Lincoln’s normally bustling city centre was much quieter than normal on Sunday, 8 April 2018.
Almost 30,000 people had embarked on a pilgrimage to London, representing their club, their city, at Wembley.
Lincoln City, after 134 years of history, had never won a trophy before and never been to the national stadium.
That afternoon, under then-boss Danny Cowley, they achieved both of those things in beating Shrewsbury Town 1-0 in the EFL Trophy final.
The EFL Trophy is a competition that remains close to the 41-year-old’s heart, bringing together a city revitalised by its football team.
“It certainly played a big part in the journey we had,” Cowley told BBC Sport, having guided the Imps to promotion from the National League and into the FA Cup quarter-finals before that point.
“It was great for those supporters that had followed the club up and down the country, and in particular for older supporters who have supported the club for a long time and not seen them at Wembley.”
The success in the competition captured great memories, such as a thrilling 4-2 win over Peterborough in the quarter-finals and a ebb-and-flow semi-final penalty shootout success over a talent-packed young Chelsea side, even before the big occasion in the ‘big smoke’.
“We also caught the imagination of the younger supporters, we’d already done so the year before with the FA Cup run,” Cowley added.
“I’m lucky enough to be involved in grassroots football in Lincoln and whenever I speak to the younger children they always talk about the Wembley occasion. It was a tangible memory they have that associates them with the club and that’s really powerful.
“You take 30,000 to Wembley and I think the greatest legacy of that is you create lifelong supporters. For a club like Lincoln which is so community based, it’s an incredible city, the people have such allegiance and there’s such a community feel.
“We wouldn’t have achieved what we did without that connection we had with supporters.”
Proving ground for young stars
The decision to introduce under-21 sides from top-rated academies within Premier League and Championship clubs was not a universally popular move, as clubs feared the concept of ‘B’ teams from the elite would threaten the existing football pyramid.
It is something that Cowley understands, wanting to protect the league system which he believes is the best in the world, but he has seen first hand the benefits to clubs across the leagues from the blooding of young talent in the Trophy.
Ben Godfrey, who this week joined Everton from Norwich for a fee of £25m, is just one example of a player allowed to thrive in the lower leagues before earning a move up the food chain.
“I see it as a really good competition for so many reasons,” Cowley said. “It’s a great opportunity from a manager point of view to watch the young players playing competitive football.
“You get so much better context as to where those players are at and whether they’re ready to step into league football.
“You go through the run we had and the players we played against and where they are now – Ben Godfrey has just joined Everton, there was Callum Hudson-Odoi, Ethan Ampadu and Trevoh Chalobah who’s now on loan in the top division in France.”
It is not just the big guns who get to test out their academy talent; the youngsters at League One and League Two level also get chance to engage in first-team football.
“It’s a great way for lower league clubs to bring players through,” Cowley continued. “We had Ellis Chapman that would have played, there’s a young boy now at Lincoln – Sean Roughan – who we signed from Ireland and has actually played EFL Trophy games, done well and is now playing in the team as a 17-year-old.
“I would imagine the age of teams in the competition would be relatively young and it creates great opportunities for young players, which is ultimately what we have to try to provide.”
Funding opportunities at lower league level
Wembley was not the only boost for Lincoln City. The momentum which had been built beforehand through promotion to the EFL and a dazzling FA Cup run was maintained with a combined Trophy and promotion push in League Two.
Gates which were as low as 2,500 on average when Cowley and brother Nicky arrived became sell-outs, and the Trophy run was worth somewhere in the region of £1m in terms of revenue.
While clubs cannot yet welcome fans back to the stadiums because of Covid-19, the competition remains a source of income to clubs who succeed.
In Lincoln’s case, such financial rewards helped set up a sustainable future.
“When we first arrived at Lincoln we were training at an army barracks and a school playing field,” Cowley added. “By the time we left, thanks to the FA Cup run and the EFL Trophy, we managed to build an Elite Performance Centre in Lincoln.
“The club were always willing and keen to re-invest the money back into the football club. We hope the legacy we left with the training ground will allow Lincoln to move onto further successes and keep developing young players.”