It’s not all about the referee though and with ten men we still had a job to do. I don’t want to sound bitter, but with ten men on the field it would have still be 1-0 at half time, maybe even more. We’d started to get joy down the flank, Bruno had looked comfortable and exciting and having someone in the ten role left John less isolated.
He didn’t care about the isolation, a particularly languid and lazy-looking run in the first minute or so of the second half almost brought is our second. I can see why people get frustrated with John because his style looks so ungainly, but he frightened those defenders and could easily have bagged. I thought he had a great game and was a contender for Man of the Match.
The game never got going after that. With ten men we remained compact, but it essentially leaves us hoping to get out on the break, rather than pinning the opposition in. We got a glimpse of why Northampton have struggled, they’re a counter-attacking team who were expected to seize the initiative and in truth, they didn’t. It wasn’t exactly tepid, but it wouldn’t be classed as a classic either.
What I was heartened by was the togetherness in the stands. I think as we had a perceived common enemy, the referee, the usual bile started to disappear. The songs were sung loudly and in block 3, where I sit, it was loud at times. It felt like us against the world, us against a conspiracy or against a team of bully boys favoured by the ref. That’s not the reality of it, but when you have that sense of injustice, it pulls you closer together.
The shouts weren’t at Akinde, Angol or whoever else has had stick. They were at the referee, his linesman and the occasional Cobbler. Whether that game was badly managed or not was irrelevant, it distracted fans from the regular stuff and worked in our favour. Despite having ten men, I felt we were more likely to score.
They were going for the game and Timo Elsnik came on, a player I liked at Mansfield. I expected us to be backs against the wall, but they’re clearly not happy having to control play. They came forward, usually Jason Shackell cleared and it all started again. When we did get the ball we played it from left to right and looked to find the channel. It was predictable, but I found that comforting.
I never felt they’d score, but I thought we might. My phone kept telling me Mansfield were losing, MK Dons were losing, Forest Green were losing and it all made me smile. It meant that the draw wouldn’t be a bad result, despite the situation. Dave next to me, in a moment of doom and gloom, said ‘just because we draw with ten men doesn’t make it a good result’. I replied; ‘No, but if everyone else loses it is’.
There was an incident when Cian Bolger was clearly held down in the area, a penalty on 99% of other occasions, but that wasn’t given. Not long after, I thought Elsnik was lucky to stay on the field too. He got a booking for pulling John Akinde back then not five minutes after committed the sort of foul we’d see bookings given for. In my eyes, whether he’s on a yellow or not shouldn’t matter, but it did demonstrate that Salisbury wasn’t looking to even things up. I suppose that’s a sign of a good ref, although in this instance it would be a red herring.
For the last six or seven minutes we laid seige to their goal. The crowd lifted, the chanting started and the belief we could win the game oozed through everyone in the ground. It should have been the eleven men looking for the win, but instead we seemed to start pouring forward. It hadn’t been a classic performance, it wasn’t easy with ten men and having our captain nailed in the early minutes, but it felt like we might actually win the game. We got a couple of corners which came to nothing then, with three minutes injury time on the board, it happened.
By ‘it’, I mean the injustice that had everyone together when we came out of the ground. The so-called ball to hand when a defender had said hand extended out like a keeper. The clearest handball you’ll see all season was waved away. He might not have realised it, but Michael Salisbury had been got at. The anger from our fans, the ear-bashing from the bench and the sense we were the enemy had surely been drilled home, because other than that there can be no excuse as all for not pointing to the spot.
Would we have scored it? Who knows. That doesn’t matter, what does matter is had it been at the other end I feel he would have given it. We were never getting anything rom him as early as the first minute, but it took until the 90th for him to show his colours. Within seconds we had a second, less obvious appeal which again he didn’t go for. He soon blew the final whistle and rightly received a round of boos.
After that, the lads were applauded off. There was a unity again, a feeling that we had been done by the man, done by a bad referee and opposition with a vicious and pointed game plan. It was us against the world again and maybe, just maybe it could be a big boost.
Was it the right assessment? The penalty was as clear as you’ll see and the ref saw it, later claiming ball to hand. If his assessor hears that he’ll be forced to fill in paperwork, almost certainly. The other decisions were perhaps debatable, Freck was fouled but was he going to give us a penalty in the first minute? Of course not.
He got the red card spot on, but do we see the game differently because of that early incident? Did Michael Salisbury actually have a decent game, get one big decision wrong at the end but be perceived to be poor? Or was he just a proper melt who shouldn’t be given a whistle next weekend? You decide.
What matters is nobody came out of the ground around me calling Harry naïve, calling John Akinde everything or even criticising our performance. Up until the sending off we’d been okay, but not brilliant. After it we fought well and the man advantage made a very average Northampton team look half decent. Was there any complaining about that? No. Why? Because we were together in our anger at the referee.
There’s the odd voice of ‘reason’ on the internet wanting to take the focus off Salisbury and his dodgy decisions, but not me. Because while we’re complaining about him and his inept display, we’re back on the same side, Akinde lover or not. We’re back in red and white as one, not divided, facing the injustice together. We’re little old Lincoln City again, always being done and hated for no reason.
If we stay that way, this might just be the most important game of the season. Stay together, stay loud and stay focused and we’ll be off to Portman Road next season. It’s that simple.