It was an odd experience last night, soulless but pivotal in the Michael Appleton era I feel.
I say soulless because let’s face it; a half-empty Sincil Bank and disinterested opposition are something we saw all-too-often a few years ago. It got to a point where we weren’t even the big draw for the likes of Welling and Salisbury and many of our games felt the same as they did last night. Throw in the situation where we were almost certainly going out of the competition and you perhaps have the smallest crowd since the National League era.
It’s a shame really; I respect people’s decisions not to go and with other games coming up I fully understand why it was under-attended, but just like many of the games in the Wembley season, we were treated to a real spectacle which had a little bit of everything in it.
Returning hero as revered by the opposition as us? Check. Lee Frecklington came back to first team action after his prolonged spell out injured and although his performance wasn’t game-changing, he put in a decent shift. He’s bound to be a little ring-rusty and yet I can’t help but feel having him on the bench and around the first team squad will be a big bonus for us. I can see him playing a role this season; the Michael Appleton approach of quicker build up and midfielders pushing on suits Lee’s game much more.
Debut for a summer signing? Check. I was as surprised as anyone when Ben Coker stepped out on to the field and it is a massive step for him personally. I’m told Ben is a great character, full of life and energy and a good footballer to match. Like Lee, we didn’t see him at his best last night but how could we? He’s been out injured for a full year and was never going to be outstanding. He was composed enough though and I found his post-match revelation interesting; he got over his initial injury early in his Imps’ spell but picked up a groin strain after that keeping him out. It is refreshing to be given a clearer picture of where our players are in terms of fitness.
Fan favourite looking good in an experimental position? Check. I know Harry Anderson delights the same amount of people as he infuriates, but I was impressed with him at full back last night. Look, I know he’s raw in that position and knowing Harry he won’t want to play that far back, but he has the qualities to be a top wing back. He’s quick; we saw that last night, but he’s also bullish and strong. As a winger, perhaps he’s being controlled a little easier by defenders at this level, but as a wing back he has potential. I don’t think he’ll convert permanently just yet, but on last night’s outing, he is certainly an option.
Chance to see fringe players give the manager a headache? Check. Two really spring to mind here; John Akinde and Callum Connolly. Big John looked pretty devastating for spells last night, certainly in the first half. He looked fired up, making runs and using his bulk to get the better of defenders. He’s had a bit of a wake-up with Tyler Walker’s run of form, but last night I saw him as a viable option up top. Stroking the penalty home had the feel of an old pair of slippers for me; as he stepped up it was comforting to know that he rarely misses a spot-kick. Of course, had he not missed one in the first game against Doncaster we might have been going through, but had he not been on fire last night we wouldn’t have made such a good game of it.
As for Callum Connolly, I think the manager is going to find it very tough to choose Cian Bolger over him. Connolly has a bit of everything at the back; pace and presence as well as composure on the ball. It leads me nicely into my next bit about the quality of the opposition and allows me to bring Max Melbourne into the equation.
Rotherham started the game with four of the side that faced us in August present, as well as Jake Hastie and Jamie Lindsay who are regulars but didn’t feature against us. Michael Smith is a seasoned professional and a real handful and Freddie Ladapo signed for them for £500,000 in the summer, yet a player who arrived as a left back with no senior experience and a so-called stand-in defender kept them tied up all night. This might not have been the league, but those two had a poitn to prove to Rotherham supporters and the dynamic central defensive partnership we trialled stayed firm. Melbourne won’t be playing this weekend against Gillingham, but there’s compelling evidence to suggest Callum Connolly is in with a shout, not least because he got Thommo’s Man of the Match, the sponsors Man of the Match and, for what it is worth, my Man of the Match.
I know this wasn’t a full-strength Rotherham and I know the validity of the game will be brought into question. Some of their fans have called it a glorified friendly, but that’s easy to say once you’re out. Ladapo, struggling for form since his move, won’t have wanted to be rolled over 3-0. Paul Warne, eager to bring some form to his side in the league, will have wanted to see his side perform better.
They didn’t though and that was as much to our credit as it was their detriment. I have to say I haven’t been dismayed with our performances since MA took over; we play nice football and have bounced back from that 6-0 humbling against Oxford. I think that skewed the view the manager had of the side somewhat. He saw us at our very worst whereas we know that we’re capable of producing impressive performances under the right circumstances. Winning 3-0 against Rotherham won’t change the clubs future in real terms, but it’s a massive boost for the squad right now.
It’s hard to swerve around the fact we needed to win 4-0 and just missed out. I didn’t give us a hope in hell, that’s the honest truth. I imagined a close game with our reserves perhaps drawing 1-1. The early brace certainly fired us on, but at least we saw some goals go in. I never feel too worried when facing shots at home; I missed Oxford and haven’t seen us concede in open play in the league. In fact, the only two teams who have scored against us in open play at home (outside of Oxford) have been Manchester United (kids) and Everton. That’s not a terrible place to be in.
The conclusion here is that a low-key game watched by fewer fans than any other game in the last three years could well be a pivotal moment for Michael Appleton. Finally, his style of play has seen some reward. Not only did Tyler Walker bounced back from his penalty miss, but our other striker smashed a brace to remind supporters we do have an option upfront. If I’m being niggly, I think Jack Payne and Jorge Grant might have had one each as well, both need goals to lift their confidence, but that would be a harsh observation. For those who watch Strictly (I don’t) that was my Craig Revell-Horwood moment; pointing out the obvious negative in a sea of positives.*
We’re back in League One action this weekend against Gillingham in a game I see both as winnable and critical. They’re down near us and are ripe for the taking, but they’ll be organised and hard to break down. They don’t offer a lot going forward though and it’s going to be another tight affair with the odd goal likely to settle it. With three in the bank last night, I have a funny feeling the odd goal might just go to us on this occasion, giving MA back to back wins for the first time since he took over.