I couldn’t do a preview of today’s rewind game, because back then I didn’t do one either. I’d been to my first Football Blogging Awards one day before, then rushed back home ready for this game and my 38th birthday.
I did make sure I wrote about it though, so if you’ve just watched the game back, here are my thoughts post-match from a game which will forever be a part of Imps’ legend.
‘We won’t let anybody run away with this league’ – the words of 91st-minute goal hero Sean Raggett, still reverberating around my head like the noise from those 345 Imps fans when his header hit the back of the net. Forest Green 2, Imps 3 and such a turnaround from the first 60 minutes or so.
Village Green could have been twelve points clear by tea time, looking at their fixtures they’ll be lucky to still be top by Christmas now. The smug and instantly unlikeable Mark Cooper went from a self-confident manager oozing belief to a broken and sour-faced man facing reality. Danny Cowley didn’t once let his mask of absolutely concentration and humility drop. Not until it was 3-2, he affords a smile then. So he should too, he had masterminded THE result of the day. Top v Second in terms of current league position, but by May, who knows?
The game didn’t really go Lincoln’s way for a good thirty minutes. I thought we looked narrow and at times only able to play in the first two-thirds of the pitch, with no real route to their eighteen-yard box. Rheady dropped deep and did what he does, win balls and lay them off. Arnold and Anderson were full of running, but aside from one snap-shot from Theo Robinson, we had nothing to show for our endeavours. Even worse we looked frail at the back, and their goal only served to prove that. There shouldn’t have been space for the cross to come in, and then their centre forward had a free header. Give Matt Rhead that chance and he makes it 1-0 as well, it’s what good players do.
I’m not taking anything away from Village Green, they look like a side that has had money spent on them, and sensible money too. Noble in the midfield is critical to them, but I could see Woodyard winning their battle. Woodyard isn’t a player who looks nasty and intimidating, but he stuck to Noble like faeces to a blanket, and you could see their midfielder getting more and more irate. At the back, Pinnock and Carter looked really solid too, and I thought their boy Racine had an awful lot to offer. They’re a good side and if you finish above them this season I virtually guarantee you’ll be champions.
I’m not agreeing with criticism of Theo Robinson first half, I think our style of play made him look lost. He does have the first touch of a squash racket at present, but he is a willing and able runner. Somewhere in his career, he’s had something happen to really knock his confidence. He may have played championship football, but that is probably the modern-day equivalent of League One. The National League isn’t just full of gangsters and thugs anymore, there are teams like Village Green who believe (somewhat amusingly) their players are Championship standard. Theo needs to gain his personal confidence and there’s no better place to do that than in a team unbeaten in 11 matches.
It is understandable when players get a lashing on social media though, and I don’t think the whole ‘fickle’ fans thing is as predominate this season. I read a lot of angry stuff on Facebook around half time, and I can understand why. We had played badly, we were on TV and everyone so desperately wants Lincoln to do well. Football is a game of opinions and whilst I don’t always agree with some I understand why people have them.
In the first half, we had a free kick from the flank and our boys ran into each other when taking it as if they were confused. The commentators picked it up and said it lacked concentration, but we know that’s wrong. It’s a well thought out and useful routine which puts defenders slightly at ease before a quick delivery. Anyone doing their homework on Lincoln would know that. BT hadn’t done their homework though, they were here for the VGR win. Gary Brabin certainly was.
I’m not sure many people do their homework though, not like Danny and Nicky. Mark Cooper spoke about ‘two contrasting styles’, and how Lincoln were a direct side. He is right in a way, Harry Anderson was incredibly direct straight after the restart. He got his head down and ran. I know Cooper thinks it’s all long balls to Matt Rhead, but I’m afraid (and I can only write this because I’m an unofficial blog), that’s bollocks. We can be direct in that we play diagonal balls from one flank to the edge of the area, but it’s a long way removed from the ‘danger alley’ style of the mid-nineties. We play football, quick pressing football with skilful and willing runners who work hard. That’s not the direct Cooper alluded to at all. Do some research mate.
He did research our Marsh-Brown curse though and against the run of play, it was their classy talisman that struck a heartbreaking second on 65 minutes. Since their goal I thought the game had dropped in quality a bit, VGR seemed to slow down a bit. We had come out looking lively, but that left us exposed at the back. Marsh-Brown should have added another but Bradley Wood got back and stopped him smartly.
Their sucker punch second goal looked to really kill the game off. Marsh-Brown had too much space on the edge of the area, granted. Alan Power got out well to him, but was unlucky to see it go through his legs and just evade Farms.
At that point, like most of you I felt absolutely gutted. We hadn’t been at our best, we hadn’t really looked like scoring and with Harry Anderson off the pitch I felt we’d forfeited one of our biggest threats. I even had another beer knowing I had a full day ‘on it’ celebrating my birthday, but those celebrations would be muted by Village Green going twelve points clear. Deep down though I still thought we had something in us, that special character that’s slowly been building over a period of time.
So what happened next? I don’t need to go through the facts I know, but once again our ‘direct style’ paid off as Nathan Arnold got the ball at his feet and ran directly at their defence. Mark Cooper later called out midfielder Noble for making a mistake and I think that is unprofessional in the extreme. By all means kick his arse in the dressing room, but in front of TV camera’s? That’s the sort of reaction that can trigger a bad run of form. That’s the sort of thing a classy manager doesn’t do, someone like Danny Cowley for instance.
