It was fast-paced, enthralling and engrossing. Two good sides going toe to toe in front of a packed stadium, two sets of fans in fine voice and fine humour making more noise than a top-flight game. It was end to end, combative and frantic. In the end, we came out on the wrong side of the result, but just like away at Wimbledon I’ve found it hard to get too upset.
I don’t like losing, I don’t like us dropping crucial points in a promotion race, but it is mid-November and there’s lots of time to catch up. This is a fledgling Lincoln City side, the early foundations of our League One team. The evolution since last season has been remarkable and fast, but we’re nowhere near where we need to be just yet. We as fans know that, Danny and Nicky know that and yesterday, for 45 minutes at least, Coventry City showed us that.
Let’s not beat around the bush: they’re the best side I’ve seen at Sincil Bank this season without a shadow of a doubt. When they really turned it on after half time, they were unplayable. We weren’t bad, far from it, but they’ve got players of championship standard and it showed. I’m not talking Michael Bostwick-style strength and power either, I’m talking speed, precision and clarity of movement. I know we all loved to hate Jodi Jones, but what a player he is. Duckens Nazon also showed the depth in their squad and perhaps highlighted the difference between the sides. When they needed a game-changer they had an international striker on loan from Wolves. We had Ollie Palmer. No disrespect intended there, but last season our squad was our strength and this season, as we know, it is not.
However, we were certainly the better side for much of the first half. Danny got his game plan absolutely right, Matt Rhead was back to his monstrous best, agitating, winning headers and dictating play. It was a Matt Rhead of last season, the unplayable beast that defenders can’t handle. Nathan Arnold had perhaps his best game of the season as well, using his body excellently and always looking lively. I wondered if Harry might have been carrying a knock because he had a quiet game.
Still, we knocked on the door a couple of times and the best defence in the league let us in. Sean Long was the provider again, his pinpoint cross swept home by an unmarked Rhead at the far post. Long had a good game again, he’s growing in stature and confidence every week. I feel for Sam Habergham, but at present I don’t see a route back into the side. Many are touting Eardley as a potential Player of the Season already, and Long has created something like three of our last five goals.
Once we got our goal Coventry sparked into action and we felt the full force of their potential. Clearly, they’re not reaching those levels every week otherwise we’d see them winning 7-0 every so often, not Luton. They’re quick on the break, they move the ball across the field succinctly and swiftly, they’re simply outstanding when they slide into full gear. I’ve not had cause to praise opposition sides much this season, nobody had impressed me enough to say they were better than us. Coventry were.
That wasn’t to say we were over-awed. Matt Green had a good opportunity to volley us into a two-goal lead but couldn’t get around the ball. I know Green is coming in for some stick on social media, harsh but unfortunately increasingly likely as the games go by with a goal. Last year at this time he had eight for Mansfield, but if you look he bagged three early doors and then had a run until October without scoring. Suddenly he smashed five in four games, I’m still sure that is going to happen here. However, I understand the criticism and I can’t continue to say ‘the goals will come’ without acknowledging this is a bad run for him.
One thing I’ve noticed we do that really frustrates me is pen ourselves in at corners. As early as the first half, whenever they got a corner we get all eleven men back into the box, often meaning a clearance falls straight to the feet of an opponents and brings the pressure back on. Why not leave Nathan or one of the other quicker players out on the half way line, just in case? They could at least contest any clearance and buy vital seconds for us to clear our lines. I don’t think we’ve conceded because of it yet, but it does seem to help build opponents confidence.
At half time there was lots of positivity around me, lots of people saying it was the best game at Sincil Bank in a long while. It was, Coventry were growing in confidence and had tested Josh on several occasions. He was a well-deserved man of the match yesterday, his first half performance was excellent, his second half one bordering on ridiculous. Again, I’m a big Paul Farman fan, but he’s going to find it incredibly difficult to get regular first-team football whilst Josh Vickers is filling our goal.
Last weekend I noted the immediately change in the balance of play, how we came out and almost immediately I knew we’d win the game. Yesterday within about five minutes, I thought we’d lose the game. I didn’t want to be right, be we got an idea of the level you need to be at to win this league. At this moment in time, we’re not there. We’re not a million miles away, but we’re five players and perhaps six months work outside the top three. We’re still top seven material in my eyes, but it will take a push in January.
