I found yesterday’s game to be a fascinating encounter between two sides focused on passing and creating, much like a game of chess. Each side poked, pulled and pushed to find a little crack to exploit.
What I found truly fascinating was some of the post-match reaction as well. I won’t be commenting on individual’s comments as you know (if you don’t know I’m avoiding reacting to social media in the strictest sense), but I was watching a different game to some people. I’ve seen words like ‘outplayed’ and ‘flat atmosphere’ and that surprises me, a lot.
Around the ground before the game did seem very quiet, but then I went into the press room around 1.30pm so perhaps missed it as tthe fan zone filled up. Everyone I spoke to prior to the game wanted to talk about Joey Barton, something I think really helps his team. All the focus, all the pressure, it’s all on him. Paddy Madden, Wes Burns, Paul Coutts; they can all get on with their game whilst supporters focus on the manager. It’s not the intention I’m sure, but it certainly works.
Callum Connolly got his first start for the Imps in the only change from what I’d consider to be our starting XI. We talk about injuries, players set to return and all that, but that side that started the game against Fleetwood is, in my opinion, our first XI. It’s harsh on Michael O’Connor, Cian Bolger and Bruno Andrade, but when an England Under 21 international signs on loan for a third-tier side, he’s going to play when he’s fit. Same with a full Welsh international in Joe Morrell.
I never got a flavour of the flat atmosphere. As the teams came out the rain began to belt down and maybe that gave some fans a bit of a damp outlook, but across in the Selenity Stand, all I could hear was noise, starting in the first minute and more or less continuing right through until the last. Maybe those in block 3 didn’t get involved as much, but the sound carried across to my position and made the afternoon feel very loud indeed.
It needed to in the early exchanges because as a spectacle, the game was flat. As you know I was live-tweeting for Football League World on my personal Twitter account and I think I covered shorts and sandals more than clear-cut efforts in the first half-hour. I also got bored of typing out the words ‘easily dealt with’.
It wasn’t a bad game as such; both sides moved the ball around well. Fleetwood did it better than us and I think Joey Barton’s post-match comments were about right. His side did give us an idea of what League One is like in terms of football, but we already knew what to expect as we’ve already won three league matches. Still, Fleetwood are a good side and the pre-match coverage I did pointed to that. They created the most chances in the division (up to yesterday) and they were the most solid.
That’s why it was no surprise they looked to control the game as they did. Paul Coutts has no right playing at this level, you could see he was a proper footballer (or as one of the youth team sat behind me described him ‘a baller’) and he had other decent players around him. Danny Andrew is a good full-back at this level, Harry Souttar is a giant at the back and Wes Burns was a constant threat too. Despite this quality, they created nothing outright.
Why? Because we were doing our job too. We won’t always have more possession, we won’t always be the team in the ascendency and that came to pass yesterday. Fleetwood were tipped by many, including me, to be around the top six this season and when I totted up our likely points I had this as a draw. The reasons why were on display for everyone to see; they play nice football. However, when it came to opening us up, they couldn’t do it. It wasn’t a lack of final ball or killer edge, it was because our players fought hard, always making sure they were on hand with a tackle, a header or a block. The very first effort of the afternoon was a testament to that; Josh Morris tried a drive from range and it was blocked before it entered the area.
That was a sign of things to come.
The visitors had the better of the opening 20 minutes, but that spell came to an end when Harrison Biggins fired over from 20-yards. They’d had plenty of the ball, but found themselves restricted to the odd half-chance or blocked effort. Eventually, they were going to start looking for different avenues to approach the game and when they did, we’d passed our first test.
Finally, we got our first effort at goal. Jorge Grant’s cross was headed straight at Gilks by Harry Anderson; it might not have been a clear-cut effort and even as Harry headed it I’m sure he knew it was too tame, but it was a start, something for the lads to take to heart. From there on in, I thought we began to really find our feet.
Callum Connolly had a slow start but once he got into the game his class showed. His distribution was excellent and alongside Morrell, I felt we had a real potent energy in midfield. Like them, we began to play side to side too. I don’t get the stigma attached to sideways passes at all. In this division you’ll see lots of it, defences are tight and organised and you have to shift from side to side to pull them apart if you can. It’s all well and good crying out for a forward ball, but possession can easily be lost that way and as the first 20 minutes showed if you don’t have possession it can take an age to win it back.
Josh Morris had a 20-yard effort flash wide, he was a player I was disappointed with in terms of what he offered. Obviously, as a Lincoln fan, I was technically delighted to see him offer a minimal threat, but he was one I thought would have been great for us had we gone for him in the summer. The former Scunthorpe man can be deadly at this level but he had a quiet afternoon.
One player who was not quiet was Jack Payne. He was all over the place, looking to move the ball left and right and even had an effort of his own saved by Gilks. He’ll get in amongst the goals soon but even if he doesn’t, he’s exactly what we need in that ten role. I did chuckle when I saw him get into a foot race with Harry Souttar though, it looked like a child chasing his Dad.
In one minute of first half action, we gave Fleetwood a glimpse of what League One is all about as well. If you want to be a success, your centre forward has to be clinical, decisive and available. I didn’t see that from Madden, nor Ched Evans in the second half. Tyler Walker is a different matter.
The first goal was a thing of beauty, a finely crafted effort that deserved to give any side the lead in a game. Jorge Grant found Harry Toffolo and the full-back delivered a cross tastier than a Full English breakfast at the Corn Dolly in Wragby. Tyler Walker thought so, he got ahead of Peter Clarke, the player I picked as a possible weak link for the visitors, and feasted on the delivery, turning a cracking header past Gilks.
Did we deserve the lead on the balance of play? Probably not, but we didn’t deserve to lose at MK Dons either. That’s football.
Scoring after 21 seconds on Wednesday night surprised many and bagging in similarly quick fashion after taking the lead knocked the stuffing right out of Fleetwood. They kicked off, their move broke down and a wonderful ball by Callum Connolly found Walker getting away through the middle. He outpaced Clarke and right back Lewie Doyle to fire past Gilks.
Connolly’s ball should not be underestimated. In the last season or two, it might have been called a long ball, but it was far from that. It was a lovely, placed pass right into the danger area, crossing the path of a striker who feeds constantly on those sorts of deliveries. A delicious ball and a tasty finish made this a moment to savour.
Fleetwood needed half time to arrive and I thought we had our best spell of the game after the brace. Walker clearly frightened the life out of Clarke and he constantly looked for space in behind. The best chance of the remaining minutes fell to Connolly, his head was close to connecting with a wicked Jorge Grant delivery just before the two sides went in for half time.
The whistle delighted me; I’d needed the loo since the fifth minute of the game but as I was on official duty, I couldn’t just get up and go. I know now why I’ve never seen Michael Hortin with a cup of tea before the game, let alone two cups and two pints of coke.