This is an odd report to write and I’ve got to focus on what happened before the final whistle went, not after. Up to and including the final shrill squeal from the man in the middle, last night was a good night for Lincoln City.
The game was one which caused worry and expectation in equal measure. Bolton, rock bottom of the division, have been the whipping boys for some time now. Early doors, they took five-goal pumpings each week, but recently they’ve got much better, not to a point where they’ll stay up, but enough to suggest they won’t be getting thrashed every week.
We were in the unenviable position of not having faced them yet this season. When you consider Rochdale have played them four times in league and cup, (average score 11-4) it’s quite unusual. Some might say we’re disadvantaged as they’ve had time to assemble a decent squad of players but, in fairness, we got them at a good time. Their January business hasn’t been done, some decent loan players have left the club and they looked a depleted side. In four week’s time they won’t be anywhere near as weak as they looked in the final twenty minutes last night.
For us, it was business as usual (for the last time probably). As we now know, it’s likely that we’ll lose another player or two before the weekend and so the unchanged XI, bar John-Jules dropping out for Harry Anderson, is a luxury for us. I know Bozzy is out injured and a few others are out of favour, but the starting XI looks settled and comfortable.
I think ‘settled and comfortable’ adequately described the opening fifteen minutes or so. Bolton didn’t look like they’d roll over and die, not one bit, but they lacked any serious threat up front. I thought Joe Doodoo and Daryl Murphy might be a physical threat, but in terms of running in behind they didn’t impress. Ronan Darcy, the youthful-looking 27, looking handy on the ball but despite them being composed they weren’t a threat.
Seven minutes in and we were predictably ahead. Harry Anderson, one of the early casualties of Michael Appleton’s arrival, was once again on the spot to nod home a wonderful Harry Toffolo cross. It was what you could now call ‘classic Appleton’ approach play, the neat passes and movement culminating in strong delivery and a wonderfully composed headed finish from a winger. Harry frustrates at times, but when he’s up against the right sort of opposition he thrives. Bolton tried three different players at left back last night and not one of them knew how to stop our H-Bomb from going off every time he got the ball (I might copyright that…).
Normally, if a side takes an early lead against Bolton, you expect there to be an avalanche of some sorts. I know after the game MA said he was happy with the opening half an hour, but I thought once we got the lead we sank back a bit. Our next big chance came from a Jorge Grant free kick on the left hand side which the keeper tipped over, but we certainly weren’t free-flowing. Conor Coventry looked to struggle a little in midfield and a few passes and touches started to go astray.
The atmosphere in the ground was odd as well. Despite the 617’s best efforts, there wasn’t much singing or even noise to speak of. It reminded me of Crawley at home a year or two ago, the game in which Lee Frecklington got sent off and I think we lost 1-0. Everything was flat, maybe it was expectation, I don’t know. The away fans made plenty of noise though but didn’t see efforts on goal from their side to feed their hunger.
Tyler Walker got a golden opportunity to put the game to bed almost on half time. A loose pass from one of their lads saw him clear on goal with what seemed like a bit of space, but he lashed an effort at goal for Matthews to parry away. That was pretty much the end of a rather tepid first half.
Around me there was a feeling that perhaps this felt like a home game from last season, rather than one under Michael Appleton. We’d been in control but not flowing, both sides had let passes go astray and neither had truly been on top. Yes, we’d had more chances and led, but we retreated a bit, passed backwards more than usual and just didn’t seem to be getting a foothold in the game. If I had to be critical, I felt Joe Morrell looked isolated in midfield, Coventry put himself about but didn’t get a lot of joy and Jake Hesketh struggled to make an impact. That’s not me saying they’re bad players, not one bit, but when two or three are not on their game then it shows.
On the plus side, Harry and Jorge Grant were both impressing and Cian Bolger had a strong game against a powerful centre half. Jason Shackell too, he’s got the experience just as Bolger has and Daryl Murphy is not an easy man to play against, even if he is closing in on pension age. On the flanks both Neal Eardley and Toff were turning in their usual strong performances, but we just lacked the cohesion going into the final third.
The back four were about to get a fresh challenge too: Chris O’Grady came on. I’ve seen him play against us for Oldham, Chesterfield and Rushden and every time he’s been utter dross. He’s still a big unit though and would give Bolger and Shacks something else to think about.