I wrote on Friday about how Crewe Alexandra ruined my 12th birthday by turning City over 4-1 at Sincil Bank. Yesterday, on a cold and windy day at Gresty Road, Lincoln returned the favour, ensuring my 39th birthday this coming weekend will not be ruined by the Railwaymen.
I’ve been told I can’t use the cliché ‘a game of two halves’ in this blog, so I won’t. However, in the first half we were (for want of a better word) lacklustre. Crewe grabbed an early lead, a weak goal from our point of view, an easy header from a set piece. That was bread and butter to us last season, but they cut through our defence easily to grab the early advantage. After that all I can really say positive is that we didn’t concede again.
Crewe were poor too, the spectacle served up in those first 45 minutes barely warranted the title of ‘football match’. Bostwick aside, we were out muscled, but neither side looked capable of scoring a goal. On the terraces, it was Lincoln City with a massive advantage though. Our 990 fans were in tremendous voice, barely stopping to catch breath from half and hour before kick-off. Contrast that with a sparsely populated main stand and an incessant drumming that rarely got accompanied by any home support. ‘You’re supposed to be at home’ had never seemed so apt and in the second half, following a brief cheer from Crewe for something, they were hit with ‘we forgot that you were here’. I had almost forgotten they were there such was the silence from the home support. Even at 1-0 down, we out sang them. I think we sang louder when they scored than they celebrated. If title were handed out for quality of support, we’d already be in League One.
Half-time was a somewhat sombre affair behind the away stand, not least because they’d run out of cheeseburgers and I had a barely-steak pie instead. I even made one of those dangerous half-time social media posts lamenting our side’s ineffective performance. I claimed only one or two of our lads looked like they wanted it, and I stand by that. To say we were poor might be harsh, we controlled much of the possession in the first two-thirds of the pitch, but we had nothing up front, no threat, no fire and no sharpness. I had a brief discussion with a chap called Phil and his better half Rachel (I hope) who asked for a sneaky mention in my blog today. I don’t usually do requests, but I’m in a good mood. I wasn’t after 45 minutes though as it looked like being Wimbledon all over again, lots of possession, lots of play but no route to goal. I’m glad I made that post on Facebook because I love nothing more than being proven wrong by my team handing out a resounding thrashing.
The players had been out for around thirty seconds when it became apparent we were going to be in for something very different. Elliott strode onto the ball and looked up and instantly everything seemed to fall into place. We’d forced a corner within a minute, pouring forward from every angle against a Crewe side that looked like a pheasant caught in the cross hairs of a farmer’s shotgun. Five minutes in we pulled level, finally a league goal scored by one of our own players, something of a rarity before the game. 237 minutes after Sean Raggett headed home against Swindon, Harry Anderson cut inside from the right and fired a low shot beyond Dave Richards. The away end erupted and from that moment on, only one team was going to get anything from the game.
All over the park home heads dropped, the same happened in the stands. The drummer tried to rally them as soon as the goal went in, but to no avail. You wouldn’t have heard him anyway as the Dambusters rang out across the Railwaymen’s home. Air beats rail, every time.
City continued to hunt Crewe down, Harry looked dangerous every time he got on the ball. He’s not just a good player, he has the potential to be a great player, his raw pace combined with that bullish strength had their full back terrified. Add to that our eager full backs on the overlap and the threat was multiplied further. Sean Long, decent in the first half, raided the flank time and again. I have a suspicion Sam Habergham might have a fight on his hands getting back into the side, because at the moment I think Neal Eardley and Sean are the in-form pairing.
Elliott Whitehouse got much more joy in the second half too. Elliott is a darling of the crowd, the unassuming Yorkshire lad with the odd goal up his sleeve is easy to like. If only he’d stop wearing gloves, or at least make up some excuse about poor circulation! In the first half he struggled to have an effect on the game, but as Crewe became stretched he found time and space to make a telling contribution. It was Elliott and Sean that linked up to provide Harry with our first goal, not the last time they combined on the afternoon either.
When the second came on 67 minutes, it was no surprise it was Harry again. A whipped corner was headed goalwards by Sean Raggett and despite being cleared off the line, Harry was on hand to hook the ball home. With 23 minutes left on the clock, the home end emptied. City fans didn’t know whether to celebrate the goal or berate the poor home support for abandoning their side so easily. They knew there was no way back, they’d been twice as bad in the second half as we were in the first, they offered absolutely nothing at all.
Lincoln were looking ruthless by now, desperate to slam in some more goals to shake the tag of ‘goal shy’ and it took just three minutes. Woodyard nodded a ball to Whitehouse, he found Sean Long on the overlap yet again and his teasing cross was turned in by the hapless Michael Raynes. He’d given his side the 1-0 lead, but his next effort at goal ensured even more home fans poured out of the ground. Someone at the side of me joked that they gave the attendance early because with 20 minutes to go it had halved, he wasn’t far wrong. Crewe had the look of a beaten side when they were 1-0 up, now they just looked ragged, eleven men on a field, strangers to each other and completely separated from the crowd. The last time I witnessed such separation between home support and their team was Ipswich in the FA Cup.
