City were eliminated from the League Cup tonight, although far from crashing out they were eased gently aside after stubbornly refusing to lie down for League One side Rotherham.
The game was much a tale of two halves as Saturday was at Wycombe, but for me the similarities ended there. Instead of strip bars and bus journeys, I enjoyed a far more sedate pre-match routine. My friend Pete lives close to the Rotherham ground, so I took a leisurely drive (in the rain) to his, enjoyed his Mum’s home-made steak and ale pie with kale before getting driven to within spitting distance of the ground. No jovial bus journey, no full English breakfast and certainly no ladies with their tops off. There was some rain though, and as is traditional a chance for a pre-match pint and cigar. We chose the Cutlers Arms because it was next to the car park and frankly I didn’t fancy getting any wetter than we already were. If I hadn’t have known better I would have wagered that a bloke with a long beard is bashing a load of four by two together somewhere and planning on taking the all the animals on it, two by two.
I wanted to have a good look at the Rotherham ground so we walked there early (in the rain) to have a nose around and critique it as a possible blueprint for our own. I liked some of it, there was lots of room around outside for lounging around in the warm August
sun rain had we so desired, and behind the stands there was ample toileting and feeding facilities too. I would suggest a wider concourse though, it all got a bit crowded and the queues were just as long as at Sincil Bank despite there being numerous places for a pie. I’m informed the food was okay, I wouldn’t know because I don’t trust food bought inside grounds these days and Pete’s Mum steak and ale pie had filled a gap nicely. I might be a rotund man, but I am not a gluttonous one.
Inside the ground was acceptable, I’m not a fan of the large stand one side and the smaller one the other but that could just be me. It as tidy enough but I wouldn’t want us to base our ideas on it entirely, something just didn’t feel right. They’ve tried to add some soul, but I didn’t find the design practical, the aisles were still far too narrow and there wasn’t a clock to be seen anywhere in the ground. I appreciate that everyone has the time on their phone these days, but given that we were two to a seat as people sheltered from the rain, I didn’t fancy pulling my phone out every five minutes.
On with the game, and if I’m honest I thought we were no more than okay in the first half. Rotherham played the ball about nicely, but I didn’t think there looked to be two leagues difference between us. Sure they had neat patterns of play they liked to operate, but more often than not those patterns were interrupted by Alex Woodyard or Michael Bostwick. It wasn’t all one way, we did find ourselves attacking from time to time, but Matt Green cut a lonely figure up top (in the rain). Everyone worked hard, they had to as Rotherham were a Championship team last season.
I’m going to confess, I missed their goal. Mindful of the queues and desperate to spend some time not awkwardly apologising every five minutes to the giggling teenage girls who had decided that seat 125 was mine and theirs, I had retired to the toilet. When the cheer went up I thought it was City who had scored, the Millers fans had been on mute all night. Then we got a crescendo of terrible music to accompany the goal and I realised the home side had scored and they were ‘atmosphere generating’. That was soon drowned out by the Imps fans singing (in the rain). If our support is as good all season as it has been for the first two games then we’re in for a treat.
The goal sparked us into life and moments later we could have been level through the head of Sean Raggett. I hope Raggett stays even if it means losing him on a free in the summer. He looks better every game and he was bossing the back line. Rob Dickie looks excellent too, but that might be because I keep mixing them up! Seriously though, Sean Raggett is class, he was a monster all evening and I think another year of his services will be more beneficial than £350k split between us and Dover. Part of me doesn’t want Dover to get anything either, I still bloody hate that lot.
For me the only real issue in the first half was our inability to stretch the game. Jordan Maguire Drew played on the right, Harry Anderson on the left meaning if they did get the ball they were cutting in rather than going out wide. I wonder if this was to fit the 4-2-3-1 formation, bringing the attack to a point rather than spreading it in the final third. I’m not sure it played entirely to our strengths, and often our attacks consisted of winning the ball and trying to pick out Matt Green in the channels. He worked tremendously hard, but aside from a couple of half chances he didn’t get a sniff of goal, as we know if he does get a sight, he will score.
Another reason we might have been looking to come inside is the strength of our midfield two of Woodyard and Bostwick. Both were working incredibly hard, and considering it is only their second game together I don’t think they’re doing a bad job of understanding each others game. Perhaps Danny felt that by bringing our wide players inside it gave us the option of winning a turnover should they lose the ball.
On reflection I don’t think 1-0 was unfair at half-time. We had played well without looking too dangerous, and we’d contained Rotherham well when they threatened to break free. They had a few decent strikes at goal, but Josh Vickers looked calm and assured at all times. That would continue through the whole 90 minutes, and on tonight’s showing him and Farman are going to have a colossal tussle for the starting spot. It was a cautious display from City, but aside from (what I’m told) was a good strike there wasn’t much between us.
Immediately after the restart (in the rain) City looked a different side, just as we had on Saturday. Billy Knott hadn’t had a great first half, but once we emerged for the second half he looked a different player. We endeavoured to keep the ball on the deck and play our way through the centre as well as out wide, and I could see it was beginning to stretch Rotherham. Long and Eardly began to find the overlap more often, Long in particular looked really lively after the restart. Raggs again got forward and tested the keeper with a header, and it seemed only a matter of time before we got something for our constant probing.
Just after the hour Matt Green came off for Ollie Palmer, and around me there was a collective groan. Ollie hadn’t looked great in pre-season, but his introduction injected fresh impetus into our attacking play. Within thirty seconds of being on, he influenced the game. I’ve heard his heading ability criticised, but Matt Rhead would have been proud of that flick on. Rotherham panicked, and Billy Knott capitalised. Now, it might have been an error but Knott’s finish was excellent, a lovely placed shot from a tight angle. It was no less than City deserved, and you didn’t need piped music or a shouty compere to generate false atmosphere in the away end. At that point I genuinely thought we’d go on and win the game (in the rain).
