On a bitterly cold afternoon at Sincil Bank, Lincoln City went some way to warming up their fans with a well-fought 3-1 win against a resilient and strong Port Vale side.
It’s been a tough week for Danny Cowley and the boys. Defeat against Coventry was softened by the quality of the game, but defeat at Colchester was certainly not. Lots of questions were asked in the week about recruitment, about certain players and about the level we hope to be at. Whilst I acknowledge one game does not make a season, one game does not break it either. Colchester was not the end of our hopes and dreams, likewise today doesn’t mean we’ve won anything. What it does show is our character, our ability to adapt and perhaps most importantly of all, our togetherness as a team.
The match itself was not one for the purists. Both sides wanted to get from back to front quick, little of the play took place in the middle third. In that respect we matched fire with fire, something I championed in the week. The team selection looked like that of a man eager to impress on some players the importance of reaching their levels. It looked very harsh on Nathan Arnold and Sean Long, neither have been bad in recent weeks, in fact Sean Long has been incredibly solid. Michael Bostwick’s inclusion shocked us all, Danny included by the sound of the post-match interview. What didn’t shock me was the forward pairing of Matt Rhead and Matt Green. Say what you like, they’re the best we have at nine and ten.
They say one swallow doesn’t make a summer and one burger doesn’t make a barbecue, but Matt Green’s goal was important for all sorts of reasons. I’m delighted for him, I believe he’ll go on a run of scoring four or five in the next seven or eight games, but aside from that it was just nice to see him enjoy it. When it finally came it was a typically well-worked Lincoln goal, a ball in from the flank and a smart header from close range. He’s been close to a couple of those recently without getting the reward for his work. When the ball hit the net the relief was immense, both Dave (my mate) and I immediately started chanting his name. You won’t find me going around saying ‘I told you so’ because he has to work at producing it most weeks, but it was a lovely moment to be one of his biggest advocates. His celebration said it all, it was far more than just our first goal of a mid-season game.
The goal didn’t spark us into life, if anything we retreated and invited Port Vale onto us, as much as you can invite long balls onto your defenders heads. I’m not being critical of the style, we employ it when we need to, but you don’t invite pressure against sides like them. You brace yourself for an aerial bombardment and we didn’t brace ourselves well. They came more into the game as it wore on, although the game was being ruined by the man employed to officiate.
I’m not usually critical of referees if I can help it, it is such a cliché to blame the man in the middle. Even at 1-0 up today’s match official had no redeeming qualities whatsoever. His decisions were completely random, at first favouring them but latterly working with us. He looked to his assistant referees for guidance and they were as much use as toilet paper in a fish tank. At one point I yelled something colourful in their direction about learning the offside rule. A father in front of me, sat with his kids, turned and I thought I’d overstepped the mark. I apologised only for him to say ‘no, he needs to understand the rules’.
Here is the rule they got wrong on more than one occasion. Ball comes over the top, Harry Anderson is coming back from on offside position. He moves onside as Matt Green runs from an onside position to chase the through ball. Flag goes up offside. HOW?? How can a player running onto a through ball be offside? There was one decision where we cleared a ball and it ricocheted off their player to Tom Pope, stood in a offside position. No flag? I find it incredulous that match officials could get it so wrong, it isn’t just me either as several around me commented on it. I try to give them the benefit of the doubt when I can, but that referee today seemed like he got the whistle and shirt out of a cereal packet.
I thought the final 20 minutes of the first half we were poor, I singled out Josh Ginnelly to those around me as being a virtual passenger. He hadn’t had a good half, he seemed to spend his afternoon running down blind alleys or hiding in plain sight. How frustrating was it to see Neal Eardley wanting to take a throw, but having Josh behind the full back asking for the ball? He wasn’t the only one unavailable, but he’s never going to win it in the air, I felt he was hiding when things got tough. Harsh? Maybe. I was considerably harsher than that when his awful corner was met at the near post. To give him his due he chased back, missed three or four opportunities to tackle and they scored. Needless to say, I did my half-time tweet about how bad I felt he’d been.
In the second half we got a much better Josh and he showed some big brass balls to come out after his mistake and put it behind him. In truth, the whole side did. After two defeats in a week, surrendering a lead before half time to a physical side such as Port Vale could have spelled disaster. We went in with our heads down and I feared the worst. We came out like a side that have character and resilience. It would have been easy for Danny to take Josh off, take him out of the firing line but instead he stayed on and battled for the team. Just as we did against Crewe a fortnight ago, we came out and from minute one I believed there would only be one winner.
Nobody could say we didn’t deserve the lead and once again, I credit Matt Green with making the goal. Even if some of our support don’t rate him, the fact he had three defenders on him every time he got the ball demonstrates opponents know what a threat he is. He holds the ball up well and it was that strength which resulted in Micheal Bostwick receiving it on the edge of the area. He’s primed a few rockets to go recently and not managed to bag a nice clean strike, today was a great day to change that. At 2-1 up we were only ever going to lose the game by our own making, they weren’t likely to win it of their own accord.
