Over and above all else, before a ball was kicked, a player booed or a goal cheered; it was cold.
I met my old man before the game to walk up to the ground and even with gloves on, his hands were white with the cold. We had hats, coats, hoods and he had long-johns and gloves and yet somehow the prickly temperature got through those layers and gently froze your bones. He remarked to me as we walked down Scorer Street that today was ‘a day for football fans, a day where you’d rather just eff off home and sit in front of the fire watching Jeff Stelling’. I asked him why he didn’t and he smiled as said ‘I’m a Lincoln City fan’. I liked that moment, it summed a lot up for me.
The middle of December, an afternoon that will be followed by another home game in a week’s time, playing against a side who were going to make in an unattractive, stubborn game by virtue of their tenacity and yet here we were, still rolling up all wide-eyed and expectant as if it were the first weekend of August. The TP Suite filled up an awful lot quicker than normal and the poor guy on the German Beer stand in the fan zone is probably still defrosting now, but all in all it was just another Saturday, courtesy of your match sponsors freezing rain and pneumonia.
The team selection was a little worrying, I pondered whether Bruno’s absence would leave us looking short of ideas up front, especially as their back four would be deep and not affording Harry Anderson the room to move into behind. Other than that it was to be business as usual, the same nucleus that had seen us settle in the top two all season. News that MK Dons game was cancelled late filtered through too, making this our ‘free hit’ We’ve been talking about the game in hand and here it was, at home against one of the strugglers and, as it turned out, comfortably the worst side we’ve seen at Sincil Bank in a while.
There were two other factors that were going to make this an unpredictable game. The first I’ve already alluded to, the conditions. The swirling wind, driving rain and ball-shrivelling cold would limit the efforts of the players somewhat and, just in case that wasn’t enough, the referee was Seb Stockbridge. There’s one thing you can almost always guarantee with Seb, and that is something for the home side. He loves the roar of the home crowd as he makes a decision, so there was always going to be a penalty, a red card or something where he could be the man everyone cheers. I’m just glad we always seem to get him at home.
Straight from kick off it was clear Danny wanted this put to bed early. He always talks about wanting an intensity and purpose, they’re two words guaranteed to get you a full house on ‘Danny Cowley Bingo’. Sure enough, with a handful of minutes gone Michael O’Connor fired wide when he perhaps should have scored. It wasn’t to matter, within seven minutes we were one up. The goal was a finely crafted thing of beauty, something those Stevenage fans labelling us ‘long ball’ would do well to watch. No Bruno on the left? No worry, we’ve got Tom Pett. He was part of a three-player move that found Harry Anderson in the box who smartly slotted home from ten yards. The cold felt a little less fatal with a goal to warm us up and once again it was a player who has come in for some stick who got it. That goal did Harry the world of good because for the next ninety minutes, I thought he was excellent. Football is a confidence game and he got confidence from rippling the back of the net.
Things began to ebb and flow and for a short while it had the feeling of an even contest. Jordan Cranston, a former Imp himself, looked lively for them but often made poor choices. He shot from long-range a time or two when a pass might work, but one of those efforts almost caught out Grant Smith. It must have been the conditions that saw our stand-in fumble the shot, but had veteran Kevin Ellison been alert, or maybe twenty years younger, they could have equalised.
We had our chances though, a wicked cross from the right could have been nodded in by Akinde and should have been tapped in by Tom Pett, but both missed it. Then, Big John did all the hard work catching a ball forward and beating two defenders, but he fluffed his first effort. When it fell back to him, a ball rolled into McCartan makes it 2-0, but he opted for another effort and the chance was gone. My Old Man tapped me on the shoulder and said ‘we’ll rue those misses you know’. It wasn’t the last incorrect statement made by a Hutchinson in the first half.
Five minutes later, John Akinde was heavily involved once more. A ball out on the right was seemingly set to be cleared, but his persistence kept the move alive. He fed in McCartan who wound his way into the area, only to be floored by a crude body check. It was the moment our Seb had been waiting for. He paused, only momentarily, and then blew the whistle. For the third game in a row at Sincil Bank, he awarded us a penalty. We shouldn’t complain, not as this one was stonewall. It was a stupid challenge to make and McCartan doesn’t need half as heavy contact to go down.
After a bit of theatrics on the edge of the area where one of our boys went down too easily from a push, John Akinde got his chance. I said something on the pod this week about him and penalties and it proved (again) to be right. It was as calm as you’ll see, the sort of strike that set aside the conditions, the pressure of the moment and the earlier miss that could have left us susceptible to a goal. It was languid, looking half-hearted but in truth anything but. At 2-0, the game was over.
Three minutes later we were forward gain, looking to take advantage of the momentum that had swung our way. The performance had turned from competent into controlling, the Imps laying passes from left to right, front to back and leaving Morecambe chasing shadows. The elements hadn’t helped, but when McCartan was once again brought dow outside the box, we had another chance to test our dead ball skills. We know the Bradford loanee can hit a ball, Harry Toffolo likes a free kick and I believe Tom Pett can curl one to. Jason Shackell though, he’s a centre back. As he lined up to take it I sniggered and said; “Jason Shackell taking a free kick? This is only going to end one way…”
As I said the word way, it left his boot and before I’d concluded the ‘y’ it was rippling the net.
I’ve always lamented our inability to take a decent free kick, right the way up until 2016/17. We’ve seen some belters since, Sam Habergham, Maguire-Drew and now, to top them all, something from a 35-year old central defender that would have Neymar fans foaming at the mouth.
At 3-0 a rational person thinks ‘game over’. Danny Cowley’s sides are not prone to taking a lead and failing to defend it, we’ve conceded three or more on one occasion this season and that came against a Championship side with half of our fringe players playing. Defeat, even a draw, would be incomprehensible for anyone at that stage, except me.
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