I love football, let me lead in with that so we’re absolutely clear. I became a writer through football, I held my own at school despite having a ginger mullet, because of football.
The biggest thing I bond with my Dad over is football and, when birthday cards pop through the post, many are football-themed. I love Lincoln City, I love football. There.
What I am not, on occasion, is a blindly excited fan. I do not wake up on matchdays always thinking how great the day will be. I don’t post ‘it’s football day’ most Saturdays and, if I’m brutally honest, the last few Saturdays have been great, time at home with my dog and Fe. That’s not always the case, but when we played Everton in the FA Cup I didn’t get all giddy beforehand, you may recall I came across as a bit of a Victor Meldrew before the game. I found beauty and passion in the result and performance, but sometimes I think I’m guilty of studying football too much and not always enjoying it.
Yesterday, as those who follow me on Twitter will know, something felt different from the minute I woke up. All week I’d secretly been wishing we didn’t have a game; Fe is away, Charlie (my dog) would be at home all day on his own, we’re having the bathroom done next week and I needed to prepare, I just could have done with the time. However, instead of being apprehensive when the alarm sounded at 6.30 am and I had to get up and walk him in the cold, I was buzzing.
If I get time, I’ll write about my away day experience this evening. Sadly, with everything I should have been doing yesterday, today is set to be a grueller and is likely to be as far removed from a normal Sunday as anything, but I’ll have a spring in my step and a smile on my face. Why? Because Lincoln City won. That’s right. Michael Appleton got his first away win as manager with, what I have to say, was a masterclass of tactical awareness.
Let us be honest for a moment; few seriously thought we’d win. Maybe, if you’re one of those who get excited about every game and always predict a win then you got it right, but the grounded amongst us didn’t feel there was a win here. A point, sure. That would have been a great result but my Dad reckoned a 3-1 defeat. I was predicting 1-1. I feel that Michael has put the team in a positive place and I thought we’d look to remain tight, but fluent going forward. Then I saw the team.
I like John Akinde, but I was shocked to see him replace Tyler up front. It wasn’t such a surprise to see Jack Payne miss out, seemingly Harry came in for him on the wing with Jake Hesketh through the middle. With Bozzy available, I figured he’d start, maybe even in midfield, by Michael showed great faith in Ellis Chapman alongside Joe Morrell.
What we had to do was weather any early storm; if Burton got ahead it could instantly knock our confidence and that was going to be key; stay confident. We’ve had a bad run and although the record book will show that, it felt very much like a fresh start for some reason. The break seems to have cleansed that run a little, sectioned it off and left us with a new task. Without spoiling any possible away day blog, there was a lot of positivity on the terraces; it felt very different to some games we’ve been away to this season. I wasn’t the only one truly feeling it yesterday and all we had to do was maybe stay in the game over the first half an hour.
Instead, within a minute or two we’d taken the game to Burton. Our corners have been poor recently with Grant often on the bench and not delivering. Harry Anderson has been on the fringes recently too. I suppose the football gods already had it in their mind to write the storyline. One corner led to Ellis Chapman trying a volley, deflected off for another corner. Grant whipped it in, Harry strode away from his ‘marker’ and produced a header any centre forward would have been proud of to put us 1-0 up. Early pressure, early goal. Like I said, everything was different.
For a side in the Championship the season before last it must have been a blow and the 2,000 odd home supporters were stunned into silence, or at least that is what I like to think. It’s a nice little ground, but it must have been a bit of a struggle when the likes of Villa or Leeds wanted to visit. I get the impression Burton Albion never expected anything much more than League Two football, but through good management and hard work they got it. Their squad certainly deserved more vocal support because for the next 43 minutes or so they looked like getting back into the game.
Stephen Quinn looked especially potent in the middle of the park, Lucas Akins (called Atkins by me for two years, uncorrected) had a decent header before ten minutes into the side netting as they began to control play. I say ‘control play’, what actually happened was they played some nice football, we eventually won the ball and quickly moved forward, often losing it for them to try again. It wasn’t frantic, it wasn’t end to end, but it had a feel of too and fro without anything serious for us to worry about.
I did tweet (after eight pints) that the referee was having a bad game. That was based on what I thought was a harsh yellow card for Jake Hesketh, seemingly cut down but booked for a dive. I felt Ben Toner was a bit too card happy and the odd decision was questionable, but nothing directly affected the outcome of the game.
The first evidence that Burton might be rattled came with Ryan Edwards’ booking on 26 minutes. We got a throw, went to take it quickly and Edwards prevented us from doing so, petulantly. Something we fans don’t always see is that frustration in close quarters and I wonder if the likes of John, Harry and Shacks were letting their presence be known. Shacks certainly had Akins wound up early doors as well; this was a more streetwise Lincoln to what we’ve seen under Michael Appleton so far. We were tougher, dare I say a little bit nastier. Yes, we had the guile and craft, but with a little more emphasis and the bludgeoning and directness.
Big John almost made it 2-0 on the half hour mark with a great effort which bounced back from the outside of the post. He was having one of those games which fans don’t always appreciate; putting himself about, tackling and fighting but not always getting chances. It’s clear why he started though; the Burton back line was changed by suspension and John was here to give them a real physical threat. It worked too.
Burton still looked the better side though and Josh’s save from Boyce’s effort reminded us how fragile a 1-0 lead is, especially for a team like us in desperate need of points. That need also manifested itself in some dogged defending though, Harry Toffolo right in the thick of a scramble just before the break. By the time 45 minutes were up, I felt relieved that for their general control of the game, Burton had nothing to show for it.
