We’ll skirt around the obvious, this afternoon City have notched up a fifth game unbeaten, kept a third clean sheet in a row and hung on the a play-off spot for Christmas.
Last season we revelled at being top come Christmas, once again Danny Cowley has taken Lincoln City to a respectable place that leaves fans at ease to enjoy festivities in good cheer. Sixth in our maiden season back in the Football league is superb at Christmas, it’s actually frightening what might be achieved when the ranks get bolstered in January.
The only team news ahead of the game was the return of Nathan Arnold at the expense of Cameron Stewart. Stewart picked up an injury but many would suspect Arnold’s inclusion saw us field our strongest eleven. Nathan might not have been in the side on a regular basis, but at present he’s our second best winger.
We came up against a resolute and hard-working Newport team, a side that have improved tenfold since their brush with relegation last season. It always promised to be a controversial afternoon after Robbie Wilmott’s comments pre-game.
Without dwelling on the point too much, Wilmott’s comments were absolutely ridiculous. He started by saying: “To be honest, they are a horrible team. They’re very direct, teams call us direct but that’s a different kind of direct. I saw them on television a lot last season and they are direct, and I think that’s what we’re going to have to deal with.” He followed that up by saying: “I don’t think we really care (when people call Newport long ball), if you beat teams and they come out and say that then you’ve obviously done a good job. I’ve seen a lot of managers this year saying that they’ve worked on a lot of things in training and haven’t been able to deal with what we bring. Set-pieces are part and parcel of football and if you’re not good at them you’re going to ship goals.” Whatever Robbie. There wasn’t much he could do from the bench at Rodney Parade (pictured top).
Newport had the best of the first half, as the home team you’d expect that. Nouble, the former West Ham player, looked a real threat but ultimately they didn’t create anything too worrying for City. They controlled play, they brought the game to us as you’d expect from the home team. At half time though, the score was 0-0. Both sides hit long balls, the pretty long ball side Newport and the horrible long ball side Lincoln. Referee Brett Huxtable looked very much a ‘homer’ as we didn’t get a single decision, but we were still in the game and that was all that mattered.
At half time Luke Waterfall said in the dressing room “If that’s the best they’ve got then we’ve got a chance.” He was right, City came out with (using Danny’s favourite words) purpose and intent but it wasn’t to be.
In the second half a good game was altered by a yet another soft red card for our opposition. Newport had a guy sent off for a hard tackle on Matt Green whilst Green was heading away from goal. Huxtable immediately flashed a red card which sparked mayhem. A long break ensued during which it appears Danny was pelted with coins from the stand. They weren’t pretty scenes but Danny played down the incident claiming he had “about £1.20” to go and buy a can on Coke with, following up by saying he respected the Newport fans and didn’t want to get them into trouble. For the record, they will get into trouble as the referee spotted it and will report it.
The decision changed the complexion of the game completely, the atmosphere turned from frenetic to vitriolic with home fans baying for a red card at every turn. Huxtable perhaps lost control a little, to the detriment of the spectacle.
After that Newport were still organised and hard-working, City should perhaps have taken better advantage of the situation but didn’t. I think that lays bare the issues with the threadbare squad we had, with the greatest of respect to both Palmer and Billy Knott, if we’d got a little bit more industry to come from the bench we might have snatched it. To be fair to Billy he looked decent after coming on, he played some nice balls and sat in the ‘free role’ which he’d doubtless like every week. The problem is, most weeks we play eleven players.
We got a few balls into the box but not enough to break the deadlock. Keeper Joe Day was excellent, commanding his area well and making saves when called upon. Could Nathan have scored when he went through one on one? Possibly, but it was nice to see him running in behind and creating problems. Similarly, Matt Green will have been disappointed not to have done better with his later header. Either way, a draw was a fair result in the end.
Eardley was, once again, superb. He might be an outside shout for Player of the Season even at this early stage, he’s such a consistent and calm figure at the back. I’ve no doubt his arrival has solidified our back line even more than last season, that and the arrival of Michael Bostwick.
Bozzie had a shout for man of the match today. He’s just immense in the middle of the park, he’s as simple as a ham sandwich, as basic as a plain cheese pizza but as effective as rat poison. He wins the ball and passes it. He receives the ball and passes it. When it comes near him, he heads it away. When it comes near someone near him, he wins it and passes it. It’s Fisher Price football but done with the efficiency and aggression all fans like to see. His booking was ridiculous, he rose high to win a header and got booked for it. Brett Huxtable was probably looking to even things up and was just totting up a few yellows to give himself a chance.
Both centre halves played well too, I’m delighted for Luke getting back into the squad, but also for Raggs who is giving his all right through to the end. There’s no doubt he’ll be a massive loss, but what price on him signing off with a late header against Luton? His story is a fairy tale and his work rate and aggression is excellent. Him and Luke look as strong as at any point last season and it will be a crying shame to see them broken up in January.
As it goes, we didn’t get the win. It’s a real testament to the side that a 0-0 draw at Newport feels like a defeat after 90 minutes. It shouldn’t, if they play like that every week at home they’ll be top ten come May and by that rationale it’s a good result. We’re five matches unbeaten now, each of these runs keeps us at the right end of the table, each defeat is now being put to bed with a good unbeaten run. We’ll lose matches during the season, but if we go on unbeaten runs after we do, we’ll be fine. Similarly we’ve now kept three clean sheets in a row, something else which good sides are built upon. We may have slipped to sixth but in reality, what is the difference between fourth and seventh? All four spots will see us in the end of season lottery. What is really frustrating is a win would have seen us finish the day in third!
Luton and Notts County have put some daylight between them and the rest, but Accrington and Exeter have found themselves in the chasing pack now. Five points separate Exeter in third and Newport in eleventh, but in ten days time each side will have played three more games. By the second day of 2018 I predict the gap between 11th and 4th will be bigger, the chasing pack will slowly be whittled down and we need to make sure we stay in it. We just need to cling on to this position until the Luton / Notts County double-header, after that, who knows? Would you bet against City at the moment? I wouldn’t and I can tell you this: nobody wants to play us at the minute. Not Newport, not Accrington and not even Notts County.
As for Danny, I hope he enjoys his can of Coke on the way home, doubtless Newport won’t enjoy the referee’s report landing on the FA’s doorstep. I suspect the FA will be more intent on trying to force non league clubs into bankruptcy rather than punishing actual misdemeanours, so they might be alright.