January 29th 2005. Stereophonics were about to hit the top of the charts with Dakota, Tony Blair was still running the country and it was the last time Lincoln City beat Mansfield Town at Sincil Bank.
Simon Yeo and Ciaron Toner scored as we pushed on to a play off place, Colin Larkin and Derek Asamoah were on the bench for them and former Imps’ trainee Luke Dimech was sent off for the visitors too. Since then, our record against the Stags has been less than impressive, with eight matches at Sincil Bank. We’ve lost five of those and drawn the other three. There’s a score to settle here, or at least some pride to be salvaged.
Of all the times we’ve faced them, tomorrow is likely to be the toughest. They’re a good unit under Flitcroft, as much as it pains me to write. They suffer from the usual Flitcroft style of course, often lacking penetration due to the narrow 3-5-2 formation and they can be accused of over playing at times. However, their rise up the table is notable and aside from the FA Cup mauling, their form has been very good.
The areas we may have an advantage are numerous. The break has allowed us to get a few bodies back towards fitness, Jason Shackell, Michael Bostwick and Lee Frecklington have all be struggling in recent weeks but will have benefitted from having some time to work on their niggles. On the other hand, Mansfield’s worries are toting up with Alex McDonald and Otis Khan are thought to be out, Neil Bishop and Timi Elsnik are both doubtful as is striker Craig Davies. If all five are out, we have a big chance. If the first two are missing, we’re in a better place than if they were full strength.
I really like Elsnik and through my coverage for Football League World I’ve got to know quite a bit about him. He’s a big player for them, think Jorge Grant at County last season. He’s got quality on the ball and can add a goal or two as well as be creative. If he plays, he’ll be a handful and I worry about our tendency not to put a tackle in when opponents are 25 yards from goal. It might be an unfounded concern, but if we do it this weekend we could get hurt.
The big defeat against Charlton might be one of those turning points in a season, Mansfield have been doing really well, drawing too many but not losing matches, but maybe conceding five will knock their confidence. It was odd to see them rest Tyler Walker though, at least until the 60 minute mark. He’s the one man, over and above all, that I’m wary of. The rumour is we were in the hunt for him this summer, but Mansfield paid more a week for him than any two of our lads combined. I’m not going to complain too much about money, we’ve spent a bit after all, but I will take the moral high ground and say at least our crowds support a bit of investment.
We could still be missing Neal Eardley which will be a big loss, but James Wilson is a functional right back and with them not operating wingers, it will give him and Harry on the other side of defence a little respite. There’s a definite clash of styles here, 3-5-2 against a 4-4-1-1, and which side manages to get the upper hand in the key areas will be in the ascendency.
For instance, if they restrict much of the play through the middle, we’re in trouble. Our attack relies on balls out to the wide players, Bruno Andrade and Harry Anderson have been superb and I wouldn’t be surprised at Kellan Gordon being a late sub either. They’ve got pace to burn and like to run at full backs. If our other wide players get on the overlaps, there’s big wins for us.
The next phase of that is crucial though, balls into the box will be defended by three centre halves, which could mean clearances and pressure immediately on us. The big ball into the front men will be ineffective in the main as they’ll be doubling up on Akinde, even if we try running at them through the centre the number of bodies will make it very difficult. I might be wrong, but I can’t see it being a game for Shay McCartan tomorrow, the advanced role he plays is going to be stifled easily by the volume of players.
I’d be tempted to look at something akin to a 4-5-1, with perhaps Pett, O’Connor and Frecklington all involved. It means a lot of work for big John, but we have to pick up the second balls and get it out wide to our threat areas. Fail to do so and we’re in trouble. Get it right and we’ll be celebrating come 3pm at returning to the top of the tale, albeit for an hour or two.
David Flitcroft has made the usual comments about a strong referee which are designed to ramp up the atmosphere. Danny doesn’t like the mind games which is good, he’s spent two weeks focusing on how to beat Mansfield, not unsettle them. Getting Gavin Ward in charge is a real bonus, I would have shuddered if we’d seen Stockbridge or Huxtable handed control.
There’s a few things to consider with Ward. Firstly, he does not like time-wasting, especially from substitutions. He drew the ire of Keith Hill last season for the way he dealt with a meandering sub, which City need to be aware of. If it is 1-0 with 15 minutes to go, we need to be a little clever with how we manage the game, perhaps not just relying on John Akinde to make the slow walk from the Coop Stand across to the bench.
He doesn’t like a red card, but I suspect he’ll have a very different game to referee than the Checkatrade farce we were put through earlier in the season. Flitcroft can’t risk applying the same tactics to this game a she did then, because although the official doesn’t send players off too often, he is a ‘spree dismisser’. He’s not shown a red to anyone last season, but last season he showed six in four games, twice flashing double cards.
He’s taken us before as well, he managed our first game back at the Bank as a league club when we drew 1-1 with Morecambe and the Checkatrade Final. All in all, he’s the sort of official I want to see when mouthy managers like Flitcroft start the mind games.
It may not be the most positive assessment, but if we were to come away with a point I’d be happy. Beating Forest Green was a big result for us, but it only began to salvage a poor run of three matches in which we took two points and should have had six. Those two home draws might be damaging us right now, but the opportunity is there is begin the title assault once more.
We do seem to like the bigger games, it’s the uncertain ones we seem to lose, so maybe there’s something for us to cling to. All in all, it promises to be a rip-roaring early afternoon at the Bank which will go some way to defining our winter period. Win, and we’re back in the mix. Lose, and we’re clinging on to an automatic spot, rather than mounting the title challenge.