A new season should always start with hope, optimism and belief. That is the innate beauty of the game we all love so dearly.
Without the hope of a better future, without the belief of success or optimism things will go well, why would one turn out and watch a game? Even those fans of Southend United, currently on the sort of alarming trajectory that results in a visit to Kings Lynn or Bamber Bridge, can hope that things will improve.
In the past, that hope has often been dashed early for Lincoln fans. However, for the last ten years, we have avoided defeat on the opening day of the season and whilst that run continued last week against Crewe, there was a fear going into yesterday’s game we’d been dealt a tough hand. After all, we could have faced teams that struggled last season, teams that came up from League Two, teams dropping out of the Championship on a downward spiral. Instead, we got to face the beaten play-off finalists, arguably the one side with momentum, experience of the division and a degree of stability. Not only that, but they were also a team that bagged seven in two games against us last season, without reply. If that wasn’t enough, one of their players appeared for Barcelona in the Catalan Cup Final, the first Englishman to do so since Gary Lineker. In terms of difficulty, it certainly trumps Woking away, and even that was difficult at the time.
Hope. Optimism. Belief. For the last three or four years the opening day has certainly had that as we’ve risen like freshly baked bread, but yesterday was different. yesterday was the dawning of a new era, the first full Michael Appleton season kicking off with new faces, new kits and a so-called new normal. Most of the fresh feel around the place will be welcomed, obviously face masks, iFollow and the like are not. Whilst being able to watch the game at home is sufficient for fans, nothing could replicate being in the ground. That said, I recall an opening day against Oxford that brought optimism and hope in 2004, and at full time I felt I’d rather not be in the ground.
So, what did we envisage yesterday? Okay, the eternal optimists will shout about believing we’d win, but an honest shout for a good result would surely have been a draw. That’s what I called on the new Matchday Live program prior to kick-off, even after being surprised by the team lineup. For a few years, second-guessing how we would start was easy, with a clear 12 or 13 players of first-team quality and an assortment of individuals who were outside that core group. Yesterday, any combination of maybe 19 lads could easily have had a shout for a start, such is the depth and versatility of the side.
Michael opted for a few surprises. Alex Palmer was an obvious call, whilst Jackson and Montsma at the back were also fairly nailed on. I think Eyoma is our first-choice right-back at present, but at left-back, we got a surprise as 17-year-old Sean Roughan, a centre back by trade, got the nod. Midfield was pretty much nailed on too; Jorge Grant stepped into the Liam Bridcutt role whilst McGrandles and Jones got in over Tayo Edun. Tayo shouldn’t be disappointed, he’s already had two run-outs this season and the competition for places he provides will keep the others on their toes.
The biggest surprise for me was up top. Tom Hopper was always going to start, but with Grant not playing on the left I thought maybe Zack Elbouzedi might get in. Instead, Anthony Scully played on one side and our longest-serving player Harry Anderson got in on the other. I was personally delighted for Harry. Every year so know-it-all on the internet talks about him leaving, about him wanting a move and yet here he is for the fifth season in a row starting a game for the club. His unique skill set is still a valued weapon in our arsenal and he didn’t disappoint.
The Imps nearly did disappoint at two minutes to three. The game kicked off early, for some reason, and before the clock had struck three we’d contrived to be the architects of our own downfall. Montsma and Palmer both partly at fault for a bit of a mix up which resulted in nothing more than most fan’s stomachs getting an early turn. Was it simply a case of ‘same old, same old’ as an attempt to play around at the back broke down?
No, as it turns out. Oxford started the brighter but the game got its first goal before five past three. The provider was ‘Our ‘Arry’, getting down the line and delivering a teasing ball across the Oxford defence. Anthony Scully, not the tallest player on the pitch, rose high and glanced a downward header into the Oxford net to give us exactly the start few of us could have predicted. I’ve been talking about Scully all summer, saying if we find his best position he could be a huge star for us. It seems his best position, certainly, for now, is ‘on the pitch’, and his engine provided plenty of opportunities further into the game.
From there, we got a glimpse of the Lincoln City I don’t think we’ve seen much of over the summer; the one that works hard without the ball. I don’t like to keep harping on about previous success, but many observers tell you we won League Two because of what we did without the ball. Michael Appleton took Oxford to two Wembley finals and promotion by virtue of what his side did with the ball, or at least that is the perception. The perfect blend, of course, is a mixture of the two and in possession-crazy Oxford, we were forced to have long periods without a football in front of a red-shirted player. It’s fair to say, we passed the test with flying colours.
I loved the balance of pressing and sitting off we had. When the ball was out of the danger zones, we were happy to let Oxford spray it aimlessly from side to side. At times, we had a bank of five and another of four in front of the ball, providing the opponent with no chance to break us down. Connor McGrandles and James Jones worked tirelessly, covering so much ground to ensure any slight cracks that appeared were being closed up. It mattered not that oxford had the likes of Liam Kelly, recently of Feyenoord, or the aforementioned Barcelona man McGuane on the field; they can’t find spaces if the spaces are not there.
When we did have the ball we played some lovely neat passing moves, finding spaces and fluidly moving the ball forward. In the first half a couple of players stood out for me; one was Sean Roughan. Remember, he is a supposed centre-back who was making his Football League debut, and yet he delivered a couple of balls in from the left which Jorge Grant would have been proud of. He wasn’t bullied either; if anything he was the bully at times, lucky to escape an early yellow card. I said after the Salford game that the biggest compliment I could give him was that he didn’t look out of place; yesterday he did more than that. Yesterday, he stood out.
TJ Eyoma was another I was hugely impressed with. He is a proper unit, tall and physically strong, but he has poise and control when going forward too. Supported ably by Harry Anderson, he offered plenty of threat down his flank, as did Roughan and Scully. I’m a big fan of attacking down the wings and on the evidence of yesterday, we’re going to see plenty of it through the season.
Mixed in with Oxford’s plentiful possession was an Imps performance full of purpose and endeavour. It was an exciting first half without too much goalmouth action, perhaps the best chance outside of the goal fell to James Jones who hit a speculative rocket from outside the area just before half time. it almost caught the Oxford stopper by surprise, but he pulled off a decent save. When the referee did blow for half time, Oxford hadn’t registered a single shot on goal. That tells a story in itself; the new-look Lincoln City can dig in as well as play out.