity and the carnival atmosphere.
Lincoln’s best chance to take the lead before the break came on the stroke of half time. Wood’s diagonal ball was nodded down by Rhead, and Arnold set up Whitehouse to see a 12-yard effort blocked.
The second half started in a similar vein, with few real chances for either side – though 11 minutes into the half Habergham’s long throw caused havoc as Flinders missed his punch, but George Pilkington cleared.
At the other end, Luke Waterfall had to deny Holroyd a shot with a last-ditch challenge, but Lincoln didn’t fully clear and Holroyd’s stunning acrobatic effort was tipped over by a full stretch Farman.
With Lincoln arguably on the back foot, Cowley made a double substitution just after the hour mark, introducing Billy Knott and Josh Ginnelly to try and turn the game his side’s way.
And Ginnelly nearly had an immediate impact, cutting inside and seeing a low shot saved just a couple of minutes after coming on.
But despite the changes, it was still Macclesfield who created the better chances and Hancox should have put his side ahead again but his far post header was parried away by Farman.
As the Imps sought the goal that would take them to the title, Angol fired a fierce effort just over and Ginnelly’s free kick was pushed away by Flinders.
But it came with 14 minutes to go. Hawkridge picked the ball up on the edge of the box and shifted onto his right foot before a precise finish into the bottom corner to send Sincil Bank into delirium.
After the goal Lincoln largely managed the game well by taking time out of it in the corners. That said, there was a heart in mouth moment deep into stoppage time when the defence were caught out by a ball over the top but Anthony Dudley headed inches off target with just Farman to beat.
That was the final action of the game and all the emotion of a hard six years in non-league football came pouring out in the cheers at the final whistle.
Lincoln: Paul Farman, Bradley Wood, Sam Habergham, Elliott Whitehouse (Billy Knott 63), Luke Waterfall, Matt Rhead (Sean Long 83), Terry Hawkridge, Sean Raggett, Nathan Arnold (Josh Ginnelly 63), Alex Woodyard, Lee Angol. Subs not used: Adam Marriott, Harry Anderson
Goal: Terry Hawkridge (28, 76)
Macclesfield: Scott Flinders, Andy Halls, David Fitzpatrick, Neill Byrne, George Pilkington, Rhys Browne, Chris Holroyd, Kingsley James, Ollie Norburn (Danny Whitehead 84), Mitch Hancox (Anthony Dudley 70), Luke Summerfield (Danny Whitaker 78). Subs not used: John McCombe, Craig Ross
Goal: Mitch Hancox (23)