These are the games we live for. These are the games we would dream about whilst sat in half-empty stadiums playing Welling or Dartford. Packed terraces, two good, combative teams and enough noise to wake the dead. In the end it was honours even, but the fact it felt like a defeat is testament to how well City played.
Firstly, the line up. It was refreshing, if not surprising, to see Luke Waterfall at the back. I thought Wilson would partner Bozzie, but other than that the team looked as I’d expect it to look. With Harry out it paved the way for both new wingers to get a first league start and Lee Frecklington was always going straight into the first team. Josh Vickers’ injury meant an appearance for Paul Farman, a safe set of hands in the sticks. I was delighted for Farms, he’s a cracking lad and I know how much his first team outings mean to him.
First 25 minutes I thought we looked off the pace. County are a good side, they wouldn’t be second if they weren’t. They’ve got good players across the park, Jon Stead is a real menace but the bank of midfielders is frightening. It’s almost pointless to write ‘I like Jorge Grant’, frankly he’s the best player I’ve seen line up against us this season. We’ve seen him twice now and he’s a class act, far better than League Two. I do fear for County if he goes because they look decidedly average in other areas of the pitch.
They move the ball around nicely in triangles when they can, but today they just smashed it up top every time they got a chance, mirroring our own approach at times. I’m not saying either side are long ball, both have game plan which revolves around hitting the channels and having good players on the edge of the final third picking up the seconds. It isn’t John Beck style long ball, it isn’t really even Keith Alexander style, but it is, to a dgree, long ball. They played it, we played it and the game was pretty exciting for the neutral.
It turned for me on 27 minutes. County had a corner and looked in the ascendancy. We hooked it clear and it fell to Danny Rowe. He sprinted the length of the pitch, diagonally towards the corner drawing players with him and allowing our lads to get up the field. It was incredibly intelligent play, we forced a corner from it and from that point on, we were the better side. The run didn’t come to anything, but his single-minded surge lifted everyone, the crowd and the players. We started to apply the pressure, only for County to take the lead.
The was nothing Farman could do about the goal, it was well worked despite a clear foul on Sam Habergham in the build up. That said, we’ve had our breaks of luck this season and it would be hard to point to that as a deciding factor in the game. Ross Joyce, the referee, chose to send Danny to the stands for his protestations. I didn’t hear what Danny said, I won’t comment on whether it was correct or not.
It was as if the goal and sending off didn’t happen just a minute later. Superb work from Danny Rowe (a sentence I’ll be typing regularly over the next few months) resulted in a cross being nodded down by Jordan Williams and our home-coming hero smashed the ball home. It was written in the stars for Freck to score and he put the icing on before even baking the cake by opening his account. I’m reliably informed that’s two in two for him now as he scored on his last Imps appearance, eight years ago as we drew 3-3 with Bournemouth.
After that I thought County were done as an attacking force. Sure, they looked capable of getting forward but we defended resolutely and often on the front foot. The only moment of note for them came on the stroke of half time when Jon Stead, a constant threat, broke one on one with Paul Farman, who then pulled off a superb stop to keep us level at half time.
Within seconds of the restart we should have been 2-1 up, Matt Rhead turned smartly in the area but fired wide. He looked to have far more time than he realised and whilst everyone thought ‘smash it’, he tried to be cute and put it well out of the keeper’s reach. That set the tone for thirty minutes of constant City pressure. Matt Green, tirelessly running all afternoon, hooked an overhead kick at the keeper then headed at Fitzsimmons from six-yards out. County looked dead on their feet as we poured forward and took an inevitable lead.
It was excellent work by Danny Rowe (again) that freed Green and he finished smartly and succinctly. That’s the thing with Matt Green,he misses a few chances but if you give him three, he’ll score one. He’s into double figures now for the season and, as we continue to drive forward with panache and style, he’s only going to get more.
Danny Rowe, who I may have mentioned was excellent, looked on course to add a third as he sliced through County like a hot knife through wax moments later, only to be cynically hauled back. It was his last action of the game but he left the pitch to rapturous applause and rightly so. If he plays like that every week, we’re going to be pushing the top three. That’s a guarantee.
City looked likely to add a third at any moment, the blue shirts were getting deeper and there looked to be no way back into the game fo the visitors. Only, there was. County scored, against the run of play, to make it 2-2 on 77 minutes. That’s the difference between them and the likes of Barnet, they’re a good side with class players and none more so than Jorge Grant. He’s got two in two against us and despite a defensive mix-up leading to the chance, he made no mistake. Nothing Farms could do, he was let down slightly by two players going for the same ball, but ninety-nine times out of a hundred that mistake goes unpunished. In this division there’s only Grant and Doidge with the foresight to turn it into a goal.
