Appleton’s eventful first year in charge is starting to bear fruit

Credit Graham Burrell

Michael Appleton’s Lincoln City made it four League One wins out of four on Saturday to maintain their lightning start to the season, writes Roy Thomson.

I suspect they also gave some much-needed cheer to many Lincoln fans, who like me, are perhaps getting a little ground down and miserable by everything else going on in 2020.

The joyful sight of the Imps sitting proudly on top of the third tier of English football is a real rarity and something to be enjoyed even if, deep down, we all know it is unlikely to last. Many of us will have painful memories of several good starts to the season, eventually leading to infamous and at times gut-wrenching disappointment. Therefore, I’m not building my hopes up too much at this stage. Nonetheless,  I do think that on the evidence of the first four games, there are some genuine reasons to be cautiously optimistic.

In my opinion, the primary reason for confidence is Michael Appleton. It was always going to be difficult taking over from the Cowley’s after the success and the enormous impact the brothers had at Sincil Bank. However, after only a year in charge, the unassuming Appleton is already making his own mark on the club. I’ll be honest I’ve had my doubts about the direction he was taking the team at various times over the past year. Lots of favourites ended up in the departure lounge, and it appeared at times that a decent side was being broken up too early.

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But hands up, he’s not only slashed the wage bill, but along with whoever else is involved in the recruitment, he’s demonstrated a real eye for a player and an ability to build a competitive and balanced squad. I think the board deserve massive credit for being totally transparent about the change in approach the appointment of Appleton meant to the club. However, to see the policy start to bear fruit after only twelve months is another thing altogether, and the future is beginning to look very promising for the Imps. It is clear Appleton has a preference for physically strong hard-working players who are comfortable receiving the ball in all areas of the pitch and then know what to do with it once they get it. Might sound simple, but experience tells us it is incredibly hard to find good players, especially on a smaller budget than many of your competitors. While his signings are not entirely from the Keith Alexander school of finding hidden gems, many have arrived without any great fanfare.  Apart from Bridcutt, none are what you would call a ‘big name’, but all are good footballers and seem capable of making a positive contribution to the team. While the squad is small, it is flexible and doesn’t currently look to be carrying any passengers.

Appleton has really impressed me with his straight-talking no-nonsense approach to building a young squad with enormous potential. You get the impression there is no hidden agenda with him and that all the players know exactly what is expected and where they stand. Successful teams in all walks of life often have an ‘it is my way or the highway’ sort of character at the helm. Although he might come across as mild-mannered, there is more than a hint of a winning mentality and a ruthless streak hidden amongst the standard pre and post-match cliches which make up many of his interviews with the local media.

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This element to his make-up is probably best illustrated by his management of Jorge Grant who is finally beginning to fulfil his undoubted potential, taking his eye-catching performances from the end of last season into a barnstorming start to this season. Grant’s improved form was triggered last season by a now-famous half-time dressing-down at Wimbledon. Grant could easily have decided to down tools and follow other players out the door, but at a definite crossroads in his career, he chose the Appleton way and got his head down, and we are all now seeing the result. While Grant’s excellent early season form highlights Appleton’s approach to man-management, it also demonstrates his much-heralded reputation as a top-class coach is not unfounded. Grant now works harder, is more tactically aware and has gone from being what my old man would have called a ‘show pony’ to one of the first names on the team sheet. He now looks every inch a player destined for Championship football in the future.

Appleton’s excellent work on the training ground can also clearly be seen with the improvement in Harry Anderson. Harry often frustrated me by getting into threatening positions, turning a defence with his pace and strength only to check and roll the ball back for Eardley to cross, losing vital seconds and allowing the opposition to get set in their positions facing the ball. Watching Harry now, it seems clear to me he’s been told to get crosses in earlier and take more responsibility. As a result, he’s become a much more effective player, building on an excellent start to the season with a valuable cameo from the bench on Saturday.

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Anderson’s substitute appearance on Saturday brings me to my final point on Appleton, he is very tactically aware and knows how to positively affect a game with his substitutions. Bringing Anderson on for McGrandles allowed us to pin Blackpool back in the last twenty minutes and should have seen us home and hosed before the Seasiders got their undeserved second goal. Also, his decisive decision to change Roughan for Edun at half-time resulted in a much-subdued second-half performance from the Tangerines only real danger man CJ Hamilton and had a significant impact on the final score. A quick look on social media at how Blackpool fans and their local media reacted to Critchley’s changes shows how difficult it is for a manager to make the right moves in the heat of battle. Not only has Appleton built a squad with good options off the bench, he knows how to use them. His changes are not predetermined. They are made with no sentiment, and over the past year, they have more often than not, had a positive impact on the match.

There is no doubt the team is far from the finished article, but what excites me most is that all the players will improve under Appleton’s coaching and management. Yes, they will lose games and undoubtedly have some unexpected poor results. Inconsistency is often the hallmark of a young team, and while many fans will feel we should beat Bristol Rovers on Saturday, it could also be just the sort of game a promising young side can slip up in.

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Colin Murray informed me on Saturday night it’s our best start to a season since 1989, and the real shame is that we can’t be there cheering Michael and the lads on. While I had my doubts about even watching the games on iFollow, it’s actually not been that bad. Despite my lack of tech knowledge and crap WIFI, I must admit to being one of those smug gits who have had no problem at all, and while it will never be the same as going to the games, it does partially fill the massive hole in my life caused by the current mad situation. I nearly went through the roof on Saturday when Montsma’s scored, but in the end, I was left feeling a bit flat. It’s just not the same without the communal experience of sharing it with my young nephews and brothers and friends like Gaz, Chris and Julian and all the other travelling Imps in what I’m sure would have been a big away following at Bloomfield Road.

However, after thinking about it for a while, I started to feel more sorry for the players, especially the new additions. They have obviously been told about the atmosphere we create both home and away, and it would undoubtedly have been bouncing on Saturday. Nothing beats a last-minute winner away from home to forge a bond between supporters and players, and it was harsh for the players and staff not receiving the acclaim from the fans their performance deserved.

But above anything, Michael Appleton deserved to hear his name sung loud and proud to celebrate a successful end to an eventful year and, despite all the fears over COVID 19, some genuine optimism for the future.

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