Last night, not for the first time, I got called a pessimist for predicting a 1-0 Imps’ defeat on Twitter.
In my defence, right up until the team selection, I thought we’d see a draw when Rotherham rolled into town. They were always going to come at us, want to win the game and in turn, that would leave us spaces in behind. I felt we’d get an expansive, entertaining game of football with plenty of drama and excitement and I don’t think I was wrong. Most people I spoke to before the game tended to disagree.
My Dad disagreed. In town before the game, he even told me he was thinking of not renewing his season ticket. He will, but he likes to say stuff like that because he knows it winds me up. He did feel we’d get beaten easily though and he had the same apathy about him as he did prior to the Everton game in the cup.
In fact, all around the ground, it was the first time I felt a real drop in expectations. Few expected us to put in a big performance against Paul Warne’s side and even fewer expected us to take anything from it. That may just be because I surround myself with people who are equally, if not more pessimistic than I, but I suspect three defeats in a row has led to a bit of ambivalence towards the recruitment plan and the direction in general.
Not that we haven’t been warned there will be ups and downs. Michael Appleton has made it very clear we’re a work in progress and that patience is going to be key. Oxford fans have told us it takes time for the Appleton method to work, but when it does success will follow. Deep down, we can see what he’s trying to do and why. Some refuse to believe it will work, others seize on the chance to feed into the negativity that invariably follows a defeat. Me, I prefer to assess each game on its own merits and try to keep one eye on the bigger picture. With that in mind, I felt last night had plenty for us to be positive about, if not points or goals.
Sadly, points or goals are what gets you up a league, but let us put that to one side for now, certainly in the context of last night, and talk about purely about the game.
I did change my mind about the score when I saw the teams for two reasons. They seemed to opt for (9/02 edit: there is some deliberation about this. It looked like a three in practice but I’m told it was a four) three at the back and wing-backs either making it a flat five at the back or a dynamic five in the middle. As you know, I often talk down our winger’s ability to play against such a system, especially Harry, who can’t use his arsenal when closed down into a tight space. It was a really smart move by Warne, especially as he hasn’t operated that way in recent weeks; it’s the level of awareness that became a hallmark of our success over the last three years. Also, and this isn’t me looking for a scapegoat, but I didn’t feel playing Hesketh as a ten behind John-Jules was necessarily a good way for us to get on the scoresheet.
I’m aware that my feelings towards Hesketh’s performances differ wildly to some, but I genuinely don’t see what he adds to our attack apart from ‘running around a lot’ and ‘trying hard’. Whilst those are virtues I admire, they have to be complemented by something else, like assists, goals, passing accuracy or a range of other abilities I don’t feel I’ve seen him display. Maybe, just maybe, I’m being harsh. Maybe it’s just that I feel Hesketh (0.72 shot assists per 90 minutes this season, 28.5% shot accuracy) isn’t as effective in the ten role as Jack Payne (1.18 shot assists per 90 minutes this season, 33.5% shot accuracy). If only there was a way to tell.
That’s why as Martin Coy (more on him shortly) blew to get the game underway, I was not at all confident. A little over two hours later, as I made my way back to the car with my Dad, I did not expect to feel hugely positive about what I’d seen, nor did I expect to hear so much positivity from people also walking back to their cars. Especially not as we lost the game.
The early exchanges were pulsating, with both teams clearly being buoyed on by the great atmosphere in the ground. I spoke glowingly of the Portsmouth fans ten days ago and I can do the same for Rotherham. Okay, they haven’t travelled as far and they weren’t as loud, but they certainly played their part in making it an exciting and atmospheric night. Both teams had half-chances before the quarter-hour mark, which is when we should perhaps have taken the lead. Jorge Grant met Harry Anderson’s cross with a strong header which was clawed away by Daniel Iversen.
15 minutes later, after more action at both ends, we definitely should have made it 1-0. Liam Bridcutt and Jake Hesketh were involved in getting the ball across goal to Harry Anderson. unmarked but stretching slightly on the edge of the six-yard box. Iversen was beaten, the defence were beaten and all we needed was for the effort to be on target to go 1-0 up. Sadly, it flew over.
The game continued to ebb and flow and we never looked overawed. They’re a big side, Matt Crooks in midfield looked like an adult playing in a kids game, such is his size and stature. However, Liam Bridcutt’s steel in midfield was a big positive for us and if he continues to play that way, we’ll finally be competitive in that area against after a couple of weeks of being lightweight. Up front, Michael Smith is a bruiser too, but Cian Bolger dealt with his threat superbly all night. Bolger might not be the player you want passing out from the back, but he’s wonderful in the air and for me, has had a solid season.
Sure, Rotherham looked more composed at times. They knew how to choke us, pressing high to prevent us playing out and looking for their defenders to gobble up anything Vickers punted long. Tyreece John-Jules looked isolated to me, he contested most balls in the air, but rarely won one. Hesketh struggled when we went long, as did Grant and Anderson, which meant we were forced to play out more and more. That’s where Bridcutt came in, certainly in the first half. Instead of it being Vickers, to Shackell, then either punt and back to Vickers and punt, Bridcutt offered a viable link between the back two and the midfield. It led to a few decent attacks and in my eyes, making it difficult to distinguish who was top of the league and who wasn’t. Luckily, we had the Rotherham fans to occasionally remind us.
Things broke down a bit on 32 minutes, not least because Martin Coy, the referee, decided he wanted to be a big part of the action. Jorge Grant was fouled and, as he went down, he was clearly kicked hard between the legs. The linesman didn’t see it and Grant reacted furiously. Coy wanted to chat to Grant but it wasn’t entirely clear as he seemed to point to their offended. Petulantly, Grant stood fifteen feet from the referee, so he called Shackell over. It was all pathetic, from our player and from the ref. The fact is Grant was on the end of a nasty stamp and it wasn’t the first; Rotherham spent ten minutes or so kicking anything that moved. it looked like frustration, but the referee didn’t deal with it. Max Melbourne picked up a booking for a challenge, the like of which we saw three or four times from the visitors with no punishment.
Half time arrived with no addition to the score, but plenty of positivity in the stands. Everyone around me was chuffed with how we’d played, pointing to Bridcutt as an obvious difference, but also citing Grant and Morrell as key players.