After that they clung on for dear life. Usually we see City retreat, hanging on to the tiniest of threads as the opposition lay siege to our goal, but instead we kept the pressure on right to the last. Green was excellent, Palmer played alright when he came on and the subs put in a good shift too. Time and again we pressed on, winning corner after corner. Then, in the final minute, we finally got the winning goal. A ball forward caught the defence napping, Green turned his man well and Palmer stroked the ball home. 3-2, and City move up to….
Oh no, wait. That’s right, I forgotten about the other element haven’t I? I’ve forgotten about the main player, the most noticeable player on the park. How remiss of me to get 1,000 words into my assessment of proceedings and not mention Ross effing Joyce.
Joyce, the referee, was an absolute shambles of a man, inept to the point where he defines the word rather than being described by it. He’s clearly out of his depth, this match was high pressure, lots of noise and two teams who know every trick in the book. It wasn’t dirty but it was competitive, yet he’s seen fit to book seven players. He lost control sometime around the first minute of the game, then aimlessly ambled around the pitch looking increasingly forlorn and at a loss. His decision to take the ball off their keeper, only to drop it back into his hands after two-minute deliberation was hilarious, if only it had been done ironically and not for real.
Also, how did he not send their lad off for pushing Freck over? HE WAS RIGHT THERE. He was stood next to the action, he saw it and pulled a yellow card. If he sees the offence, it is a red. There’s no debating, yes it would be a soft red but within the laws of the game, it is a sending off. Bizarrely, after awarding the free-kick, he then immediately saw a yellow-card worthy foul from Luke Waterfall and booked him too. I’ve seen referees even up the red cards, but never a yellow.
Moving onto the disallowed goal, the linesman didn’t flag (that I could see) and replays show there was no foul committed at all. Yet he, Ross Joyce of Super Referee fame, saw an infringement. In truth, had the whistle not been blown (for the millionth time) then I think Fitzsimmons probably saves Palmer’s effort. I’m not blaming Ross Joyce for us drawing, we drew a tough game against a good side. I’m blaming him for causing it to be less of a spectacle than it should have been by being weak, indecisive and utterly incompetent.
I’m genuinely going to write to the Fa, as a fan, and ask how much longer we must suffer good games of football being potentially ruined by the officials. Both games against County were spoiled, although oddly Seb Stocksbridge would probably have sent off three players this afternoon, as well as award at least two of the blatant penalty shouts. Instead we got Ross Joyce, a man convinced he should punish the small things and turn a blind eye to any serious indiscretions. He didn’t affect the result, but that is only by pure chance. Some might say, had he spotted the foul in the build up to their first, we would have won the game. Maybe, but officials miss the odd thing. Ross Joyce missed 90 minutes of action, occasionally waking from his slumber to blow his whistle, point indiscriminately one way or the other before shutting off.
It’s not fair on fans, neither County’s nor ours. I got a bit of stick from a Notts County blogger earlier for apparently having the same narrative as last time we played them, that’s because it’s the same issues. 9,600 of us sat in a stadium today to watch two teams battle it out for a promotion spot, instead we were all watching one guy we’d never heard off for fear of what he might do next. 90 minutes of nerves based around what level of pure idiocy the so-called official might reach. As it was, we still got a spectacle today, but what of next week? Or the week after? We get one good ref, two crap ones and somewhere it has to stop. Somewhere down the line, someone has to be held accountable for the awful standard of referees such as Joyce, Stocksbridge and Huxtable.
1,000 words on the game, 700 on the referee, I ought to have some for the 617 and associated volunteers. I respect the guys but as you know, I’m not a serial panderer. I believe the atmosphere is all our responsibility, not just a core group and although I respect what they do you’ll never find me massaging anyone’s ego without good reason. However, the display was all them, they organised it, they asked for volunteers, they designed it and they ensured it was implemented. I didn’t see the design until afterwards, obviously, and I was proud to be involved in such a wonderful undertaking. The band of hardy souls that put that together deserve respect, it is what sets us as a fan base apart from other teams. Other League Two sides would love the numbers we get, but they’d love a group such as the 617 who work so hard at improving the atmosphere. When have you ever seen something like that at a Football League ground before? Well played guys, respect.
So, the dust is settling and as it happens, we drew 2-2 against a top side whom we should have beaten, Lee Frecklington got his ‘Roy of the Rovers’ moment, of sorts, and we were all treated to another afternoon of passion, pride and (thanks to Joyce) a little bit of prejudice too. I suppose this is what football is all about, right? Thrills, spills and the ultimate knowledge that whatever you do, the pr*ck in the middle can get away with murder right in front of your eyes. Rest assured he’ll be getting a little telling off from the assessor but he’ll never have to explain his actions, the FA won’t hear a word against him and next week, he’ll be at another League Two ground ruining an afternoon’s football for another set of fans. At least it won’t be us.
Next up at Sincil Bank, Peterborough. See you next Tuesday, Joyce.