City travel to Blackpool tomorrow looking to avenge defeat there last season in Michael’s first game in charge of the club.
Back then, Jack Payne’s effort was all we had to show for a performance based on endeavour and application, but one very far removed from the Michael Appleton side we see today. The Imps had won one in nine going into that tie, a run that went back into the previous management’s tenure, but still didn’t look short on confidence.
Tomorrow it is a much-changed Lincoln City heading to Bloomfield Road, a Lincoln City who have not tasted defeat in a league match in seven months, albeit courtesy of the ‘rona. Only Harry Anderson started that game last September and is likely to start this one; Jorge Grant came on as a sub and Max Melbourne was unused.
So, what has changed? We can talk about styles all day long, but that isn’t the only change in the year that has passed. We now have belief post-Cowley that things can, and will go on with a degree of success. I always backed Michael having followed his coaching career closely, but I know there were a few who were sceptical, a few who thought those spells with Portsmouth, Blackpool and Blackburn were reflective of a failed career, not bad choices and tough conditions at the beginning of a successful one. After the success we had between 2016 and 2019, I think supporters could be allowed a little worry last time we headed across the country.
We go there tomorrow with a new identity. We’re still Lincoln City, but we play different football, have different players and even a kit that helps reinforce the notion that things have changed. It’s odd that last season was our most successful in terms of league finish since 1985, and yet also the one in which fans perhaps believed the least. Michael didn’t have anything more to prove than any other manager, but he did have some ghosts to exorcise here. I think as the coach rumbles into what was recently a Premier League ground tomorrow, that has happened. We may have spun out a bit for a while before and after our trip there last season, but we are pointing in the right direction now.
We have started really well, as well as we did in 2018/19 when we lifted the League Two title. Back then, we had one draw and one defeat from our opening seven matches, the same as now. Admittedly, the game we lost was in the EFL Cup against Championship Blackburn, and this time out it was Liverpool. We go there in good spirits, good form and, dare I say, not having really hit our stride yet.
I say that because I don’t feel we have expressed ourselves in the manner I felt we might after the pre-season friendlies. I’m not being critical, how can I be with three wins from three in the league? I just think in terms of our style, our attacking patterns, there is more to come. Make no mistake, Oxford, Blackpool and Charlton in the first four matches are as tough as it gets at this level and even nine points from four games would be a great return. By my reckoning, that makes tomorrow a ‘free hit’ – win, lose or draw, I’ll be happy with the opening four.
To immediately contradict myself, I can’t help but feel we have a super chance to extend our 100% record. Blackpool are a decent side, one I tipped for promotion this season, but I might have been a little hasty. They made a lot of signings over the summer, some of which I think could be big players at this level, but they haven’t gelled just yet and coach Neil Critchley is still adding to his ranks. For instance, Luke Garbutt has yet to appear for them and I wonder if maybe there has been too much recruitment there for instant results. There has been a fair bit for us, I get that, but some of the relationships already existed; Scully and Elbouzedi for instance, McGrandles and Walsh, Eyoma knew some of the squad, as did Bridcutt. We weren’t quite as much of a blank canvas, but Blackpool might be.
Keshi Anderson, Marvin Ekpiteta, Jerry Yates, CJ Hamilton, Ethan Robson and Bez Lubala all started the 2-0 defeat against Gillingham and they were all in League Two last season. The only player I suspect might struggle to impress regularly in League One is Anderson, but the others could take time to adjust. They haven’t been dropped into a group of players used to playing at a higher level and established, like Anderson, Grant, Hopper, McGrandles and Brdcutt all provide for us. Instead, they have to forge the identity from new. I firmly believe Neil Critchley will get them there, but that for us, tomorrow is the best possible time to face Blackpool.
Garbutt hasn’t played, they have just signed Jordan Gabriel from Forest and I strongly suspect Demetri Mitchell will be a big player for them too, but they need time to settle under the manager. Critchley is like MA, a coach, someone who doesn’t just gather good ingredients but has the skills to turn them into a tasty prospect too. In terms of means, Blackpool are perhaps where we want to be in a year or two. In terms of squad progression, we may be where they want to be in three months time.
I’m not saying that means we’re going out to win there, but the notion that we are a brand new squad coming together successfully, quickly isn’t really right. A core of our squad has been together since January, with other elements having settled well. If I were to point to an area and say ‘that’s surprised me’, it would be our defence. TJ Eyoma looks like he’s played 100 senior games, Lewis Montsma is obviously writing headlines and Adam Jackson clearly has organisational qualities that help bring it all together. I can’t write about Sean Roughan without sounding a little twee, but as a back four, they have come together quickly. In particular, you have to applaud the two full-backs; who would have called them as our starting full-backs two months or so ago? I did feel Eyoma would be, but Roughan too? Fair play to both.
Last year, we went to Blackpool with an uncertain future, but a squad that had been together a while. This time, our players have had ten months (at the most) to gel, but it is longer than the bulk of the Blackpool lads. Rest assured, the Tangerines will be right in the mix come May, but tomorrow it might just be that Michael Appleton’s ‘Aspiration Squad’ are ready to spring a real surprise.
The other aspect of the game which intrigues me is the fact we’re both playing a 4-3-3. They play a neat, passing game, just as we do, and they’ll look to retain possession in the middle of the park, as we do. Ethan Robson is a real talent there, he moved from Sunderland in the summer and plays the holding role, with Anderson and former Ipswich man Grant Ward in attendance too. I think there is scope for us to control that battle, and we’ll do that through Liam Bridcutt. He’s not shone as yet this season, but I think tomorrow could well be his game. Given that both Ward and Anderson are attacking players, I think if the midfield battle turns into a real scrap, we are better equipped with grafters. I might be wrong, and if Blackpool do break, they will at pace, but that central area is going to be huge and I’m confident that our midfield is the most composed and functional part of our embryonic team.
I didn’t do a prediction last week and if I had, I would have got it wrong. If I’m asked tomorrow, I might have to say a draw but a little bit of me wonders if around 24 hours from now, Lincoln City might have four wins from four, our best start to a third-tier season since 1934/35.