“It just seems to me that, at the moment, whatever we do as a football club turns to gold.” Wonderment, rather than hubris, colours Bob Dorrian’s turn of phrase. Five years ago the Lincoln City chairman had to make his own luck, putting in £500,000 of the earnings from a successful career in poultry export to save the club from administration and possible oblivion; half a year previously he had survived an extraordinary general meeting and vote of no confidence from club shareholders. An emotional return on his commitment has been some time in coming but at the Emirates Stadium on Saturday the payback will exceed anything that, since exiting the Football League in May 2011, anyone at Sincil Bank might have thought possible.

If Dorrian’s aureate vision has been well-earned it is also slightly bleary here, speaking at the club’s stadium a few hours after returning from a holiday in South Africa. It is nearly 6pm and Dorrian has missed all but the tail end of a day’s media- and sponsor-oriented activity that has stretched the ever-cheerful club staff – some of whom have come in on their days off – and volunteers to their limits.

Not everybody is winding down. Behind him, the first-team manager, Danny Cowley, shuttles back and forth between offices beneath the St Andrews Stand; in front passes the goalkeeping coach, Jimmy Walker, now 43 and greying at the fringes but spry enough to have been named as a substitute in the wins over Ipswich and Brighton. “You want some Grecian 2000 on that,” is Dorrian’s joke to Walker, the quieter face of non-league replacement keepers in this season’s FA Cup.

Lincoln have enough stories of their own. Earlier in the day a queue – and they are used to queues here now – had snaked around two of the stands, taking shape before 7am and not letting up until sales closed. A few visitors from outside were wrong-footed at first; this was a line, replete with pretend doctors’ appointments and extended lunch breaks, to purchase tickets for next weekend’s FA Trophy semi-final against York City. The big occasions keep on coming but Arsenal remained the conversation topic and anyone seeking tales of cup idiosyncracy could choose their own adventure.

The Lincoln City players train on the Sincil Bank pitch ahead of their visit to Arsenal.
The Lincoln City players train on the Sincil Bank pitch ahead of their visit to Arsenal. Photograph: David Sillitoe/for the Guardian

A lady buying special-edition scarves in the club shop recounted that her grandsons, with one ticket to Saturday’s quarter-final between them, had to flip a coin for the privilege; a young couple whose luck had not even extended that far had decided that, to hell with it, they would take the train to London with their friends anyway and watch in the pub; Kurt Peters, a local musician, had reformed his band Octopuss and was on his way home to record an Arsène Wenger-themed version of the old Fivepenny Piece song, 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10.

Routines will converge when just under 9,000 supporters, 617 of whom will board a special football service from Lincoln to Finsbury Park at 12.58pm, assemble behind the Clock End. This is the “#impvasion” promised in posters across the city and they travel in hope tinged by the slightest amount of expectation. Listen to Cowley and it is impossible not to be swept along. “We’re professional people, we’re winners, we expect to win, we’re used to winning, we like winning, we enjoy winning, our lives are better when we’re winning,” he told the press with a number of his squad in earshot. “We go to Arsenal with a game plan, and to try and execute it. It would be a disservice to our players to tell them just to wake up on Saturday morning and enjoy the day. We work every day for this; this is our lives.”

Imps

Cowley and his brother Nicky – who is his assistant in name only; although Danny receives a manager’s salary, the pair split their combined income 50:50 – have drilled that attitude into a team that, in the years after relegation, had not finished higher than 13th in the National League that they now lead by six points. Andrew Vaughan, who doubles as the club’s photographer and its chaplain, remembers when, after Ipswich had equalised late on at Portman Road to force a third-round replay, one of the players approached him lamenting “we let the fans down”. That had certainly not been the coaching staff’s message but the standards set by the Cowleys are exacting. As the team negotiate their way, in walking motion, over a set of hurdles in their warm-up for training Danny breaks from a conversation with his brother to cast an eye over his players’ movements. “Technique, remember,” is the entreaty during a relatively routine exercise and the thought occurs that Cowley’s PE-teaching instincts – he and Nicky gave up their careers in education only upon joining from Braintree Town last summer – run deep.

The impression is confirmed later when the long-serving goalkeeper Paul Farman laughs that he had been “told off like a schoolkid” the previous day for making an “annoying noise” in the dressing room. But the touch is light; when Luke Waterfall, the centre-back, takes his turn to face broadcast media he is half-distracted by a waving Danny Cowley, smiling exaggeratedly behind the cameras. Nobody, whether in the fans’ queue, the dressing room or the boardroom, will speak with anything but affection about the siblings’ transformative effect.

Lincoln City memorabilia displayed in a shop window in the centre of the city.
Lincoln City memorabilia displayed in a shop window in the centre of the city. Photograph: Mike Egerton/PA

“They are a phenomenon,” Dorrian says, repeating the word slowly for emphasis. “A. Phenomenon. I’ve never seen two guys run a football club the way they’re running Lincoln City. They’re unique; their grasp of sports science and how to apply it to football is second to none but their way of going about everything is something we’ve never experienced, and I imagine others won’t have either.”

It took an injection of cash from Clive Nates, a Johannesburg-based former hedge fund manager, to bring the Cowleys to Lincoln. Dorrian is midway through telling how the South African, an Everton fan who had followed the Imps since a partnership between the clubs was mooted in the early 2000s, telephoned him expressing his desire to invest when Nates himself appears from around the corner. Nates is an unassuming figure who, by his own admission, has been bitten hard by the bug and has “spent more time in Lincoln this year than at my place”. He is a board member and has pledged longer-term commitment. “I didn’t have enough money to make a difference at Everton so Lincoln was the obvious choice,” he explains. The big picture is that the experience of Arsenal, and everything around it, will help redevelop a club slowly growing back into itself after a raft of swingeing post-relegation cuts.

“Geographically we’re a bit of an Ipswich or Norwich in some ways,” Dorrian says. “I don’t think we can get that big but we can get [our regular fanbase] up to the middle teens. We have ongoing plans to move to a new stadium and I’d be fairly confident that, if we were doing well and probably in the Championship, we could get 15,000 or 16,000 fans into home games.

“The money from the Cup run has already helped us upgrade. We’ll be moving into some really good training premises next season and on the playing side we’ve now got the opportunity to bring in promising young players, highly rated at lower league level, with Danny and Nicky behind them bringing them on.”

On Saturday, in north London and back home, everyone will allow themselves a shorter-term view. Vaughan says that many of his congregation a little outside Lincoln will desert their villages for the day. Hundreds of those who remain in town will siphon down to Sincil Bank to gather around the same big screen that displayed the giddying fifth-round win at Burnley. One thing will unite everyone. As night fell on Thursday the Westgate water tower, which overlooks the city centre, was illuminated brightly in the club’s colours. Lincoln have the golden touch, nobody doubts that, but red and white will do just perfectly.