The Imps announced their return to the third tier with a comfortable victory yesterday against Accrington Stanley, with so much to wax lyrical about it’s a shame I couldn’t get to my keyboard earlier.
My day started with a visit to the new club shop in town and a first chance to soak up the summer sun on a proper matchday. It struck me how alive this city is with football support right now. Everywhere we went we saw Lincoln shirts, kids and adults, groups of lads too cool for a replica shirt but boasting a scarf or hat, something to mark them out as part of the phenomena.
The last time we played at home on the opening day, August 2015, I’m not sure the club shop will have sold ten shirts all day. Yesterday, just in the queue behind me, were 15 or so people clutching shirts, pillows, duvets and dog leads, all branded with the Imps’ logo.
It’s a wave of success that has just broken onto the beach of League One and we’re all grabbing our surfboards and heading back out for another ride. These are unchecked waters, it’s a level we’re perhaps a bit dubious about. We’ve been marked out by experts as a possible top six team, but from the inside we’re playing Danny’s game; keep the expectation low.
It’s not going to be easy if we play like we did yesterday most weeks; it was a completely different approach to our title-winning season.
I remember leaving the Colchester game having lost 3-0 but been crowned champions. Reading social media at the time, which is dangerous, I remember a comment along the lines of ‘we don’t play like Champions’. To a degree, I understood it. We didn’t string lots of slick passing together, it was functional. We didn’t always look likely to score when we poured forward, we just always had enough to win a game. That got us a trophy, but in 90 minutes yesterday we played as well in terms of entertaining as we did all last season.
The big shock for me was John Akinde and Bruno Andrade’s substitute places. Whether we played big John or not was always going to be one of the key decisions and I was certain Danny wouldn’t just sign a lad on the Friday and play him on the Saturday. What do I know, right? I also thought our jewel from last season, Bruno, was guaranteed a start. Again, I was wrong.
I was also surprised to see Michael O’Connor and Bozzy in the side; perhaps less so Bozzy. He’s been struggling pre-season but had to play in the absence of Jason Shackell. Mickey’s been out a couple of weeks as well but again, he was one we needed desperately. This new, slick looking roster we have is all well and good, but we need the grit and fight from last season. I think a few people were concerned we might lack it. If yesterday is anything to go by, we won’t.
We didn’t dominate proceedings, but we did control much of the play. Accrington are a good footballing side and they looked to be competent in their passing and quick on the move as well. With a referee keen to let the game flow, everything we setup for as good encounter, if we changed our approach. Boy, did we change our approach.
Coming away from the game I remarked how it was the best Lincoln City performance, in terms of passing, moving and slick football, since the heady days of late 2006 and John Schofield’s swashbuckling side. The new players have added the flair and movement our front three didn’t have last season. Again, this is criticizing last year because we won a trophy, we did what was needed. This was just different.
None of it would have been possible without a solid base and I thought both Cian Bolger and Mickey were excellent. Bolger, up since 1am the night before with a sickness bug, put in a commanding aerial display. He does remind me a lot of Ben Futcher, my heart flutters a little when he plays certain balls, but I’d never bet against him winning a header.
As for Mickey, he was one of my three shouts for Man of the Match. He did what he does best; he harried, chased, broke up play and was always providing the out ball for us the spring an attack.
The earliest sign of things changing for me came just before the ten-minute mark. Some lovely football between Anderson and Eardley saw the ball arrive at the feet of Jack Payne, my second shout for Man of the Match. He cut across the front of the area and fired wide of the post. Why was that so special? Because he wanted to shoot as soon as he saw the chance. Another complaint I’d heard from our title-winning season was a reluctance to shoot from range. That wasn’t entirely true when you look back at our highlight reels, but even so to rattle one off with just seven minutes of the new season elapsed shows what we’re aiming for this campaign.
From there one we were treated to a thoroughly entertaining game of football. Both teams played some nice stuff, Sean McConville is still every bit as involved as he was two years ago for Stanley and occasionally our defenders looked likely to gift a goal. One bit on confusion saw Bozzy miss a header, Bolger shepherd the ball back only for Vickers not to come and for us to end up conceding a corner. However, consider one of those players was ill, the other hasn’t had 90 minutes all preseason and the third, Vickers, was starting only his second competitive game since the middle of last season.
I thought the referee showed restraint not to send off Harry Toffolo. His 20th minute challenge might have been softer than it looked from my angle, but he looked late and high when he took out Sam Finley. Mind you, not long after I thought Grant’s lovely chipped ball into the area saw a foul on Tyler Walker, but again protests were waved away. Tony Harrington, predominately a Championship referee, was showing Championship quality and a certain leniency which made the game flow.
When Sean McConville clipped the bar with a free kick on the half hour mark, we were reminded of exactly how fine the lines are between winning and losing. We’d played well, lots of football on the deck, but one dead ball, dead centre, could have seen us go 1-0 down.
Nothing changed though. Jorge Grant was fill of flicks and tricks, all very easy on the eye. Tyler Walker was finding lots of little pockets of space ahead of him and Jack Payne was always willing to get on the ball and create. The final piece of the jigsaw, certainly yesterday, was my third pick for Man of the Match; Joe Morrell.
I’ve always liked a player who does dirty work in midfield and doesn’t get noticed; Alex Woodyard and Michael O’Connor two of those types. Morrell is a bit different because he does some class work in there, composed and cultured on the ball with a lovely judgement of passing speed and weight. He wasn’t always creating the shots or getting them off himself, but he added a wonderful balance to the central area alongside Mickey. Jack Payne will earn plaudits, the wingers will get the fans off their seats, but Joe Morrell will be a crucial part of our side going forward.
I’ll tell you who he reminds me off in terms of his play John Finnigan. He’s that kind of player, a proper old school ‘CM’ rather than new style ‘AM’ or ‘DM’. Do not underestimate how good he was yesterday, not one bit.
Before half time it was a typical Lincoln move that brought the opener. Jorge Grant, obviously a lad with top delivery, whipped in a corner and of all people it was Mickey who headed home. It was a goal made at Notts County, two former Magpie combining to score out first third-tier goal at Sincil Bank since Lee Thorpe scored against Wrexham in May 1999.
All afternoon the atmosphere had been sensational, even with a slightly lower crowd than expected thanks to the school holidays. Just under 9,000 is actually a great effort when you consider how many people will be away at the moment, but as that ball looped over Dimi Evtimov and into the net, it sounded like 19,000.
It could have been 2-0 not long after as we turned on the style once more, Harry Anderson nodding over from ten yards. Grant narrowly missed an Eardley cross before half time and Jack Payne flashed a volley wide from 25-yards. As the referee blew for half time, there was a sense of elation around me; not just because we were winning but because we were playing some truly lovely football.