There were 45 minutes against FGR that I can say as an Imps fan I did not enjoy. There were 65 minutes against Bromley that were edgy and tense before they were enjoyable as well. I imagined tonight would be the same, but it was different from start to finish. Tonight I did as Danny asked in his programme notes, I enjoyed the game from start to finish. The reason was that from the 1st minute to the 94th minute we were excellent.
Best performance of the season? Maybe, maybe not. In context of who we were playing, what was at stake and how many games there are to go, it might just make the top two. Make no mistake about it, Dagenham are a good side who will be in the top five come the end of April. They posed an enormous threat if they were on their game, and given how Tranmere are performing we desperately needed to sound a warning to the Wirral, showing them that whatever they do, we’ll do it better. Tonight we did that, and then some.
We looked like champions elect, organised and disciplined but yet playing with a vigour and vivacity that you expect from the very best teams. Lincoln City were on method tonight, from forcing a corner in the opening two minutes to running the clock down in the very last minute. It might not have always been samba soccer, it might not have been chance after chance, but it was an assured and calculated match which we controlled with comfort.
It’s easy to look at where it went wrong for other teams, but there was a defining moment for the Daggers on 19 minutes. They hadn’t started well, but their game plan looked to be about soaking up the initial pressure and hoping to land long balls on the head of Hawkins. With the clock barely showing 8.05pm Hawkins went off injured, and with him went the Dagenham game plan. Paul Benson was an interesting choice to replace him, and although he’s well over six foot he just doesn’t have the same presence as Hawkins. At 37 he doesn’t have the mobility he used to either, and for the next 70 minutes of football a majority of balls pumped long were mopped up with ease by our excellent centre halves.
I said in my preview this afternoon it would be the tale of two strikers, and Hawkins early withdrawal meant the spotlight shone on our own bustling target man, Matt Rhead. He didn’t fail to deliver either, he was excellent all night. I’m not sure I saw him lose a header, time and time again he flicked the ball on or held it up and rolled it off to a team mate. I was critical of him earlier in the week saying sometimes (not all the time) his lack of mobility leaves it looking as if we have ten and a half men. Tonight he showed me, he brought his a-game, he brought all of his ability and he brought that swagger and confidence that only an in-form Matt Rhead can. You just knew after ten minutes he was up for it, and not just in an aggressive and niggly way either. He deserved his man of the match award, he deserved his goal and he underlined exactly why he is the first name on the team sheet when he is fit.
The return of Bradley Wood was welcome as well. Sean Long has had a good run and he’s looked an accomplished right back, but Brad brings something else, something a little bit different that only he can. He too was excellent, and is it a coincidence that his return to full back saw a return to form for Nathan Arnold? I’m a Bradley Wood fan, I make no secret of that and he showed all the qualities that have endeared him to me tonight. One run in the second half epitomised everything good about his game, he got his head down and just charged their defenders as if he were a flair winger. He got into the space behind through his sheer tenacity and dogged determination, and yet just moments later he was back in the defensive position throwing his body into a blood curdling tackle. Wood and Arnold works on the right flank, and I think Nathan looked more comfortable knowing Brad was there than he has when he’s played in front of Sean Long.
Elliot Whitehouse was another player that stood out this evening, and again he is a player I have often thought struggled to make a single position his own. In recent weeks he’s looked class, and Dagenham didn’t have answers for him. It is the first time I’ve seen him so effective as part of a midfield duo with Alex Woodyard, they looked fluid tonight and interchanged with ease. One thing Whitehouse does give you is a goal threat, and once again he proved to be ‘right man, right place’ to hook the ball home. He was a shrewd signing earlier in the season, and every time he pulls on a Lincoln shirt we see a little bit more of the player he is going to become. The immediate future might be bright for Lincoln City, but with youngsters like Whitehouse growing in stature and experience every week, it could be bright for a good few seasons.
They were three stand out performers, but it’d be crass to point to them alone as the reason we won the game. Waterfall and Raggett did what they’ve done all season, head the ball away, tackle centre forwards and put everything on the line to prevent goals being conceded. Sam Habergham overlapped Terry in the first half, but he was just as ready to play a ball into Lee Angol in the channels. I thought Terry had a good game too, tonight wasn’t the night for finding lots of space behind the full backs. Terry is a wide player that prefers to receive the ball with his back to goal, rather than run onto it into space. As there was very little space behind a deep Dagenham back line, Terry was the right choice to hold the ball up and look either for the overlap or a neat ball inside.
All around me I was disappointed to hear criticism of Lee Angol again. I’m not sure people fully understand the game of football, especially not those calling him useless. He ran himself into the ground, and I think he is suffering from the ‘Theo Robinson’ effect. That role around Matt Rhead seems to attract negative comments, and yet both players always worked incredibly hard. In the closing stages Angol often found the long ball coming into him, and his control and hold up play was really good. It is a shame that on a wonderful night for the football club, some so-called fans chose to call him every name under the sun for ninety minutes. Yes, everyone is entitled to an opinion, but surely that comes after a game, not every time a player touches the ball? Many people seem to forget the crucial role he played in the FGR win (scored the first) and the Bromley win (set up the Knott goal) and tonight when his hard work didn’t bear fruit it made me angry to hear him become the butt of criticism. My mate Dave (we all have a mate called Dave) even said at half time that if Angol scored he’d turn around and celebrate facing the two old boys behind us. I must confess I felt exactly the same. He didn’t score, so in the end I just took pleasure in correcting them when they thought Alan Power was coming on.
That is the only negative thing I’m going to say though. Dagenham might have been lacklustre, but it was our containment of them, our pressing and our never-say-die chasing and harassing that forced them to play so negatively. Did they have a meaningful shot on goal? One maybe, no more. Farm’s contribution was more telling as an outlet for passes rather than a shot stopper, and that is credit to the superb work done by the ten players in front of him. We might not have created as many clear cut chances as some might like, but we scored twice and Dagenham didn’t so as far as I’m concerned we created enough!
There were 7028 home fans in the ground tonight, a fantastic turn out for a second time in 48 hours. For an ex-league club fighting at the top of the table I thought their following was poor, Bromley made much more noise than they did. It was special to hear the chants of ‘we are Stacey West’ again, and they even entered into a bit of banter with block 7. I may have heard it wrong but after a brief exchanged the whole ground were united in a chant of ‘we are Imps’, and it will do the atmosphere no harm at all to have two vocal areas in the ground. Let’s face it, with 7000+ home fans the singing is never going to be contained to block 7, and I’m sure the 617 boys embrace that as much as anyone else. Just don’t (for the love of god) ask them to move.
Danny always loves to finish by saying our most important game of the season is the next one, but he also says he doesn’t worry about what the other teams do either. I do, I worry about everything Lincoln City related and for that reason I think our most important game of the season happens in less than 24 hours time in Birkenhead. The ball is in Tranmere’s court, and anything less than a win for them tomorrow will be a massive blow, not just psychologically but also because they are running out of games for us to slip up. If Sutton get a result, any result, then I might be able to enjoy more of our matches for a whole ninety minutes. If we play like we did tonight from the first minute to the last I’ll probably enjoy every one of those remaining minutes of football anyway.