On a night where the Imps took great strides off the field with the introduction of the new Fan Zone, on the field they spent the first half giving their opponents a master class in complete and utter domination of a game. Once they’d amassed a lead they thought they were playing cricket, declared, and waited for the Barnet onslaught.
There’s so much to try to pick through that I couldn’t do it justice last night. Firstly, the new fan zone. It may not look much, a couple of branded tents with tables in the corner, but it represented so much more I think. Winning the league last season was not just about achieving our goal after beating Macclesfield, there is a whole other battle to win now. Fan experience is paramount to our ongoing success, and the fledgling fan zone represents another large step forward.
Often, Imps fans have felt marginalised when the club have made decisions. There’s never really been consultation and certainly from 2006 (ish) to 2011 we were barely considered. Caterers were changed in the ground, stands were opened and closed and generally we were the after thought. What those few tents and tables showed last night is a focus on our experience as customers and fans. We pay our money to watch Lincoln City, and whilst the quality of football can never be guaranteed, the quality of our experience can be. I saw a few faces in the fan zone that usually spend their time ambling up the High Street with a 2.45pm arrival time at the ground (on a Saturday before the jokes). Build it and they will come.
It was also nice to see Roger Bates taking former Imps Trevor Swinburne, Paul Mayo and Warren Ward around meeting people and mingling. I understand that may be an ongoing feature too, maybe with a few pre-match questions and a bit of interaction. It all bodes well and I doubt many clubs initial thoughts after their first foray into fan zone were: ‘we’re gonna need more tents’.
All this is well and good if your team are playing well and for forty-five minutes yesterday Lincoln City played as well as at any time under Danny Cowley. I’ll hold my hands up; I was fearful when I saw Ollie Palmer (pictured top) starting. Up until last night I haven’t ‘got’ Ollie Palmer. He’s a big man who can’t jump? How does that work? Surely at six-foot twenty or whatever he is he can’t run quick either? We’ll come to him shortly.
Josh Vickers got the nod too, not entirely unexpected given the criticism Farms has come under recently. I fully expected this before the County clash as I think I said before. It isn’t even that Paul Farman has played badly, but Josh Vickers is a keeper that has come to play football and he needs games here and there. Paul won’t be dropped in the light of one mistake, what message would that send to the other players? No, Danny planned to bring Josh in as far back as Mansfield or even earlier I’d wager.
Other than that, as predicted, it was business as usual for Lincoln. I say ‘business as usual’, there was nothing usual about our performance in those opening exchanges. We were absolutely brilliant, I’m not one to over enthuse about our displays either, but we played a free-flowing and expansive game of football that a terrible Barnet just couldn’t get to grips with. As early as the 2nd minute we could have taken the lead when Josh headed over, but City looked rampant.
There were seven minutes on the clock when I ate my words about Ollie Palmer. He capped a great opening period by collecting on the edge of the area and smartly curling in from 20-yards. Cue much mickey-taking from those I’d been knocking Palmer to before the game. I’m always happy to hold my hands up when I’m wrong and Ollie Palmer proved throughout the game that I had indeed be wrong about his ability to play in the ten role. Billy Knott, watching from just above me in the gantry, must have been a little bitter knowing the ten shirt had been his. Many more outings like that from Palmer and Billy will have to settle for a sport out wide again.
To a man we were excellent throughout the first period. Simeon Akinola started for Barnet which I found interesting. What does it say about a manager when he’s willing to sell a player one week as surplus to requirements, but the next he’s starting matches? It might say he’s a forward thinking manager that gives everyone a chance, or it might say he isn’t sure what his best side is and he’s winging it day-to-day.
Harry Anderson and Josh Ginnelly were causing havoc when they ran at their respective full backs, and Neal Eardley put in the sort of display that earned him top-flight football once. We need to think about tying Neal up for the rest of the season at least otherwise we could have another Theo situation on our hands in January. He was one of the signings of the pre-season in my eyes, a calming influence at the back who understands football perfectly. He can speed play up with direct running, he can slow it down by cutting back inside or stepping on the ball and pausing a run, he really does have a footballer brain.
