Four wins from four, ten goals scored and three clean sheets. Those so-called dark days of struggling for goals seem a long way away now, don’t they?
As we turned our attentions to the final knockings of 2017 I think the reason for the revival, if it can be called that, is clear. In the last few weeks, we’ve gone back to being the Lincoln City that won games for fun last season. We’ve been back ‘on method’, we’ve found our identity.
You’ll know exactly what I mean, the big man buzzing around a live wire centre forward, wingers running at full backs and Luke Waterfall at the centre of defence. Since we turned Port Vale over at Sincil Bank we’ve looked a different team to the one which lost to Colchester. We’ve never been ‘bad’ as such, far from it, but something seems to have clicked recently. Newport away would have struck fear into my heart had we been the shot-shy side that drew a blank with Crawley. We’re not though, Matt Green has found his purpose and confidence, Matt Rhead has found his rhythm and all over the park (bar left wing) we look a settled and comfortable side. If Nathan can find his form from last season, we won’t need a January transfer window!! (Joke, we do.)
Sadly (at least for one player) the change has come about at the same time as one player’s game time has dried up. It might be luck, it might be judgement, but I think our return to what we know has coincided with Billy Knott not being on the pitch.
He’s not a scapegoat, let me make that clear. I believe that pre-Colchester Danny wanted to crowbar Billy into the team, somehow. We know Billy has talent, there’s no denying that, but are we poorer for it when we’re trying to pack it into a functional side such as ours? When Billy was on form, great. This season though he has rarely been on form and we’ve tried to accommodate him nonetheless. Since we’ve stopped pushing him into the gaps, we’ve looked a better side. Our tactic is based on hard work, pressing and energy and that is only possible when all eleven players are on method. Billy, for me, is a mercurial talent. when he’s good, he’s very good. When he’s bad, he’s ineffective. When your game plan is all about energy and intensity, all eleven players need to be functional.
It does genuinely hurt me to write this because I rate Billy and he’s the type of player I love to see on the ball. He has a great range of passes and can strike a ball as sweet as anyone, but we just haven’t seen enough of it to justify his continued inclusion. I truly believed earlier in the season he was the key, sitting him behind Green and letting the creativity happen. I wrote about it, passionately. The problem is, it didn’t happen as I foresaw it. I imagined he’d get a start in the ten role and start spraying the ball around like Paul Gascoinge in his pomp, skipping past players and weighing in with goals too. Instead he sat behind the forward, misplaced a few ambitious flicks and we failed to score goals.
Our entire game plan has to chance to accommodate Billy and that was evident as we started to draw a blank in front of goal. We weren’t conceding, we never will with Bozzie and Woodyard marshalling the middle of the park, but the responsibility for creating chances fell to Billy and he couldn’t deliver. Again, I stress it wasn’t all down to him and he did have decent games, but when you’re as talented as him you need to show more than he did do. There were others not firing on all cylinders too, Matt Green was low on confidence, I get all of that. The trouble for Billy is Matt has got his confidence back, the others are on point and it’s happened whilst Bill is warming the bench.
The reinvigorated Matt Rhead has been able to create chances from the ten role. He’s been able to weigh in with a couple of goals too and the doubters, me included, have had to eat their words a little. I did wonder if he’d handle the pace of League Two and I wondered if we’d need to work too hard to accommodate him. Evidently that isn’t the case, he has worked twice as hard to force his way into the side and we have suddenly found our flow. Neither him nor Matt Green look shot-shy anymore, we pour forward with purpose and with delivery from Mr Eardley we’re a different prospect again.
So, where now for Billy? As I was asked in a recent message from reader Steve Lawson; is Billy a number ten? Is he a winger? Does Danny know? Does Billy know? If he’s neither of these, where does he fit into the squad? We’ve found our identity and rediscovered what it was the made us successful last season, but will Billy be able to find his identity before it’s too late?
The heart-breaking thing is I think Billy is as much a confidence player as anyone. It’s no secret he’s one of the so-called ”trouble’ household that Danny jokes about, the ones he stuck together in accommodation to keep them away from the sensible lads, but when you strip it back I think Billy is just a lost soul, low on confidence and struggling to find the rhythm required to get himself back on track. If he hadn’t been cruelly sent off against Notts County, we would have seen a different player now. Those first 28 minutes he looked exactly like the number ten we want, full of endeavour and scheming. Then the red card came, he sat out of three games in which we accumulated seven points and he came back a shadow of that player.
Of the ten games we’ve won, Billy started three, 30%. Of the six we’ve lost, Billy started four, 66%. That may be an unfair statistic, but I do think it highlights the fact we’ve struggled to find a place for him in a winning side. The worst thing is it isn’t through a lack of effort on his part, he works tirelessly hard. He was training right up until kick off during his suspension, alone on the astro turf. It isn’t a lack of desire, but something isn’t quite right and unless something out of the ordinary happens between now and January I fear for him.