Palmer was immense from the second he came on, he did pick up a booking though after contesting one of a string of bizarre calls from the linesman. The Rotherham full back dribbled the ball out under pressure, and yet won the throw in himself. All six-foot five of the imposing Ollie Palmer remonstrated with the lino, and it meant a yellow card for him. I did wonder if Danny might get in trouble as he immediately made for the fourth official and spent several minutes politely explaining what a fucking awful decision it was, and how it wasn’t the only decision that could be described as such that had gone against us. I like Danny Cowley, but I would not want to cross him when he’s in game mode.
With ten minutes to go Rotherham grabbed the winner. It wasn’t against the run of play as such, they always had a toe in the game even when we had spells of pressure. They’re a good side, they were Championship and they’re hoping to be challenging again this season. It wasn’t a defensive lapse, there was no blame to attribute it was just a well-worked goal from a decent football team. Josh Vickers had made a couple of good saves prior to them scoring, and he couldn’t be blamed either. Sometimes you just have to hold up your hands and accept it, and this was one of those times.
City didn’t think the game was over though, and (in the rain) it never felt as though we were beaten. Harry Anderson fired over when perhaps a square ball to sub Nathan Arnold would have yielded a goal, Ollie Palmer’s persistence created a chance for himself that he struck tamely, and that was shame as his endeavour deserved a reward. Of course Sean Raggett was looking to head anything he could towards goal, and a late nod across goal from him almost gave Harry a glorious chance. There wasn’t panic in the Millers defence, but City did look like getting back into it at any point.
I can’t state this next sentence enough: Ollie Palmer was superb. I’ve put a question mark over him after I first saw him at Lincoln United, but if he plays like that every week then Matt Rhead and Matt Green have a fight on their hands for a starting place. He’s strong but incredibly mobile for a big unit, and although he needs to work on some aspects of his game, he really impressed me. If anything his arrival on the hour mark swung the pendulum City’s way, and had it been a league game where the opponents don’t have the little bit of class like Rotherham do, then I think we would have gone on to win by a couple of goals. Nathan coming on changed the dynamic too, he looked to use the width and Sean Long thrived on that.
What is frustrating me at the minute is every time I see City I change my idea of our best set up. I did like 4-2-3-1, but after the second half display I think 4-4-2 looks more threatening. I did think Matt Green was the only player who can play alone up top, but now I think Ollie Palmer can too. I thought Arnold and Ginnelly was our best wide pairing, but Harry Anderson had an eye-catching second half. Every time I think I’ve settled on our ‘best XI’, something changes. I can’t imagine how tough it must be for Danny, but how long has it been since we’ve had genuine competition for places all over the field? Even Josh Vickers put a nagging doubt in my mind about his role this season.
Unfortunately the intriguing second half had to come to an end, but not before an ovation for Lee Frecklington from Imps fans. It will be nice against Morecambe on Saturday not to find myself cheering for their manager or midfielder or some other ex-Imp. In fact, I’m looking forward to Carlisle at home so I can roll out some of the good old-fashioned Stacey West vitriol aimed at the opposition, because after two games all we seem to be making is friends. Rotherham fans were gracious, the stewarding was sensible and any potential issues well-managed. Much like Wycombe on Saturday I have come away with nothing but good things to say about the experience. That’s unlike me, I’ll have to glance down my fixture list and see when we play Mansfield.
On our way out of the stadium (in the rain) I had a listen to some of the Millers fan’s conversations, and the overall consensus from them was that we’d be okay. One guy I heard stated that he thought we matched them in most areas, and that we should be more than competitive in League Two. He’s not wrong, there’s no shame in going out of a competition to a side that were Championship just a few months ago, not when we were non-league during the same period. Tonight, two teams on different trajectories clashed, and I’m not sure whether we were good which made Rotherham look average, or whether they were average which made us look good. The fact is that a neutral would have had a tough time picking which side were from a higher division, and that in itself is a massive compliment to Danny and the boys.
Man of the match for me was Alex Woodyard. How he hasn’t attracted the same level of interest as Raggs I don’t know, he’s so good it’s frightening. He’s tenacious, hard-working and oozes endeavour. Video footage of him over 90 minutes should be shown to kids wanting to be footballers, and they should be told ‘this is how much you need to run, this is how you should act when you lose the ball’. He will be as crucial this season as he was last, and now he has the big hairy beast alongside him we should dominate midfield battles all season. Both Raggs and Dickie were excellent too, I can’t see us conceding goals through the centre if they settle as our central defenders, any team that comes and tries to compact play is going to find themselves struggling.
Josh Vickers wasn’t far behind that though, he had more saves to make in these 90 minutes than Farms did in seven or eight games at the end of last season, and he looked calm and collected whenever he was called into action. Farms is still my number one, but for the first time in years I think we have two very good keepers on our books.
I’ve never come away from a 2-1 defeat as positive as I have tonight, but genuinely all I see is good things for Lincoln City. We might have crashed out of the Carabao Cup, but we’ve got all the components of a side looking to gatecrash the play-offs.
It’s now 1.59am in Withcall near Louth, and I got out of my bed this morning at 9am. In that time there hasn’t been a single minute where it hasn’t been raining, and not just drizzle but an almost apocalyptic downpour. When we got back to the car this evening I felt like I’d just climbed out of the bath although I smelled much worse. I hope Pete’s car seats don’t smell too much of wet cigars and ginger.