Important matches of 16/17: Braintree (Part 2 of a few)

It might seem an odd choice to go for, but our meeting with Braintree on October 1st was a real watershed moment. At the time we wouldn’t realise it, and even in the weeks afterwards it appeared to be just our routine three points from them.

17 unbeaten games later we might have realised what an important game it really was. Braintree came after back to back defeats by Dover and Barrow. In the side this day we had Macauley Bonne and Tom Champion. This was an embryonic Imps side, one that perhaps lacked a couple of pieces of the ‘title-winning’ jigsaw. It was also the game we begun to find our method.

I can barely find mention of it now, not on my blog nor on the various news websites, but in his post-match interview Danny Cowley spoke of us finding some method, of things beginning to click in training. Having been to the FPS training session a week or two before I was bemused as to how it had just ‘clicked’, but Danny was happy not just because we won 3-0, but because his way had started to sink in with the players too.

There were two people sat in the stand that cold afternoon who grabbed a line or two of my blog, nothing more. They were two people about whom I have since dedicated whole blogs, Theo Robinson and Elliott Whitehouse. It wouldn’t have seemed like big news at the time, but if we knew the roles those two players would end up playing, perhaps we would award the game more significance too.

So that unremarkable afternoon against Danny’s old side was far more than just a match in a season. It was the start of the unbeaten run that fired us to the top of the table, it was the day we first saw a proper ‘on method’ Lincoln City, and it was a day when the title winning squad as we knew it had two crucial members sat watching and possibly deciding if Lincoln City was for them.

3578 ‘crammed’ into Sincil Bank, at the time an attendance I was impressed with. We’d cracked the 4,000 mark against Solihull, but drawing that game 0-0 and then losing two on the spin was always going to knock a few hundred off the gate. To still pull above 3,000 seemed like a victory of sorts, especially as we had only attracted 2,440 for the 4-0 thumping of Southport in mid August. We started the game in 5th place, which seemed lowly given that we’d been top when we played Solihull. Braintree were 22nd and they were under the watchful eye of a brand new manager, Hakan Hayrettin.

I don’t have pictures of the game, bar that one at the top, so here is goal scorer Nathan Arnold from later in the season. Courtesy of Graham Burrell

His tenure as manager didn’t get off to a good start. Nathan Arnold might have made a name for himself with late goals against Ipswich and Gateshead, but in the days before sell-out crowds and unbeaten runs he had a knack of grabbing them early in games. Before nerves could even settle in City were 1-0 up, Matt Rhead used his bulk to hold off a defender before touching the ball to Arnold. He still had work to do, but he marched towards goal before firing a powerful drive into the net. Keeper Will Puddy should possibly have done better, and from there it looked like a long afternoon for him and Braintree.

Initially, that wasn’t the case. Despite huffing and puffing City didn’t manage to blow the Braintree defence down, even though over the course of the first half they had to replace both their centre halves. We might have been finding method but we were far from scintillating, far from the polished side that wouldn’t lose again until after Christmas. Our best chance came directly from a Habergham corner, Puddy making some amends for his earlier error by saving smartly at the last second.

Braintree were making a good stab of it, and all eyes were on winger Simeon Akinola. He’d been inevitably linked with a move to City, and the rumour is that he was the subject of a post match enquiry by Danny Cowley. He did have one effort to talk about, flashing a drive just over the goal of Paul Farman. He was widely expected to join the Cowley revolution, but three months later it was the colour of Barnet’s money that lured him to the Football League.

As was so often the case City came out refreshed after the break. We started games with a high tempo, but it did drop off after twenty odd minutes. Once Danny had the boys in and given them their orders, they seemed to come out revitalised and ready for battle.

It was keeper Puddy again who was at fault. He made a hash of a weak Luke Waterfall header to gift City a corner, and from Terry Hawkridge’s delivery the same player got another header away. This time it beat the keeper and crept in off the post. It wasn’t a classic Waterfall header, but it meant it was 2-0 to City and effectively game over.

As the encounter wore on we began to only offer a threat from set plays, but that was one threat more than Braintree offered. It got scrappy, and those already used to Danny Cowley playing winning performances down were already expecting him to blast the side again. Braintree were poor, even then they looked like a bottom four team which, is what they proved to be. Whilst we didn’t look like title winners, we certainly offered something going forward.

Sim Akinola later left Braintree for Barnet. Courtesy of Alan Stuckey_jpg_gallery

Just before the final whistle Jack Muldoon put some shine on the result. A quick free kick saw him cut inside from a tight angle, and he rifled an unstoppable effort into the back of Will Puddy’s net. It was the only goal we scored that the keeper played no real role in, but it gave the final score a really respectable look, three goals to nil.

Those expecting Danny to criticise the performance did not get what they wanted. He was happy with a 3-0 home win, and he spoke highly of his sides endeavours. When we won five in a row he was quick to keep the players feet on the ground, but he knew that any signs of recovery after three games without a win needed to be applauded. He spoke about the method, he spoke about how we started the game with a real intensity. It was what we have now come to know as ‘classic’ Danny Cowley.

To make matters even better for Lincoln, several high-profile matches were taking place that day. Forest Green were hosting Barrow in a game that ended 0-0, and Tranmere were up against Dagenham and Redbridge in another game that ended 0-0. Perhaps most heartening of all, Dover travelled to Chester and were thumped 5-0. Those results still only meant City climbed one space in the table, but it was an important gain nonetheless. Irrespective of what else happened Lincoln City had began to embrace the Cowley method, and over the next 16 games they remained unbeaten, snatching the top spot and setting up that big FA Cup clash with Ipswich Town.

The game won’t feature in any ‘top five’ lists this season, and even for the 3500 fans watching it probably won’t be remembered as a classic. As a one-off ninety minute game of football it was exactly what it appears to be, a run-of-the-mill mid-season clash between two non-league teams. For those with a passion for Lincoln City though it brought so much more. It was the first time Danny acknowledged the method was bearing fruit, it was the first time Elliott Whitehouse and Theo Robinson got to see the team in action, and it was the start of an unbeaten run that effectively took us from play-off wannabes to champions elect.

It was also the last time we saw Tom Champion on the hallowed Sincil Bank turf, warming up at half time as an unused substitute. For some, that in itself would be enough to give the match increased status.