Bozzie had his best game in an Imps shirt too, and I noticed something very subtle about his play. He refuses to step too far from the front of defence, even if it means the opponents get time on the ball in the first third of the half. He refuses to move away from the back four and creates pockets of space. In the Football League there are so many quick and able-bodied forwards that any space will be exploited and his experience is showing. It can be frustrating to the fans in the stands as it looks as though he isn’t pushing up or coming to meet the player, but in truth it is astute and measured positional play that underlines his usual level of football. He never looks to break a sweat either, he effortlessly moves across the pitch, coming forward only when the defence does or when the man he is marking does. I thought he’d advanced at one stage to disprove my theory but Pete who I sat with noted ‘only because Akpo has dropped deeper’. Follow his man when marking, sit tight when not. To recognise his immense contribution is to fully understand the players doing the so-called ‘dirty work’.
It should have been 4-0 at half time, Josh had his stinging drive tipped over and Raggett’s header from the corner goes in 99 times out of 100. As his head connected with the ball I imagine it felt routine, exactly what he’s worked on after training for a year, how it went wide I’ll never know. When Harry’s smart finish added the much-needed gloss to the score line it looked as though we’d be coming out at half-time and ending up with five or six. ‘Barnet will tire’ I told my old man at half time ‘and we’ll bring on JMD to punish that’. It seems as though after my Palmer predictions I was on a roll.
In the second half we looked like a completely different side. Barnet had a zest about their play and a desire to break us down, but one or two of our players just could not get going. I’m a massive Alex Woodyard fan but he just could not get a break. His chasing was excellent and he covered every blade of grass again, but it looked as though he’d never had a football at his feet. His passes were going astray and some others followed suit. Dickie and Raggs defended superbly, but their long punts clear often just fell at the feet of Barnet to launch another raid. In the first half our forward players had moved so well for each other, after the break they looked like strangers. The application levels didn’t fall off but technically we looked a side far-removed from the first half.
I’m always happy to hold my hands up when I’m wrong and Ollie Palmer proved throughout the game that I had indeed be wrong about his ability to play in the ten role.
We did get forward which was more than the Bees managed in the first half. Raggs had a header cleared off the line and had it gone to 3-0 I’m absolutely certain we would have found our groove again and pushed out another couple of goals. Their heads would have dropped and our players would have lost the nerves they played with as the game went on. I think there was such a desperation to get a win, such an urge to put the two back-to-back defeats behind us that we actually created pressure for ourselves. The crowd didn’t do it but perhaps the players did.
Barnet’s goal had been coming a while and when it did I thought it was poor defending that allowed them into the game. Coulthirst had looked potentially threatening all match, but he had enough space in the box to park a double-decker bus. It was no surprise to see him rattle the back of the net with a well-taken volley. A deathly silence descended Sincil Bank for just a second, then we got that ‘go again’ attitude and the noise levels lifted. On the pitch we began to fight for our lives.
Danny brought on Maguire-Drew and Whitehouse to give us movement up front, and after the game he praised them for doing what he asked. I’m not usually one to disagree with Danny, but I thought Maguire-Drew had another poor game. At one point Neal Eardley was tracking two defenders, his winger was fifty yards away jogging back like a centre forward. The frustration around me was evident, especially as we were so close to the win. Eventually he won the tackle and one of the centre halves came across to help him out. Now Raggs doesn’t have his head-piece on I’m not entirely sure which one it was.