The second half played out very differently, the lads clearly benefited from a change of instructions. I was surprised to see them come out unchanged, but I suppose at 1-0 up there wasn’t any pressing need to make the switch. We had been second best, but we hadn’t looked under threat and perhaps the best chance of the game other than the goal came from John’s shot off the post. Was it that we’d become clinical and dangerous all of a sudden? I did hear that on the training day the other week, Michael had the players doing drills involving shots from outside of the area, something Ellis and John looked to benefit from in the first half.
We seemed much more composed in the second period, which is odd considering how we lost Jason Shackell to injury and were the away team defending a lead. The early pressure was ours, not really producing anything for me to write home about, but enough to ensure my heart rate didn’t go through the roof. I know this because my other half bought me one of these fitness watches for my birthday. I didn’t get any more stressed than I do walking my dog up the hills near us, which tells you everything about Burton’s attack being nullified and controlled by us.
David Templeton had come on and looked likely to be the creator for them, but a couple of good challenges from Neal let him know he was in a game. Burton did get forward, Akins and Templeton both trying their luck, but I never felt threatened. When we came out with the ball we were better in control, finding patterns of play that more often than not saw Harry Anderson getting away. His industry was first rate and I’d be hard pushed to pick anyone else as Man of the Match. He was a willing runner for the whole game, always offering an out ball and dangerously accurate with his own passing.
Much credit has to go to Morrell and Chapman too. I asked if Ipswich in the cup would be Ellis’ coming of age and I still feel it might have been. He didn’t look like the youth team player stepping up into the side, not for one moment. His passing was sharp, his tackling strong and he certainly looked comfortable with a Wales international at the side of him. With Burton operating a three in midfield the worry was we might get overrun, but those too showed composure, commitment and application.
As the minutes ebbed away, the game began to get stretched and I wondered how soon before we saw Tyler. Burton were having to come further out and John’s shift had been a good one, but he was blowing on around 75 minutes. The game did become a bit ‘end to end’, but when Burton attacked we blocked, tackled and defended stoically. When we attacked it was vibrant and with pace, often with Grant or Anderson’s neat interplay with their full backs to create space and time. Jake Hesketh had done an awful lot of running without much joy, coming off with five minutes to go to be replaced by Max Melbourne. Five at the back; time to defend.
John Akinde had just put a crunching tackle in on the edge of the area before he came off to rapturous applause, replaced by Tyler’s energy. Just as we were expected to defend, Michael put some real legs on up top. As the Brewers were hoping to ramp up the pressure, they were forced to deal with our threat instead. It was a great move by the manager and although some around me felt Tyler came on too late, it actually worked a treat. The board went up for four minutes and we were camped in their half, just where we wanted to be. The best form of defence is attack and we went on the attack. Harry ran into a corner and was hacked down by Quinn, who picked up the game’s sixth yellow card before Grant rattled the crossbar.
Burton swept upfield, it came to nothing and we powered back downfield, only our attack brought the winner. Harry Anderson (obviously) squaring for Tyler to put the game beyond doubt. Anyone who feels the players aren’t playing for Michael or don’t show as much passion might be wise to look at that celebration; pure ecstasy and emotion. The bench erupted, the players were pumped up and that feeling of utter joy spread right through me. This. Is. Football.
That moment is why we do it, why we get up at 6.30 am on a Saturday, why every new day is a new dawn of hope. That goal nestling in the net killed any lingering doubts of another late goal (Wimbledon, Ipswich etc) killing us off. For me, it showed Michael Appleton’s tactical nous from the bench, bringing on a threat for us late on when it should have been them pressuring. If he were a poker player, he played the perfect hand yesterday, from the robust nature of the first half to the planned changes in the second. The Imps had a game plan, stuck to it and as a result put a nice bit of daylight between us and the bottom three.
I’ve talked about key players, but another word on three; Ellis, John and Harry. There were some huge performances out there and nobody had a bad game, but those three stood out for me. Ellis for his maturity, for looking like the professional he is and not the exciting young talent he was. John for never giving up, for the strong physical presence he offered, but also the powerhouse he can be at the back.
As for Harry Anderson, it was a benchmark game for him. When a new manager comes in, there’s always a casualty, usually a hard worker too. Scott Kerr fell foul of Sutton and Tilson, Harry looked to be out of Michael Appleton’s favour. The manager proved it’s not about liking or not liking players, but making the right decisions for the right games and Harry showed his attitude is excellent. He’s been left out of games I felt he’d make an impact in and yesterday he showed exactly what he is made of. I’m delighted for him and hope now he kicks on and becomes a regular in a mid-table League One side.
I enjoy wins, I feel defeats but some I enjoy more than others and some hurt more than others. Yesterday wasn’t a ‘big’ match, it wasn’t one to clinch silverware or keep us up. It was a run-of-the-mill midwinter game that in the grand scheme of a season might not usually matter. Although you know, and I know, it was more than that. It was hopefully a mark in the sand, the start of the next run of games, the moment where some fans saw the facets to Michael’s management that made him a success at Oxford.
Football being football, anything less than a win next weekend at home might tarnish the achievement somewhat, but that was a big win. It was no fluke, not a freak result in a game they dominated. We showed at the Pirelli Stadium that we are a decent League One side and hopefully, we’ve turned a corner and can now shuffle a few places up the table, extending that gap between us and the trapdoor.