How odd football can be in terms of the emotions it provokes. I came away from a 5-1 win in midweek feeling a little despondent thanks to other factors.
That led to me heading into yesterday’s game without a sense of belief. I felt we’d lose the game, or at least be given a short, sharp reminder of what League One is all about. Whilst we were letting three title-winners leave the club, two of which were strong candidates for Player of the Season this year up to this point, Blackpool were recruiting, heavily.
Gary Madine and Conor Ronan came in, neither started. They’ve got Jordan Thorniley, Marc Bola and Sulley Kaikai too, all top players at this level. Throw in defenders like Tilt and Heneghan, players pursued by bigger clubs, as well as the likes of Liam Feeney and Gnanduillet (from here on in known as the Big Lump) and in my eyes, you have a strong top four squad. This felt like a chance for us to be reminded of our place, the plucky midtable hopefuls who should be looking down and calculating, not up and speculating.
The truth is this: wherever we are in the league we’ll be either looking up or down. I’m not one who likes to promote things like ‘four points off the play offs’, but the nature of football is that which is closest, we’ll be talking about. Blackpool, on equal points going into the game, were not intending to look down at all. One month ago, after Coventry and Oxford, we weren’t planning on looking up.
I got a bit of a surprise when the teams were announced; no Madine in the XI, no Ronan in the squad and a few ‘big hitters’ on their bench. I really like Sulley Kaikai, he’s got game-changing potential, as has Liam Feeney, but players are only one half of the equation. Simon Grayson is a manager I’ve criticised a bit before and he’s a prime example of a club going backwards rather than forwards. Sure, sometimes it works as it did with Colin Murphy in 87/88, or even with Keith, but Blackpool are, in my eyes, a decent manager short of a top six spot.
I had the pleasure of covering the game from the press box yesterday and so got to mix with those members of the press who are happy to chat to me. The lads from LSJ Sports, the university site, are always good to mix with as is Alan Johnson, someone I feel I’ve got a decent friendship with after spending time together up there this year. Alan is a top lad and one I’d love to see covering the Imps on a local level one day. It’s also always great to get the insights of Chris Ashton; that man does not get enough credit for what he does. He was filling us all in with stats and facts on senior debuts, appearances and the like before we took our seats.
I certainly felt the visitors started the brighter of the two sides, with Feeney looking to get the better of Melbourne making his full Football League debut. His early cross saw Nathan Delfouneso head into the side netting, an early warning of what was to come. Blackpool are a big team, they’ve got what you’d consider being decent players to deliver into an ever-increasing number of lumps in the box. The Big Lump is an obvious target, as is Delfouneso, but with Madine and Nuttall to the object for them was clear; bombard.
That’s not to say they’re long ball, but they like to get it into the box once they’ve worked their way into the final third. I think that plays into our hands; our centre back pairing are more than happy to deal with big bruisers, perhaps more so than with tricky, quick players. For instance; I don’t think Bolger and Shackell would like to come up against a pair of livewires like John-Jules and Walker, but they’ll happily fight the Big Lump all afternoon.
The game seemed to be a end to end early on without serious chances, but before ten minutes were up the visitors hit the post. We’ve struggled defending corners recently; Sunderland and Ipswich scored from them, Bolton were close and again we almost let one in against the Tangerines. Their flicked on header hit the post and gave Josh Vickers a chance to claw the ball away, but it was an early let off. Football is a game of tight margins and ‘what ifs’ and if the ball had gone in, the game might have been very different.
With a quarter of an hour gone I felt we took control to a certain degree. Walker had a weak half-chance after some neat play, plus Neal Eardley fired over. Every week I see our patterns getting clearer and our football getting better. Also, although MA has said he doesn’t usually prepare for the opposition but concentrates on us, I see a difference week to week in how those patterns manifest themselves. Against Peterborough we were far more anxious to switch play and stretch the defence, but yesterday it was more about getting the ball into the front two to work chances. That said, when our golden opportunity arrived, it was a familiar pattern with unfamiliar faces.
The route down the left is tried and tested with Harry Toffolo, but Max Melbourne slipped effortlessly in as he combined with Jorge Grant and raced into the area after a lovely run around the back of the former Forest man. Jay Spearing, an experienced professional, lunged in a little wildly and Max went to ground; penalty. From my angle, I thought it was soft, but subsequent replays (and Bubs’ excellent photo) prove Spearing mistimed his challenge badly. Penalties are not really our forte though and Tyler Walker missed his third of the season. It wasn’t a terrible penalty, but it was savable and Matt Howard did just that.
If that was meant to be a body blow for the Imps, we didn’t get the script. Tayo Edun fired well over from the edge of the area, but that sparked him into life. Walker didn’t let the miss get him down either and his link-up play with John-Jules began to pay dividends. Harry Anderson wasn’t getting much change out of Marc Bola, but he never gave up trying. It reminded me of when you try to put a 20p in the car parking machine in town and it keeps spitting it out. Anderson just kept going in exactly the same way, but harder and harder until he finally started to get some joy. Eventually, the meter took his 20p, he beat Bola but found his pull back went just behind of a hungry Tyler Walker.
For every foray Blackpool made into our half, we went back in hard. It was an engrossing 0-0 draw, the sort that you felt might stay that way and we’d be talking about how entertaining it was despite having no goals. Another Feeney cross was headed off target, whilst John-Jules managed to fire a shot over the bar. The Arsenal lad settled nicely into his home league debut and had our best chance of the half on 36 minutes (aside, obviously, from a spot kick). Neal Eardley’s pinpoint delivery saw the youngster outjump his marker and loop a header towards goal, only for Blackpool keeper Howard to claw it away. The stopper was certainly earning his corn in that first half. Up the other end, the Big Lump slipped over and wanted a penalty, but referee Oliver Yates had none of it. Yates had a good game throughout to be fair to him, he let the contest flow and rarely put a foot wrong (apart from signalling advantage with one arm which confused me at times).
By the time we arrived at the break, my outlook had changed completely. Our young side competed in every area of the field and were the better team. My gut feeling was we’d lack a senior presence in midfield with O’Connor leaving and I didn’t feel Conor Coventry had quite shown enough to convince me we’d have enough cover. Tayo Edun completely dispelled my fear. He glides around the field with such grace and as he grew into the game he dominated the central area. Perhaps it took 15 minutes or so, but I remember him contesting almost every loose ball. Yes, he’s not the tallest but he became more dominant as the game went on. Alongside Joe Morrell, a future Premier League player if ever I saw one, he formed a frightening partnership. Knowing Coventry has more to offer and that we’ve got our own Ellis Chapman on the bench makes me a little more excited, even without lots of experience.
I felt Jorge Grant was doing well too. He’s a senior player now, young enough to satisfy Michael Appleton’s thirst for youth and legs, but with more senior games than many of his teammates. He’s getting better every week and how quickly he managed to link up with Max Melbourne was impressive. As for Max, he stepped into some very big shoes and never once showed himself to be an inadequate replacement.