Their first goal was excellent, a beautiful cross-field ball picked out Jones and his hit deserved to win a football game all on its own. Sure, he pissed a few of your off with his celebration. You know what? That’s football. Matt Rhead did it all of the time, I’d be shouting abuse and booing him if I’d seen it, but in truth it is no more or less than we do. His own fans were the other end of the pitch, he had to celebrate and he was pumped up to score a goal.
They then looked like losing grip of the match almost immediately. We worked our way up the pitch with a move that ended with a Matt Green header hitting the bar when it looked more likely to go in. Had that gone in, we wouldn’t have seen the Green hating online in such abundance. The difference between hero and villain is one inch either way. Had that gone in, we would have killed their resistance I think, but it did not. From that moment on, there was only one winner and their second was a lesson in persistence. I think (and feel free to correct me) it was a save, then the crossbar and finally a well-placed shot past Vickers. They just kept pouring forward, unleashing shot after shot, eventually they were going to get their rewards. we’d dealt relatively well with the onslaught but there’s only so much you can stop.
Once we changed the shape, in particular once Rheady came off, that was our threat more or less finished. Elliott is a decent player but he can’t influence a game like the big man can. Coventry were happy to defend their lead and we were unable to unlock their defence. The game didn’t lose any of that vibrant, pulsating appeal it had, but the battle became more about the fans than the players. A round of ‘2-1 and you f*cked it up’ was met with ‘Premiership, and you f*cked it up’. Imps then went down the leagues before Coventry decided to mock us with imitation, rather flattering us in the process. We weren’t on the right end of the result, but what an afternoon to be a supporter of Lincoln City. We played well, not well enough according to many, but in my eyes we probably did enough to earn and unjustified draw (if that makes sense), but it wasn’t to be. I kept saying to Ian Plenderleith, book judge and part-time referee, that I felt there was another goal in the game. He kept pointing out to me the decisions the referee was getting right.
Eventually the end came and they’d won their FA Cup. From Tottenham in 1987 to Lincoln in 2017, 30-years of decline that they’re looking to halt. We came off the field a little battered, carrying a couple of injuries but a better side for having experienced a proper game of football. Not many sides have had a real go at us this season, Crawley, Cambridge, Morecambe and even Luton looked content not to get beat here. Coventry opened up and gave us a proper game and every single fan in the stadium should be happy they did.
Back in the days of John Schofield I remember us losing 3-2 to MK Dons, I came away telling my friends that I didn’t mind us losing if I thought we were playing to win. I don’t accept defeat, it hurts and never more so than on my birthday when I should get everything I want, but it can be forgiven if your team have given a fair account of themselves. This Lincoln City side is good, perhaps not to the standard of a team with the resources and pulling power of Coventry, but we’re still better than seventeen teams in this division, I’m sure of it. We don’t always show it and I’m not sure we know the best way to set up at the minute, but Danny Cowley’s teams never give up, always compete and always run through walls for the paying fans. Win, lose or draw that is all we can ask.
We’re ‘little old Lincoln’, on our way back but growing and evolving at an alarming rate. Yesterday’s game told us what we already knew; we’re not quite there as yet.
I’m not going to insult anyone’s intelligence by saying ‘look where we were last season’, I’ve tried it enough in conversations. Football moves fast and maybe we were at FGR last season, but those days have gone. We’re Football League now, we competitive and we should never be complacent because we’ve come so far. However, Coventry have come from League One and the Championship before that, big wages, big crowds and a bigger attraction for players. We’re ‘little old Lincoln’, on our way back but growing and evolving at an alarming rate. Yesterday’s game told us what we already knew; we’re not quite there as yet. Did anyone expect us to be the finished article in six months? That would be ridiculous, almost as ridiculous as telling Danny he ‘needs to sign a striker’ on social media. Do you think he’s going to read that, turn to Nicky and say; “You know what? Billy Big Bollocks on Facebook thinks we need to sign a striker. Pick up the phone and call that 40-goal proven striker that we know is sat at home and tell him to come to Sincil Bank. If only we’d thought of that, we’ve been driving up and down the country five nights a week for eighteen months for no reason, this guy has the answers right here. Plus, he posts lots of really funny memes featuring face palming and Matt Green’s name. If only we’d known.” Of course not. He knows he needs some new faces, we all do. I still maintain Matt Green will turn his barren spell around, but my voice is becoming increasingly isolated in proclaiming it.
Now, bring on Colchester on Tuesday but perhaps more importantly, bring on New Year’s Day and ‘phase two’ of Operation Football League. We’re still in this race.