It may not have been pretty at times, but this evening Lincoln City took another tentative step towards regaining the Football League status that was lost in 2011.
The manager was quick to point out that we didn’t reach ‘our levels’ tonight, and his Svengali influence showed as both Bradley Wood and Nathan Arnold echoed his sentiments on BBC Radio Lincolnshire. All three of them were right to a degree, but tonight wasn’t as much about free-flowing football or on-method attacking. Tonight was about grit, determination and desire, and to a man we demonstrated those characteristics.
Where do you start? I suppose at the beginning would be a good place. In the beginning there were starts for the ever-improving Billy Knott and the versatile Elliott Whitehouse, but only places on the bench for crowd favourite Harry Anderson and club captain Alan Power. Chester had been billed as having little more than a walk-on part in the story of our title challenge, but from the off they proved to be much more than just an expendable extra.
I thought they looked the livelier of the two sides for a good twenty minutes or so. Ryan Astles at the back (number six) certainly had the edge on Rheady during the first exchanges, and whilst I suspect Alabi would be the danger man it was the former Tamworth player Elliott Durell who really stood out. Nothing came of their early possession though and slowly but surely we began to emerge as the dominant force in the game.
Nathan Arnold almost opened the scoring, something which would have capped off a good display from the wide man. He’s playing with a bit more confidence again, and his curling effort only just evaded the far post after quarter of an hour.
On the half hour mark the second significant event happened, Lee Angol went off injured. It was unfortunate for him, but his replacement did change the game. Harry Anderson brought what he always brings, pace with a durability and strength, and he added a balance to the side we had perhaps lacked. He also brought the opening goal which shifted a few of the pre-match nerves. It was created by some neat passing and a Steady Sam cross, something which is as common these days as a Rheady flick on. It wasn’t the neatest of finishes, but you don’t get extra points for clean strikes. 1-0, and our noses edged in front on the night and in the league table.
City controlled things nicely up until the break, and on another day we would probably have made it two. The balls kept coming into the box, and Knott seemed to be at the centre of most of our nice play.
A slip towards the end of the first half saw Chester break with only Alex Woodyard in pursuit. Much was made of how well he dealt with the situation, but he underlined exactly why I’m going to be writing my final ‘Player of the Year’ piece about him. He chased their player all the way into the corner, won the ball (twice) before springing a counter attack. It was the sort of work rate and diligence you normally see from top flight holding midfielders, and it highlighted what a good player he really is. How he is still playing National League football is beyond me.
That said the work rate of every City player was excellent even if the end product wasn’t forthcoming. Chester made it clear they wanted to spoil the party, and when the whistle went to signal the end of the first forty-five they looked like they’d still be in with a shout of doing just that.
Half time came and with it those pre-match nerves returned. Danny might not have been bothered about the Tranmere score, but I was. I’d been checking it every five minutes since taking my seat and although it was still 0-0 everything seemed delicately poised. The pessimist in me starting wondering if it would all go wrong. Maybe I sent a telepathic message to the players, because when the teams came out it was the visitors who looked more likely to score once again.
I have to say Chester looked to be an organised side, and they played an attacking formation with lots of fluid movement and sharp passing. They came to win the game, credit to them for that. When a team comes and has a go it often means there is space to expose, but they were tighter than a hipster’s jeans at the back. They didn’t get a lot of change out of our back four, and it led to a scrappy second half which I felt they had the better of.
Chester looked like levelling just after the hour mark, Paul Farman was beaten by an Alabi effort that Sean Raggett managed to clear off the line. It wasn’t entirely back-to-the-wall stuff, but the fear of losing the lead loomed large over a packed Sincil Bank. The fans were (as usual) excellent though, and their singing didn’t reflect the immense tension I was feeling as the game pressed on.
It was then that referee Alan Young decided he fancied a few of the headlines. He had already badly handled one situation as Blaine Hudson went down injured off the pitch. His keeper ushered him on the field so they didn’t have to play with ten men, so the ‘striken’ player crawled on the pitch for treatment. Surely a bookable offence? Nope. Instead he moved the player back off and gave a drop ball, which he dropped into the keepers hands. It may have been trivial, but it hinted at indecision.
It might be worth noting that ahead of todays game he has officiated 19 games in the National League, and he’d brandished seven red cards. It was almost as if he was itching to dip into his pocket, and Alan Power gave him the perfect opportunity just seconds after coming on to shore up the midfield. I thought he launched in to a typically fair ‘Bradley Wood’ style challenge, all thunder but within the rules. At the last second his standing leg gave way and to a neutral observer it may have looked like a two footed lunge. I don’t believe it was, but the card-happy referee was immediately rummaging for his red.
