At the centre of it all, the whirlwind of PR, media and hype, there’s a game of football. It is the same every week, whatever the angle, whatever the spin or the setting, it is all about 90 minutes of good, honest action.
I put honest in italics because if we’re being truthful with ourselves, it is never like that. Football isn’t an honest game, just ask the Carlisle player who handled in our area then screamed vehemently for a penalty the other week. it is a game of deception, lies and more lies. Even referees can’t get it entirely right, Ollie Palmer’s great goal against Exeter ruled out for a reason we’ll never know. That is football.
They say these things level themselves out through a season and yesterday, that was the case.
It would be remiss to focus on two key points that could have swung the game in Shrewsbury’s favour though, because that would imply that on the balance of play, they deserved the win. Don’t be fooled by the BBC’s rather one-sided narrative, this wasn’t a case of plucky Lincoln putting up a wall and kicking the ball long all the time, it was a clever and well-managed assault on the opposition’s game plan, whilst also auctioning our own indomitable style on them.
Remember, Shrewsbury are in the top three of League One, we’ve not been able to establish ourselves in the top three of the league below. There’s a huge difference between the two sides, more places in fact than lay between ourselves and Oldham when we met in the FA Cup. That was a giant killing, perhaps the same could be said for yesterday, only the giants are a club similar in size to us that have done incredibly well. They’re us in a year’s time, hopefully.
For the first ten minutes they looked good. They played the ball about, particularly in front of our 18 yard box, looking for the quick give and go. We seemed content to allow them to do that, it may be a result of the 4-3-3 we use now, although we saw a similar tactic backfire against Swindon earlier in the season. Our favourite worst enemy, Jon Nolan, looked to have some real class although he is terribly one-footed which dictates quite often the direction of his play. As you know, they hit the bar early on with a rasping effort which was perhaps the result of us not closing down quick enough. That didn’t happen much after that.
What did happen was one of the game’s major incidents, billed by some as an early Wrestlemania move in which Matt Rhead pole-axed Dean Henderson, the Shrews on-loan Manchester United keeper. At the time I cried cheat, especially when the keeper got up early. I couldn’t believe he’d been given a yellow card for an accidental collision. When you look back in slow motion, it does seem as though a red would be more justified. As a Lincoln fan I could argue he was nudged and that it looks worse slowed down, but if I were a Shrews fan he’d be public enemy number one from now until we finally win a Wembley game. Remember, it was our first appearance, but the Shrews had lost three there on the spin. They wanted this too and to see their keeper floored with what amounted to a forearm smash must have been quite tough to take.
Then came a spell of play for us, followed by Elliott’s goal. We soaked up their early pressure and went on the offensive ourselves, with Whitehouse winning the corner from which he scored. It was fitting captain Luke Waterfall was also involved, his scuffed effort being saved by Henderson for Elliott to slam home. It seems players I’ve doubted in August and September are coming good at the right time, because the goal was just one aspect of a committed and dogged display by Mr Whitehouse. Also, he scored our first ever goal at Wembley which is enough to ensure he never has to pay for a Nando’s again, at least not if I’m in Nando’s at the same time.
The goal knocked them quite a bit and we looked likely to get another, although there was nothing clear-cut to speak of. If the first fifteen was theirs and the second fifteen our, on 32 minutes came another of those turning points. This time the Shrews corner was headed toward goal by Beckles, with Ryan Allsop producing a truly astounding save, clawing the ball clear. Only half cleared, it came back again and the Shrews effort was turned around the post by Luke Waterfall’s arm. It was, even through red and white glasses and face paint, a stone wall penalty. To their credit, only one or two of their players appealed, half heartedly too. If it had been us, I would have cried with anger, instead I choked down tears of joy.
Paul Hurst rather magnanimously shied away from blaming the two incidents for his side’s defeat, but at 1-1 with ten against eleven for the final hour, Shrewsbury surely go on to win the game. Instead it remained 1-0 to us and level in number, just the slice of luck we needed to complete the job.