It was never going to be easy, battling away in a League Two packed with strong teams and good players, but as the halfway point passes us by, it’s fair to say the Imps have fared as well as anyone could have hoped.
There’s a few out there who’ll have you believe we could be seven points clear, or ten, or fifteen and they’re right, we could be. However, we could also be six points shy of MK Dons, or we could be like Notts County and have imploded despite the pre-season excitement.
What we have actually done is risen to the challenges we’ve faced and adapted when we have needed to. The main focus this season is surely on the league, a fact demonstrated as early as August when we effectively binned off the trip to Ewood Park by playing players who later couldn’t even get in the side to face Accrington. This season is all about League One football and right now, we’re on course for it.
Let’s not be arrogant about it, there’s a long way to go and no matter where you are in the league, a trip to Cambridge is never going to be easy, nor is a trip to Crewe. We might be doing well but nobody is giving us promotion on a plate, this isn’t 2005/06 when we were handed a top seven finish despite being guff. This is all of our own doing and if we’re top three in May, it won’t be thanks to anyone other than ourselves.
From the outside looking in, we are the team everyone thinks will go up. I went to MK Dons as you know and from inside the camp, they think finishing above us gives you promotion. My good friend Pete is a Manchester United season ticket holder and he continually tells me we’re going up. The stats suggest we are too, top at Christmas usually means automatic promotion. Usually.
The problem is as Lincoln City fans we’re used to failure. Fans of a certain age will talk to you about 1982/83, when we looked set for Division Two football, only to end up with nothing. My era remembers 2006/07, the season we came alive before Christmas and died after it. We’ve got form when it comes to throwing away a good hand and whether that was under Danny and Nicky, Schoey or Colin Murphy, it’s been done.
What we tend to forget is 2016/17, in an odd way. We’re happy to talk about our rise, to use it as ‘perspective’ when we lose and of course to rejoice when key dates come around, but we forget what resilience and fortitude we showed that season. We forget that Danny’s side blasted through more than sixty games and still ended up on top of the table. It’s easy to forget, but I had a read of my Season in Blogs book the other night and the same comments I read this season emerged every so often then. Uncertainty. Lack of belief we can go all the way and, when we won, a confidence that only set us up for a fall.
History will not get us into League One this season, nor will it guarantee our collapse. Everything will be defined by what happens when the players step across the paint, wearing the red and white (or grey and black) and going to do battle with whoever or whatever stands in our way. The FA Cup tie will be a nice distraction, but thank God we didn’t have to get to the quarter-final for our pay-day this time around. By the time we enter the second week of January, we should simply have promotion to concentrate on.
There’s plenty of big games we’ve got to get past, trips to Mansfield, Bury and MK Dons stand out as big matches. Tranmere and Colchester won’t relish coming to the Bank and our form at home will be the deciding factor. I rubbished someone who said you have win your home games and draw your away games, but a point against the Dons, Stags and Bury will be just reward for our endeavours. Killing sides off at home, like we did Newport and Morecambe, will get us promoted. Might be nice to defend a bit better though.
Therein lies our Achilles Heel, the one area of the field I believe we could suffer. There’s plenty said about us going forward, how we don’t score enough and all that, but we’ve scored 42 goals compared to 31 on the same date last season. We’ve played a game less too.
I recall Danny saying to me pre-season that he had to find ten more goals this season. If he succeeded in doing that then he felt we’d be in the automatic promotion spots. It doesn’t matter if ten come from John Akinde, it doesn’t matter if all ten are penalties, the simple analysis Danny conducted said ten more goals equals automatic promotion. In the first half of the season we’ve done just that, although a woeful Port Vale might be thanked for six of them. Hopefully they defend as well on New Years Day, a fixture that isn’t often kind to us.
What is interesting is the fact we’ve conceded three more than at the same stage last season, having played a game less. That’s where our problem is and yet despite the numbers telling us it’s the case, I can’t put my finger on exactly why it happens. Shackell and Bozzy are a good pairing, dominant in the air and always there with a tackle. The full backs are very different, Harry Toffolo is a classic wing back but not an old-style full back, whereas Neal Eardley is the other way around. They’ve both quality players at this level.
Josh Vickers is (by Danny’s estimates) a Championship keeper and I’d be inclined to agree to a degree. He is certainly one who could play League One football with little effort. His injury record worries me but in Grant Smith we have a decent replacement, even if his performance against Newport had a few worrying. So to sum up, we have a good centre back pairing, good full backs and a decent keeper, yet we’re conceding more than we did last season. Was Paul Farman just that good?
The obvious answer for the year on year change is the set up. this season we don’t have the two midfielders screening the back four, something which certainly made us stronger last time out. When Bozzy and Alex Woodyard paraded in front of the back four it offered additional protection, but it left us shy going forward. the fallibility at the back is a symptom of our slightly more adventurous approach further up the pitch. Nobody is to blame as such, sometimes there is no blame. That’ll disappoint a few.
You see, in pointing out that Achilles Heel I am not saying we’re going to be brought down by a bad defence, not at all. I am merely pointing out an area which may be of concern. We may sign additional cover, Danny might feel that he wants another left back to come in, or someone capable of playing both sides. I think lots of us would like to see that, especially as we don’t have genuine cover in either full back position. Kellan Gordon isn’t a right back, James Wilson isn’t either and Sam Habergham has disappeared from view, sadly.
That is where I feel we are right now. We’re in a great position and every instinct tells me we’ll be promoted at the end of the season, but the Lincoln City gene in me tells me not to be so bold. It’s pertinent to point out that in 2006/07, after 23 matches we only had 44 points and were third in the table, having scored three more than we have now but conceding seven more. That season we’d thrashed Barnet 5-0 and Rochdale 7-1 too, adding to the goal tally. We finished fifth with 74 points.
In 1983, the year we should have reached the second tier, we had to wait until the middle of January to complete 23 matches, but back then we had 49 points and had scored 52 goals, conceding one fewer. We finished sixth with 76 points.
That isn’t a barometer of how we might do this season, nor is it intended to worry anyone, but there’s a lot of work ahead of us. On our day, we’ve proven we’re as good as anyone in this division and with the right moves in January, as well as a consistent and well-planned approach to matches, we should be just fine.
Many more outings like Boxing Day and we won’t be.