Arnold got his head down, twisted and turned and proved why he is one of our most outstanding players before his shot landed at the feet of our England C captain. Goals aren’t a part of his game, but he made no mistake with a side-footed finish. 2-1, game on.
It was nearly game over for my Dad’s budgie. I was watching the game at his and when we scored obviously my old man and I both leapt up and screamed at the top of our voices. Billy (the budgie) flew out of his cage and made a bid for freedom, heart pumping like it was going to burst. It took much coaxing and stroking from my old man to convince his fluffy companion the world wasn’t ending.
From there on the game turned, but not before we saw exactly why Paul Farman is one of the best keepers in the league. A Gordon Banks-esque save meant going into the last five minutes we were still in with a shout. It’s a shame that wasn’t on the highlight reel on YouTube I just watched for the 150th time, because the magnitude of that save should not be under-estimated, it was technically excellent.
89 minutes, 2-1 down against the runaway league leaders and we get a throw in a good position. Bradley Wood launches it towards Matt Rhead, it drops just below waist height and his exquisite back heel drops for Luke Waterfall of all people. His volley was simply struck too sweetly and too powerfully for the VGR keeper to keep it out. 2-2, and from there I could only see one outcome.
I turned to my Dad and immediately likened Matt Rhead to another player I used to (almost) idolise who played in red and white stripes: Matt Le Tissier. You see Le Tiss had this laid back approach that often attracted calls of laziness or a lack of fitness, but you could always bet he’d have something up his sleeve, just like Rheady. When you really think about it an audacious back-heeled flick on 89 minutes when you’re 2-1 down could be seen as showboating, but it wasn’t. It was measured, it was précise and it was intended.
The more I thought about it the more I think he is like Le Tiss. He can often appear to not be involved or not be running through walls, but at no point is he actual switched off. Every time the ball went to him yesterday he effortlessly brought it down and looked where to move it on to. Okay, he didn’t go on blistering runs, that isn’t what he does. Matt Le Rhead almost plays walking football when he has the ball at his feet, he only breaks into a run when he needs to keep up and around play. He’s intelligent and measured, and he knows every little trick in the game. Le Tissier used to like to wind up the opposition and get under their skin, and Le Rhead has it down to a fine art. He wrote the book on wind-ups and on playing the pantomime villain.
What he also did yesterday (in almost every single instance) hold the ball up and find the feet of a Lincoln player. Luke Waterfall finished that goal, but Matt Le Rhead’s intelligent and outrageous flick laid it on for him.
Five minutes left and as the camera panned around to Danny Cowley, we saw him urging the team to press. Press. Press.
They pressed, forcing a corner with Sam Habergham landed on the head of Sean Raggett with pinpoint precision. The young defender rose like a salmon, powering the ball into the net with the power of a V8 engine. Boom, 3-2. Game over.
By now my Dad’s budgie had got used to me screaming so loudly my throat seemed to rip open and the fires of hell came out of it. Last week it was to snatch a valuable point against Aldershot, but this week was different. This week we went to the very best that this league has to offer, and we turned them over. It wasn’t easy, there’s no denying that. We weren’t at our best, there’s no denying that either. That makes the situation even more frightening for the opposition. We turned over the champions-elect in their own back yard, and we’re only running at 70% power.
There were a lot of reasons we won yesterday. Character, which I mentioned last week is a vital component of where we are and what we want to achieve. I think we had good knowledge of the opposition and awareness to press hard when they went to five at the back, as they began to lose a bit of the shape that had perhaps helped them amass a two-goal lead.
We won the game because our goalkeeper pulled off a worldy save when he was called into action, and because our full backs didn’t stop running despite having a rough first forty five minutes or so.
We won the game because we have goals all over the pitch, even young Alex Woodyard, fresh from 180 minutes of football inside just less than seven days had the sense and energy to follow that run of Arnold’s into the box.
We won the game because in Luke Waterfall and Sean Raggett we have two top quality National League defenders who offer a threat at one end and mostly offer a solid gate of defence at the other end.
We won yesterday because we believed. We believe as fans, they believe as players and no matter what they say Danny and Nicky believe as managers. They know we’re on to something at Lincoln City, they know their model is working and they know we’re in touch with the leaders approaching the Christmas run-in.
The matches don’t get easier, and results later on in the afternoon went to show that this was simply three more points in a quest to attain football league status. We don’t get more for beating VGR (although arguably we did stop them getting three too), we get three points, three goals and we move on to York City on Tuesday. York lost again yesterday and seem to be struggling through a mire, and we’ve already handed Sean Newton a defeat once this season, but football is a funny old game and we must not let belief turn into complacency. I know the staff and officials at the club won’t, be we mustn’t as fans either.
However, we are genuine title contenders now. We’ve beaten the best this league has to offer on their own ground (park, whatever it is) and we have absolutely nothing to fear. I was asked yesterday by someone: who’s the best team you’ve seen at Sincil Bank this year? For the first time in my life my answer was Lincoln City.
All photographs courtesy of the legend of the lens, Graham Burrell.