From there the game became a bit farcical, and I thought the occasion perhaps got the better of the ref. In terms of crowds the biggest match he’s previously managed has been Eastleigh and Gateshead, and I suspect he began to feel the pressure of four times as many fans as any other game he’s been at. He seemed determined not to be a ‘homer’, and without ever being blatantly unfair I think he lost control. It did work in our favour though as the final exchanges became scrappy passages of play broken up by lengthy pauses as he dithered about what to do. At times he looked like a bewildered school teacher, desperately trying to get two sets of fairly kids to play by his rules. This isn’t a moan, by refusing to let the game flow he actually played into our hands as we worked to manage the game with ten men.
The final fifteen minutes shouldn’t be labelled Lincoln versus Chester, it was the Alan Young show. Kane Richards appeared to slam Bradley Wood to the ground using a wrestling hold, but he waved play on. Moments later the same player performed theatrics in the box to try to win a penalty, no booking. Then the otherwise-excellent Eliott Durell seemed to go straight through Matt Rhead, but despite already being on a yellow card Mr Young gave nothing. Danny and Nicky were at boiling point on the touchline, and they were told to calm down by the main attraction, Mr Young. Of course all of these delays played firmly into the hands of an out-of-sorts and increasingly tense Imps side.
If they were tense they should have tired being up in the stands when news broke of a goal for Forest Green at Tranmere. The enemy of just a fortnight ago were now the heroes of the hour, popping up with a late winner in the second v third clash at Prenton Park. Suddenly a win wasn’t just us matching their result, it was a golden opportunity to get ourselves back in the driving seat in the title race. It may not have changed things for the players, but for those of us watching in the stands it put an increased emphasis on the importance of three points. Just another night became a pivotal moment, and with pivotal moments come tension and pressure.
Eventually Mr Young buckled completely under the pressure and after the hapless Kane Richards lunged at Bradley Wood, the his well-weathered card got another outing, and the sides ended the game with equal players. That did little to dampen the endeavour of the visitors, and Durrell almost levelled things, but his effort was excellently saved by Farms. Every ball forward was met with an intake of breath for 7,300 home fans, and every clearance brought a huge sigh of relief. It wasn’t that we were under constant pressure, only the sort that is brought on by knowing you’re about to gain a three-point lead over your nearest rivals with just over two weeks of the season remaining.
All we needed now was the final whistle, but Mr Young was beginning to enjoy himself, and he fancied seven minutes of injury time. There was still time for more drama after former Imp David Felgate appeared to retrieve the ball a little over-enthusiastically and he received a prolonged lecture from the man in black. That enabled him to stick another two minutes onto the signalled seven, and I was beginning to wonder if I’d even be home for work in the morning. Eventually, after what seemed like a week of extra time he brought the game to a close and Casey struck up Sweet Caroline. 1-0 to the Imps, 1-0 to the FGR and one more step taken towards league football.
Nothing has been won tonight, and Danny was eager to ensure that he not only kept our players feet on the ground (except Alan Power’s feet, that was already a lost cause) but also that he didn’t criticise the ref. Maybe he knew the scrappy nature of the game helped us. Maybe he is just a proper gentleman who doesn’t criticise officials. I suppose when we’ve won and Tranmere have lost there is no need to lash out at anyone. However it went down the result remains the same, and a dogged and gritty Lincoln showed the tougher side to their game by holding out for the win.
My man of the match was Alex Woodyard without a shadow of a doubt. There were several big performances this evening, and despite us not playing well there wasn’t really a bad player on the pitch. Alex stood out though, not just for his moment chasing down their player, but for doing it for ninety minutes. Wherever the ball went you would usually see Alex Woodyard chasing it down, and I assume they have to let him take it home just so he isn’t pacing around the ground kicking the store cupboard door down trying to win it late into the night.
As for Chester, well they’ll be alright next season if they keep building. They have the nucleus of a decent side, and they’re far better than the team that came and lost 2-1 at the same stage last season (ironically Alan Young also officiated that match, and he booked one player). As well as Durrell, Alabi and Astles I liked Kane Richards, despite his red card. They’re tough and are showing the green shoots of recovery that we were perhaps seeing last season. It was nice to see Jon McCarthy and Danny shaking hands at the end despite the heated exchanges during the match, and I wish them well for next season.
We go again on Friday now, Torquay are the visitors and they’ll be battling for points to try to stay in the league. The so-called Super White Army face Aldershot, and they have a big job to pick themselves up from their defeat tonight. As Danny said there will be more twists and turns, but with each passing game my level of enjoyment goes up one more notch. If we play with the same single minded determination and mental toughness for the next five games, we can look forward to a trip to Blunder Park next season.
I’d like to end this evening by remembering my granddad Geoff Hutchinson, who passed away 25 years ago today. Along with my Dad, he is the reason I am a Lincoln City fan, and I hope every day that I make him proud with my writing. On more than one occasion this season I’ve looked to the skies and asked for his help in matches, and tonight was no exception. I miss him, we miss him as a family and I always feel closest to him at Sincil Bank. I hope you enjoyed tonight granddad.