Just under a year ago City went to Dover with no more than an outside chance of climbing into the play-off frame. Two goals from Stefan Payne and a brace for Ricky Miller sent us to a 4-1 defeat, and our season was completely over. Chris Bush partnered Jamie McCombe at centre half, and our reserve defenders weren’t even on the bench. Somewhere in the stands Luke Waterfall sat alongside Callum Howe probably wondering where he’d be in a years time.
I imagine if you’d found him that night and told him that in the next 358 days he’d cement his place in the starting line up, he would have gladly taken that. What if you added he’d be captain? Or that under his on-pitch leadership we’d be top of the league? What if you told him he’d be captaining the National League table toppers to an FA Cup quarter final against Arsenal? Would he be surprised or taken aback? Probably neither. I’m coming to wonder if anything phases Luke Waterfall at all.
Today, quite rightly, he was named the Vanarama Player of the Month for February for his performances at the heart of the Lincoln defence. His rise has been phenomenal, from reserve defender to captaining the best Lincoln City side in at least three decades. A massive part of our success has been the firm bedrock of our defence, and he has been at the heart of that. Not only has he been captain and stopper, but he’s also weighed in with the sort of goal tally an advancing midfielder might expect as well.
All successful teams have a defender that is equally as good in both boxes, and here we are blessed with at least two. Along with Sean Raggett, Luke possesses attributes that cause issue for managers at both ends of the fields, attributes that we have seen on display time and time again. His equaliser against Forest Green gets somewhat overlooked given that just minutes later Raggett gave us the win, but it shouldn’t be overshadowed. His winner against North Ferriby wasn’t a classic, but it was as crucial as any he’ll score in his career in terms of our points tally. It’s fair to say he likes going forward, something that he is given license to do because we cover incredibly well.
It’s when you see him in action at the back that he really excels though, this award hasn’t been given to him just because he’s a goal threat. Since we came down (and arguably for three seasons prior as well) our defence has been shocking, leaking silly goals time and time again. No centre half paring has ever gelled, and by virtue of that we’ve conceded goals we really shouldn’t. Even alongside Callum Howe last season we looked susceptible. This season though it’s been a different story, we rarely look like conceding and we never truly look like imploding. A side like North Ferriby were never going to come to Sincil Bank and score four again, certainly not with Luke Waterfall heading bricks back at the centre of defence.
What I really like about Luke is that he is a typical old-school English central defender. He is as strong and dominant as they come, he’ll take an elbow or two and make sure he gives them back as well. He can play football, but he can get involved in a battle and never be phased. In interviews he is so down to earth, he could be one of the builders working on your extension. I know I’ve said that about other players we have, but it really is a theme running through the team and nobody epitomises it quite as much as Luke Waterfall.
So what has caused this former reserve to become the best player in non-league for the month of February, and put him on the verge of being the first Imps captain to walk out at Wembley? Obvious credit goes to Danny and Nicky who have moulded a style of play that brings out the best in Luke. It’s clear to anyone with the power of sight that the club has evolved at a seismic rate under them, and Luke has clearly benefitted as much as anyone.
His centre half partner has been really important too. Really good central defences are made up of pairs of players, players who work with each other, complement each other and understand what the other is going to do. Adams and Keown? Ferdinand and Vidic? Morgan and McCombe? The important rule to remember is that alongside one great centre half, there’s usually another. If you’ve got a Pat Kanyucka next to you, you’re never going to win any awards because you’ll spend all your time working hard whilst your team mate wanders around with his head in the clouds or his arse on the ground.
Raggett and Waterfall are also slightly different as well. Waterfall is more ‘no nonsense’, he’s very much like Steve Thompson was in his day. He’ll head it away (it being a ball or a brick), he’ll kick it away and if the forward has it he’ll put in a strong tackle. He gets forward but when he’s at the back he likes to get it and deliver it. Sean Raggett prefers to get it, run for a bit and then deliver it. It’s a subtle difference given the other similar characteristics of the players, but it works very well.
I also like to mention a moment from one of our televised games, Ipswich away. Watching the highlights of their first goal I recall Tom Lawrence going through us like a knife through butter. Waterfall came thundering in from the side and looked as if he was committed to going to ground. As he was travelling he made a decision to pull out as he’d surely foul Lawrence giving away a penalty and an almost certain red card. Mid-slide he pulled his legs back, and Lawrence slotted home. That demonstrated a level of football intelligence beyond that of many of the defenders we’ve suffered over the last decade. He instinctively knew he was risking a red card and a goal, and despite Ipswich scoring he ensured he stayed on the pitch to help us achieve our 2-2 draw. I don’t imagine pulling back from a tackle in the area in that manner was something that is instinctive, it was a conscious decision.
I’m delighted to come home to the news he’s won the award, I think it shows an astute recognition of the contribution that is added from all areas of the pitch in a successful team. It would be easy for the panel to give it to a free scoring centre forward or a slick midfielder, but instead they have recognised real contribution from a position usually not as celebrated as most.
He’s certainly earned the right to enjoy Arsenal, and not just because we thrashed Braintree last night. Luke has been earning it ever since he sat in the stands while we were thrashed by Dover. What a difference a year makes.
Photo Graham Burrell
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