The first Football League game at Sincil Bank in over six years certainly didn’t disappoint, aside from the fact we didn’t win it.
I’m not sure I saw such a complete display from City all last season, we controlled the game from start to finish and had more possession, more efforts at goal and more to be hopeful for in the future.
Pre-match there was a real buzz about the place, a continuation of last seasons good feeling. My magazine ‘A City United’ sold out around the ground, 120 copies gone just like that. If you missed it, there are several outlets you can still get it from in town, check out my earlier post.
The Lancaster flying over was a nice touch. I remember seeing people laughing at suggestions it could happen on social media, and when it did I felt a bit emotional. I’m not sure why, but the roar of those engines invokes images of a staunch togetherness across the nation in the face of adversity, and for them to fly over our ground on our day, that was something else. I’m a man though so I swallowed it down, pretend I’d got some dust in my eye and carried on hawking my wares to anyone with three quid to spare.
I’m not sure what the fuss was all about with tickets, I didn’t try to get in the ground until 2.45pm but I was in my seat by 2.49pm and that was after a quick comfort break. I was pleased to see the new system still needs the men in their red cages though, I get nostalgic about these things and another season of someone being paid to scan our tickets made me feel comfortable that things aren’t changing too fast!
Lot’s of people around me got choked up to see us running out for our first Football League match in six years, but oddly I didn’t. It didn’t feel all that different to matches last season, packed home end, packed main stand, handful of hardy but vocal away supporters and an away team wearing yellow. All that had changed was the writing on the Stacey West stand and Poacher has turned up now we’re back in the league. By the time the game kicked off it felt like we’d never been away, apart from the film premiere, open topped-bus tour, championship parade and numerous renditions of Sweet-bloody-Caroline.
Firstly, the opposition. Morecambe are a side I have a bit of time for, despite the fact they’ve got Kevin Ellison playing for them. They’re compact, tough and their fans were vocal throughout. I’d like to say they’ll be fine this season, but on that showing I’m not entirely sure they will.
From the first minute we brought that energy and zest that we started most games in the first half of last season with. After around 10 minutes we’d already had efforts from Bostwick, Maguire-Drew and Matt Green, and that just set the scene for a woefully one-sided first half. When Morecambe did try to get out it seemed to spring from their right back Aaron Magowan. Vadaine Oliver had a bit of running in him, but nothing compared to every single red and white shirt. City were completely dominant.
From back to front we controlled the game, utilising our usual tactic of direct balls through to Rheady, or breaking at pace down the flanks. I thought against Rotherham we suffered from having JMD on the right and Arnold on the left as it forced us inside, but today we switched it around again, immediately opening up the flanks. Sean Long and Neal Eardley were excellent too, overlapping whenever they could. What really struck me though was Matt Green.
He’s the player we didn’t have last season, the centre forward not just getting around Rheady, but also running the channels. At times Morecambe didn’t know which runner to pick up, the winger or the centre forward making parallel runs to each other. It gave our midfielders options whenever they had the ball, and if they didn’t pick either run then they spread the play and stretched the defenders. Once they’d done that, the ball could come back to where it had originally been with more space. It left the yellow shirts all at sea, and ensured we broke through time and again.
There were periods in the first half when I thought we looked infinitely better than the National League winning side of last season. Sean Long is growing by the day as a player, and he showed lots of nice close control in the final third. He worked hard to get back whenever he had to, but as we poured forward the width he gave in particular was vital.
On 16 minutes Morecambe keeper Barry Roche set the tone for the rest of the afternoon by tipping a JMD effort onto the bar, and at that point the result seemed inevitable. Every time we swept forward it looked as if someone would score. Arnold hit the side netting, Green dragged a shot wide but time still ticked away.
There was the odd scare, Sean Raggett cleared a rare Morecambe attempt off the line, and McGowan hit a shot from nowhere that clipped the bar, but they were rare chinks of light in a dark first half for the beleaguered Shrimpers. City had moved across the pitch fluidly and organically, as if those eleven men were one single living organism trying to penetrate a porous back four. Somehow, 45 minutes elapsed and the opponents had held on.
Universally around me the consensus was City would win the game with ease. There wasn’t a pessimist in the house, not even the numpty one row in front of me who returned for another year of calling Woodyard clueless whenever he got the ball. Oh the joys of keeping your seat from last season.
Less then ten minutes after the restart Morecambe had what they never looked like getting, the opening goal. Danny will tell you it was lazy from a City throw in, and then the cross should have been stopped, and he’s the expert so I’ll go with that. We did seem to dally a little in a rare showing of uncertainty, and in fairness to Aaron Wildig he caught the loose ball sweetly to beat Farman from twenty yards. The Morecambe fans celebrated for a minute, it may have been longer but after the initial stunned silence the nigh-on 8,000 Imps fans broke out into song. Every time I’ve seen us concede this season the fans have responded louder than the opposition celebrations, and today at a ratio of something like 80 Imps to every 1 Shrimper, it wasn’t difficult.