Josh faded too but his contribution had been there for all to see. I’m a big Ginnelly fan and this comes after I called him as our ‘fourth winger’ in pre-season. His all-round game has come on immensely since last season, he’s so quick it is frightening and I’m at a loss as to how last night’s opening goal was the first we’d scored in the opening 30 minutes all season. We have such direct players that bring pace and skill to the game that we should be far more effective form the B of the bang. Eventually he came off to a proper round of applause, although his award of man of the match later was baffling. He had a decent game but was he a Bozzie, Neal Eardley or Harry Anderson? No. Ollie Palmer had a legitimate shout to be named MoM too, and given our nervy second-half I think the fact so many players were in with a shout really shows how we can mix up play. Harry and Ollie were superb in the first half, but in the second the dirty work of Bozzie and Neal Eardly really paid dividends. Overall I think Bozzie just edged out Neal Eardly as the best player on the park last night.
I don’t like to criticise players on here but also I say what I see and I can’t see Maguire-Drew doing the dirty work Danny praised him for doing. Football managers see a different game though and I desperately want to see him hit his potential. He is a special player young Jordan, matter not what we’ve already seen from him. However, last night was not an example of that. He did have a two-minute spell where he got a shot away and launched a counter attack shortly afterwards, but there’s still so much to come from him. You’ll see.
I wasn’t sure Elliott took his chance either. He got a bit of the ball, but one run down the left saw the ball just go away from him and run out of play. We really needed to eat up a few seconds, create and chance, do anything other than give possession away cheaply. Elliott has his fans and many felt he might start instead of Ollie (me included), but on last nights brief showing Danny made the right call with the starting line-up. He didn’t want to come out and call his two subs on the radio though did he? He doesn’t do that and I suspect he saw two players low on confidence drop into a potentially damaging atmosphere. We needed to freshen up on 65 minutes but who could we turn to? Sending on Ellis Chapman could have ruined the young lads confidence if they’d scored, Luke doesn’t add pace which we needed and neither does big Matt Rhead. I think those last twenty minutes were an indication of how frail our squad really is, even if Nathan had been fit it would have been an out ball. Instead the game narrowed and that played right into Barnet’s hands.
As normal time tip-toed into six minutes of additional time we were hanging on for dear life. Bringing on Luke was a predictable plan and of course if there’s one thing our captain does well it is kick the ball away or head the ball away. I settled a tiny bit seeing him coming on, he might be out of favour at present but he’s still a hard bastard committed to throwing everything on the line for City. I don’t think there was a dry armpit in the house when the final whistle went, such was the worry of us losing that precious lead. It went, we won and all that Barnet play in the second half won’t ever show in the history books. All that will show is a 2-1 win and all I’ll remember is the domineering and swash-buckling first 45 minutes.
I think the 7320 fans can be more than happy with what they saw last night. It was a tough game played in a good spirit, much the same as the first thirty minutes of Saturday. I was on ‘raised boot’ watch and by my reckoning there could have been four red cards inside the first forty minutes or so. The reason the game flowed so well and thoroughly entertained both sets of supporters, was Trevor Kettle.
He’s been a Football League referee for fifteen years now and I think that showed last night. He was sensible with his bookings, Alex Woodyard could easily have been booked in the first half for a late challenge but the cards stayed away. One of their lads could have had the same shortly after, again Kettle took the players to one side and had a word. He was assured and anonymous bar the odd call. When he overruled the linesman to correctly give us a corner when the flag suggested goal kick he showed the confidence in his own decisions. We didn’t get every decision but I was confident every decision was fair.
It was vitally important to get back to winning ways and suddenly the league table is starting to open up a bit. I always say don’t bother looking until the end of September but I’ll comment on it now we’re ten games in. Between us in 12th and Barnet in 15th there is now a four-point gap, whereas that gap represents the different between 12th and 4th going the other way. There is a definite split emerging and we’re on the right side of it. Furthermore, of those in the top 12 we’ve already played six, including the top two away from home. I think that highlights not only the tough start we’ve had, but the impressive nature of still being tucked in after ten games. There’s still an awful lot of promise in this season and if we reach the levels of the first forty-five minutes on a regular basis then the only way, for Lincoln City, is up.