Anderson looked to pick up a knock and I’m sure Danny took him off as a precaution. He’s vital to everything we do, without him in the side we lack the link between the midfield and forwards. However, Elliott Whitehouse’s performance must also be lauded as he too provided that link, at least in the second half. When Harry went off it was Luke Waterfall who came on giving us five at the back. Danny was happy at 3-1, so were the fans. Elliott Whitehouse wanted more.
Alex Woodyard was the provider with a simply delicious pass that split the defence open like an axe through a log. Woody is such a good player when he strides forward, I’d love to see him more advanced as he has a unique skill set that I think is often under utilised. The work he does in front of the defence is terrific, but when he roams forward and plays the ball forward you get glimpses of something else, something more than the guy that does the dirty work. His pass was reminiscent of Adam Marriott in the FA Cup replay last year, threaded through the eye of a needle with precision. Elliott made the run that complimented the ball too, striding alone into the area and giving us a deserved fourth goal. In the away end, Christmas had come early. It took us over 600 minutes to score our previous four league goals, but we’d bagged four in twenty to wrap up the game. As we left, not one person mentioned the awful first half, football is a game played over 90 minutes and only the cynics and sceptics will point to that as a worrying sign.
Also, nobody could criticise the players efforts or endeavour in the second half. Even Ollie Palmer, berated by me extensively in the run up to the game, got an ovation and his own song, ‘We’ve got Ollie Palmer, he can’t win a header. we’ve got him on a two-year deal’, might not be the most complimentary song, but at least it is some sort of recognition.
There’s no doubt Harry Anderson and Elliott Whitehouse will win praise for their efforts, but Sean Long’s performance must not be allowed to pass by without a tip of the hat. I thought he was excellent, one of the few that did it from first minute to last. He slipped under the radar when he signed, he’s an understated player often in the shadow of others (Bradley Wood, Eardley etc) but he grows in confidence and stature with every kick. He’s clearly enjoying having the experience of Neal Eardley in the side too, he’s benefiting more than anyone from the former Premier League man’s presence.
It wouldn’t be my blog without praise for Alex Woodyard and Michael Bostwick either. I know there’s some discussion as to whether we’re too negative in the current set up, but those two are immense. If you recall, I said we controlled the first two-thirds of the pitch even when we weren’t playing well, they’re the reason why. I challenge anyone who reads this to tell me of a better midfield pairing in this division; there isn’t one. Bozzie is a monster, aggressive and intimidating with presence and a fearless approach to the game. Alex is more of a thinking man’s footballer, tenacious and cunning, utilising his wits and endeavour over physicality. They make a great pair, they’re as much to thanks for our great defensive record as the actual defence too. I’ve heard calls for Bozzie to drop into centre half when Raggs goes, but I’m a big fan of him in that holding role. What we need to do is find plenty of routes to goal without separating those two.
Am I convinced of Ollie Palmer? I’m afraid not. He’s quick, big and runs at defenders which scares them, but when those defenders realise he isn’t running anywhere in particular and he can’t win a header, the threat diminishes. He had a decent second half, but he just didn’t do it for me in the first period. Josh Ginnelly didn’t have a great first half either, but we know there’s more to come from Josh. He had an electric start to the season but that injury has set him back a few weeks. I’m not saying anyone played badly in the second half, we were excellent, but there’s always something to take from the match. I wonder if next weekend against Coventry it might be Matt Green ahead of Elliott.
Whatever happens, nobody can take away a fine 4-1 win over Crewe. I’ve carried the nightmare of that 1990 FA Cup defeat for too long, watching a slick and organised Crewe batter Allan Clarke’s City with a second half salvo that we had no answer for. This Saturday, we did the same to them and for ninety minutes I forgot about my crumbling spine to enjoy every second of it. I’m paying for it now, but I don’t care. City won 4-1 away, we’re eighth in the table, level with Coventry in sixth and as yet, we’re nowhere near our best.
I’d like to pay tribute to the Crewe stewards and staff whom I thought were superb. When we arrived we got advice on pubs, the bouncers and police were friendly and helpful throughout and overall they were incredibly gracious. There are plenty of horror stories about Cheltenham stewards and bad service, Crewe are an example of how it should be done. They’re a team on a downward spiral, that much is for sure, but off the field they’re a very decent group of people and I respect that.
I won’t be mentioning too much about the racist incident I witnessed, it’s a shame that individuals amongst our own support still find that sort of behaviour acceptable. The world has moved on a lot since the early 1980’s, barracking of players because of their colour are nationality is simply not okay.
Anyway, if our recruitment in January is as good as I think it’ll be, we’re going to be around the top seven come May. I might have to get my surgeon to put my operation back a few weeks as I’m currently due under the knife the day before we play Yeovil on the final day. If we get to Wembley, I’m going, even if I have to be carried there upright shrink-wrapped to a plywood board. On our second half form, I wouldn’t bet against it.