It hasn’t been the sort of season where disappointment has reared it’s head very often. Even early season back-to-back defeats did little to dampen the optimism and excitement at what lay ahead. Yesterday I firmly believed we’d win the game, I firmly believed we’d be going to Wembley and coming away from Sincil Bank I was genuinely gutted for the first time this season.
With the cold light of Sunday morning helping to clear my judgement somewhat I feel I should address the big issue first, the quality of the officiating. The officials seemed at odds with each other from the very start, and a series of odd choices indicated to me that they’d have a big say on the outcome of the game. One of the earliest was a booking for Matt Rhead for doing very little. I wonder if reputation alone earned him the booking, or maybe his constant talking?
I also thought Vadaine Oliver was lucky to get just a booking for crashing into Farman as he prepared to release the ball. Rhead unsettles keepers by being in close proximity, but I haven’t seen any physical contact before. In two games at Sincil Bank both Parkin and Oliver have now deliberately smashed into Farms. What York do, they do well but trying to unsettle a keeper outside of the laws of the game should be punished more severely. Did they know he was carrying an injury? Cynical if so, but you’d expect nothing less from Gary Mills.
The Amari Morgan-Smith incident was particularly unpleasant, and on another day a referee would have pulled out a red card. The tussle was unsavoury and he rightly earned a booking for that, but his gesturing to the crowd was again outside of the laws of the game. I remember Junior Agogo being shown a straight red for exactly the same gesture for Bristol Rovers down here a few years ago, and Morgan-Smith should have walked too. The linesman saw it and called the ref over, but he bottled showing the red card. I hoped it might be that he bottled another key decision or two.
Sadly on 115 minutes he did show another weakness. After correctly waving away the penalty claims from York City players he was called over by the linesman who saw things different. There must have been an element of doubt in his mind as he initially said ‘no penalty’ three times. If only he had the conviction to stand by his decisions, but instead he buckled and took the other option. Crazily it wasn’t even the easiest option, it isn’t like he could be branded a homer or as being swayed by the crowd. Video replays have shown conclusively it was NOT a penalty and therefore we should have had 15 more minutes to try to win the game. Would we have won it? I fear not, I fear we would have had penalties to decide who went to Wembley, but rather the lottery of a shoot out than the injustice of an incorrect call.
My real gripe is that these three men (I say three, I’m not sure which linesman it was) have effectively changed the course of history. 2017 could have been the season Lincoln City finally got to Wembley, but in one moment an error of judgement has put paid to that hope. Whether we would have won the game or not without that is irrelevant, that decision cost us a goal that ended the tie. Whether we were leading or not, whether we had played well or not, none of that is remotely relevant. I would like to hear a referee’s comments after such a decision, especially when he saw the replay. Is Ben Toner sat in his home now feeling guilty at changing his mind? What about linesman Alan Clayton or Neil Radford? Has he seen the replay and realised his angle was far worse than the ref, and he should have kept his flag down? Or do they not care?
Everyone makes mistakes, and sadly these talking points do make up the so-called beauty of the game. I just think there would be far more sympathy for officials if they commented on these big decisions. Okay in a league game between two mid table teams I can’t imagine it being as relevant, but a semi-final of a cup competition with a place at Wembley at stake? If I cock up at work and sell something too cheap or sell the wrong materials for the job I have to front up to my boss and the customer as well. It makes me a better person to admit my mistakes and hopefully gains me more respect from those affected. Whilst our referee’s can be as anonymous as they like in the aftermath of such shocking performances, trust is never going to be built.
Okay, I’ll finish on the referee. The tie was won and lost on the penalty, but it could have been won and lost over 180 minutes and we wouldn’t be debating this at all.
York (as predicted by me days before our first league clash) have altered significantly under Gary Mills, and us ‘playing badly’ yesterday reflected as much on how well they did as anything. They defender resolutely, they dominated in the air across the back and they forced our quick players out wide and into corners time and time again. They rarely threatened anything going forward, but then again they didn’t need to. Even at 1-0 they seemed to be happy to contain us, they were content to let us have the ball and try to break them down. Our game is very much about pressing possession and moving up the field quickly, but they wanted us to come at them and pick a pass. After a few nice moves in the first twenty minutes we began to look as if we couldn’t find the killer pass. I think that is why Billy Knott was introduced when he was, he has a wider range of passes and an unpredictable footballing brain. It didn’t make an awful lot of difference though.
I don’t think we played badly as some are suggesting. Both Nathan Arnold and Terry Hawkridge (for me) had one of their weakest games in Lincoln shirts, and that really affected us. They never found the spaces behind the York defence and that left us going backwards and sideways an awful lot, which York were more than happy with. That wasn’t too much of an issue when Power and Woodyard were there to move the ball side to side, but once Alex dropped in at right back and Alan came off, we looked a little bit one dimensional. Oddly the guy I was sat with thought our changes gave us the impetus in the game. Funny how perceptions differ.
I was angry and upset on the final whistle, and I could only focus on the penalty because that one decision had cost us the game. We have huffed and puffed against a side in the bottom four, but make no mistake they’re as organised and resolute as any mid table outfit, and had Jackie McNamara not made them a laughing stock in 2016 I think they would be sat safe in 13th or 14th now. They’re tough to beat, but I have to question if they have the killer instinct to escape the bottom four. Part of me hopes not after beating us yesterday, but then again that is what they set out to do. I can’t blame them for wanting to win the game, and part of me wants a proud former league club (not unlike ourselves) to stay up and get back where they belong. Once my anger has died down, I suspect I’ll revert to the latter opinion.
As for us, the criticism of Danny and Nicky is perhaps unfair but not unexpected. Many fans point to the changes in the first leg as a contributing factor in defeat, but aside from a young keeper I can’t see how our second string were at fault. We lost, it happens and we had ample opportunity to make it up in the second leg. I’ve seen a lack of goal scoring threat mentioned as a worrying factor, but yesterday I felt that was more of a testament to how York set up and approached the game. I don’t think the better side won over two legs, but I think the side with the better game plan are going to Wembley.
We’re having our wobble, there is no mistaking that. Two defeats (albeit one against Arsenal), three draws (two against an in-form York side) and one win from our last five games constitutes average form. If you take that back to the last twelve games though we have two defeats (albeit on against Arsenal), three draws (one of which we were winning after 90 minutes) and eight wins. Our league form is WWWDDW and I see no reason why that cannot continue against Boreham Wood on Tuesday. The fact is if we avoid defeat next weekend against FGR, and do the same on April 3rd against Dagenham then we’ll be in the driving seat for a return to the Football League, and I’d rather have that and a free weekend in May, than an FA Trophy final and an away trip to Gainsborough Trinity next season.