The second half was different, in no small part due to the conditions going against us. Gillingham went more direct, as you’d expect, especially on set pieces. I don’t like us defending set-pieces at the best of times, but their delivery was right under the crossbar, time and again. When they got a throw, it was straight into the mixer and we had to be brave and strong. There were a few worrying moments, but nothing clear cut enough to make the highlights, which is a testament to how much of a difference Bozzy made.
I can’t stress this enough Michael: sign him up for next season. Please. I think I speak for all Imps’ fans when I say that.
We did get the odd half-chance, Scully might have done better after a break by Jorge Grant, but he fired tamely into the keeper’s arms. I still can’t be critical of the lad though; he did drift out of the game a bit in the second half but at least he had been in it at some point. He’s terrier-like and will keep plugging away to get the results. Eventually, he’ll bag a few for us I think.
Our cause was helped when Harry came on for Hesketh. Jake had been ok, but his input only came in very small doses. Harry, much more direct and physical, suited the opposition and gave them a bit of something new to think about. He tries to beat players and looked to be back to his pacey self after a week or two struggling for form. He had a header over and later drove a decent effort at goal as well. I have to say, if he does find form again for us he can be a real game-changer.
Between our forays forward, Gillingham got those set pieces in and occasionally threatened. I’ll be honest and I may get shot down by some of their fans for this, but I never felt they were going to score unless we shot ourselves in the foot. With Bozzy back, I couldn’t see that happening. Even when John Akinde came on.
Evans’ decision to leave Akinde on the bench was (sadly) clever management. From the start, John can be a handful but he was always going to be the focus of attention. Taking him out of the firing line for the first half meant his introduction had far more impact. There were a few boos when he emerged from the bench, but a loud round of applause too. I didn’t do either; I have no reason to boo John but I wasn’t impressed with some stuff that happened when he left either. As far as I was concerned he was just another opposition player coming on.
He had as much impact for them as he did for us in some of his darker times though; little to none. The expected goal, the one everyone kept telling me he would score today, never came. I was told in the pub before the game that he was 100/1 to score a hattrick. Those odds must come from a bookie who likes playing it safe, I could have offered you a thousand to one and not worried once. A goal for John never looked like coming. Like Tom Hopper, whenever there was action in the penalty area he seemed to be a few feet away from it. Seems we did get a like for like replacement after all.
Not long after he came on the referee got another challenge all wrong, but Steve Evans omitted to talk about this one. Barry Fuller hit Jorge Grant with a horror challenge, just like Hesketh’s in the first half, and got away with a booking. That is consistent I suppose, unlike Evans’ recollection of events after the game. The resultant free-kick was poor. In fact, Jorge Grant didn’t deliver well much yesterday, he looked a little out of sorts. He didn’t play badly, but he’s been seven or and eight most weeks recently and yesterday he was maybe a six-and-a-half.
I’ve been critical of Hopper, with good reason, but he showed what we can eventually expect when creating a chance for Harry late on. Okay, it wasn’t scintillating football or anything, but his involvement led to Harry’s header being clawed away desperately by Jack Bonham. On another day, that’s the moment we snatch three points and (realistically) League One survival. Instead, it remained 0-0 and Gillingham had another round of corners.
The game exploded in the dying seconds. A loose bit of skill from Liam Bridcutt left Tayo Edun and Hanlan tussling for the ball. We came away with it, Hanlan got in Edun’s face and the referee quickly brandished a yellow card to each. All around me people said Edun had already been booked, but the official seemed to forget that. I have to say, from what I saw, Edun was harshly booked given some of the challenges the ref let go; the same goes for his first yellow. Had the rather embarrassed official realised he’d already book Edun, would he have sent him off? I’m not sure, but it was a very weak decision for me.
That set us up for a firey few minutes and Gillingham were incensed when Bozzy floored Charles-Cook with a challenge right in front of their dugout. It drew a yellow, but it didn’t look like the horror challenges from Fuller or Hesketh. The resultant free-kick was dealt with by Josh, who minutes later bravely challenged Akinde to win a free-kick. Josh has taken some stick of late, but he had a decent game in swirling wind.
Tom Hopper might have snatched the game for us in the last seconds, but Bonham made an easy save and the game finished 0-0.
Some of their fans on social media have criticised us for setting up for a draw, our fans have had a pop at them for negative dinosaur football. Our fans are being a bit rich there; Gillingham did what I suppose we did all last season. They moaned about everything but were as ‘bad’ as we were last season in their approach. They were strong and direct but did play a bit of football here and there. Their manager and assistant harassed officials and were constantly berated. The difference is, we won trophies doing it, so maybe did it a bit better.
After the game, Michael Appleton made some comments about Evans which doubtless endeared him to our fans even more. My Dad even raised an eyebrow when he heard them on the way home. Let’s be honest, there isn’t a manager in the Football League I’d back in a fight over Michael Appleton, not one. To see Evans shrink away was special, to hear Appleton dismiss him so off-hand had me whooping in delight as I dropped my old man off. It also proved me right in the build-up; having a villain in Evans and a focus in Akinde took a lot of pressure off our players. I felt the same I think last season after we drew with Northampton Town. Hopefully, when we travel to Tranmere in a couple of weeks time, we can find the same spirit because a win there will ensure safety in my eyes.
Yes, we got a solitary point rather than three. Yes, we’re still technically in a relegation battle and yes, we’re without a win in seven. However, I can still see where we’re going. The players Michael signed in January are largely improving; Tayo Edun was excellent until the red, Anthony Scully has flashes of skill and persistence that will be a huge asset and Conor Coventry looked assured and calm. Signing Liam Bridcutt shows the manager knew where we lacked a bit of quality and with Bozzy next to Bolger we had a solid defensive pairing for the first time in weeks.
I do have question marks over some; Jake Hesketh tries but I’m not convinced he’s better than Jack Payne, Tom Hopper is taking time to settle, but then so did Tom Pett two years ago and Cian Bolger last season. We’re clearly missing a centre forward, even with Scully, something we couldn’t get around in the winter window. Perhaps, if this was a 24 team league and everyone started on equal points, we’d be really nervous, but it’s only history that fuels our fear now, not reality. Neutrals don’t think we’re in a relegation battle. They think our season is just set to peter out to nothing, a big achievement when you consider what we’ve had to deal with since early September.
Circumstance has granted us breathing space at the bottom. It’s given us a great window to remodel, rebuild and evolve without a serious threat of the drop. We’re not safe and I wouldn’t be as arrogant or blinkered to claim otherwise, but we are a damn sight closer to safety than we would be any other season. We have to embrace that, welcome this point and move on.
To finish, we have a break next week and the last time Michael Appleton had two weeks to drill his team, rather than focus on opposition, we strung a great run together. I’m supremely confident that he’ll do the same again, that we can get a result against Burton here and then go away to Tranmere and end these lingering doubts about the drop. The future might be foggy for some, but I still believe we’re in good hands.