I couldn’t help but smirk as Michael O’Connor did his post match interview this weekend. Aside from having the sort of alluring voice my missus would like to have me tell her tales of my day in, he signalled the start of the business end of the season.
During the interview he made reference to enjoying it and I was taken swiftly back to the National League. Danny urged us to enjoy it then and to be fair, I did. Retrospectively. I enjoyed it the minute the whistle was blown at Macclesfield and I’ve enjoyed it every single second since. Up until then, not so much.
I’m the same this season, constantly looking down the table, always believing those tipping us to go up don’t know the full story. Sure, we’re top but Bury are on fire. Mansfield made good signings and there’s dark horses in the play-off spots. Forest Green did look good until recently and MK Dons can’t be written off entirely.
Part of the worry comes from my own raging insecurity. It comes from knowing we blew it in 1983, knowing we were in the automatic spots in 2007 too. It comes from seeing us battle our way into the top three in 1998 playing ugly, ahead of teams who’d been there all season. Collapses happen.
They don’t usually happen under Danny Cowley and there’s usually a hint of the collapse by mid-February, but my conscious mind doesn’t register that. No, as far as I’m concerned a little assurance goes a long way.
Whilst waking my dog this afternoon I came up with an assurance in my own mind that grew into the idea for today’s article. I believe we have something in our favour that only a couple of other sides in the top six have got, something that ultimately led us to the title in 2017 and that hopefully, can do again. The clue is in the title.
Everyone talks about team spirit don’t they? There’s always a great bunch of lads in the dressing room, whether that’s right or wrong. I was catching up with Sunderland Till I Die last night and heard Chris Coleman talking about a great bunch of lads and bringing in the right characters. Turned out well.
It’s easy to trot out how good a dressing room is. The Lincoln City lads of 2013/14 had great spirit apparently, but then when the likes of Ben Tomlinson and Sean Newton left, it emerged that maybe it wasn’t all that great. Giving the media a little soundbite is one thing, actually having a good dressing room is something else entirely.
I don’t think that spirit, the sort that earns you unlikely points and surprise wins, can come overnight. I look at Carlisle and I worry that the chance of manager has affected the dressing room dynamic. The work that John Sheridan and maybe even Keith Curle put in has been set back and perhaps that was reflected in their defeat last night. I’m not saying a manager can’t come in and instil it straight away, look at Michael Flynn at Newport in 2016/17, he managed it.
To change things though, they have to be bad in the first place. Grimsby have seen that too, Michael Jolley has built a good spirit in their camp and slowly but surely they’re climbing the table. It isn’t the be all and end all, there’s no use having spirit without quality, but if you’ve got it, you’re at an advantage. Look at Morecambe. They consistently perform well above their means, why? Team spirit, them against the world, all for one and one for all. Kevin Ellison typifies that, the worst kind of arse to opposing fans, but the best kind of teammate to the Morecambe squad.
I watched the Bury team play the other week, holding us to a 3-3 draw and I saw spirit. I saw fight and anger, determination and a refuse to lose attitude. I saw it in the white shirts of Bury and in the grey shirts of Lincoln. That’s why it was a classic and it’s why the early season match at the Bank was entertaining too. Two teams with spirit and quality. It’s a deadly pairing for the rest of League Two and it’s why come May, I believe the two of us can be in the top three.
When I look at the other teams around us, I’m not sure there’s enough of that unseen quality in our opponents to make them something we should worry about. Forest Green have quality and I’ve tipped them to surge up the table, but luckily it’s been a kiss of death. They’ve lost two on the spin and immediately Mark Cooper starts calling out his players. Any positive vibes the dressing room accrued during their good run will have been shattered as the world’s worst man manager once again plays a good hand badly. They have spirit all right, it’s the spirit of Christmas past, present and future, all urging Dale Vince to get a manager whose go to response isn’t ‘my players are all shit, good job I’m an ace coach.’
Mansfield are an unknown quantity, they’ve been openly talking about their great dressing room and the togetherness they’ve got. I would have believed it before the transfer window, but some of those big signings do make me wonder. If we’d brought in a replacement for Akinde and another for Harry Anderson, would it have broken the spell of camaraderie we have? Could that discord have reflected in our results? Mansfield have lost three of their last eight and their inability to turn draws into wins in the early part of the season has, so far, cost them.
I’m not saying they don’t have that special something, they’re clearly a decent side packed with quality, but in these final stages you get tested in ways other than skill. You have to scrap, you have to fight adversity and as we showed in 2017, you have to refuse to lose. We did it against Swindon with nine men, but could Mansfield do the same? I’m not convinced.
Colchester I like, but they’re another side who might be a character or two away from full strength. They’ve got ability, yes, and they’ve now won their last two matches by an aggregate score of 7-0, but their 4-0 drubbing at Carlisle raised questions. If you’ve got that magic, that spirit, then when you go 1-0 down, or maybe 2-0 down you don’t fold like a napkin.
MK Dons are another side I don’t think have quite got there yet. My guess would be a blend of good players and the odd bad character. Chuks Aneke shouldn’t be in this division and at the start of the season he didn’t want to be. Danny Cowley says you can have one bad egg in a squad, but is there another lurking in the Dons dressing room? The got a win last night, but their collapse has been startling.
That brings us to Lincoln City. We had a spirit in 2016/17. We had that togetherness, on and off the field, but in particular the playing squad fought for each other. Remember Torquay and Gateshead, remember the 1-0 wins against Bromley and Chester that few do. It wasn’t all headlines and glamour, but we ground out results.
Honesty shout, I don’t think we had it as much last year. I believe one or two of the players were not the right characters and although we fought hard on the pitch, there didn’t quite seem to be that unison at all times. You’ll all have a player in mind who you think wasn’t a team player and I guarantee that there will be at least three different names in people’s heads. If you think one stood out, put his name in the comments, you’ll be surprised to see someone different appear below your choice. I’ll be surprised if it doesn’t.
That’s not to say we were poor or set back, but last season was transitional. We won at Wembley and made the top seven, which only serves to underline what might have been achieved if we’d landed the right players at the right time.
This season is different. This season I see a fight and determination once more. Case point, Notts County away last year. We had a man sent off at capitulated, losing 4-1. It was partly because Danny went adventurous, but maybe because something in the squad was lacking. In 2016/17 we won 1-0 with 10 men against Wrexham and survived Alan Power being sent off against Chester. This season, we lose two men at Swindon, lose one at home to Cambridge and another at home to Northampton. Did we lose any of those matches?
That’s why I think we’ll still go up, even though Mansfield have signed big players, even though we’ve drawn three on the spin and even though I convince myself in the deepest, darkest depth of the night that we won’t. As I lay there, my dog snoring at the end of the bed keeping my mind active and imagining a bloody play-off game against Grimsby, I should remember the spirit of ’17.
It’s alive and well and this year, it’s hopefully taking us to altogether new levels of success.