I thought Vale offered very little in the second half and our third really killed any lingering doubts our fans had. It was Josh Ginnelly who started the move off, he wriggled free only to be unceremoniously hacked down just inside the Port Vale half. If there’s one thing we pride ourselves on it is converting dead balls into goals scored and that is exactly what happened. The fact it was Luke Waterfall on the end of it made the day seem even more cathartic than it should have been. He’s the club captain, the man at the centre of our title charge last season. He’s been marginalised as we look to move forward with younger, fresher players, but when the chips were down it was Luke on the end of the ball to kill the game off. With Rheady flicking it on too, it seemed almost poetic. The much-maligned striker opens the scoring, two old-hands recently cast aside completed it.
In the middle of the park it was the combination of old and new that helped us secure the points. Alex and Bozzie worked tirelessly but today especially was a game for Bozzie, the big grizzly bastard. If I were his opponent I’d be having nightmares for a week that a Game of Thrones character was stalking me all over the field, winning headers and tackles like he was taking down White Walkers (GoT reference, if you don’t get it I make no apology). He wasn’t the only one though, the level of commitment in the second half was, in my opinion, as good as any half of football I’ve seen at Sincil Bank since April. Woody surged forward on runs, Josh Ginnelly probed the space, the centre halves put their bodies on the line and Sam slotted nicely back into the swing of things.
I’m going to single three players out though, Neal Eardley has to be first. I’m not sure how we’ve ended up with a player of his class in our side, but he is such an asset. He’s calm and collected on the ball, an organiser not afraid to dole out the advice in whatever means he sees fit, but so composed in possession. You can see he has come from a level above and today, as ever, he was superb.
Harry Anderson is a boy you’ll see at a higher level later in his career. Within twelve months he’ll be our ‘Jodi Jones’, the one that opposition fans look at and say ‘he is different class’. He strong as an ox and nothing showed that more than a run at the end. Bear in mind he’s put in eighty odd minutes, they’re applying pressure and their midfielder looks to barge Harry off the ball. Instead he bounces out of play as Harry wins the ball and strides forward. It raised another rendition of ‘Oh, Harry Harry….” and rightly so.
Finally, Rheady. I think he compliments Matt Green well, the ‘big man, fast man’ combo will do for me until January at least. Amusingly I don’t actually think Rhead was outstanding today, but he did what he does so well. There were so many classic ‘Rheady’ moments today, the slow amble towards the Coop Stand when he knew he was coming off, him being fouled constantly but never getting a free-kick and of course the hilarious run around the area to lose his marker. He brings more than just his ability on the ball, he has the knack of galvanising fans, getting them wound up and cheering for him. He received a standing ovation for a six out of ten display, because that is what he does. We’ve missed him, his character and his unique abilities.
I had a chat with my mate Dave about what was different today. He pinpointed the fact Green was in the right areas, not chasing all over the park looking for the ball. He laid the praise at the feet of Ginnelly and Anderson doing the right running outside the full backs, not inside. I disagree, I think it was Rheady. He took care of things between the midfield and Matt Green, not by attempting slick passing or lots of running like you get from Knott or Whitehouse, but by providing the target and holding the ball up. I know I’m a Green fan but I desperately hope the two of them remain in the side for the next few league games because they’re our best route to goal. Also, no player can give you what Matt Rhead does, he just has that ‘je ne sais quoi’ that transcends the actual game. He’s a motivator, an irritant and a character and even when he’s had an average game, he’s the one the fans call for. At one stage we’re three one up and everyone is chanting ‘Rheady’. They weren’t singing ‘Greeny’, despite his goal, not ‘Bozzie’, despite being my man of the match and not Luke Waterfall for his brick heading ability. That tells you everything about Matt Rhead.
Even at 3-1 Coco the Referee showed little or no competence at all. My eyes at have deceived me, but I’m sure I saw Matt Rhead pushed over by their defender. Did I see that? He went down, play stopped and nothing happened. Dave was having kittens next to me, he was as incandescent with rage as he can be, asking complete strangers why it wasn’t a booking. Still, he made sure he had his yellow card for Matt Green for kicking the ball away after he was called offside. He wasn’t the first, he wasn’t the last be he was the only one booked. I love a consistent ref who makes rational and fair decisions, this afternoon we didn’t get that.
After the game you could tell Danny was delighted and rightly so. Many have questioned the direction we took in the summer and whether we were really the team some fans believe we are. People are entitled to their opinions and have a right to voice them. If we’d lost today, or drawn after taking the lead, those questions and doubts would spread and grow. One win doesn’t stop people having the differing opinions, but it does stop the so-called rot from setting in. It shows that despite having a small squad, despite perhaps not bringing in every player we needed in the summer, this group has something. We’re not a top three side at present, but we’re just outside the play offs with a lot more football to play and a degree of money to be spent. Danny’s sides always get better after Christmas (so I’m told) and by grinding out results as we did today we’re only building better platform for ourselves.