The goal broke City’s stride, but not for long. Normal service was soon resumed, and this time we had another outlet as Sean Raggett discovered that Morecambe were so certain we’d play the ball out of defence, they didn’t challenge his runs. He made it to the edge of the eighteen yard box on one occasion, and when Morecambe reacted the next time he simply played a pass to take another man out of the game. If the goal knocked us off method it was for minutes and no more, and when we did go close again it was Raggs with the header which was cleared off the line.
With just 20 minutes to go the constant pressure finally paid dividends after a superb Nathan Arnold pass found Matt Green. He had missed easier chances but not this one, holding his defender off before turning and slotting home from close range. It was no less than he deserved for a performance packed full of endeavour. Behind me someone remarked he was doing the job Theo Robinson did last year. They’re half right, the difference is Matt Green stays onside and he turns up for league games. I was a big fan of Lee Angol, but any manager that thinks Green is worth discarding in favour of the former Posh striker is deluded.
Kevin Ellison was withdrawn to a round of boos, and not long after Vadaine Oliver got the same treatment. Neither were bad players for our club and both have only gotten their reputation as villains based on performances against us since, and you know what that means; both are decent players that play to their strengths. Neither would get anywhere near our first team.
Barry Roche still had a couple of champagne moments for him to tell the kids about, the pick of the bunch a superb double save to keep out Matt Rhead and Nathan Arnold. The new signings might have caught the eye, but Nathan looks leaner and meaner than last year, and he had a positive afternoon. As for Rheady, well my Dad thinks he’s a fat lazy something-or-other, and by the end of the game he was applauding every thing he did. “I was wrong about Rheady” he said, for the millionth time in two years.
Ollie Palmer came on Tuesday night and changed the game, today he came on and didn’t. The game didn’t fizzle out as such, another fifteen minutes of play we’d either score three or would have been hit on the break. Morecambe weren’t so bad they offered no threat, they broke quickly and as well as McGowan on the right they had Patrick Brough on the left, a lad we had on loan once. They offered pace and width, and to be fair when they did get numbers forward there was a suggestion they might have a threat of some sort, somewhere. Maybe on their own ground they’re more positive, but when the opponents are wasting time with forty-odd minutes to go you know they’ve come for a draw.
The match finished 1-1, not the result that we hoped for but undoubtedly a performance that overshadowed the actual score line. I remember a decade or so ago losing 3-2 to MK Dons and leaving the ground happy because we had turned in the sort of display to be proud of, and I haven’t felt that way since leaving a game we didn’t win. Today, that changed. I came away from the ground brimming with confidence despite only drawing. There was plenty to be positive about, if we play that way every week we’ll be in the top ten at least come May. We were at times rampant, and as Danny says missing chances isn’t a major problem (unless it continues), but not creating chances is. We’re unbeaten after two league games, more than Forest Green and Grimsby can claim. We’ve matched all the teams we’ve played, including Rotherham, and today we overran an established League Two side. It’s early days, but I’ve seen nothing to suggest my prediction of a top seven finish won’t be close.
The other thing we can be thankful for is that we won’t get that bloody referee for a few games now. After fifteen minutes I said to my mate Dave that I thought he was having a good game. ‘Don’t talk too soon’ was the reply, and after ninety minutes I felt like reminding him he wasn’t officiating a WWE wrestling match. I know the club shop are short of Imps shirts, but at least ask Rheady to take it off before you try putting it on. Shirt pulling goes on, I wouldn’t want to see it punished all the time, but in the area and blatantly in front of the official? Come on. Also, since when has it not been an offence to climb over an opponent and roll down the other side like he’s a slide in a children’s play area? I know the big man attracts that sort of climb, but whether that is the case or not it is still a foul. When it is done in the area, it is a penalty. The rules are not ambiguous, so why interpret them as such?
Did the referee stop us winning the game? Of course not, we had enough chances to win our next three games and most of September’s too. We’re creating chances, and although we were wasteful it wasn’t a woeful waste. They efforts went just wide or just over, never too wild or uncontrolled. No, the man in the middle didn’t lose us the game, he didn’t spoil it either, he was just bad at his job. Like Danny said we don’t want to be the victims, nobody likes a victim. The referee interpreted the game as he saw fit, it wasn’t always to our liking, it wasn’t always right but he did do the best he could. I’ve seen bad referees, really bad, and this one wasn’t really bad. He was just crap.
I’m sure the message from Danny will be ‘keep doing that, but score the goals’, and Matt Green won’t need asking too many times. He’s scored two in two league games and we’re talking about his profligacy in front of goal? Not a bad position to be in is it? Nathan banged in double figures last season, he won’t be missing as many chances as he did today either. Ditto Matt Rhead, JMD was a whisker away too and that’s before we’ve even mentioned the midfield. If we keep doing what we did today, goals will come. If that is the case there’s no reason why we can’t still count ourselves as play-off contenders. We’re unbeaten, and in truth we’ve never looked out of our depth at all, not even against Rotherham. We’re only going to get better, and I’m not sure the same can be said for Morecambe, no matter how much of a gentleman Jim Bentley is.