For many, many years I went away with Lincoln rarely witnessing what I’d call a classic. More often than not we were beaten, comprehensively, without any chance of coming home talking about the positives.
Remember 5-1 against Peterborough in 1997? Losing at Rotherham on the opening day of the so-called Magnificent Seven era? Losing the opening day at Rotherham in the relegation season? Going to places like Southend, Rochdale, Doncaster or Gillingham knowing, actually knowing we were going for little more than a day out?
Those days are gone for now, are they not? My last two away trips have been MK Dons and Rotherham and, to put things simply, they’ve been two of the best on the road with the Cowley Brothers. I’ve seen them described as two of the top five with Burnley, Forest Green and Ipswich, but who could forget Coventry at the Ricoh? Or even Port Vale last season?
Yesterday was a benchmark for us. I only spoke to two people before the game who predicted an Imps win. My mate Pete, ever the optimist, and a blog fan called Johny Burrows who confidently suggested we’d win by two goals. I had to chuckle, I do love optimism but I prefer to keep a foot in reality. These days it’s hard to know which is which.
The fact is this; last season Rotherham played in the Championship, where they regularly faced Leeds, Aston Villa, Derby County and Middlesbrough. We played in League Two, where Stevenage, Macclesfield and Cambridge all held us at home. We come from two different backgrounds, dare I say similar sized clubs who have been on very different trajectories. It felt like we were David going into Goliath’s back yard.
In truth, that was perhaps as much a part of Danny’s plan as anything. Yes, they’ve got a decent squad but they’re a team very much in transition. Yes, they’re expected to be at the top of the table but a large portion of the national media have us in the same spot. Maybe, just maybe, that psychological inferiority we took into the game helped make this day seem even more special.
I drove my Dad to Pete’s, who lives 15 minutes from Rotherham, then we headed into the town. Before I talk about the game, I have to say as an away day, Rotherham is really good. There are plenty of pubs, most clearly displaying ‘Home Fans Only’ signs, and even the car parking is plentiful. We found a car wash that clearly wanted to make a few quid on the side, paying £3. It meant we had a great getaway afterwards as well, knowing how long it took to get out of the car park next to the Cutlers Arms in our League Cup tie.
The town is as alive with support for their club as our city is at the moment. Even at lunchtime there were red shirts all over the place and we settled into a decent pub surrounded by home fans. There was plenty of police, but no threat of trouble, not really. We later went up to the Bridge Inn and although the atmosphere was great as it was fill of 617, it was perhaps the biggest dive I’ve ever been in. My Dad, who needs the loo approximately once every half pint, said the facilities were filthy. The barmaid dithered so much I wondered if she’d accidentally walked behind the bar on her way home from buying (and taking) a huge quantity of horse tranquiliser and I spent my time in the beer garden leant on a scrapped fridge. Welcome to Rotherham?
No, that would be unfair. For instance, the ground impresses me whenever I go there. I’ve decided it’s managed to retain some character despite being a new build. I’m not sure whether it’s the differing heights of the stands, the rounded floodlights which add some identity to it or its place on a little island. It feels like a ‘proper’ football ground and I’m told is the only new build to be closer to the town centre then the old one in the entire country.
My only gripe is the unsuitable concourse, one that makes getting a pie and coke nigh on impossible. Still, it’s got character and I like that.
It was a decent crowd, buoyed of course by our amazing travelling support. Considering where the two teams came from, it was interesting to hear that their home attendance was around the same as ours last weekend and what nudged it up to a five-figure number was the travelling support. 8,400 odd home fans is still good for this level and when that ball finally got rolled to a player to get us underway, it felt like a third-tier game. It was loud in our end, they made a bit of noise and all around the ground looked relatively full.
These are the days we exist for; this is what lower league football was all about. Two well-supported ‘smaller’ clubs proving that real supporters and local pride are still every bit as important in the game as money, television and the Premier League.
The first 40 minutes only served to underline the different backgrounds we’d talked about pre-match. We weren’t playing badly, but the home team were certainly in the ascendency. They probed all around our 18-yard area without finding any real space to expose. When they did get efforts at goal they were often crashed in from long range, but even then they came close. Matt Olosunde, who won the Man of the Match for the Millers, flashed an effort wide. Ladapo, £500,000 of striker, hammered one over.
We didn’t create a clear-cut chance in those first forty minutes or so. We were never over-awed, it was just a tense battle between the Championship wannabes and the ‘happy to be here’ underdogs from the basement division. That was how the game felt to me, the plucky battlers keeping the bigger side at bay.
In truth, there were signs that things were going to change. Ladapo’s yellow card for a foul of Toff gave us the first glimpse of their frustration, with a few other heavy knocks coming in from their lads, one on Harry Anderson just after the hour mark looking like a clear foul. Don’t get me wrong, we gave as good as we got in that respect.
With just three minutes left of the half my Dad decided to brave the queues for a drink. He disappeared down the stairs just as a quick free-kick was rolled into the path of Tyler Walker. He’d been busy all afternoon, struggling to get a break but always industrious. He strode away from the defender, rifled a shot across goal and saw it turned into the net by the unfortunate Shaun McDonald. David powers a stone from his slingshot right into Goliath’s eye.
It prompted pandemonium in the away end and one lad ended up over the first set of barriers and onto the ground behind the advertising hoardings. I’ve since been told that is an offence worthy of being ejected and the rules are clear, but I hadn’t seen that myself. It took eight or nine big Show Sec men to drag him out of the ground, pulling him back out of the crowd and manhandling him to the floor. It wasn’t nice to see and maybe, just maybe a degree of common sense could have been shown.
Everything changed after that moment. Within a couple of minutes, it could have been 2-0, Jack Payne wriggling away down the right and landing a cross on the head of Jorge Grant, who saw Iversen hold well. Despite a late scare from Joe Mattock’s free kick, we went in 1-0 up at the break.